Dawn of a Historic Election Year

By CHHS Extern Dallin Richardson

On August 10th, 2023, President Biden, through the Stafford Act, issued a major disaster declaration in response to Hawaii Governor Joshua Green’s petition for aid from the wildfires which devastated Lahaina. By August 11th, various social media posts asserted that a space-based directed energy weapon started the fire. The video “evidence” behind these claims was debunked as footage taking place in Russia in 2019. However, one wild claim was joined by others, each with an audience willing to believe fanciful anti-government stories. Regrettably, this cyber campaign trespassed beyond the cyber realm to have real-world effects: In a Department of Energy hearing, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono shared her concerns over victims who had been duped by online claims that signing FEMA disaster relief papers would also sign over the rights to one’s home or land. (timestamp 1:15:40 at the link to the hearing).

From this, we see what may be accomplished when a hostile nation state (Senator Hirono attributed the lies about FEMA to Russia or China) employs insidious cyber efforts to exploit an unplanned emergency. But what about the intentional, planned disruption of future events, foreknowledge of which gives a hostile party months, or even years, to plan? We will have our answer in the year 2024 as the world goes through an unprecedented period of democratic transition. China has already started us off on the wrong foot.

However, we are not helpless. Though beset by disinformation campaigns, the global population may mitigate against such insidious efforts by using media literacy education as an information tool. When disinformation clouded public opinion about Sars-CoV-2, the World Health Organization (WHO) called the problem an “infodemic”. The WHO’s recommended cure for the infodemic is building resilience to disinformation, which lines up conceptually with the medically-sound aim to inoculate against actual viruses. Content regulation and government surveillance, while they can help fight disinformation, do not meaningfully serve to inoculate the public. Content regulation and government surveillance are akin to treating a patient in a sterile environment. Though an ideal setting for caring for the ill and ailing, a sterile environment allows for only short-term intervention with no hope of providing long term prevention when the patient inevitably returns to a more typical, non-sterile setting. Likewise, national election-safeguarding efforts which neglect media literacy education offer no long-term prevention for our information-ridden society and guarantee no measurable resilience against propagated online falsehoods. Such efforts also ignore public mistrust in government “treatments”.

Unlike other problems facing this country, media literacy education does not appear to be a partisan issue; states guided by staunchly disparate political philosophies, such as Florida and California, have both enacted bills aimed at providing critical education in this regard. This is fortunate, because education policy in the United States is largely a matter left to the states. Various attempts have been made to legislate a federal approach to media and digital literacy, but the closest we have come is the Digital Equity act, which (as the name suggests) leans heavily into digital equity, which is more concerned with information access, rather than digital literacy, which is chiefly aimed at information acuity. Beyond congressional constipation, the Department of Education does not dictate curricula or standards to the State educational departments, and this administrative deference to States make the United States’ chances of developing a unified national K-12 literacy curriculum slim.

It is likely up to state policymakers, then, to innovatively legislate and set educational goals as examples for other states to follow. Several states have started stepping up, and we can hope that such efforts will be sufficient to instill proper critical thinking and media consumption skills in children in those states. The work being done in these states is vital to help us face election disinformation. The United States cannot put all hope in the algorithmic excision of online content; rather, our country must lean on good information, media, and digital literacy educational policy, which offers the best chance to “inoculate” people, teaching them how to learn, helping them to develop resilience to disinformation, and encouraging the development of robust information immune systems.