Just three months after Time magazine chose Donald Trump as 2016 Person of the Year, it has published a cover story – with the headline “Is Truth Dead?” – that charges the president is a “strategic misleader.” The article details many of Mr. Trump’s unproven accusations but then concludes his strategy will decline. Why? Because Americans will gather “their own data on his habits and tactics, and what they yield.”
Truth, in other words, is not dead after all. Citizens are still quite able to sift fact from falsehood amid the tweets, soundbites, and campaign ads of politicians in order to sustain democracy.
In open societies, the ability of adults to discern truth has always been present. “Although only a few may originate a policy, we are all able to judge it,” said Pericles of Athens around 430 BC. In the modern digital age with its democratization of data, civic literacy is easier than ever. Finding the truth has become more networked and participatory. With a few thumb swipes on a smartphone, individuals are empowered to judge the truth from a vast universe of sources. And in recent decades, nearly 100 countries have passed laws requiring freedom of information about government.
In less-free societies, the powerful fear this truth-seeking and are trying to control the borderless world of cyber-information. They distrust the wisdom of the crowd, ban social media, and jail journalists.
President Trump is not the only target of a new, heightened demand for honesty in leadership. News outlets now fact-check other media. Fox watches MSNBC, and vice versa. Congress has opened a probe of Russia’s alleged role in planting fake news during the American presidential campaign. And more grass-roots activists are organizing to bird-dog the statements of prominent leaders.
As traditional media fade in popularity, citizens know they are on the frontlines of truthtelling and finding credible sources. A poll in December by Pew Research Center found three-quarters of Americans say news organizations favor one side of an issue even if reporters are still seen as necessary to keep political leaders in check.
Citizens resent being depicted as dupes, gullible to political ads or false statements about topics before the public. A core premise of democracy is that individuals are capable of intelligent engagement with issues. In the justice system, ignorance of the law is no defense. In civic life, too, citizens are presumed to be self-informed even if many choose to listen only to others within an ideological bubble.
To help citizens discern the truth, they need the protection of free speech, which allows a competition of information and ideas. Fortunately, this constitutional right is not lost on young people. In a poll last year of high school students by the Knight Foundation, 91 percent said it was important to be able to express "unpopular opinion," an increase from 83 percent in 2004.
Each individual is responsible for the duties of citizenship, from voting to serving on a jury to, as the Time article states, gathering data on a politician’s words and deeds. To restore trust in our leaders first requires restoring trust in our ability to know the truth.