EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

In the age of information, acquiring information is easy. Whether it comes to information on science, history, mechanics or more menial things, a person can have all of that just by pressing the screen of their phone at any time. If the library of Alexandria was one of the wonders of the world, the internet and its ease of access to information is a humanity-defining achievement.

However, to correctly process and classify information in order to understand where it is coming from, what idea it represents and to what ends, critical thinking must be employed. Critical thinking is important, as it helps us process information, which is presented to us on a daily basis (from the internet, media etc.). Due to the overload of information from the various sources around us, it is difficult to distinguish the right or wrong kind of information (as in, propaganda, fake news, misinformation and so on), which is why we need to train our minds to adequately deal with them. This is where critical thinking steps in as the most important tool, because it can help people do just that, process information and to compartmentalize it accordingly, without it necessarily affecting human behaviour, thinking and actions. To achieve this, critical thinking needs to be developed, which is a rather lengthy process, but just like school, it helps us navigate the world in a sensible, proportionate manner. Whether by educating oneself about critical thinking, reviewing products, thinking about various sides of an argument, trying to reach the middle ground – all of these and more help us obtain a higher level of thinking.

Regarding critical thinking, it is especially important when it comes to politics, as it works as a tool to review political parties or politicians. However, is there an objective way to describe politicians? Is there a correct way to evaluate them? As with it often is, people do not bother to verify or evaluate the information they get regarding many matters, and they usually do not even try to rationally assess something, as humans are more often driven by emotion, which plays into the hands of populists, for example, who use this to their advantage.

However, there is a distinction between general information and politics, as both represent different areas of information and even thinking. In a democracy, the art of compromise is integral; a diverse society needs it to maintain a semblance of coherence amidst various divergent interests. When there is a lack of compromise and consensus, democracies run the risk of political tribalization akin to what is currently seen in the US and certain European countries.

In a tribalized society, people are often unfortunately more willing to let the ends justify the means just to get a larger share of society’s pie. Even though the truth should matter, people will disregard it if, for instance, it means that they have to stay 5 years longer on the labour market (due to demographic deficit, the demands of the welfare state and anti-immigrant sentiments) – which paves the way for populists, who exploit these people in order to gain political advantage, which leads to bad choices (such as axing investments into education in order to finance the aforementioned planned retirement age due to lack of willingness to allow migrants to ensure the financial sustainability of the welfare state and society at large).

Due to all of the above mentioned reasons, critical thinking needs to be paired with a healthy democratic culture, which would propagate more of the ‘right’ choices, rather than the ‘bad’ ones. Some people are unable to objectively distinguish between real and fake information, some can but have different priorities (means to a desired end), some can but disregard it, and some can and act on it. This is why democratic culture should play a large part, as does the art of compromise and consensus seeking, even if it means people will not get exactly what they want. People need to be aware of their choices, as it not only impacts them, but also other people in their country of residence – and their future generations. Democracy is not the rule of one, rule of one party, rule of one type of people; it is the rule of everyone, which is why larger considerations, compromises and consensus should be reached across all of the diverse representants of a democracy. In turn, critical thinking complements this by helping to discern between correct and incorrect information, helping to reach compromise and a consensus and informed choices.

Emotions can also influence politics, especially elections. Elections can be mentally challenging due to the amount of information circulating in the news, and the more complicated the matters are, the less likely are people to understand reason, which is why a more emotional and charismatic leader, who employs emotional rhetoric centering around rage and hatred, can have a larger sway with the voters. Trump is a case in point. Understanding this, but also using critical thinking, can go hand in hand, but that might go against the emotional commitment to a cause, party or anything else that challenges our perception of the world. Even so, there is nothing that could deter a candidate from combining both a strong policies and emotional attachment, as many policies deal with rather emotional issues (healthcare, children’s education and more).

Lack of media literacy and authority coupled with the rise of social media also complicates the general population’s ability to deploy critical thinking and disengage from tribalism. While in the past established media acted as gatekeepers for the population’s perceptions and understanding of the wider world and contemporary topics and issues, the rise of social media has decentralized the media sphere while simultaneously delegitimizing so-called ‘mainstream media’ since in the era of social media, the highest authority is the user, irrespective of how incapable, incompetent or ignorant the given user might be. In the post-factual world, there is no consensus as citizens cherrypick interpretations from their social media bubble on an emotional foundation, hence weakening democracy itself and societal cohesion.

Information authorities are eroding in this age of social media, leading to a more widespread consumption of fake news, forming even more realities and perceptions that would not align with any sort of consensus. This both undermines critical thinking and democratic culture, because someone living in an exclusive and different reality will not be properly able to agree to a compromise or consensus, because they would not accept the existence of an alternate or ‘valid’ reality.

What can be done?
Countries such as Finland promote a healthy approach to combating misinformation and developing critical thinking by beginning the journey to understanding all the way from primary school. There is no such thing as being too early to learn. According to an article presented by the Guardian, the schools teach critical thinking and information literacy in more subjects than just civics. For example, in maths lessons pupils learn how easy it is to lie with statistics. In art, they see how an image’s meaning can be manipulated. In history, they analyse notable propaganda campaigns, while Finnish language teachers work with them on the many ways in which words can be used to confuse, mislead and deceive. And according to the annual Media Literacy Index, this works, because Finland scored the most amount of points.

It is certainly not too late to start education about information. Being informed is a right, but as with all rights, it is not that simple. It is one thing being informed, and another understanding of what this right entails. Ultimately, each and every citizen have a societal, democratic obligation to develop themselves to be responsible, informed citizens. As our world has grown ever more interconnected, so too must our responsibilities as citizens take on a wider and deeper scope. The alternative is societal fragmentation and tribalism.

Márk Szabó

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