Several friends and family members have recently asked me, “What is QAnon?” Those of you who might also be wondering can find a good summary assembled by Mormon Women for Ethical Government and additional information about the risks inherent in conspiracy theories in the bipartisan House Resolution 1154, passed overwhelmingly (371-18) earlier this month.
The House Resolution quotes heavily from the FBI, which in May warned, “The FBI assesses these conspiracy theories very likely will emerge, spread and evolve in the modern information marketplace, occasionally driving both groups and individual extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts.”
In a recent discussion about conspiracy theories on social media, one friend asked, “Why does this matter?”
Even without criminal or violent acts, disinformation is dangerous. Allowing ourselves to be misinformed and disinformed disempowers us and hands our power to people, groups and governments intent on dividing, controlling, and possibly causing harm.
This summer I saw firsthand the personal toll disinformation can have when family and friends who had been evacuated from their homes due to the extreme wildfires in Oregon were further stressed by false claims that extremists were literally fanning the flames, setting additional fires near their already threatened homes. These untrue rumors also resulted in already overwhelmed dispatchers and professional staff being taxed unnecessarily, wasting precious resources.
By the same token, becoming well informed is essential to making good decisions and to both being accountable to each other and holding our leaders accountable to us. In her recent address at BYU, “The Education of the American Mind,” Melody Barnes, professor of practice and co-director of the Democracy Initiative at University of Virginia, reminded us that Thomas Jefferson imagined us as guardians of our own freedom, stating: “Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied upon to set them to rights.”
I want to be an effective guardian of freedom. I want to be sure I’m accessing the best and most accurate facts and information and employ the best methods I know — some public, some deeply personal — for discerning truth.
Barnes referenced our current struggle with enlightenment, stating that “what’s at stake is our ability to meet the threshold of what’s required of us as citizens: a robust understanding of the world around us, a command of information, facility with the mechanics of our government, such that we might use logic and reason to hold elected officials accountable. What’s at stake, is small ‘r’ republican self-governance.” Barnes went on to discuss seeking the best in both formal and informal education, challenging us to pursue “an enlightenment frame of mind.”
How do we enlighten ourselves in a time when many voices clamor incessantly for our attention? We have unprecedented access to an abundance of tools with which to verify information before we use it to inform our opinions and actions or choose to share it with others. We can choose to consume media — even social media — in a way that empowers rather than disempowers and to refrain from amplifying dubious, contentious and false information.
I want to be an effective guardian of freedom. I want to be sure I’m accessing the best and most accurate facts and information and employ the best methods I know — some public, some deeply personal — for discerning truth. Because I strongly believe words matter, facts are essential to intelligent and effective dialogue and action, and truth is discernible, I invite you to join me in accepting the call found in item 5 of the House Resolution:
“Resolved, that the House of Representatives ... urges all Americans, regardless of our beliefs or partisan affiliation, to seek information from authoritative sources and to engage in political debate from a common factual foundation.”
Dalene Rowley is an alumna of BYU and resident of Provo, where she works as an instructional designer in the College of Health and Public Service at Utah Valley University.