The US Capitol insurrection is a wake-up call on the need for citizenship education

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it,” was the maxim of Joseph Goebbels.

It was a strategy which was highly effective for the Nazi regime, with such evil consequences. Goebbels knew that lies well told and repeated could be as infectious as a virus with devastating effect. As I watched their faces contorted with rage, and heard their words uttered with such righteous indignation, the insurrectionists in the siege of the US Capitol made me think about how that ‘Big Lie’ technique is being used powerfully today. Trump made fulsome use of it. Despite his flimsy ‘evidence’ being rejected again and again by the US courts, he and his hench-men and -women repeated so frequently the Big Lie of the election being stolen that in the minds of those insurrectionists, it became a fact. However outrageous and ludicrous it may seem to us, many of those followers who stormed the Capitol believed they were doing the right and proper thing. In their minds, as they were in the very act of bludgeoning American democracy with their fists and Trump flagpoles, they were its true upholders. 

It’s easy to be amused or bemused at how ridiculous their protestations appear. It’s quite understandable (and justified) to hope that they feel the full force of the rule of law.  But it isn’t just the ones who took part. Polls since the insurrection have shown broad support amongst Trump voters for both his own actions and those of the insurrectionists. In the minds of millions of ordinary Americans too, they were the ones upholding democracy and trying to “stop the steal”. After Trump is impeached (and possibly convicted), and the perpetrators of the siege are punished, and Biden is inaugurated as President, this will still be the case. And that poses a major threat to democracy, both in the US and across the democratic world – including here in the UK.

Why? Every autocratic-minded politician in every democratic country has been watching and taking notes on the effectiveness of Trump’s ability to undermine democracy by telling lies and repeating them ad nauseam. They will have seen the ability of social media to amplify the lies through likes and retweets – the R-rate of the spread of lies often far exceeding that for the spread of Covid. Yes, for the time being, some of those lie super-spreaders have been silenced by social media, but the lesson for those wanting to undermine democracy remains. They’ll just find ways of circumventing such bans and adapting the technique, in the same way that a virus mutates. We might believe it couldn’t happen here in the UK: that there’s no way our election system and thus democracy itself could be undermined by autocrats spreading lies. But most of us thought that about the US until quite recently. The reality is that it could happen here in the UK as much as it has happened in the US. Make no mistake: our democracy is fragile and at risk – and the deterioration can happen at speed.

So what’s the vaccine that will help to protect our democracy? The answer is education – education about Citizenship to be precise – which should start with young people. The endeavour is urgent. Social media isn’t going to be uninvented, and as well as all the benefits that social media brings, it will be used by anti-democrats to spread their lies, in the way that radio was the medium of choice of the fascists and nazis of the 1930s. Certainly, better regulation can help, but it won’t solve the problem. What is needed, instead, is widespread civic education – to help people understand how democracy works, how to spot the lies of those who seek to destroy it, and how to make their voices heard through the democratic process so that they don’t feel excluded and ignored.

Thirty years ago, we almost got there. In the early 1990s, a consensus started to develop in the UK, across the political spectrum, about the importance of young people learning about Citizenship. The then Speaker of the House of Commons, Bernard Weatherill, established the Commission for Citizenship which recommended that all school children should be taught the knowledge and skills they require to be active citizens. Said the report justifying the recommendation, “Young people do not become good citizens by accident, any more than they become good nurses or good engineers, or good bus drivers or computer scientists”. A decade later, the Crick Commission – with representatives across the political and civic spectrum, including the former Tory Education Secretary, Kenneth Baker  – recommended that Citizenship become a subject in the national curriculum for every school child under the aged of 16. This was introduced as a compulsory subject at secondary level in 2002. For ten years, Citizenship became an established subject, with constant improvements in the effectiveness of the way it was taught. 

But so much of this progress has now been undone here in England. For the past decade many of these attempts to ensure the all young people learn the knowledge, skills and confidence to be active citizens have been undermined – the subject has been starved of funding, teachers have been denied the training, schools have been encouraged to drop the subject, and Ofsted and the DfE have largely acted as if it didn’t exist.  Only in those schools where there’s a committed member of staff, usually at a senior level with the clout to deliver, are young people taught Citizenship consistently, with enough breadth, and to a high standard. By 2018, the House of Lords published a report which criticised the Government for allowing Citizenship education in England to ‘degrade to a parlous state’ and called for urgent government action to address the decline. Needless to say, the government largely ignored the call.

The world has certainly changed since the Crick Commission recommended Citizenship education for all students, in 1998. But those changes mean that the need for good Citizenship education – especially Digital Citizenship – has become more, rather than less important. This morning, I was talking to a Deputy Headteacher at a secondary school, who described how the lie about 5G networks and Covid had spread like wildfire through their school last Spring. The internet, social media, the collapse of the traditional media, the speed of communication, the march of globalisation…all of these factors make it urgent that young people have the tools to distinguish between fact and fiction, and the ability to think critically about what they hear and read – and how they exercise citizenship responsibly.

Young Citizens’ Media Experts in Schools programme helps young people develop resilience and critical thinking skills through media literacy.

Tom Franklin in the CEO of Young Citizens

Photo: “Washington DC – Capitol Hill: United States Capitol” by wallyg is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0