citizen ignorance

A column by The New York Times' Timothy Egan struck home the other day.

Commenting on the continued furor over possible Russian hacking of the 2016 election, Egan insisted that the real problem in America today isn't the Russians — it's us.

"We're getting played because too many Americans are ill-equipped to perform the basic functions of citizenship," he added. "If the point of the Russian campaign, aided domestically by right-wing media, was to get people to think there is no such thing as knowable truth, the bad guys have won."

I can't tell you how many emails and anonymous phone messages I regularly receive from people who have been duped into believing the absolute lies that get passed around the internet these days.

Several sent me messages quoting long-discredited conspiracy theory websites that from 3 to 5 million illegal aliens voted in the presidential election and are the only reason why Donald Trump lost the popular vote. There was absolutely no evidence that even a handful of illegal voters cast ballots last Nov. 8. When I asked one of the commenters how he could possibly believe something that election officials in every state had debunked, he responded that he'd believe those sites before those of the "liberal" mainstream media.

Then there's the dentist, presumably with years of college education, who still regularly sends me treatises from alt-right sites that claim that Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen and thus was an illegitimate president. For years, of course, this fellow had the current president of the United States on his side and, if some reports are correct, he still does.

Columnist Paul Waldman noted that the producers of these websites count on the failure of people to care enough to check things out. Some of those sites, like the notorious James O'Keefe's Project Veritas, masquerade as legitimate news providers, but in reality employ dirty tricks to discredit actual news purveyors. O'Keefe learned his trade well from Andrew Breitbart, the late founder of Breitbart News, now headed by Donald Trump's favorite guy, Steve Bannon.

Late last month, The Washington Post caught O'Keefe's group red-handed. Project Veritas tried to plant a false story with a Post reporter about Alabama senatorial candidate Roy Moore, hoping she and the paper would run with it and once they did, O'Keefe's group would "expose" the story as false, implying that the accusations of Moore's sexual misconduct were all false and effectively suggesting that the media were out to get Moore. And, unfortunately, many Americans would have believed it.

Egan wrote that fact-checkers have found that Trump himself has made more than 1,600 false or misleading claims — on average, five times a day Trump says something that's not true. But he gets away with it because a huge percentage of the population can't tell truth from fiction.

"Nearly one in three Americans cannot name a single branch of government (and) when NPR tweeted out sections of the Declaration of Independence last year, many people were outraged. They mistook Thomas Jefferson's fighting words for anti-Trump propaganda," he added.

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Ironically, it was Jefferson who suggested that the only way democracy would survive is if the people care enough to do their part.

Not being able to discern fact from fiction fails that test.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com and on Twitter @DaveZweifel

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Dave is editor emeritus of The Capital Times.