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Misinformation, disinformation and the assault on democracy

The peaceful transition of power based on the results of our electoral process, whether we like those results or not, is the cornerstone of representative government.

That’s what makes today’s insurrection at the United States Capitol so outrageous. As U.S. senators and representatives counted the Electoral College votes, extremists stormed the Capitol. While holding American flags, they undermined the very values and ideals the flag stands for by forcing elected officials to stop the electoral counting process and go into hiding, as the insurrectionists broke into congressional offices and the House and Senate chambers.

This is appalling. But sadly, it is the result of months and years of lies and misinformation spread too often by others in positions of power. As Congressman Adam Kinzinger, a Republican and Air Force veteran, said of today’s attack, “When you don’t tell people the truth, you end up getting people to believe the conspiracies and the false proof, and you get Capitol storms like the one today.”

As a University, we are dedicated to the pursuit of the truth – no matter how uncomfortable that truth is, or what power structures or belief systems it challenges. Our Center for an Informed Public and countless faculty across the UW are advancing truth around issues ranging from the election and the coronavirus to the continuing scourge of racial inequities. Our duty in pursuing truth is to serve all members of our society by shedding light on reality, rationality and possibility.

A second major responsibility we have in higher education is to provide students not only with the knowledge and credentials to get good jobs, but also with the intellectual tools and ethical values that will allow them to constructively carry out their civic duties and obligations. And while our students will pursue their paths in a society where we may not always agree on solutions, it is crucial they be part of encouraging our society to again embrace a shared commitment to facts, rational discourse, and respect for intellectual and scientific pursuits.

We must denounce violent extremism and condemn this “assault on the citadel of liberty” and the continued assault on our democracy. It is long past time to acknowledge the results of our free and fair election so that we can tackle the immense challenges we face, which can only be overcome through shared action.

I took my oath as a U.S. citizen at the age of 18, well aware that our country has too often not lived up to its ideals, but with a sincere belief in its promise. Despite all our challenges, I still believe in that promise – and that we all have a role to play in making it real.