Maintaining a democracy requires citizens who are engaged in contributing to the health and vitality of the country. At a minimum, this means following the news to best understand the issues and concerns, and then voting in federal, state, and local elections.
Although participation soared in the U.S. 2020 election—nearly 63% of voting age people cast ballots—this democracy is far behind many others. According to Pew Research Center, compared with turnout among voting-age population in 49 other countries, the U.S. was 31st.
Perhaps low participation in voting is at least partially due to the challenge of being well informed. Newspapers are struggling to remain viable as people are often choosing to learn about the issues of the day from the internet or social media.
The internet, of course, makes it possible to find “evidence” for just about anything you want to believe. This is why I have so much trouble when I hear people with conspiracy theories say they don’t trust the media and do their own research. This “research” is often collected from unreliable sources and not based on verifiable facts, but on opinions that are backed by random and often disparate supportive information.
Social media was identified as a primary source for news for as many as half of Americans. This is obviously alarming: whether it’s climate change, Covid vaccines, wars in Ukraine or Gaza, you can’t rely on social media platforms for the truth. But as news is slowly disaggregated from companies like Meta and Google, the question becomes where will people go to stay informed?
Perhaps the workplace is a new place where we can learn civics. In Germany, companies are launching seminars on civics and democratic principles—the importance of voting and recognizing the dangers of disinformation, conspiracy theories and hate speech—as a way to ensure healthier relationships at work as well as society as a whole.
These Business Council for Democracy workshops are hoping to fill the gaps in employees’ knowledge of the democratic system, including digital civic culture. The programs hope to help people recognize and question conspiracy theories and disinformation, and also reinforce personal responsibility and resilience.
Twitter was once a beacon of great hope for citizen journalists to report on events as they happened. The Arab Spring uprising was a pivotal moment for the platform. Now Elon Musk has run afoul of the European Union’s Digital Services Act that requires social media platforms to restrict misinformation and other violative content within the union’s 27 nations.
The value of X is now less than half of what it was when Musk acquired it as it’s lost both users and advertisers. In its new incarnation, Elon Musk now wants to make X into an everything app.
What if instead of relying on “everything apps” there were more dedicated social media apps we could actually trust and rely on for specific information? Rather than companies seeking to profit merely from eyeballs and stickiness, there could be a financial model built upon either ads, subscriptions, or some combination.
- Imagine opening your news app and finding strictly verifiable facts in context that helps you understand events of the day? Or at least provide a useful filter such as Snopes or FactCheck to immediately check on what you read or hear. USA Facts app?
- Sports fanatics are currently X’s most loyal users representing 42 percent of the X audience, according to the platform. What if there was an app strictly designed for athletes and fans that would enable focus and community. The Athletic are you listening?
- A pop culture app could dominate all things celebrated in the entertainment world and be designed to follow artists, musicians, actors, etc.
This should not be exclusively tied to apps, but could include podcasts, blogs, vlogs, and other emerging technologies to keep us informed without the deceit and bile. Certainly, we need to beware of artificial intelligence and all that can go wrong.
I suspect there are many reasons why what I’m suggesting won’t work, but there’s got to be an opportunity to reform the way we stay informed. This country depends on all citizens being knowledgeable about current events and engaged in voting so that our democracy remains.