North Americans are becoming increasingly innumerate and vulnerable to disinformation.
IN VOTE COUNTING for the US presidential election, Hillary Clinton’s tally reached 65,844,610 by mid-December. Donald Trump was at 62,979,636. But Clinton’s definite popular vote victory—2,864,974 votes—had already been run through the Republican uncertainty-making machine with predictable results.
Soon after the election, Alex Jones’ Infowars website, on no evidence, claimed “Virtually all of the votes cast by 3 million illegal immigrants are likely to have been for Hillary Clinton.” President-elect Trump then tweeted: “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”
Of the millions of people who voted illegally, the Washington Post could find only four who were facing charges of electoral fraud a month after the election. Who were they?
In Iowa, Terri Lynn Rote voted twice for Trump because, she said, “The polls are rigged.” She blamed Trump for her crime.
In Texas, Phillip Cook was arrested after voting twice. He told authorities he worked for the Trump campaign and was testing the security of the voting system.
Audrey Cook, an election judge in Illinois whose husband died before he was able to complete his mail-in ballot, finished it for him. So sweet. Mrs Cook was a Republican election judge.
The fourth case didn’t actually involve the presidential vote. Gladys Coego, an election worker who had access to completed absentee voter ballots in Florida, was caught putting marks beside a certain mayoral candidate’s name on ballots where the rightful voter had left the vote for mayor blank.
The Post also found a few cases of possible voter fraud where no charges had been laid.
After his claim of “millions” of illegal voters, Trump was challenged by a CNN journalist to provide evidence. The president-elect cranked up the uncertainty-making machine again and flipped truthfulness on its head with another tweet: “@jeffzeleny what PROOF do u have DonaldTrump did not suffer from millions of FRAUD votes? Journalist? Do your job!”
This is, of course, just one example of Trump’s refusal to admit that something he said before, during or after the election was provably wrong or unsupported by any evidence. The disinformation—intentionally false or misleading information spread in a calculated way to deceive target audiences—he and his campaign created has been unprecedented in a modern-era American presidential election.
America’s media had some difficulty knowing how to cover Trump as a candidate and then as president-elect. Wall Street Journal Editor-in-Chief Gerard Baker, speaking about how media ought to describe Trump’s distortions of reality, noted, “I’d be careful about using the word, ‘lie.’ ‘Lie’ implies much more than just saying something that’s false. It implies a deliberate intent to mislead.”
But, as Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent pointed out in a response to Baker, “…Trump barely even tried to make a fact-based case for his version of reality. Rather, he seemed to be trying to obliterate any possibility of shared agreement on what constitutes an authoritative source, and even on reality itself.”
Why were so many Americans taken in by Trump’s provably wrong versions of reality?
A month after the election, a poll of 1011 Americans, commissioned by the Post, found 52 percent of Republicans and 24 percent of independents believed Trump had won the popular vote. Even seven percent of Democrats thought the same thing. Overall, 29 percent of those polled believed Trump had won the popular vote.
On an important fact about which Americans could have been certain and ought to have agreed, they had, to a surprising degree, got it wrong. The biggest factor in being wrong seemed to be partisanship. But mixed in with that was the likelihood of significant innumeracy. The Post’s poll found a strong correlation between low educational achievement and belief that Trump had won the popular vote.
In a 2013 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that measured the level of numeracy in 22 democracies, the US scored third from the bottom. Canada was a few notches up, but still below the average score. Finland and Japan scored highest. The historical trend in the US is to a lower level of numeracy.
To be numerate means much more than being able to add, subtract, multiply and divide numbers. It includes the ability to reason, which, according to Wikipedia, is “the capacity for consciously making sense of things, applying logic, establishing and verifying facts, and changing or justifying practices, institutions, and beliefs based on new or existing information.”
In other words, a person with a healthy level of numeracy would be able to figure out who won the popular vote in the 2016 US presidential election, would comprehend what that meant and would not fabricate falsehoods to discredit Clinton’s plurality of votes. She won the popular vote; he won the electoral college.
The deteriorating state of numeracy/reason in the US and Canada will make it much harder to resolve such pressing issues as climate change. If such a significant fraction of Americans can’t figure out who won the popular vote, or are willing to create a different outcome from non-existent facts (and then challenge journalists to disprove their non-existent facts) what hope is there for a coherent response to climate change? With a president who, as a candidate, said he thinks climate change is “a hoax,” not much.
In Canada, we are slowly extracting ourselves from a long state-sponsored disinformation campaign that supported development of Alberta’s oil sands far more than it heeded scientists’ warnings about climate change. Like Trump’s made-up claim about millions of illegal voters, the federal government under Stephen Harper manufactured uncertainty about climate change, on the one hand, and certainty about the wisdom of developing the oil sands on the other.
This will take some time to undo and will require, for one thing, Canadians to become numerate about climate change and emissions. Otherwise we will remain vulnerable to corporate and government disinformation. It will also require credible and much more stringent reporting on the level of emissions in Canada from Environment Canada.
This is particularly needed for the oil sands projects and for the proposed pipelines that would facilitate their expansion. Even a cursory examination of official emissions reporting suggests emissions may be much higher than Environment Canada, under Harper’s management, has acknowledged.
David Broadland is the publisher of FOCUS.