Informed public at lowest level for 18 years

Generation Zzzzz: Over half of British people now get their news from social media.

Is democracy at risk? A massive new survey shows only six out of a hundred in the UK follow the news regularly. But some argue this a welcome sign of peace, stability and good government.

There is rather a lot of news at the moment. Brexit, Trump, North Korea, flu outbreaks, billionaires meeting to change the world, more Brexit, yet more Trump. Many journalists and historians consider the second decade of the 21st century to be the most interesting period since the end of the second world war.

The public, it seems, disagrees.

According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, a huge annual survey which investigates how people view the media, the proportion of Britons who consider themselves part of the “informed public”, those who consume business or political news several times a week, has fallen to just six in every hundred people — a record low.

The survey found that 33% are reading or listening to the news less than they used to, while 19% avoid it completely.

The main reason given by 40% of news-avoiders was simple: “It’s too depressing”. Others cited “bias”, while a quarter blamed events being “over-analysed and sensationalised”. Most of these people are young.

Ed Williams, the chief executive of Edelman, blames social media for this, citing the finding that fewer than a quarter of Britons trust social media companies when consuming sources of news and information.

The most basic principle of a democratic system is that everyone’s vote counts the same. But some believe that such a vast divide between the engaged and the disengaged threatens the system we hold dear. As Winston Churchill famously said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter."

But is it, in fact, a healthy sign that so many people are unaware of current affairs? As an ancient Chinese curse states: “May you live in interesting times.”

While seemingly a blessing, the expression is ironic, implying that “uninteresting times” mean peace and tranquillity, and that these are better eras to live in than “interesting times”, which mean disorder, discord and conflict.

Turnout in the US presidential election was just 55%. Voter apathy in Europe is also high. Is democracy in trouble?

Disconnect

It is time to take voter ignorance seriously, say some. Three quarters of Britons cannot name their MP. Over half of Americans do not know which party controls Congress. Such people can only vote with their gut or their tribe, rather than through reasoned thought. This opens the door to demagogues who threaten democracy.

This is a great sign, reply others. Iraq since 9/11, Russia in 1917, Germany in the 1930s. All are politically “interesting” — and hellish. This is a sign that people are staying sane, and that media sensationalisation does not work. Total ignorance is bad, but obsession with the news can make you forget what really matters.

You Decide

  1. Does ignorance threaten democracy?
  2. Would you rather live in interesting times, or boring times?

Activities

  1. Class debate: “This house believes that compulsory voting would solve voter apathy.”
  2. Keep a diary for the next month. Note down how often you look at the news, and work out whether you qualify as an “informed” person under Edelman’s definition.

Some People Say...

“For most normal people, politics is a distant, occasionally irritating fog.”

Tony Blair

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
That the number of people in Britain who describe themselves as “informed voters” is at its lowest level of the century so far. However, turnout in last year’s general election, as well as in the Brexit referendum, was higher than normal. This could indicate that people are more willing to vote on instinct than on a purely rational evaluation of the choices.
What do we not know?
Whether this period of apparent apathy is terminal or cyclical. On the one hand, the fact that there is simply more to do nowadays might mean that people have less time to read the paper or watch the news. But it could be that we are wrong to imagine the more distant past as a time when people cared more than they do now.

Word Watch

Reason
The survey found 27% believed that the news is controlled by “hidden agendas”, while 22% believe the quality of reporting has declined. There has been a 5% drop in the number of Britons who follow public policy discussions in the last year — from 68% to 63%.
Most of these people are young
The average age of these people was 40 — significantly below the UK median average. A disproportionate number live in London and they are also more likely to have children. Whether they are left-wing or right-wing, or male or female, makes no difference.
Social media companies
As Ed Williams writes in The Times: “We blame you for spreading extremist content, fake news and social menace. We don’t believe that you are doing enough to challenge illegal behaviour, bullying and child exploitation. And if you don’t or you won’t do anything about it, most of us want you regulated.”
Congress
Congress is the American version of Parliament, split between the Senate and the House of Representatives. Both are currently under Republican control.

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