The truth matters more than which party you support

No matter who is president, we’ll get over it. We’ll get past Trump. We’ll get past whoever comes next.

But once we cease to believe that objective truth is the baseline for every discussion, we are doomed.

I was reading Facebook the other day when a high school classmate of mine posted this:

I had heard Trump’s ignorant remarks on this topic in a speech, in which he said, “We do not know what a ‘community college’ means,” right after expressing nostalgia for vocational schools.

But I was suspicious of this tweet, since I hadn’t heard about it. I suspected that he hadn’t actually tweeted it, since if he’d tweeted something this stupid, I thought I would have heard about it. I checked Trump’s Twitter feed. There was only one tweet from March 30, and this wasn’t it. So I was pretty sure it was fake.

My classmate who posted this is an intelligent and educated woman, but one who habitually posts anti-Trump memes and comments. I assumed she’d like to know that she’d inadvertently posted something fake, so I responded with this:

Xxxx, this is actually not a tweet by the president of the United States. While he said some of these things out loud, he didn’t say others. He didn’t say 13th grade. He didn’t say only for dummys. It is fake.

What surprised me was the response, both from my friend and her daughter who chimed in to support her. Among the arguments they made in favor of the post were these:

  • Nothing on Snopes about it being fake. (This was true at the time, but since then Snopes has debunked it.)
  • I don’t believe or disbelieve this one quote.
  • The unbelievable part is that it sounds like something our President would say. That, in itself, is awful.
  • Just because it’s not on his Twitter feed now doesn’t mean it wasn’t at one point. He’s been known to delete tweets too.
  • The fact that it’s believable is the problem, like my daughter said and I agree.
  • You don’t know whether it’s false anymore than I know it’s true……Occam’s razor comes into play.
  • There is so much shit on his Twitter that this could very easily have fallen through the cracks.

This scares me more than anything Trump says

I am worried about what Trump is going to do in North Korea, in Syria, and with the special prosecutor Robert Mueller. Very worried.

But in all of those cases, there is some sort of a backstop. There are members of Congress. There is an opposition party. There are cabinet members like the Secretary of Defense. There is the Supreme Court. And there is the press, which continues to hold Trump’s feet to the fire over things he says that are not true.

But who backstops the truth?

My classmate doesn’t know or accept that you can check somebody’s Twitter feed, including deleted tweets. Or that not every lie instantly gets debunked on Snopes.

She doesn’t want to be wrong, or to admit that she might be wrong, or consider that it might matter whether what she is sharing is true or not. Because “it sounds like something our President would say.” After all, since he said something like it out loud, what difference does it make that he didn’t actually tweet this?

It matters. The truth matters. The details about that truth matter.

This is certainly not a liberal or a conservative problem. There are plenty of Trump backers with the same attitude of sharing stuff that’s not actually anywhere close to true. Or that’s half-true.

If you look carefully at what the intelligence community has determined about Russian interference in the 2016 election, the terrifying thing is that the core purpose wasn’t to get Trump elected. It was to divide the electorate and sow doubt about the integrity of the candidates, the press, and the truth.

And in that, it has been successful.

Do you believe what you want to believe?

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this. My post about a clearly false Trump meme, in which he told People Magazine he’d run as a Republican because they were the dumbest group of voters, has gotten dozens of comments. Many are from people who are certain they’ve seen this interview, even though it is nowhere online and People Magazine has denied it.

We are all susceptible to believing what we want to believe. Because of this, it is our duty to be suspicious.

Try these things.

Imagine that you believe the opposite of what you actually believe. Try on the arguments of the other side. See if they fit. This puts you in a suspicious frame of mind.

It helps to have friends with opposite points of view from yours. I have a few. They are very smart people, they keep me on my toes.

Understand the difference between The New York Times and “Liberal America” (or any of the thousands of other partisan meme-slingers). Be very doubtful of anything from the latter, regardless of which of your friends shared it, and no matter how much it ridicules the other side and makes you feel righteous.

If you disagree with a statement, argue against it with fact. Don’t attack the person who said it. Don’t change the subject.

Learn how to check things like Twitter and Instagram feeds. It’s not that hard. You don’t even have to belong to these social networks to check them.

Recognize that, while tools like Facebook are good at spreading things, including falsehoods, the internet is also a comprehensive device for checking and correcting things. If something actually happened, there will be evidence for it. If it was spoken, there is probably video of it. If it was written, you can find it. Learn to search in clever ways.

And chase links. Three, four, or six links down, you will get to the source material. It’s not just about what Fox News or CNN believes is important in the statement — it’s what the original statement actually was. Wikipedia is not dependable, but the links it its footnotes are gold.

Get familiar with the fact-checkers — bless them all.

Consider that you might be wrong. Admit it when you are. This is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of strength. (And yes, I’ve been wrong a lot.)

In my world, the truth is more important than which team I’m on. If Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or Bernie Sanders is lying, I’m just as concerned about that as I am if it’s Ted Cruz or Donald Trump or Mike Pence.

Will you join me in that?

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  1. I attended a non-partisan meeting last night about how to identify “fake news.” I’m still trying to sort out how some attendees were willing to accept questionable sources with sensational headlines. Some struggled with identifying opinion pieces independent of news. I fear the truth suffers, greatly.

  2. Thank you for this post Josh. It’s extremely important. I’ll add that what also scares me is the trend of people shutting out friends and acquaintances who disagree with them. FB is the perfect example of that. Unfriending, blocking, or otherwise ignoring all who disagree. This behavior creates ever more divisive echo chambers that fuels the dangerous confirmation bias that you so eloquently describe above. The ridiculous ideological blathering along party lines is exhausting, but this erosion of truth and a growing unwillingness to listen is indeed scary.

  3. Excellent post, with which I agree completely. Fact checking, even using original sources, will become increasingly difficult as video-editing software becomes widespread and fake videos will be as common as fake photos. We’ll soon see videos of people “saying” things that they’ve never said, possibly in places they’ve never been. And “reliable” sources will be hacked with uploads of these planted fake videos. I hope software is also disseminated that helps us non-experts detect video edits that are not readily apparent to the eye.

    1. Yes, this worries me, too. For now, though, ordinary humans have the tools they need to tell the difference between truth and lies: original sources and dependable news organizations.

  4. Very well said! One additional comment: it becomes even worse, because many don’t believe fact-checkers. They just lump legitimate fact-checks that disagree with their preconceived views in with unreliable fake news. You’re right that we’re doomed (or at least our form of government is doomed) if we can’t agree that there are, in fact, objective facts. And I think severe, long-term damage has been done and that there are no quick cures. We need to do and encourage others to do all the things you lay out, as well education for folks growing up (“internet hygiene”?).

  5. How much of this lack of truth testing should we attribute to the i-net?

    I remember before the i-net reading stories in all of the major publications on both broad sides (so think USAToday, WSJ, WashPost, NYT, LAT, ChiTrib, and professional pubs, etc.) that were planted, slanted, or wrong.

    I remember reading many news stories (so, not Opinion pieces) in several of these fine pubs that had different headlines, ledes, and discussions. They all could not be correct.

    As with now on the i-net, we still see the sensational, the confirming, the affinity-conforming, and sexy still rule. People are naturally drawn to those characteristics. I am not sure there is anything wrong with that.

    I do think it is wrong to repeat them as the truth or news.

    I wanted to say that I think the i-net or the world has been speeding up, but I cannot say that as I remember “breaking news” and “extra, extra, read all about it!” So, add to the incomplete list of biases above, speed.

    I use FB as a diary of my thoughts, my actions, and things to review. So, unless I comment, I am not endorsing the post, just marking it for me to explore.

  6. A big THANK YOU! I wish I had any ideas of how to get this message broadcasted through the noise

  7. I am VERY partisan, and have indeed been guilty of jumping to conclusions and believing what I want to believe. I am trying to do better! I think that WE are better informed and smarter than THEM, and when we post and stubbornly believe in falsehoods, we are stooping to their level. If we are going to criticize the MAGA crowd, we have to keep our own doorsteps clean, and our standards high.

  8. I agree with everything you say here, Josh, except one statement: “No matter who is president, we’ll get over it.”

    Your country will get over it, yes, but many individuals suffer when decisions are based on opinion instead of fact. How many people (particularly in the LGBTQ community) died because a government refused to accept HIV and AIDS as medical, choosing to believe instead that they were punishment from God? How many people will die because a government believes the Affordable Care Act must be destroyed simply because it was a product of their opposition (and that it’s people’s own fault if they’re poor)? How many people of colour died (and continue to die) because governments believed for generations that they were lesser human beings? How many unwanted children will be born into lives of poverty and violence because a government believes it should control whether or not a woman ends a pregnancy, even though the law allows it?

    All of which reinforces your theme that the truth matters. In many cases, it is the difference between life and death.

  9. I LOVE your blog! I read it daily! Thought you’d like to know, that you have a typo: “Wikipedia is not dependable, but the links it its footnotes are gold.”