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Sophia Rosenfeld on Truth and Misinformation in History and Today

‘Very little truth has been self-evident’

What is truth and who decides? That is a central question that historian Sophia A. Rosenfeld explores in her book Democracy and Truth: A Short History. Rosenfeld, who will give a free online lecture with the Charlotte Museum of History on Thursday, July 1, is a Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studies the nature of truth in politics. 

As part of the Charlotte Museum of History’s Independence Day celebration, her lecture will review the contemporary struggles with misinformation and disinformation as well as their historical roots. 

Queen City Nerve sat down with Rosenfeld to discuss her book and how our modern political landscape has transformed truth on a local and global level. 

Queen City Nerve: You published Democracy and Truth in 2018, about two years into the Trump presidency. Speaking now from the other side of that, what do you think remains imperative about this book?

Sophia Rosenfeld: Of course, there are some things I would say differently now because things always evolve. Interestingly, Trump was more a symptom than a cause. The disappearance of Trump from this massive platform that is the presidency has not made these questions go away at all. Some of them are more significant than ever.

Sophia Rosenfeld
Sophia Rosenfeld

There’s the idea, for example, that the last election was stolen. That originated with Trump and was, of course, a big lie. But it turns out that a very substantial amount of the American public, in spite of there not being much concrete evidence for widespread election fraud, is quite convinced that the election was stolen. Some people might actually believe it and others might find it a rather expedient political position to take, but the end result is that we don’t even have a consensus in the American public as to which person should be occupying the White House. That is quite unusual. 

In the past, people might not have liked who won the election, but the results would still be something we agreed upon. So to that I would say, the continuing possibility that we’re in an unusual era when it comes to what’s true and what’s false in public life, that has outlived the Trump presidency. 

Where do you see dishonesty in our political system today? 

Sophia Rosenfeld: I think there are two kinds of things that are the opposite of truth. One is dishonesty, which is a kind of moral position where someone deliberately tells a falsehood to accomplish something. The other is misinformation, which is to say incorrect information that circulates, whether it’s based on people’s hunches, a conspiracy theory or anything else. You could call the two of them disinformation and misinformation.

The latter can involve spin — bending the truth in order to score political points. That is not new, but there is a lot of that at the moment. The other is the growth of simply unverifiable beliefs circulating in public life. Those come often from underneath. Take QAnon it was disseminated not at first from up high, but from below. Now, it sometimes gets kind of namechecked by people at the top, but it’s basically a form of misinformation that’s taken on a life of its own.

Those two forms seem to come from very different motivations. Spin is used to preserve political power of the elite, whereas conspiracy theories like QAnon seem to come from a place of alienation, of people attempting to figure out why they are so powerless. 

Sophia Rosenfeld: That’s absolutely right — sometimes they start out with a legitimate grievance and helplessness, but end with blaming the wrong culprit. But the interesting thing is that misinformation and disinformation reinforce each other. Let’s say a random bizarre conspiracy theory starts on some obscure internet site. Well, there are economic and political structures in place that help spread that information very easily, and for profit. One link comes up in your feed and it gets sensational results  and it gets passed along, and the algorithms help that out and business models and tech companies help that out. Soon it’s useful for a political party to amplify that in some way. You can trace how things work themselves upwards. Sometimes they work themselves downwards, too.

With the way our media universe exists right now, those two forms come from opposite sides but end up reinforcing each other. It’s not all top-down or bottom-up either. It’s helped along by all sorts of entities on all sides: for-profit websites, people’s social media feeds, political parties and community groups.

North Carolina has its own history of dishonesty in media and politics, from the News and Observer’s foundations in racist demogoguery to the lack of transparency and accountability surrounding police violence, such as the murder of Andrew Brown in Elizabeth City last month. How does dishonesty play out differently in local and state politics than it does in national politics? 

Sophia Rosenfeld: Something of the national discourse has entered politics at the local level. In some ways, there have been some good things. The fact that citizen journalists with cellphones have recorded brutality against African-American people is an effect of ordinary people empowering themselves. I think you would not have the movement [for Black Lives] of this past year without the cellphone. Nor without the possibility of these videos going viral. That had a transformative effect, I think, on local politics, that people have empowered themselves. 

It has also had a dangerous effect, though, because we still need vetted information in many cases. A lot of information that is just anecdotal, that is just people’s experience… when it’s not combined with other knowledge, like statistics, history — some sense of how to place things in a larger context — then it can be misleading. It can be misleading in ways that can create the myopia of local politics, too. 

What might be an example of that?

Sophia Rosenfeld: NPR recently did a radio show on Stockton, Calif. where there’s a citizen-created media challenging the establishment press. It sort of sounds like what you do, like a kind of alternative weekly, right? But this alternative media got very personal. It got very political in the sense of exposing things almost like a neighborhood watch list. It attacked people without any real investigative journalism behind it and no willingness to own up to who said what about who. 

They claimed no real journalistic standards and it devolved into a lot of racist and homophobic attacks on people that couldn’t really be controlled in this format. 

What interests me is that some of what we’re talking about is traditionally built into our culture of free speech. There are benefits and there are pitfalls, but some of this is new because of the new media environment that we’re in. Some of these old problems are amplified in both directions. More and more of us are democratically empowered to speak without limits like money, power and so on. On the other hand, it opens up a spigot. Much of what does get said can be really dangerous or harmful or offensive in ways that are hard to predict. It can empower demagoguery as much as it empowers democracy. 

This talk is part of the Charlotte Museum of History’s Independence Day celebration. How does Democracy and Truth tie into this historical event?

Sophia Rosenfeld: I’m a historian, so of course I’m going to say this, but to really understand what’s going on now, you have to go back to our founding moment. I talk about the Declaration of Independence in Democracy and Truth. The Declaration begins with the words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” 

And the “we” is complicated. Do the truths exist without us? Is it just the things that we agree on? Who’s the “we?” Who gets to participate in the “we?” I think that what we call the founding generation was very interested in creating what we call a culture of truth. They believed that democracy depended on truth and produced truth, but they were very unspecific about that “we” in the Declaration of Independence. And they never empowered, deliberately, any one person or institution with the power to say definitively: “This is what is true.” As a result, though it says “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” very little truth has been self-evident in democratic history. 

People fight over everything. That’s part of why democracy works, but it’s also made truth really contentious, and I think we’re in a particularly contentious moment for truth. 

Sophia A. Rosenfeld will deliver a lecture on her book Democracy and Truth: A Short History on Thursday, July 1 at 6 p.m. on the Charlotte Museum of History’s Youtube channel and Facebook page. No registration is required.

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