Combating Misinformation

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It is hard to believe we are already past the midpoint of a legislative session unlike any other. Working within the constraints of COVID — yet trying to effectively pass meaningful legislation not only reactive to the pandemic but proactive to the future of Maryland all while working in a hybrid system — means that we have to be intentional and strategic.

There are advantages such as advanced notice of testimony so that we can address concerns and amendment requests in the hearings, and access to hearings from anywhere, without the need for transportation or child care. Constituents wishing to testify on a bill need not spend hours in Annapolis but can log into the website or onto a Zoom. However, as we have so clearly seen throughout the pandemic, technology also brings with it disadvantages for those dealing with a digital divide, lack of technological access or proficiency. Where in years past, those struggling to upload testimony could swing by our office or email our team, many staffers are also working remotely so we are having to find new ways of doing business.

One of the biggest challenges to the session comes in the form of misinformation, something that we are having to combat and reconcile at the local, state and national levels. Anyone who has asked me about my experience in the legislature has heard me say, “Public service is gratifying, and politics is gross.” I have never had to explain that statement. There are times it feels as though the name of the game is “He who is the most inflammatory and misleading wins.”

As an educator and a playwright, this poses a huge challenge because I love to inform, to engage, to help draw the through line for folks struggling to see the cause and effect of policy decisions, to have meaningful debate through an equity lens, but like any kind of foundational work, that takes time and opportunity; an opportunity that is thwarted when the loudest voice is the only one heard.

In years past, I wrote about the legislative process; the difference between first, second and third reader; the committee and subcommittee processes; how to advocate for a bill — things that were not covered in great detail by either our civics classes or Saturday morning cartoons – though “I’m Just a Bill” still holds up pretty well.

We saw that kind of damaging misinformation weaponized regarding the digital ad tax, where countless dollars were spent on ads on television and social media to convince Marylanders that this wasn’t a tax on corporations making over $100 million; the self-same corporations launched the ads and recently filed a federal lawsuit. A lawsuit not designed in any way to protect working families or small brick and mortar businesses.

A more insidious and alarming version of this is manifesting as we work on policies that impact marginalized people - prejudicial rhetoric, false equivalence, “othering” and additional dehumanizing tactics. When we’re in person, we can respond quickly to these attacks and set the record straight, but with remote access, controlled media, tightly timed floor debates, and time and testimony limits on bill hearings, the challenge falls to our constituents to vet and interpret the information as it comes.

I have said since day one that as elected officials, we have a greater responsibility to choose our words carefully, to speak precisely and to legislate transparently. Our words have weight, and that weight is being tested in this moment as we rely on each other to speak to and consider thoughtfully what we want for our communities, and how our elected officials speak of the work they do and the people they represent.

I have been grateful not only for the willingness of this community to engage with me in these complicated, uncomfortable, necessary conversations calling out injustice, but also that when something seems amiss, I get a call or an email to address that concern or bring a different perspective for consideration. That is a form of “calling in.” It’s harder, it’s more intentional, it’s foundational, and it is one of the most effective tools for change. This is a community which, by and large, does not simply accept rhetoric as fact, and for that, the community should be commended.

I know we are all tired and we want to be past the pandemic. We are not made for this level of sustained grief, however, I’m asking that we continue to have patience with each other and take the extra time to question, call out systemic racism and false information, but “call in” each other, because that is how we grow together and build a better Maryland.

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