The woman in the news segment, a young mother, now realizes she was deceived by the QAnon conspiracy theory. She describes herself as religious and uninterested in the news. So how did she become involved in one of the most political hot-button topics of our time?

Her sole source of information was social media, and her feeds started inundating her with QAnon insanity.

If only she had picked up a newspaper at some point during her mental captivity. If only she had turned on a legitimate news source and heard one person take on the lies.

As an educator, I must add: “If only she had been taught critical thinking skills in school.”

Education and reliable information are the bedrocks of a democracy. When I took a Latin America studies course as a political science student at Providence College, I suddenly realized that a major reason why there had been so many dictatorships in South America was the high illiteracy rates of the populace.

When I led  a middle school community read of “I am Malala,” my students could readily answer the question: “Why did the Pakistani Taliban want to keep girls out of school?”

Knowledge is power. Information is power.

Our democracy is in a perilous position if people are getting their information from dubious sources, aren’t hearing both sides of the issues and lack the ability to recognize (or care) that they’re being fed a load of malarkey. And much, much worse.

I’d been thinking about this when Maine newspapers started reporting that MaineGeneral Medical Center had given its first doses of COVID-19 vaccine to donors and former employees. On Sunday, Feb. 7, the Maine Sunday Telegram had two front-page stories about vaccine issues, and a page-one Bill Nemitz column about MaineHealth “flouting CDC guidelines.”

I expressed a silent “hallelujah” for local journalism.

I value staying informed.

As I wrote in my last column, my husband Paul, who’s 70 and has asthma, had been trying in vain to get a vaccine appointment. (He finally managed to get his first jab at Walmart earlier this week.) We were incensed to learn that MaineGeneral had shown preferential treatment while people like Paul had spent literal hours trying to get through on their phone line.

Information is important. Where we get our information is doubly important.

I don’t think most Americans realize exactly what goes into writing a news story. I started my own career in journalism at the very local level — writing features for my hometown weekly.

Accuracy was important even for stories about a new preschool program, of course. But when I started covering selectmen’s meetings for the Fall River, Massachusetts, bureau of the Providence Journal, I had to learn to think on my feet. I had to make sure my quotes were correct — I couldn’t be putting words into people’s mouths. Sometimes I’d stay behind after a meeting to clarify things, then rush back to write the story before the deadline. It’d be 11 p.m. before I got home. Good thing I was young.

Town meetings were the worst. People would stand up and spout off — I had no idea who they were. I’d find myself chasing farmers and fishermen out of the school auditorium to make sure I had their names spelled correctly.

Sure, there have been reporters who have made up sources and even whole stories. But they lose their jobs when they do. It’s called accountability, and ersatz “news organizations” and social media posters have none. Alex Jones? Accountable? Pffft.

In newspapers and legitimate broadcast services, opinion and news are clearly delineated. And all that is purveyed is vetted. When I teach my students how to use the news databases provided by the state through the Digital Maine Library, I say, “Everything here has been reviewed by an editor. The articles aren’t written by people sitting in their basements making things up.”

Although, with the pandemic, I may have to change that a bit, since there are plenty of people sitting in their basements doing responsible journalism.

Americans can’t make good decisions about their government, whether it’s whom to vote for for president or whether to buy a new fire engine, if they don’t have good information. Ignorance, coupled with a reliance on misinformation, also leaves us open to manipulation.

Historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat, author of the recent book “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present,” discussed the evolution of the “big lie” (that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election) in a video.

Ben-Ghiat says, “Big lies only have traction if thousands of smaller lies have been fed to the public by the leader and his allies in the government and the media.” Trump told lies about the electoral system — that dead people voted, that mail-in ballots were fraudulent and that the election results were a sham.

“Minds are converted day after day, lie after lie,” Ben-Ghiat says.

She concludes with a statement that sums up everything I’ve been trying to say here: “So we’ll need to prioritize the combating of disinformation lie by lie if we’re to protect our democracy in the future.”

I think even the apolitical, reformed Q-lady would agree with that.

Liz Soares welcomes email at [email protected].


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: