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Fake news demands that we evolve our thinking

No civilization has survived losing its grip on reality. Neither will America


“I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it’s on Facebook” said a caller to Guilford Metro 911 on election day. He was reporting what he described as the “highly illegal” activity of people handing out campaign literature at a polling location. The caller warned the dispatcher that the call was live on “national news feed on Facebook” and that “millions of people are looking at it.” He advised, “You might want to get off the national news by sending somebody down there and cleaning it up.”

This is America now. Buoyed by social media to self-righteous certainty, even when wrong.

Second call to 911 complaining about campaigning at a polling place, Rankin Elementary, Greensboro, NC, Nov. 8, 2016

A previous caller to 911 earlier in the day was apparently the original source of the hubbub. According to voting records, election day was this guy’s first time voting in person. He was handed a voter guide on his way to vote and complained inside to poll workers. Despite those trained professionals telling him that it was not illegal for people to hand out campaign literature outside the polling place, the guy insisted to the 911 dispatcher, “I am well versed in the law” and “standing out there handing out literature is extremely illegal. It’s voter fraud.” So he tweeted, with a picture of the voting guide for good measure, and social media rubes took it from there.

First call to 911 complaining about campaigning at a polling place, Rankin Elementary, Greensboro, NC, Nov. 8, 2016

The first caller wanted police to “remove them from the property,” the people he described as “four African-American males, dark skinned.”

The second caller wanted someone to make the people stand “two hundred feet away,” which he said was the law.

North Carolina state law allows people to hand out campaign literature at polling locations no closer than fifty feet to the entrance of the polling place (twenty-five feet in some cases). Not two hundred feet.

Police responded to the first call by driving by and, seeing nothing illegal, carried on. The second call was interdicted by the police watch commander. No police were dispatched and the watch commander requested of 911 that these kinds of calls on election day go to him first.

In recent weeks, “fake news” has become a discussion of concern. But as these two 911 callers demonstrate, there is more to what is going on than fabrication. Deception can only have an effect when individuals incapable of latching on to the truth fall for it.

It is the inability of individuals to discriminate between truth and fiction that is the worry. These 911 callers just knew—with certainty—that what they were seeing was highly illegal. But they weren’t just wrong; one was deluded, believing that his uninformed crusade had the attention of “millions” of people.

We have entered a new and precarious time—a “post-truth” period the Oxford Dictionary calls it with its 2016 word of the year. It means that objective facts have lost their influence over emotion and personal belief.

No civilization has survived losing its grip on reality. Neither will America. But we have what should be a good defense. America was built on a fundamental assumption that truth matters. Born from the reason and science of the Enlightenment, we baked the idea of empirical truth into America right from the beginning: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”

In that way, we are special. We, as a people, acknowledge that truth is knowable and elevated. That gives us an advantage, but it doesn’t give us immunity to extinction if we supplant respect for the truth with a preference for gut feelings.

If we become a people no longer able to evaluate whether or not what we think we know is truthful, we will surely go the way of other civilizations whose delusions led to their demise and possibly do so through a tragic and painful route. See Nazi Germany or ISIS. There are no examples of lasting societies that elevated emotional belief above thinking in their civic deliberations.

If we are going to survive the age of social media, we have to evolve. We have to grasp the need to have some intellectual sophistication and we must individually cultivate it if we lack it. There is no algorithm—no “truth bot”—that is going to save us from having to foster a more discerning way of thinking in this internet age.

An easy first step is to refuse to be saps. Here is a good question to ask before reacting to or assimilating information, whether on social media or in the news: “Am I being taken as a rube?”

Rubes read that a claim came from a person in a position of authority and take it as truth simply because it comes from an authority. Internet sophisticates pause to see if the claim is serving some self-interest. If an assertion will help the person making it get more money, more power or more influence, if it advances a personal agenda, then it demands to be taken with a grain of salt unless it can be substantiated further. And just because a reporter reports that someone said it, that’s not substantiation. Lazy reporters love to regurgitate what someone said, like a stenographer, without checking out whether or not the claim is true. Accurate (someone really said it) is not the same as truthful (it’s true.).

Rubes read a characterization of some event or document and give it credence either because it’s from a source they’ve trusted in the past or because it “feels” true. Internet sophisticates look for substantiation. If a reporter provides a link to what is being described, that’s a sign the reporter wants you to be as informed as possible and is willing to back up his reporting by inviting you to check it out for yourself.

There is pressure on news organizations from marketing people to strive for “engagement,” the practice of keeping eyeballs on an organization’s screens as long as possible. Hyperlinks away to other websites or documents are contrary to that goal, they take people away and frustrate the marketers—but they are superior journalism. If your news sources are not inviting you to see for yourself with hyperlinks, they are either lazy or have higher priorities than being accountable to you.

Rubes bite their tongue. It is especially true in the South that it is considered rude to cause people embarrassment. That is certainly true in genteel Greensboro where “Bless your heart” is the passive aggressive substitute for, “I think you are full of it.” But people do lie and, when they do, we shouldn’t stand for it. We should name it. Lies are lies and the people who tell them are liars. Liars should not escape the ridicule they deserve. Being “rude” in defense of the truth is not mean.

Beneath all of this is an assumption that we still share some ethical mores. Maybe we need an ethical restoration before we care about the truth again. But truth is the lifeblood of ideas like liberty, equal justice, honesty and progress. If we value those, we have to accept some personal responsibility for discerning the truth.