By Randy Keck
This column originally appeared in the July 10 issue of The Community News.
Wow – I never expected the response I got from last week’s column. I appreciate the comments and critiques.
We’re going to stick with the general topic this week because I believe it is extremely important for us to find a way forward from the deep divisions that exist in our country.
If you look at Facebook feeds these days, it’s not hard to see that we are not only deeply divided, but also that many otherwise good and intelligent people have no qualms about sharing information that is patently false.
There are mischief makers out there, and they somehow get their jollies by spreading information and memes that serve no other purpose than to divide Americans. And for whatever reason, the American people are all too willing to help out.
One of the false memes that came across my feed a couple of times this week was a supposed photo of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. that had been vandalized, and blaming it on black lives matter protesters.
It turns out that the post was a fake. The photo was real — it was a replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that was vandalized in Los Angeles in 2016.
The people who shared this fake meme didn’t question it because it fit in with their pre-existing beliefs. That was not by accident.
Whoever created that meme knew it was false, but they also knew people would not question it and would share it.
The problem gets worse from there, because as fact-checkers have arisen over the years, the people who create the fake memes have spread false information about the fact checkers. So you end up with a class of people who will believe anything someone they don’t know dreamed up, but they won’t believe a fact-checking post that provides source documentation.
Remember last week when I mentioned the research that shows people get so engrossed in their world view that, even when confronted with irrefutable evidence, will double down on their world view?
Yep. I have interacted with some of them.
How do we possibly interact?
The question is, how can we possibly discuss of importance in such an environment?
The best technique I have seen to avoid escalation is to simply ask a question. When you see a post that you simply can’t believe, just ask: “do you have any credible documentation for that?”
Most often, they don’t.
I am perhaps biased, but I see a lot of “media bashing” out there. I have seen a particular post on three separate occasions now over the past three or four weeks. It is presumably from a police officer, though who really knows?
In the post, the supposed police officer is making the statement “the media is trying to get people to hate us.
“The media” is a really, really broad category that encompasses everything from Daily Kos to Breitbart, so that’s making a really big statement.
Every time I see the post, I simply ask the question: “Do you have any specific examples of the media trying to get everyone to hate the police?”
It’s been crickets for four weeks.
The question method to me does a couple of things. It calls the false information into question without necessarily engaging in confrontation.
If I had posted “no, the media is not trying to get everyone to hate the police” then I would have gotten “yes they are!”
“No, they’re not!”
“Yes, they are!”
And nothing would ever get solved.
Asking questions does require a certain amount of humility, because if someone does provide credible documentation, then it is up to you to evaluate it and be prepared to perhaps change your own mind on some issue. But if we approach each other with the attitude that “I’m gonna prove them wrong” we’ll never get anywhere.
Posting a link to a fact-checking site is another way to hold posters accountable.
It doesn’t typically set well, but I feel truth and accuracy outweigh a falsehood that might be seen and spread.
While I believe it to be a responsibility to research and verify information before posting, there are some telltale signs that what you see might not be truthful.
- Beware of posts that pit “us” vs “them.” These include such phrases as “real Americans” or “the left” or “the right.”
- Similarly, beware of posts that attempt to define one side vs. another. Your side loves America, the other side hates America, etc.
- Beware of “broad brush” statements as mentioned above.
- Beware of posts that are meant to demonize others or make them look bad.
- Don’t necessarily trust images — even images on some cable news outlets have been modified.
- Be aware that anyone can find a “source” to support their point of view. Not all sources are equal.
- Beware of constantly beating people over the head with your viewpoint.
- And as a matter of courtesy, please don’t post stuff daring people to share. “How many people will share this” should be banned from Facebook.
Misinformation and Disinformation
There are two words that can describe false information online: misinformation and disinformation.
When you go onto Facebook and share a post that turns out not to be true, you are guilty of misinformation — that is, you are not deliberately misleading someone, even if by sharing something that is false.
The people who created the meme or the post that you shared are guilty of disinformation — deliberately creating and spreading false information.
The purpose of disinformation is simple — it is to sow division and chaos into our culture.
In 2016, two different Russia-backed websites managed to create a protest and counter-protest in front of the Islamic Da’wah Center of Houston. The first group in the protest, “Heart of Texas,” was a Russian-backed Facebook group promoting secession. The second was a Russian-backed Facebook group called “United Muslims of America.”
By posting to these two groups, a protest and counter-protest on the streets of Houston was conjured out of thin air. The protests eventually led to confrontations between the two groups.
How much did all of this cost Russia? About $200, according to hearings in the Senate Intelligence Committee.
How did it get so big for such a small cost? Because a lot of Facebook users simply hit “Share.”
More recently, militias converged on Gettysburg to foil a big antifa flag burning, only to find no antifa there. It was all a hoax perpetrated on — you guessed it — social media.
All of us have reputations that might hinge to some degree on what we post. If we post bogus information, how can we be trusted to tell the truth in person?
Not that you asked, but I’ll leave you with this: ask yourself some questions before you hit “share.”
- Does this post build people up or tear people down? If you profess Christianity, ask yourself if a post tearing down even an enemy is consistent with your faith. There is a difference between criticizing actions or expressing disagreement and demonizing people.
- Would I stake my reputation on the fact that this post is true?
- Does this post promote harmony or division?
- Do I really believe the person quoted in the post would have been stupid enough to say that?
- If you were face-to-face with the person you are posting about, would you say out loud to them what you are posting?
Social media has allowed political rhetoric to go beyond anything we have ever seen. We are now at the point that we don’t see the other party, or the other movement, as the opposition. We see them as the enemy.
That’s not a coincidence.
I wrote the original concept for this column in 2018. For various reasons, it was never published, but I have gone back and updated from time to time.
The seeds of this column were planted on June 28, 2018, when five staff members at the Capital Gazette were murdered. The bodies were not even cold before the Facebook war began.
“It was Donald Trump’s fault!”
“It was Maxine Waters’ fault!”
What got lost was the fact that five staff members at the Capital Gazette were murdered. During that or any other tragedy, it seems to me that as a country we should honor the victims, take time to grieve if appropriate, and seek healing — not throw darts.
I believe this wholesale dissemination of false information and sowing of division is a very real threat to our democracy. As President Lincoln said, ※a house divided against itself cannot stand.”
If we want to save our democracy, it’s up to us to start talking to each other, seek understanding, and to stop throwing darts.
Randy Keck is in his 25th year as owner and publisher of The Community News.