Put Truth First in a Post-Truth World
by Ted Miller
(originally published January 2017 in Tumbleweird)
“We have to uphold a free press and freedom of speech – because, in the end, lies and misinformation are no match for the truth.” – Barack Obama, in a speech to the people of Estonia, September 3, 2014
I remember the time when the source of news and information was through radio and television broadcast networks, print newspapers and news magazines. Journalism was a respected profession and the free press was a long-standing institutional part of our democracy. Investigative journalism uncovered corruption and wrongdoing in government and corporations. Exposing the Watergate scandal that led to Nixon’s impeachment and resignation were a direct result of tireless research and reporting. It was a time when the average citizen trusted both their government and the freedom of the press. I knew that other parts of the world didn’t have a free press, and the authoritarian governments of places like North Korea and the Soviet Union controlled the news and held on to their power over the people with repressive regimes, sometimes even violence.
As information technology exploded, I thought the information age would bring humanity closer together. I assumed that unfettered, uncensored access to the wealth of human knowledge coupled with instant access to news from around the world would bring on a new age of understanding and compassion. That we would all discover how much more we are alike than different. That the truth would always win and that it would become more and more difficult to suppress ideas, more difficult to sow hate and division, and more difficult for repressive, autocratic leaders to hold on to their power over the people through misinformation and control of the media. I thought that a well-informed populace would ensure the power of the people and that the entire world would move toward peaceful co-existence, working together for the good of all mankind. I thought the end of the Soviet Union, the freedom of the Baltic States, the expansion of NATO, the opening of China to trade and exchange with the rest of the world, and the so-called Arab Spring were all signs that the world was headed in that direction. People fighting for the freedoms from their own repressive governments were using the tools of modern communication to work together and to reach out to the rest of the world.
But as with any tool, information technology can be used for evil just as easily. What has happened over the last decade is that those tools are also being used to divide us. Rather than expanding our views of the rest of the world, we are allowing ourselves to live in an information bubble that reinforces what we already believe and suppresses opposing thought. Facebook, google and other information algorithms feed us what we want to see without any filter on truth, reality or balance. News organizations, in an attempt to remain economically viable, follow the same pattern. Fox News becomes more right wing, controversial and sensational to boost ratings and advertising dollars. Subscriptions to longstanding media sources dwindle, and investigative journalism can no longer be funded with media sources becoming mere repeaters of news generated elsewhere, amplifying that which gets more clicks and views. In an attempt to remain relevant, misguided “false-equivalency” efforts lead main stream news sources to give equal time to opposing views, even when one of those views is demonstrably false. Sensationalism sells and the craziest politicians get around-the-clock free air time. Political campaigns feed into this trend and we end up with diverging “realities.” Opportunists begin fabricating completely false stories and publishing them to look like news, generating millions of clicks on Facebook and other social media, generating tens of thousands of advertising dollars with a complete disregard for the consequences of their actions. And we eat it up. We believe only that which fits into our own narrative and reject that which does not. When fact checking sources like Snopes and FactCheck.org point out untruths, they are discredited and accused of partisan bias. Told for decades that the “main-stream media” can’t be trusted, we reject the truth for the lies and exaggerations of fringe and extreme news sources. We start to believe satire as truth, and confuse opinion with objective news. The country becomes more and more polarized in a self-reinforcing feedback loop that is tearing us apart.
Donald Trump used this new reality of the information age as a primary tool in his presidential campaign. There were many other factors that affected the 2016 election, but this troubling trend that has undermined the truth in our society was a key factor. Study after study shows that much of our population believes stories that even a simple amount of research will show are not true. Disagreement and healthy debate have devolved into bullying, threats and shunning of family members and friends. We unfriend each other rather than tolerate differing opinions, further isolating ourselves with only those who agree with us.
One of the most troubling aspects is the rise of cyberbullying, vigilantism and a mob mentality. In December, a gun-wielding vigilante entered a pizza restaurant in Washington, D. C. to personally investigate a debunked conspiracy theory that the restaurant was being used by Hillary Clinton for human trafficking and a child-sex ring. This year, the Centerville Elementary School in Lancaster, PA, cancelled their annual fifth grade production of “A Christmas Carol.” A Fox News commentator wrote an opinion piece on December 17th that blamed the parents of a Jewish student for the cancellation. Fitting into the “war on Christmas” narrative, outrage was immediately heaped on the school and the unnamed family. Calls for publishing the names and address of the family went out on social media, death threats were made and the story became national news. The school administration immediately tried to correct the story, stating that the real reason for the cancellation was a rebalancing of instructional priorities. The decision had not been made lightly and had nothing to do with religious intolerance or parent complaints. Liberal news sources picked up the story and claimed the family had to “flee” the school district for safety, which sounded plausible but was an exaggeration of the truth. Both sides of the story ended up with differing realities. A peaceful elementary school was caught up in a controversy they didn’t create and a town ended up divided over a local issue that should never have been a national story.
Now we have a president-elect who plays loose with facts with a seeming total disregard for the truth. His daily tweets, sometimes nonsensical and routinely making false claims, create controversy, division and uncertainty. His campaign was filled with divisive rhetoric and his self-indulgent tweets and statements have continued into the transition period with little indication that he will change after he is inaugurated. He has shattered many of our political, diplomatic and social norms. We cannot allow any elected official, particularly the President of the United States, to continue to divide us and feed us misinformation.
I believe in the concept of a democracy of the people as the founders of our country established through the constitution, and I believe that after almost two and a half centuries our country is strong enough to withstand any threat, foreign or domestic. I still believe we are a great nation, and we continue to get better. I believe in the rule of law and the peaceful transition of power of our elected leadership. The United States of America has been the model for a working democratic republic that has continued to make progress towards equality and fairness for all. I expect that to continue, but none of us should take that for granted.
We should not allow the use of information technology to continue to deteriorate. We should not allow hateful rhetoric and the spread of misinformation to become normalized. We must call it out when we see it and we must continually seek the truth, whether it fits our narrative or not. The first amendment guarantees the right to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press. We must be vigilant to protect that right. But freedom of speech doesn’t give anyone freedom from the consequences of their speech. And that applies to every citizen of the United States, including the president. We must hold our government accountable to the constitution and not allow our country to be dismantled from within.
There are no easy solutions to turn away from the misinformation trend, but there are things each of us can do. Be discerning with what you read and what you believe. Don’t allow yourself to live in your own echo chamber. Read multiple news sources and fact check things that don’t seem quite right. Avoid click-bait and spreading political and divisive memes on social media. Educate yourself and get involved in local politics and government. Volunteer and support organizations that combat hate and divisiveness. And support main stream news organizations. Freedom of the press is essential to our democracy, but running the press isn’t free. Subscribe to newspapers and journals that have strong investigative journalism as part of their business model. Advocate for the truth.
And most important of all, don’t become complacent. This country belongs to all of its citizens, not just to the party in the majority. We are a government of the people, not over the people. The government must be truthful, transparent and accountable to us. Our government derives its power from us and works for us. For all of us. Don’t let anyone take that away.