It is pretty hard to escape the term these days.
It seems like everybody has views on the problems of fake news these days, and, no matter who you believe is responsible its perpetuation, the consequences are mutually agreed upon: our democracy is troubled by it.
In an effort to combat this dilemma, some have sought to delegitimize the president’s bully pulpit, others have made the press the target of their ire and desires for reform, and many have put social media companies in their crosshairs.
In an opinion piece written recently in The Guardian, Dambisa Moyo suggests an alternative strategy to combating the issue of fake news and the political ignorance that it spreads. Rather than solely seeking to stop the flow of such information, Moyo puts forward a plan that would seek to mitigate its effects: eligibility tests for voters.
She writes the following in an explanation to her proposal:
Ultimately, the ideal democracy is one in which as many citizens as possible vote, and the voters are armed with the most objective information. Yet today only a fraction of the electorate are voting, and many are armed with a diet of hyped-up statistics and social media propaganda. Proposals to redress the situation must strike at the heart of these weaknesses, with a mission to re-engage voters and improve the quality of politicians. … In many democracies, including the US and UK, migrants are required to pass government-sanctioned civic tests in order to gain citizenship. So, in this vein, why not give all voters a test of their knowledge? This would ensure minimum standards that should lead to higher-quality decision-making by the electorate. The message this would send is that voting is not just a right, but one that has to be earned. Such testing would not only lead to a better-informed electorate, but also to voters who are more actively engaged.
Of course, the idea of requiring citizens to pass a test prior to making them eligible to vote is not a new idea, but it is an interesting thought experiment to propose it as a solution to avoid electoral results from being “warped by fake news.”
In my opinion, it is not an experiment that fairs very well upon deeper examination.
On a theoretical level, a right that must be earned is not a right at all but rather a privilege. On a practical level, critical questions must be answered before our country re-categorizes such a precious civic ability.
For example, what will these tests be testing for? Moyo refers to these voter eligibility exams as “a test of [voter’s] knowledge” promoting “higher-quality decision-making.” What type of knowledge should be tested? Would such tests be similar to IQ tests? Would they be wholly apolitical?
Who would develop the test?
Who would grade it?
Unfortunately, these are questions that go unanswered in Moyo’s piece, perhaps because the answers that these questions require are not easy for proponents of this proposal to provide. In fact, Moyo herself expresses caution about her own solution:
Of course, such a system would be truly democratic only if everybody had a fair chance of casting their vote. It is vital that those with fewer life opportunities have their say, and we cannot have a system that is skewed against the worst educated, which would leave poorer people even more marginalised and unrepresented than they already are.
These concerns are entirely valid, and so too are the worries that such tests, if slanted in a partisan manner, could simply be used by politicians to target political rivals or, even worse, perpetuate the very same political ignorance that the tests are seeking eliminate from our democratic process.
In the end, the desire to address the problems arising from the spread of fake news is in many ways well founded, and there may in fact be no solution that lacks troublesome side effects. However, such a reality does not mean that all such solutions are equally problematic.
After all, if our democracy is indeed being sickened by political ignorance, the last thing we need is a cure which worsens the dangers it seeks to combat.