If you’ve been awake at all in the past few years, you may have noticed that American democracy is facing some real threats. In our Freedom episode, we learned from journalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa that there are three pillars we really have to uphold if we want to keep democracy from falling face-first into the dirt: Guardrails on technology, support of independent journalism, and civic engagement in communities.
One reason our democracy is in such rough shape is that we can’t agree on the same version of reality. That’s fueled in large part by the misinformation and disinformation that’s allowed to spread pretty much unchecked on social media.
What’s happening on social media also seeps into the news cycle and infects the broader narrative. As Chris Stirewalt said on the Media episode panel, “The truth is social media provides a morphine drip for these [news] producers to keep them like ‘Ok, we’re in the zone. This is what the people want.'” He concluded, “It has permeated the thinking in very profound ways, and it’s made us dumber.”
That’s bad enough, but social media noise also works in the opposite direction, luring more mainstream news outlets into covering misinformation and disinformation that’s picking up steam online.
The only real way to stop any of this is to force social media companies to make aggressive changes in how they do business. Look alive, Zuckerberg! Congress is now looking at regulating these platforms, but the biggest question is what exactly we should do to stop it, and how long it might take. (Hint: years and years.)
The media makes for an easy scapegoat for people all across the political spectrum, but the truth is that the media still matters — and it’s essential to maintaining our freedoms. Good journalism can hold people in power accountable, tell important stories, and connect us all in ways that keep our society informed and functioning. So the big question, which we explored in our Media episode, is why is it so hard for the media to give us news we can actually use?
Before we go any further, let’s be clear we are talking about traditional news outlets, aka the “mainstream media” — not about the right-wing propaganda machine. Specifically, we’re talking about broadcast news, because even though its ratings are down, it still drives much of the media narrative and has an outsized influence. Cable news seems to believe it’s the protector of freedom and democracy — but what they are airing is often more speculation and entertainment than actual news.
It’s a very broken system driven by ratings and keeping people hooked, which is a real problem since we need it to keep our democracy in good health. Ratings translate very directly into money for networks — A LOT OF MONEY — so there’s a reason why they obsess about them. But using viewer interest to guide your journalistic compass isn’t a great way to decide what to put on the air — after all, the truth can be pretty freaking mundane sometimes.
The lead up to the 2022 midterms was a perfect example of where the media goes wrong: They went all in on the gripping narrative that a Red Tsunami of Blood was going to sweep over the entire country and drown what was left of our divided democracy, even though the data didn’t really back that up. And then, despite the dire predictions, election night went quite smoothly and there was no Red Wave.
Ultimately, people really do want better quality news, but if we want to achieve it, we need to break out of this ratings-driven downward spiral. We need to reset the way we’re covering everything – especially politics.
Lastly, if we want our democracy to keep going, we need our society to be civically engaged. All our Freedom episode panelists touched on this, but Francisco Marquez said it best: “Democracy dies with apathy.” Clearly voting is the most basic way to participate. It’s not a huge ask — we really only have to do it as often as a man changes his bedsheets — but so many people just can’t be bothered. There’s also the issue of deeply restrictive (i.e. racist) voting laws, which disproportionately impact Black and brown communities in many states.
But it’s also about ensuring we continue to have elections that everyone agrees are legitimate. That used to be a given, but since 2020, thanks to the rampant spread of disinformation about the integrity of our elections, things have taken a real turn! In our Midterms episode, we looked at just how vulnerable the underpinnings of our election system are and what we can do to protect the process – for the 2024 election and beyond.
If you want to learn more about the many ways you can help protect our democracy, visit our Take Action page.