Schwab: Skepticism, curiosity in short supply in our post-truth world

By Sid Schwab

A pizza joint owner in D.C. is suffering horrendous consequences after a fake story appeared online accusing his shop of harboring a child-abuse ring run by Hillary Clinton. (New York Times: tinyurl.com/pizza-child) Trumpists found it believable, evidently.

I can’t count the emails I’ve received, ridiculous claims about Barack Obama, easily debunked and dismissed. I can’t count the number of times I’ve replied with links to facts, to which the response has been silence until the next preposterous assertion arrives.

My suggestion to these repeat offenders: If the message comes to you with the phrase “Snopes confirms,” check before believing. Same with “If you do nothing else today, forward this…” If it supports your darkest beliefs about the other side, take a moment before buying in. Forwarding it makes you look silly, I tell them. In their minds, clearly, it doesn’t.

Credulity. It’s becoming our democracy’s biggest vulnerability, and the one most easily exploited. (NPS: tinyurl.com/cant-tell-fake) After decades of propagandizing and prevarications, it’s clear vast numbers of people have consumed the canards, and they’re way beyond ducking out. Although the phenomenon seems mostly limited to rightists, I get stuff forwarded to me from the like-minded, too, if much less often; usually it’s that quote that has Trump saying if he ran for president, he’d do it as a Republican because they believe anything. Obviously false; he’s never shown that degree of insight.

Seriously, though, it’s no longer a potential problem, it’s real. There are people (and bots!) (The Daily Beast: tinyurl.com/fake-bots), official and otherwise, spreading intentional falsehoods throughout “social” media, and thence to the mainstream. It works. Producers of fake news are claiming success influencing electoral outcomes. Fox “news” and rightwing radio have been peddling it for years. (YouTube: tinyurl.com/fear-power)

Immediately after the election, when Hillary Clinton’s growing popular vote win (now surpassing two million) was undeniable, Trumpophiles began spreading the word he’d also won that vote. It’s still out there. Then came the “news” that protestors were being paid. Trump just denied ever saying he’d support a registry of Muslims. (He did, a year ago. It’s on tape. Look it up.) Now he’s falsely claiming he kept open a Ford plant that wasn’t closing. How long before he takes credit for the recent economic uptick?

Desire for confirmation of what we prefer to believe has replaced curiosity and skepticism. Heard enough times, falsehoods infiltrate the brain like amyloid, making truth irrelevant. This is dangerous, even for those who, for now, don’t care. Sooner or later, truth is important for everyone. Example: climate change. (“Where’s the evidence,” a recent letter asked! Everywhere. (NASA: climate.nasa.gov/evidence/)

Post-truth” is Oxford’s Dictionary’s word of the year. “I’m hearing…,” Donald Trump says. “I never said that,” he declares. By direct measure, he’s lied more than any candidate, ever. (PolitiFact: tinyurl.com/lies-most) How can you be “post” truth if you were never “intra”?

Good decisions require accurate information. If for every fact there are innumerable deliberate fabrications, what are citizens to do? There may be multiple possible solutions to problems, but facts are unitary. Our founders disagreed over inventing a government, but they didn’t argue about what was real. We’ve descended so far from that, there may be no way back. Donald Trump just hauled in media leaders to berate their coverage of him. Will they be brave enough to keep at it?

Crucial to separating fact from fiction is the desire to do it. (Trump’s brilliance was recognizing how thoroughly Foxolimjonesification has extinguished it, and he’s still employing the insight.) Next is accepting the possibility that you could be misinformed.

Finally, having decided to try, is the wherewithal to make the distinction. There’s little evidence of it among those celebrating Trump’s electoral vote victory. Once upon a time presidents were held to a higher standard, and news agencies were more interested in providing education than attracting eyeballs, when citizens wished to be informed, and were willing to do the work to achieve it. Now that they’ve won, how about Trumpists begin demanding honesty? They’ll discover the lies soon enough (secret ISIS plan, the wall, climate, Social Security, prosecuting Hillary…), but why wait?

“Post-truth” wins elections. Clearly people need investigatory skills they no longer have. Now that they’re in charge, will Republicans, who call public education “brainwashing,” encourage schools to teach them?

Email Sid Schwab at columnsid@gmail.com.

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