By: Paul O’Hea Flores
Democratic societies stand upon several pillars, including freedom of expression, association, voting and political competition (ref. 1). But there is one pillar without which any type of democracy would be nonsense: informed and active citizens.
Citizens are the most basic and important component of a system intended to work for and by the people. But their mere existence is not enough. Democracy also needs rational individuals who participate in public life through their intellectual capabilities, which they are supposed to use wisely in favor of the common good, and by trustworthy information (ref. 2).
While intellectual capabilities are things that we develop over time, information is something that we receive every day through a variety of sources, such as a neighbor or a specialized magazine. But what differentiates a rational human from an irrational one is 1) the means of information-gathering that one uses and 2) the criteria used to select and understand the correct information to approach the truth.
The closer to the truth we are, the more rational we get. And being rational does not mean we should all think the same. It means that, although we may think differently, we have a base of true information to argue in favor or against our points of view. More importantly, if we learn we are wrong initially, we should be able to be rational and switch our point of view.
Being rational has never been easy. Before the internet, accessing information was something that few people could afford. But it was easier to know which sources were reliable and which were not, just because there were very few options. Now, the dilemma has turned around. Access to information is free and easy, but having so many voices and means makes it difficult to identify truth from falsehood.
Assuming that false information is true creates a problem of irrationality within society, something that works directly against the democratic principles on which our societies (Mexico and U.S.) are based. It shouldn’t be strange to find out that there tends to be a democratic crisis in the world when we are being irrational citizens making big decisions.
In Mexico we just experienced the mix of fake news in the middle of a disaster. On September 19, 2017, a huge earthquake hit Mexico City, destroying hundreds of buildings and paralyzing the city for a week. Immediately the civil society groups and the government took action to help the affected. People brought food, clothes, water, construction materials and their own hands to help. But the resources were being badly distributed, and in some case the volunteers hindered more than they helped.
The origin of the mess was an unstable and uncontrolled chain of messages sent through WhatsApp and social media. The solution was an organized group of volunteer citizens called “Verificados 19s” that went to the affected cities to verify if the requests of material and volunteers were true or false.
The organization worked so well that it also helped throughout the federal electoral process that went on from February to July of 2018. This time they were not working to save lives but to verify every public statement made by the presidential candidates.
During specific events such as catastrophes or elections, it’s useful to double-check every piece of information we receive. But in day-to-day life it would be too time-consuming to ask all citizens to double-check every statement they hear. The only true and real solution to the fake news epidemic our societies are facing is the individual criteria that each of us uses to identify truth from falsehood.
This was the criteria for sharing information that we used in México when the earthquake of 2017 happened:
- Verify that the source of the information is trustworthy.
- Do not share information that has not been verified.
- Check the date and time of the day when the information was put out.
- Do not share information that does not match with at least one of the past three statements.
Does this checklist work for you? If not, do you have a better idea? If so, please share it! Don’t let anyone be affected by the fake news epidemic.
- Dahl, Robert. (1993). La Poliarquía. México: REI
- Hallet, Eduward. (1969). La Nueva sociedad. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica.
About Paul: Paul O’Hea Flores, a 2018 YLAI Professional Fellow, is co-founder of the Instituto de Investigación Sobre Democracia y Participación Ciudadana (IDEC) and director of the project Tu Elección. The organization develops technological resources, courses and research in order to facilitate and enhance citizen participation in public life. Paul has a bachelor’s degree in social sciences and is specializing in political sciences and the citizen participation process. He has also coordinated and evaluated community development programs in the states of Oaxaca, Puebla and Estado de México (Mexico).