Chances are good that you have something like this in your email box, or in your Facebook feed, right now. So will you roll your eyes and delete it, because it doesn’t pass the sniff test, or will you forward it to everyone you know?
“I’m outraged that something like this could happen in the good old U.S.A! Why is the mainstream media not reporting this fact? Spread the word!”
Chances are good that you have something like this in your email box, or in your Facebook feed, right now.
So will you roll your eyes and delete it, because it doesn’t pass the sniff test, or will you forward it to everyone you know?
Or will you check a site like Snopes.com or Factcheck.org and confirm for yourself whether the outrageous “facts” are true before either sending the item on or informing the sender that he or she has been duped?
Perhaps my training as a journalist makes it easier for me to see through the bull, but I’d say 95 percent of the time when somebody sends me such an email, I already know it’s going to be false. The research takes maybe 30 seconds, so I usually do it anyway. Once in a very great while these things turn out to be true. But it’s darned rare.
I’m not talking about people disagreeing. People can do that. I’m talking about emails that don’t just express a different way of looking at the facts, but which overtly express a lie that the originator deliberately chose to spread.
A good example we’ve all seen are pictures that have been manipulated. Pictures do not Photoshop themselves. I’ve seen images that have been changed to make it appear as if the subjects in the photo are stupidly incorrectly saluting the flag. The naive send those pictures out in emails as “proof” that the subject in the photo is unpatriotic.
Another good photo trick is to take a picture from one event and claim it was taken at another event. Find a picture of an unruly crowd and say the image proves that people at some peaceful event are just awful hooligans.
For bonus points, you can also manipulate the signs held by protestors and make them say things they never said. Oftentimes this is done so clumsily that it’s obvious some digital manipulation has taken place, but not always.
In some cases it’s not photographs but good old-fashioned written lies.
You have to ask yourself two questions. First, why are so many people happily spreading and amplifying falsehoods to everyone they know?
Secondly, and most importantly, who are the people who are deliberately producing this sort of content?
Is there an actual group that does this to further specific political views, or is it a bunch of unorganized yahoos who independently come up with this sort of stuff on their own?
I’m always reluctant to believe in conspiracy theories, but the fact that the overwhelming majority of the misinformation is coming from one particular political viewpoint does give me pause.
I see one more reason to lament the current state of the professional news media. As human and imperfect as professional journalists are, they do have the virtue of training that allows them to see through the most blatant propaganda and lies. That’s why many of these “overlooked” stories aren’t done — because they obviously are not stories at all.
Too many folks, it appears, have no such ability to discern, and will swallow whatever crazy claims are sent their way — as long as such claims happen to match their political leanings.
With more people choosing to get their news from sources unfiltered by journalists — social media, blogs and the like — it’s imperative that people begin to think a little more like journalists, and do their own verifying.
There is no political party that holds an absolute patent on the truth, and if you think yours does, you’re undoubtedly part of the problem.
There are good ideas all across the political spectrum, and we ought to be able to thoughtfully consider all sides of the important issues.
But that’s impossible if we’re being distracted by those who would prefer not an honest debate about the issues, but instead to simply vilify the other side via bold-faced lies.
Editor Michelle Teheux may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.