If you hold that faith comes from understanding, that reason is preferable to dogma and that facts are knowable, definable things that transcend faith and bias, then you already know that we live in perilous times. It’s fashionable now to talk of the prevalence of “fake news” caused great damage during the 2016 election, but propaganda and false narratives have been with us since the birth of the republic.
“You know well that that government always kept a kind of standing army of news writers who without any regard to truth, or to what should be like truth, invented & put into the papers whatever might serve the minister,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1785. “This suffices with the mass of the people who have no means of distinguishing the false from the true paragraphs of a newspaper.”
That being said, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter can and do magnify the voices of partisans and zealots who bludgeon any bit of reporting they dislike with the “fake news” hammer. This happened to me, most recently, with my Dec. 16 story on Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s not signing/signing a letter from all Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee to Secretary of State John Kerry.
Here are four facts about the matter:
- On Dec. 15, 18 Democrats on the committee signed the letter to Kerry, asking him to protect State Department employees from retribution from the incoming Donald Trump administration (click here to read this letter).
- Gabbard’s signature did NOT appear at the end of that letter.
- This was because of a “staff-level misunderstanding,” one of Gabbard’s press aides told me.
- Committee Democrats then sent a second, revised letter to Kerry, only this time it included Gabbard’s signature (click here to read this letter).
Points 3 and 4 became known after we originally published our story on the letter (Gabbard’s office took an unusually long time to get respond to my inquiry). But news stories evolve, which is not bad or unusual, so we updated the story online (which included careful notations to show what exactly was being updated, and why).
But over the weekend, one Gabbard fan angrily tweeted at MauiTime, linking to the second letter and denouncing our story as “fake news”:
At the same time, Gabbard’s opponents retweeted MauiTime’s original tweet, which asked Gabbard why she didn’t sign the letter (though anyone who actually clicked on that tweet’s link would have seen the updated story explaining everything). Here’s one of them:
Here’s the big question: how many people actually looked at our reporting before retweeting and/or commenting? How many people nationwide share stories they’ve never actually read, or leave vitriolic comments after reading only a tweet or headline, solely because something appeared in their feed that seemed to conform to their biases?
Hence the 2016 election, and the problem of our times. Because while I understand that propaganda has long been pernicious, I also know of Hannah Arendt, a political philosopher who wrote more intelligently on the dangers and seductions of fascism than anyone in the 20th century.
“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist,” Arendt wrote.
So when you see a story that reports on a poll shows that 52 percent of Republicans believe Trump won the popular vote (false–Democrat Hillary Clinton won it by more than two percentage points), be afraid for democracy. A world in which facts are fungible and people believe whatever they want to believe is a playground for strongmen who know only plunder and misery.
The solution isn’t for more government control over the news, but rather that people actually read the news. It’s that they stop mindlessly equating the words “mainstream media” and “lies” (while there are plenty of examples throughout history when big newspapers have printed stories that turned out to be wrong, there’s a huge difference between a massive news organization staffed by professionals that goes astray while trying to report the facts and partisan miscreants who knowingly print made-up shit in hopes of steering an election).
For nearly 20 years now, MauiTime has sought to report the news. Our point of view sometimes changes, but the methods we use haven’t: talk to people, gather documents, then write it up. We put a lot of work into our stories, and it’s painful to see that work go to waste when people leave comments on social media pertaining to stories they clearly haven’t read.
Look, we live in dark times. Our incoming president lies like the rest of us breathe. He campaigned by appealing to ignorance and hate. He blasted his opponents for being “crooks,” then set up what may be the most corrupt administration in American history. Dealing with all this will be difficult for most everyone, but especially painful for anyone who isn’t a straight white male.
You know what counters this? Reading. Challenging your assumptions. Thinking. And as you read, ask yourself what you know of the organization that published the story. Is the author named? What about the sources for the story? Are they named? If not, does the story explain why not? And what about the evidence and methodology used in the story? Are they clearly explained?
Right now, Americans have the right to read whatever they want. It would be tragic to think this nation gave up that right out of sheer laziness.