Oh, for the good old days. When somebody said something that you found hard to believe, you looked them in the eye and asked about it. You gave them a chance to defend their position and, if you didn’t find that defense credible, you let them know.
But the ground has shifted in this brave new world of social media . Many websites in foreign countries specialize in producing fake news. At first they did it because it was profitable. Clicks on displayed ads resulted in income. By then they discovered that there were people out there who would actually believe the crap that they were making up.
Remember the old days when that kind of ‘news’ was limited to supermarket tabloids? I remember grinning at the sight of someone standing in line, madly leafing through the latest issue. They were the gullible. Addicted to the salacious and outrageous, they endeavored to consume the entire issue before it became time for them to check out.
However gullible those people were, the gullibility that is rampant in modern society makes those avid readers look like paragons of judgment and sobriety. First, there was really no real effect that came from reading the tabloids. They got their fix, paid for their groceries and headed home. Second, and far more importantly, they took everything that they read with a grain of salt and weren’t willing to risk their country, future and the future of their children on what they read.
For a significant part of the population, that is no longer the case. These people reflexively believe what is presented – particularly if it supports their own prejudices. The famous American skepticism about politicians and political discourse has apparently evaporated. No longer able to critically challenge what they read, there are individuals who take the product of these websites as gospel truth.
During the last national campaign, a group of these websites advanced the story that one of the candidates was running a child sex ring out of a pizza parlor in Washington DC. It was astounding that so many people believed this – and passed it on. And then an armed individual showed up at the pizza parlor! This takes gullibility into the stratosphere. And senior members of the current administration’s transition team played an active role in promulgating the story.
Here is another example. During the eight years that Obama was president, a well-organized rumor mill was turning out fake news about where he was born. Long after the birth certificate had been displayed and the appropriate officials in Hawaii had certified that great state as his place of birth, these seriously deluded individuals kept up the drumbeat. It became clear that most of these people were motivated either by a political agenda or racial prejudice.
In the past these types of efforts were quickly debunked by a news media that was something beyond talking heads. I remember efforts to oppose the candidacy of John F. Kennedy on the basis that he would be taking orders from the Pope. It didn’t take long for the news media to expose the motivations of those individuals who were spreading such a story. In the end, the American people didn’t buy it and Kennedy was elected and these purveyors of fantasies were debunked.
The unavoidable take away from this and much more is that a substantial portion of the population has lost the ability to critically evaluate the information put before them. For whatever reason, they prefer blind faith in fake news as long as it comports with their own worldview.
I look back nostalgically on the days when it was simply drivel – ordinary drivel. Irrelevant to our lives and a mere distraction. Now that pure drivel has taken center stage, all is at risk. Life, politics and the United States of America are not reality TV shows. To enshrine as truth the efforts of foreign nationals to undermine our great country is to insult to those brave men and women who fought, and sometimes died, to give us a government that is accountable – of the people, by the people and for the people. Thomas Jefferson had it right when he said:
© Earl R. Smith II, PhD
I am a political and social theorist with a focus on Madisonian Republicanism. As such, I do not belong to, nor do I support, any political party. My belief is that it is the responsibility of every citizen is to think critically and carefully about what they are being told and how to act as a result of it. History will not treat us kindly if we are the generation that gave up all that our predecessors fought so hard to pass on – the country we inherited – in exchange for the manipulative maneuverings of people, organizations and governments who intend us harm. When a people begin to take pure drivel as established fact, their future and that of their children is put at risk. As a people, we need to return to the skepticism and suspicious nature that kept pure drivel at bay and consigned drivel – ordinary drivel – to the supermarket checkout line.