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Monday, December 22, 2014

Warning: headlines may be deceptive

opinion@dailylobo.com

Over the last few months on Twitter I’ve been noticing a lot of comments concerning the sudden “revelation” that the Affordable Care Act doesn’t magically grant everyone in the nation free health insurance. Usually, the tweets take a standard two-part format: dismay that the poster’s health insurance costs will rise instead of disappear completely, and an accusation of President Obama for lying about that fact. In a very ironic sense, I found those comments to be funny because they plainly show how uninformed voters are these days.

To be fair, such uninformed voting occurs within both major parties, as well as with the Libertarians and Greens and other parties. Yet it’s something that shouldn’t be tolerated or endorsed wherever it occurs.

The fact is that low-information voters are much easier for parties and politicians to corral like sheep, directing their easily molded views and easily inflamed passions to exactly where the leaders want them to go. And it’s likely to stay that way: critically thinking voters would reject the current two parties and tear their carefully-laid plans asunder, and we clearly can’t have that.

So what can we do about the low-information voter problem?

Unfortunately, not much — and what little we can do can’t be done very easily, since the great misinformers of television, talk radio and partisan web sites have a massive amount of influence.

But all is not lost; if we’re willing to expend a little extra effort each day to actually understand what’s going on in this country instead of merely sharing and liking political images and memes on Facebook, we can start to make that change.

The cornerstone is a skeptical outlook toward any ‘fact’ you hear.

Being Liberal’s page on Facebook says that a certain Michigan state Senate candidate wants to purge all gay people from society? Check the source article and then look around to see what other outlets have reported on it and what they say.

MrConservative.com says that NBC fired Jay Leno for being too critical of Obama on his show night after night? Follow the link and then look up the allegation from other sources.

I’m especially looking at you, addictinginfo.org and townhall.com. Yes, shock headlines get people to click and drive web site traffic, but I’ve seen it become more or less customary for people to form whole opinions based on headlines without ever reading any articles. And I’ve often found that what the article actually says is considerably less clear than the headline blares.

Yes, it’s going to take some time out of your day, and maybe even take some time away from your leisure activities, but it’s important to realize that actually knowing what’s happening in this country and not being at the mercy of those who tell you what’s happening is a very powerful thing.

You will begin to develop skills that allow you to possess knowledge of facts instead of knowledge of propaganda. You’ll be able to see past whatever news outlets happen to be saying about a given issue and learn the whole truth for yourself.

Basically, that slightly cynical ‘check it out’ skepticism isn’t just for journalists and bloggers. And, just maybe, you’ll be able to pass that healthy skepticism along to people you know as well.

Granted, it may seem as if one person with knowledge isn’t all that powerful, and will just become drowned out in a sea of the uninformed. However, that conclusion assumes that you keep your newfound power to yourself. The key here is to go out and spread what you’ve learned.

It may be a bit uncomfortable to be “that person” who interjects into your friends’ debates with the facts; I know, I do that frequently. But I’ve found that the awkwardness is worth it when you cause someone to think for a second about what they’ve been parroting, make them reconsider what they’ve been holding dear and motivate them to look it all up.

Essentially, reversing the low-information voter trend mirrors civic participation in general. Yes, it does require a good deal of effort on the part of the individual, but the returns from such participation, especially when it spreads to others, are incredibly far-reaching in civic life and beyond, and are worth the investment of time and effort.