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SHOLEH: Fight misinformation Nov. 8

by SHOLEH PATRICK
| November 1, 2022 1:05 AM

Not satisfied with how things are? You have the power to effect change one week from today.

Yet if you do plan to vote, you’re in the minority. According to federal and state sources compiled by Wallethub, fewer than half of eligible Idahoans voted in the last midterm election, ranking the Gem State in the bottom four for voter participation.

We can do better.

Participation is only half the problem. The other half is misinformation, especially in social media — an issue so pressing that Idaho Secretary of State Lawerence Denney created a site asking citizens to report it (https://sos.idaho.gov/elections-division/election-misinformation-reporting).

Misinformation has become a sort of toxic mushroom cloud. It doesn’t do the country much good if the votes that are cast are based on inaccurate data, whether intentional or accidental. And thanks to the blessing and curse that is the internet, there’s so much output that it’s hard to sort the wheat from the chaff.

If you’re trying to parse the truth, keep in mind a few basics of sorting fact from opinion, of bias from neutrality — or as much neutrality as any human can muster:

Get news from more than one source without a stated agenda, such as local or national newspapers. No, this isn’t just self-interest; I mean national papers and those from bigger cities, too. Political sources may be of interest, but shouldn’t be relied upon as primary sources of fact.

If a website, social media site, “influencer,” TV station or other self-styled news source presents primarily conservative or liberal viewpoints on most issues, it’s not reliable. If it plugs only one side as the good one and “bashes” the other one regularly, it’s not reliable.

Here’s a big one: Watch out for biased adjectives, labels — especially ending in “ist” and “ism,” and charged word choices in headlines and teasers.

Let’s say two legislators vote on a controversial bill. A source stating, “Jones votes against X bill” (or Smith votes for it) and then describes the bill and their reasons is fact. Sources that pitch it as “Conservative Jones takes another shot at women” or “Leftist Smith tramples rights” are revealing bias.

The best sources merely inform, or present two or more viewpoints for context, allowing us to make our own judgments and opinions without trying to influence that process by appealing to emotion or using trigger words.

The other type of misinformation surrounds elections themselves. Some of this is accidental, genuine concerns spread by people who’ve been fed untruths. Yet deliberate efforts to cast doubt in American voters’ minds about election security have also been unearthed by official investigators.

Here’s what the FBI has to say about it, from their election crimes web page:

“Bad actors use various methods to spread disinformation about voting, such as social media platforms, texting, or peer-to-peer messaging applications on smartphones. They may provide misleading information about the time, manner, or place of voting.”

Rumors, both intentional and accidental, proved false after state and federal investigations have included ballot box and vote-by-mail security, results, and tampering. In reality, very few instances of actual election fraud have occurred. According to a New York University report, “The Truth About Voter Fraud,” incident rates — from fraud to clerical error — ranged between 0.0003 percent and 0.0025 percent. Another report by Columbia University, “The Politics of Voter Fraud” concluded that incidents are “rare” and could generally be traced to “false claims by the loser of a close race, mischief, and administrative or voter error.”

Americans have been voting by mail since the Civil War, yet it’s only recently that this degree of doubt and misinformation have surfaced. According to multiple reports, some of that has come from people outside the U.S. According to the FBI, “The goal of these foreign influence operations directed against the United States is to spread disinformation, sow discord, and, ultimately, undermine confidence in our democratic institutions and values.”

It seems they’re succeeding, but we’re in the driver’s seat.

Foreign or domestic, the computer age has made fraud easier to perpetrate and worse, much easier to believe it’s happening. We have control over our own beliefs. We have the power to not let this have its desired effect, casting doubt where at heart, the process remains among the most secure in the world.

Fear needn’t be in charge.

It’s harder these days to trust than it once was. A few decades ago most people shared the same few news sources, which varied little and were generally reliable. Today, there are hundreds to thousands from which to choose, most created by those untrained in unbiased fact-gathering. Fake flyers, fake videos, and fake claims are much easier to create and a thousand times easier to spread than they were before this world of smart phones and social media.

Anyone, with no training or specialized knowledge or accountability, can create a site and call it news.

To get the most unbiased information possible, the modern voter has to be choosy, and ideally, choose more than one source and perspective before believing what they read or hear. That’s a skill in rare supply. Perhaps one day we’ll encourage schools to create a required course in how to discern fact from the unproven.

Until then, it’s incumbent on every information consumer by always asking, “is this report trying to lead me somewhere, or just informing?”

An easy-to-use resource to parse bias (and praised by Common Sense Media) is www.allsides.com, which rates stories and sources Right, Left, or Center. Check out current headlines and a media bias chart for major news sources there.

Voteidaho.gov is the official starting point to learn about Idaho’s election process, polling locations, results, and other voter information. Please be careful about the sources you choose, and vote Nov. 8.

“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” ― Franklin D. Roosevelt

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Sholeh Patrick, J.D. is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Email sholeh@cdapress.com.

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