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American democracy can die and ignorance will slay it

Imagine if people of color believed fake news and elected a president

Think back to the 2008 or 2012 presidential campaigns. Now pretend we discovered President Barack Obama’s voters of color had been endlessly sharing obviously apocryphal stories relevant to the election yet they still believed them anyway. We undoubtedly would have held national conversations, rife with racial overtones, about these easily-duped Americans.

Whispers about the need for intelligence requirements for voting, I think, would have seeped from some of the more racially intolerant sectors of American politics but would have given way to earnest debate among mainstream voices about the need for voters to meet some sort of cognitive standard. I can picture CNN talking heads arguing about the propriety of making “certain people” prove themselves worthy of the elective franchise.

But exactly this — voters sharing and trusting obviously fictional “news” stories — happened this last election, though the suckers were not people of color but rather conservatives, a political movement almost wholly composed of white folks. So please point me to the condemnation of the unsophistication of men and women who revealed themselves to be spectacularly irresponsible civic actors. I haven’t seen them, because, well, they don’t exist. The lack of outrage is yet another instance of how whites avoid being lectured and scolded even when their behavior falls below basic thresholds for citizen responsibility.

I saw, after the election, a few stories speculating about whether fake news helped elect Donald Trump. I failed, though, to grasp the gravity of the dilemma until I spotted a tweet that noted a fake news story falsely alleging actor Denzel Washington supported Trump had received hundreds of thousands of shares on Facebook.

I looked at the Denzel story. It was clearly nonsense. I was genuinely confused as to how a person can live a day on this planet without managing to kill themselves 20 different times but also believes that foolishness. I perused through an endless stream of Facebook comments, nonetheless, from Trump supporters — nary a nonwhite among the bunch — thanking Denzel for lending his voice to their cherished candidate’s movement.

The New York Times dispatched a reporter to the nation of Georgia who spoke with Beqa Latsabidze, who made $6,000 from a pro-Trump fake news site in just one month, fueled largely by a story that claimed “the Mexican government announced they will close their borders to Americans in the event that Donald Trump is elected President of the United States.”

His site was just one among many that generated massive traffic. BuzzFeed reported that four stories — one, that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump; two, that Hillary Clinton sold weapons to ISIS; three, that Clinton was disqualified from holding federal office; and four, that the FBI director James Comey had received millions of dollars from the Clinton Foundation — amassed nearly 3 million Facebook engagements in the three months before Election Day.

Latsabidze started his faux news business with pro-Clinton sites. They flopped. No traffic. “I don’t know why, but it did not work,” he said, per the Times. The Washington Post spoke to Paul Horner, dubbed “the 38-year-old impresario of a Facebook fake-news empire,” who provided the best answer as to why such pro-Clinton sites foundered, but the pro-Trump ones succeeded: “[Trump’s] followers don’t fact-check anything — they’ll post everything, believe anything. His campaign manager posted my story about a protestor getting paid $3,500 as fact. Like, I made that up.”

Obama, after the election, addressed the perils of fake news: “If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not, and particularly in an age of social media when so many people are getting their information in sound bites and off their phones, if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.”

Democracy requires agreement on facts. Minds can differ on how to fix, say, a 12 percent unemployment rate. But if one side accepts the unemployment rate is 12 percent but the other doggedly insists it to be 2 percent, that prevents worthwhile conversations about how to address joblessness. Good and responsive government starts with facts.

People tend to take things for granted. We have no conception of the sun not rising in the morning or setting in the evening, thus we assume it will do both tomorrow. Americans, likewise, have no conception of American democracy suddenly vanishing. We think, therefore, that it will continue ad infinitum, that we cannot mistakenly compel its death. But this is false. American democracy can die. And ignorance will slay it.

Former Supreme Court Justice David Souter spoke to this four years ago, remarking that “if something is not done to improve the level of civic knowledge,” we should fret over the well-being of our political system.

This election has demonstrated that a significant percentage of our population flunked the civic knowledge test. They trust the sort of spurious information nearly all others rejected and their ignorance patronizes a deceitful money-making scheme. Our democracy depends on an informed citizenry, yet many hold misbeliefs that drive their political decision-making. The overwhelming majority of these people are white and they imperil the future of American democracy.

Literacy tests, obviously, are no answer — I’m not sure what is — although I know two of the operative questions with which we must grapple: Why are so many whites choosing willful ignorance and why won’t society demand that they be accountable while becoming dedicated to improving themselves and their culture of purposeful anti-intellectualism? To those who need further proof of this culture, pay attention to the man, Edgar Maddison Welch, who fired his gun inside a pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C., while investigating a child sex trafficking conspiracy theory about Clinton and John Podesta. Or, watch this disturbing video of jaw-dropping ignorance:

Harsh censure would bombard people of color if they were constantly being hoodwinked by Macedonian teenagers. These same people, who also believed members of Clinton’s campaign practice satanic rituals, would lead the charge.

Brando Simeo Starkey is an associate editor at The Undefeated and the author of In Defense of Uncle Tom: Why Blacks Must Police Racial Loyalty. He crawled through a river of books and came out brilliant on the other side.