Saturday, October 13, 2018

Meme-ingful information

The meme at left popped up on social media in the past few days, but without any links or other information on sources, it’s hard to evaluate for truthfulness and accuracy. However, I did the research the original meme-maker did not, and it turns out that the core point of the meme is true and accurate, and it also turns out that the lack of sourcing is not the fault of the person who originally shared the information. This underscores how dodgy political memes often are.

The meme originated as a reply to a Tweet back in September, part of a discussion about voter suppression efforts in the US state of Georgia. The graphic in the meme made it look like it was singling out the USA, which it wasn't. The original graphic was from Statista, whose charts I’ve shared several times. It was their “Chart of the Day” back on February 2. I’ve included the full chart below.

The information in the actual graphic (shared on Twitter) is drawn from the “2017 Democracy Index”, published by The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), which was released in January of this year [download the PDF]. The Index ranks countries on a democracy scale of 0 to 10 based on five criteria. Business Insider explained the criteria:
The study has five criteria: Whether elections are free and fair (“electoral process and pluralism”), governments have checks and balances (“functioning of government”), and whether citizens are included in politics (“political participation”), support their government (“political culture”), and enjoy freedom of expression (“civil liberties”).
The biggest and most important thing about actual Index isn’t that the USA has fallen out of the top 20 rankings of democracies, but this: A country must have a rating of at least 8 to be classified as a “full democracy”, so the USA slipping below 8, as it actually did in 2016, means it has been downgraded to a “flawed democracy”; its ranking has been declining for years. In short, a low ranking among democracies is bad, but a downgrade to “flawed democracy” is much worse.

The reason the meme’s so popular on social media all the sudden is undoubtedly because of the upcoming the US elections, but it has very little usefulness for that purpose.
The actual Tweet.

First, the meme has no sources, apart from hints in the subhead that one could Google (the original Tweet shared the complete graphic which does include some very basic sourcing information, and he separately Tweeted a link to the Business Insider piece). This is a constant problem with political memes, and especially ones “borrowed” from other people on social media. Sure, someone can always do as I did and spend some time hunting around, but we shouldn’t have to do that—ever. Sources matter because facts matter: Without sources we have no way of knowing if a meme is factual or mere propaganda.

The second problem is more about what might be called utility: The people already opposed to the current regime in the White House will take this on board as more evidence of how bad the current regime is, however, its supporters will simply not believe it’s true. This is always a problem, obviously, when the current occupant of the White House constantly dismisses truth and facts as “fake news” and attacks journalists as “the enemy of the people”. But not everyone supporting the regime is all in without questions, and those people can sometimes be open to new information.

To accept that the information in the chart even might be true, it’s vital that they’re able to check it out for themselves. However, if they did and found out that the USA was downgraded to a “flawed democracy”, it’s questionable how many marginal supporters of the regime would be willing to accept that. Part of this is the ideology of American exceptionalism that the rightwing in particular is wedded to, and it leads them to deny and dismiss anything critical of the USA or its democracy—basically, it’s a kind of denial that anything could be wrong with the USA.

For those reasons—the lack of sourcing and the fact that marginal supporters of the regime would be likely to see the Index as an attack on and insult to the USA—it has no usefulness as a campaign graphic. But, that aside, what about the information itself?

I haven’t read the full report, though I’ve now downloaded it (link above). I was probably aware of it when it was released, if only vaguely, because I get email alerts from the EIU. Similarly, I get email notifications of Statista charts, so I would have received a notification of the chart shared in the Tweet. But there are a lot of international rankings every year, and I can’t look into all of them!

Even so, the Democracy Index is a rational ranking of democracies based on its criteria. It provides a standard by which commitment to democracy can be measured, not just among the 167 countries ranked, but also regionally and globally. A frightening fact from the 2017 Index: Only 4.4% of the world’s population live in countries with “functioning democracies” according to the Index’s scale.

All of which is fascinating to politics geeks like me, and probably frightening to anyone who cares about democracy, but I think there’s another, different lesson here.

A point I've been making for decades is that there’s NO SUCH THING as a "perfect" country: Humans are imperfect and any government system they create will be imperfect, too. However, it's possible to be better, and better is good. Every country is good at or ranks higher in something good than other countries. Human nature again. But we should never be blind to where other countries are better or doing things better so that we can learn from them and become better ourselves—whether we like doing the reality check or not.

That’s not an easy concept for many conservatives in the USA to accept. It’s what leads them to embrace banal slogans like the red hat slogan of the current occupant of the White House. Thing is, what he was actually implying is that there was a mythical time in the past when the country was the best it could possibly ever be. That's just silly. ALL countries—every single one—can become better, always. Rather than looking backward to an imaginary "best ever" past, we should be looking toward the future and work on becoming the best we can be.

For those of us who don’t support the current regime, their silly slogan just makes America GRATE again.

So, the meme shared part of a graphic from an actual Tweet from September which, in turn, shared a graphic from February that was based on information originally released in January. While stripped of context, the meme’s nevertheless both real and an accurate, if edited, representation of what it purports to be. But, it should have had a source(s) provided, and it’s of no real use in election discourse. That’s too bad, because Americans really ought to be more self-reflective about their country and how it compares to other countries.

I have to admit that when I first saw the graphic on social media, none of this was on my mind. Instead, my first thought was, as I said to a friend who also shared the meme, “I’m just pleased that New Zealand is rated better than Australia by yet another international measure.” I was joking, of course (kind of…), but no one can take everything in politics seriously all the time. If we did, well, with everything bad in the world these days, it’d just be too horrible.

There’ll be a meme for that, too.

Chart from Statista.

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