Fake News Destroys Democracy
I don’t care if you disagree with me politically. Political discourse and debate is crucial to understanding the issues. Philosophical argument aimed at uncovering a deeper truth is elemental. What I don’t like is fabricating lies to further an agenda or sharing those lies while making no attempt to discover the truth. Fake news is a dangerous problem. It’s twisting the way people view the world, and even the way they act, as Pizzagate” demonstrated. If someone is willing to become an armed vigilante because of an easily debunked fake news story, how can we expect to preserve our democracy? Let me explain. Americans believe they live in the greatest country in the world. If they gave it some thought they might even realize the reason they feel that way is because we have a government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” in short, because in America there is freedom and democracy. What many fail to understand though is that democracy is more than “one man, one vote.” Voting rights are essential to democracy sure, but so is an educated citizenry, interested in the truth, suspicious of unsubstantiated claims and skeptical of absolutes. I fear the impact of fake news. Proprietors of fake news may be self-interested mercenaries taking advantage of partisan stooges. In one sense I can’t blame them for being a part of the machine. They are merely unscrupulous and selfish. At least I can understand that. What I can’t understand is why anyone would intentionally delude themselves and others.
Fake news isn’t new. In the 18th century some of the Founding Fathers aligned themselves with dubious publications that produced false and injurious reports about their political opponents. Throughout America’s history there are many individuals who have been willing to spread lies to promote an agenda. That’s why it’s so important to be discerning about where we get our news and what we believe. If someone is willing to cast their vote based on lies and misinformation they have sacrificed their vote just as if it were stripped from them. Without knowledge of the facts voters choose at random between door number 1 and door number 2 with no real clue to what’s behind either one. That isn’t democracy. Yet that’s exactly what happens to a lot of people in this country. I see it all the time. Blinded by partisanship, people only listen to news that squares with their view. We are all guilty, to an extent, and of course the issues are complicated and there’s always data that supports both sides of an argument. At some point we do have to decide subjectively which side we agree with. However, we have to at least be willing to seek the truth and arm ourselves with the knowledge we need to make that decision. Yet many willfully refuse to do so.
My first experience with this was the fake news forerunner, the political email forward. I’ve received countless political emails. It may be just me, but they are far more likely to come from my conservative friends. Some of them have been purely opinion, but many of them are filled with purported facts that impugn or undermine Liberal ideas or more frequently cast aspersions at Liberals or Liberal politicians. I use the word aspersions as an understatement. These forwards often include outright accusations of treason, plunder and pure evil.
Here’s an example. I received an email claiming that Lt. Colonel Oliver North had named Osama Bin Laden as a threat to the United States in his 1987 Senate testimony. According to the email, Colonel North was chastised by then Senator Al Gore. It took me about 30 seconds look this up on factcheck.org to discover this is completely false and has been refuted even by Oliver North himself.[i] Another example is one I received undermining President Obama’s leadership in the assassination of Bin Laden. The email claimed that in 2008 Obama labeled Seal Teams, “Vice President Cheney’s personal assassination teams,” but then claimed to have organized and orchestrated those teams in the killing of Bin Laden. Again, according to politifact.org, this is entirely baseless. Obama neither criticized the Seal Teams, ever referred to them as Cheney’s assassination squad, nor did he claim to have put the team together. [ii]
I received an email after the shooting at Fort Hood that described an impromptu visit by George and Laura Bush to the base’s army hospital. In glowing terms it details how the Bush’s showed up at the gate unannounced, declined any security and then spent “more than 6 hours visiting the wounded and families of those killed. The same email told with disdain the story of President Obama’s visit. “Obama flew in days later and held a “photo” session in a gym and did not even go to the hospital.” The email ended with the suggestion that the story be sent to every voter in the US. This email mixes fact with fiction. For example, it is true that President Bush visited the hospital at Fort Hood. It’s also true that the visit was impromptu. That’s about it. He spent 1–2 hours there, not 6, he did not just show up at the gate and he did not refuse security. On the other hand, the President and Mrs. Obama also visited Fort Hood for about 4 hours and spoke with survivors and family of those killed. The president did not fly in for a photo op. How do I know this? It’s easy enough to find the truth if you want to. [iii] The truth, or at least a clarification, is at your fingertips. There is no excuse for spreading lies under the guise of “I didn’t know.” I’ve pointed this out to people before, people who have forwarded me some of these lies. Sadly, when I show them the truth their response is to ignore it. I had hoped they would be embarrassed at spreading something untrue when they can so easily find out. I hoped they would forward the truth to all the friends they forwarded the lie, but they don’t.
There’s a long-standing suspicion of, and contempt for the intellectual elite in America. Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, published in 1963 examines the history of the phenomenon. Alexis de Tocqueville referred to the “tyranny of he majority,” the idea that because all men in America were equal, every man is a king, therefore his ideas are as valid as anyone else’s. I’m not trying to undermine democracy. Quite the opposite. All ideas are subject to judgment in the marketplace of ideas, but ideas and philosophies should be based in knowledge and facts. Citizens who fulfill their obligation to vote should fulfill their obligation to educate themselves and others in a responsible way. I have fooled myself into believing that everyone cares about the truth as much as I do. Many people do not have the same desire for knowledge and truth. They would rather live in their carefully constructed fantasy worlds, rejecting facts in favor of whatever cottony reverie comforts their worldview.