The Boston Marathon Bombings, on the 15th of April, sparked a vicious manhunt that ended in the capture of one young Chechen and the killing of his brother. Across the Internet, people speculated wildly about the identity of the bombers, casting wild accusations against various minority groups and falsely identifying several suspects from photos of the scene. One young man, 22- year- old Sunil Tripathi, was found dead the week after web vigilantes singled him out as the bomber. But even once the identity of the genuine perpetrators was released, many Americans were still mired in misinformation. Matt Binder, on his blog, Public Shaming: Tweets of Privilege, compiled a collection of screenshots from Twitter and Facebook, where Americans both young and old demanded retribution against the Czechoslovakians for the Boston Bombings. However, as any rational, intelligent person will tell you, the bombers were not from Czechoslovakia. Nor, in fact, were they from the Czech Republic. A Chechen is someone from Chechnya, a region in southwest Russia. While this delightful little mix-up may seem like the mere blundering of some Wi-Fi-enabled buffoons, the confusion was actually serious enough to warrant a statement from Petr Gandalovic, the Czech Ambassador to the United States. When American public ignorance reaches the point where a foreign ambassador feels the need to intervene, something’s got to give.
The Pew Research Center, in the latest update of its semi-annual News IQ study, discovered that only 7% of the people surveyed could correctly answer all 13 questions posed. The questions, on various topics, covered both domestic and foreign affairs. Only half of the subjects, Americans ranging from age 18 on, with varying degrees of education, could identify Syria on a map of the Middle East. A full 43% could not pick the flag of the People’s Republic of China out of a lineup. A third didn’t recognize the euro symbol. Only two-thirds of the people asked could identify the current Secretary of State, John Kerry. In a world where the United States remains unequivocally the reigning world power, how can her citizens remain so blatantly ignorant? According to an earlier, more comprehensive study by the Pew Research Center, American news literacy has maintained a constant decline since 1989. With the advent of the 24- hour news cycle and the onset of mass social media, you would expect Americans to be more informed about their world. Unfortunately, you can’t give a bear a fishing rod and expect him to use it to catch a fish.
Even when people do make the effort to inform themselves, they often neglect to think critically about the information they’re being deluged with. Misinformation is a constant problem within both social media and professional news making. Fact-checking is often shunted aside to make room for more exciting spins. The two Chechen bombers, who were literally from the Caucasus, were identified over and over as non-Caucasian, due in part to them being Muslim. Americans would rather see two brown-skinned boys as villains than two white ones. Even though the FBI stated in their official press release that their suspects were white, the media and the public determinedly pictured the brothers as otherwise. Perhaps because Americans are so comfortable characterizing terrorists as dark-skinned, turban-wearing men from the Middle East, that thinking of the bombers as identical to themselves was just a step too far. It’s difficult to change your mental image of something, difficult to realign your worldview. In his 2008 article for the Washington Post, Shankar Vendantam said, “misinformation can exercise a ghostly influence on people’s minds after it has been debunked— even among people who recognize it as misinformation.” Because Americans find it easier to accept the information given them than to look critically at their own world, it is difficult for truth to invade the national consciousness.
So what, though? Americans are stupid, everyone knows that. It’s a stereotype not many have actively tried to debunk. But here’s the rub: the American people who can’t think for themselves, who are reticent to immerse themselves in current affairs, who can’t tell Chechnya from Czechoslovakia, that’s the same American people who, every four years, elect the leader of the free world. That’s the same American people who peacefully overthrow their own government on a regular basis. It’s the same American people who control both the world’s largest economy and the world’s most powerful military. Do you want the most powerful country in the world to be run by mass ignorance?