Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Are you voting the same way you drive?

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Driving lesson number one – keep your eyes on the road. It seems simple enough. If you don’t keep your eyes in front of you, you run the risk of a crash. Yet more often than not, drivers are distracted and, too often, willing to substitute “information” from their smartphones for their own common sense.

Our story last week, “Hey Siri, how do I get to Ely?” was a case in point.

As a quick recap, since the opening of the new Hwy. 169 alignment, drivers have continued to use popular smartphone navigational apps to find their way between Tower and Ely, and have found themselves quite literally stuck in the mud as result.

MnDOT engineer, Michael Kalnbach, told the Timberjay that the apps themselves weren’t necessarily at fault for diverting many dozens of drivers in recent weeks off the newly-rebuilt Hwy. 169 and onto the rugged and ultimately impassable Six Mile Lake Road, even though the information they provided was inaccurate. He put more of the onus on drivers themselves who actually listened to the mechanical advice instead of using their common sense and critical thinking skills. But is our ever-growing reliance on technology only affecting our driving?

We rely on our devices for much of the information we use in our lives these days, including in our all-important roles as citizens. Think about where you get your information. Do you rely on the television, the radio, a local or national newspaper, or social media?

For many of us today, social media is a primary source of information. But as we’ve learned in recent years, social media news sources can be highly unreliable, sometimes intentionally so. And they are frequently leading more and more of us down dangerous paths.

We live in an era where the President of the United States has called the media an “enemy of the people,” knowing those who listen will not use their critical thinking to be able to see through statement, or what it actually means.

In 2004, the Chronicle of Higher Education published a study that found on average only 10 percent of Americans trusted the media, down nearly 60 percent from four decades earlier.

Since then, talking heads have become more and more prevalent on both sides of the political spectrum, but in an age where, as M.I.T. psychologist Sherry Turkle writes, we have become obsessed with the instant gratification that social media and smartphone apps provide, the rise in distrust and polarization has also been met with a decline in the ability to think critically for ourselves. We now live in a society of “alternative facts” and “fake news” capitalizing on our inability to competently process the vast flood of “information” seemingly at our fingertips.

Much like the drivers along Hwy. 169 who saw a clear road in front of them and still turned off down a muddy road only to get stuck, the average political news consumer, especially those tied to a specific party or ideological stance, can too easily be led into the weeds. Like the man who turned up at a family pizza restaurant near Washington, D.C., with a gun last year after social media posts convinced him there was a child sex ring being run from the building’s non-existent basement. Or the theory that the Sandy Hook or Stoneman Douglas shootings were staged events, rather than horrific tragedies.

So how do we find our way back to the main road? Just like tow trucks have helped bring all those technology-dependent drivers back to Hwy. 169 in recent weeks, credible and established news sources are our best means of getting back to pavement.

While the so-called mainstream media certainly has its problems, news organizations that hire professional journalists and that maintain a focus on factual reporting remain our best bet for information. Every news organization and the people within it have their biases and blind spots. They all make mistakes. The sign of a credible news source is the willingness to acknowledge and correct mistakes, and the willingness to strive to do better the next time. Professional news organizations strive to do their best, and they hold themselves accountable, just as they do our politicians.

What will it take for people to put their eyes back on the road? That’s the question as we head into the fall elections. For some it often comes too late, and we end up reading about their last text, or the last thing they saw on their phones before a fatal crash. People need to realize the same is true of their politics.

This isn’t fear mongering or a conspiracy theory. The more we become ignorant to what literally lies around us, the more we’ll forget it’s there, even in plain sight. And as one issue comes and goes, and information and misinformation flood the news, one has to ask themselves before the Aug. 14 primary, are you voting the same way you drive?

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