Defending Truth: The Duty We Owe Our Fellow Citizens

This column expresses the views of Elizabeth Dickson, director of development, Freedom Forum.

Two weeks after a riotous mob disputed the 2020 election results by storming the U.S. Capitol, President Joe Biden stood on the same ground and called on Americans to avoid “raging fire” politics and come together as a nation.

“This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge. And unity is the path forward,” Biden said in his inaugural address.

As Biden and his team begin the work of governing, it is worth reflecting on what our role as citizens might be in helping bridge divisions and move the nation toward healing.

Like many Americans watching the attack on the Capitol, I wondered, how did we get here? When did we decide to express our disagreements with insurrection? What could we have done to stop it?

We will probably grapple with these questions for years to come. But we know that the deep ideological divides among Americans and the embrace of different realities are linked, in part, to “divergent news sources” and “dueling information ecosystems,” according to a Pew Research Center survey. It can be hard to identify misleading information and tell the difference between news and opinion. And there’s a growing distrust of the media by Americans. In this landscape, the repetition of misinformation and lies by leaders and citizens alike has flourished.

But words have meaning, and as we saw on Jan. 6, there sometimes are repercussions for the words we use.

“Recent weeks and months have taught us a painful lesson,” Biden said. “There is truth and there are lies.” Each of us — citizens and especially leaders — has a duty and responsibility “to defend the truth and defeat the lies.”

At the nonpartisan Freedom Forum, we work to increase understanding of the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment, including a free press. Our resources include tools to detect misinformation, media bias and “fake news” and improve media literacy; they are available free to citizens and leaders alike to help identify and share the truth.

Here are a few suggestions for those who want to engage in and defend the truth:

  • In consuming news, enjoy your preferred sources but also seek out opposing or different perspectives to better understand your fellow Americans and make well-informed decisions.
  • Learn to understand differences between journalistic reporting and opinion and punditry.
  • Learn to distinguish what is real from what is fake; fight misinformation. Before you share content, make sure it is true.
  • Demand that your leaders tell the truth. When government officials intentionally make false claims, use your First Amendment rights of speech, petition and assembly — share your viewpoint in calls, emails and letters, show up at the voting booth and peacefully join protests and other gatherings.

We are fortunate to live in a country that encourages diversity of thought and a free exchange of ideas. In these times when our democracy is being challenged, let us do our part to preserve it, by being informed and prioritizing the truth over all else.

Elizabeth Dickson is the director of development at the Freedom Forum. She can be reached at [email protected].

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