We’re at an “oh no!” moment in our culture. No one can deny that. We are actually having arguments about whether facts exist and whether they matter. We are actually nonchalant about the idea that the Russians interfered with our presidential election. We are actually sitting on the time-bomb that is a game-show-host-turned-president, who will be inaugurated in just over a month. And all of those problems – the “fake news,” the hacking, the president-elect – are being traced back to our adamant insistence on technology being all-pervasive in our culture.
Back in the 1990s, we first loved our desktop PCs and our dial-up internet, then we fell in love anew with laptops that allowed us to go anywhere and “stay connected.” Cable modems sped up the process immensely, then came WiFi. And now we’re full-on addicted to our smart phones and our mega-giga-hotspots for the masses. Police cars now look like rolling computers labs. The books in the library have dust on them, while the computer workstations stay full.
And look where it has gotten us. Some of us even crash our cars or walk into phone poles because we won’t look up from the damn things. We’ve so thoroughly insulated ourselves against everything we don’t want to see or hear that we’ve lost our way. Three hundred years after the Enlightenment, we have leaders in our country proclaiming that empirical facts don’t exist. We have massive numbers of people who base their ideals on a twisted array of half-truths from widely discredited cable TV channel. We have university-based studies that show how whole swaths of the population aren’t interested in scientific proof, and the majority of young people can’t recognize “fake news” when they see it.
How can this be? Has the use of social media so warped our brain functions that we no longer care to prefer reality over personal conceptions? Are we so addicted to setting our preferences and blocking the unwanteds that we expect real life to be that way? Have search engines made us so lazy that we believe it is too much trouble to find out the truth?
Yes, apparently, for many people that is the case.
To my understanding, only a few things separate human beings from animals: opposable thumbs, language, . . . and the ability to reason. I know that we still know how to use our thumbs because every day I see teenagers employ them deftly as they churn out a text message in milliseconds. I know that we haven’t forgotten how to use language because way too many people never seem to shut up. But our reasoning ability— what about that?
The internet is the most powerful and far-reaching information tool ever created. Yet, the term information – as in “information superhighway” and “information systems” – does not necessarily mean that what we read, watch, or hear constitutes knowledge or fact. We have to discern which is which by using our reasoning. Recently, when my family and I were watching “It’s a Wonderful Life,” my son asked, “Is this is a true story?” If an eight-year-old second-grader can make that inquiry about a feature film, then the rest of us should be able to make that inquiry about anything shared as “news.” It’s very simple to ask, Is this a true story? And we have to use our common sense; to borrow an old saying, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck . . . it’s probably a duck.
Concern about this issue is widespread. Earlier this month, NPR’s Steve Inskeep ran a piece called “A Finder’s Guide to Facts,” which is a pretty good primer for those who are new to critical thinking. Slate.com jumped on the bandwagon with “Only You Can Stop the Spread of Fake News,” which introduces a “Chrome browser extension called This Is Fake.” The Education Week blog just ran the post, “Three Great Resources to Help Students Fight Off Fake News,” which regarded the education community’s role in combating this phenomenon. And America magazine, which is dedicated to Catholic news, spoke to the problem as it relates to religion in “Academics and Journalists Unite Against Fake News”:
The sense of urgency surrounding religion journalism has emerged from the rise of fake news and the ascendance of Donald J. Trump, who has pioneered a “post-truth politics” that places a premium on narrative over fact. Perhaps more than ever, people are beginning to care less about the factual truth of the news they consume, and more about whether it speaks to their experience of the world. All journalists in attendance appeared to agree: journalism has to change not only in order to better challenge false conceptions about religion, climate change and immigrants—to name a few topics—but also to simply survive.
The range and breadth of articles and opinions being cast about is staggering.
Finding the truth, however, takes effort. The main problem with liars and deceivers is that they usually pose as being honest and forthright. Yet, everybody out there isn’t so bad, and there are ways to sift through the muck. Even a cursory effort can yield some benefits. For any current event, reading or watching multiple versions of coverage from a variety of reputable news sources is a good way to start. To borrow another old saying, Where there’s smoke, there’s fire— if all of the stories line up, you’ve probably got a reasonably good sense of what really happened. If they don’t, you’ve at least got a good sense that the issue is complicated.
Fact-checking, though it sounds like a professional-level skill, is actually not too hard, now that we have internet access and long-distance service on most cell phones. For example, if you read a news story where a man named Fred Wannamaker from the CDC says that Obamacare caused a national health crisis, you can look up whether Fred Wannamaker actually works at the CDC, and you can probably find his email, job title, or his phone extension. If there is no Fred Wannamaker at the CDC, the story may well be fake. If Fred works in the mail room, the story is probably fake. If Fred is the press secretary for the CDC, the story may have credibility. Fake news producers count on us taking them at their word and not checking.
Some of the best places to fact-check news stories are government publications, like the Census. (Note: Actual government websites will have a .gov web address, though some local entities do use .org domains.) Government publications are meant to be unbiased, unlike many non-profits, which have agendas to promote. The Census, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), and the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) are all excellent sources of factual information. As another example: if a news story claims that graduation rates have declined by 10% in ten years, NCES will have the data to prove or disprove that. Seeking the truth is worth the time, if you actually care about the issue.
Living in the Deep South, I’m long accustomed to a culture where facts don’t matter, where myths are held in high esteem, and where substantive change is stymied or outright prevented. Great thinkers, writers, and editors – Gunnar Myrdal, WJ Cash, Ralph McGill – have tried to move the Deep South fact-ward to little avail, and it still frightens me to think that the rest of nation might be steered down our mean path. Southerners have suffered mightily for our refusal to face facts, or even to know them. (When certain journalists have recently used the term “the Alabamification of America,” it wasn’t a compliment.)
So, rather than goofing off, let’s put those devices – and our brains – to good use! Let’s max out our data plans doing some fact-checking. When we get on the inter-webs, let’s think more deeply than simply trusting our friend’s share of a BuzzFeed story or some candidate’s persistent name-calling. And let’s also have some intelligent conversations with actual human beings face-to-face. Heck, be really radical about it and challenge Uncle Fred’s Sunday-dinner diatribe by asking him for the facts and sources that back up his assertions. If we do a few simple things like that, maybe we can make better decisions in the future.