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The High Cost of Misinformation

By Derek May:

Copyright 2021 Bloomberg Finance LP

The events of January 6, 2021, enraged me. Not because I was particularly surprised to see a group of mostly White Trump supporters, many in quasi-military gear and no masks, storming the cradle of our country’s democracy but because of what led them there. If we go back weeks, months, years even, we can see the trail of breadcrumbs that made this horrific insurrection practically inevitable. As the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies are coming to discover, this was not a sudden rush of fervent exuberance—for many, it was planned. But even for those caught up in the moment, they followed the same trail.

Particularly over these last four years, Americans have struggled to talk to one another. But why? I mean, it’s not like disagreements are anything new to the human race.

So why should this particular time feel so unusual, our conversations so divided by what appears to be an impassable gulf?

That’s the question that’s been on my mind so much lately. And I keep coming back to the same answer. Rational discourse requires both parties to agree on certain fundamental truths. We can debate, for example, whether daylight savings should continue or not, but the points are typically argued from two sides that agree that time and seasons are dictated by the revolution of a round Earth in orbit around a spherical sun at a scientifically measurable pace. Arguing daylight savings with a flat-Earther is a non-starter, because you couldn’t possibly get to the relevant parts of the argument without being bogged down in a dozen nonsensical tangents.

Perhaps I’m looking through rose-colored glasses, but it seems to me that previously the idea of arguing with a flat-Earther was sort of like winning the lottery: the chances of it happening were pretty slim. I mean, those used to be the people lurking in dark corners, either real or virtual, posting their specious conclusions to a tiny group of followers too small to matter, except for the occasional single extremist who pops up to do real damage. When John Hinkley Jr. shot Reagan for Jodie Foster, we say that dude’s crazy, he’s a one-off. When you heard that Ted Kacynski bombed buildings because people wouldn’t listen to him, we said, “What a kook!”

The difference I see now is that the kooks aren’t isolated. The ideas aren’t confined to a few crazies. Lies, deceptions, conspiracy theories, and misinformation are EVERYWHERE. And they’re not being repeated only by the socially awkward slobs in the basement, they’re being spread like wildfire by our families, our friends, our leaders, by a former president of the United States. Our greatest resources for connection and information have been twisted into avenues to enforce agendas and confuse the masses.

That’s terrifying.

But why should it be? This is a free country, right? People have the right to say what they want and believe what they want, don’t they? Well . . . not exactly. This is one of the many problems here. People screaming at the top of their lungs about “Freedom” don’t seem to really understand what that means. The United States is not a free-for-all; you cannot just do and say anything you want. We are a constitutional republic governed by a plethora of laws, most of which the average person doesn’t understand.

Ask any random citizen to name five Amendments. Most can immediately rattle off the first two, and after that . . . ? Yeah.

Let’s take those two for a moment. Freedom of Speech, for example, has limits. You can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. You can’t specifically threaten another person. Freedom of Religion doesn’t mean only your religious beliefs are protected, it means they ALL are, and that takes a balancing act sometimes. And the venerable Second Amendment doesn’t mean you can instantly have any gun you want without any oversight; it says a “well regulated Militia” has the right to keep and bear arms. Curious how many of us with high-capacity fully automatic machine guns are up on our militia dues? But the point is, there are limits to our freedoms, and it’s important to understand what our rights actually are and what restrictions are placed on them before we go rallying others to righteous anger—and potential violence.

Because the question then becomes whether we’re trying to persuade someone to a reasoned point of view or if we’re just angry and want other people to be angry with us.

And that’s a sentiment I surely get. When I’m upset by some jerk driving past my house blasting his bass like it’s a concert while I’m trying to relax, I want others to recognize my fury as justified and support my condemnation. I might feel better not because the jerk understood his rudeness and changed his behavior but because people listened and agreed with me. Vindication is sometimes better than actual justice. And nowadays, that’s practically the entire purpose of social media. I’m angry, and it makes me feel better to when you’re angry too. But when that selfish sentiment starts to grow beyond seeking sympathies from your understanding spouse or best friend into whipping dozens, hundreds, thousands, into a frenzy, it can take on a life of its own and have disastrous consequences.

Let’s take the pandemic. Most medical organizations, leaders, and workers will repeatedly tell you that controlling the pandemic starts with some very simple, very easy-to-follow guidelines:

1) Wear a Mask (that covers your nose and face) and wash your hands,

2) Stay at least 6 ft apart from people outside your household or bubble, and

3) Avoid large crowds and gatherings.

Not bad, right? I mean, we’re not being asked to buy war bonds, grow victory gardens, or volunteer for D-Day here. And yet, many people—FAR too many people—fail or refuse to do these three simple things during one of the worst plagues (that’s right, it’s a plague!) in our history. Why? Why would people be so reluctant to do even the simplest things?

Leaving out the percentage of pure, unabashed selfishness and childlike refusal, the majority of those who push back in some form do so because of the information they have received. Despite the majority of sources saying the same thing, there are those who continue to push the idea that masks are not effective, that death tolls are inflated, that enforcement of any restrictions on behavior are draconian and violate our freedoms.

And here’s the thing: raising these issues isn’t inherently bad. One of the unquestionable freedoms we have is to ask questions. Nothing wrong with that. But when questioning ideas gains traction and authority not by experts or by data or by truth but by fringe pundits who claim to have solid support that ultimately doesn’t hold to scrutiny, then we have a problem.

People, for example, laughing at CDC posts and claiming they have studies showing how masks are not effective are cherry-picking elements from legitimate (and sometime illegitimate) work for their own ends. But hey, we’re not scientists, we can’t be expected to comb through study after study to know what’s what, come on! True, and so we rely on people we trust to tell us the truth. And thus we narrow down to the heart of the matter.

We have to discern who is telling the truth and who is pushing their own agenda, either for ideology or, more often, profit.

A perfect example is what we’ve seen with Dr. Anthony Fauci. When he first came onto the scene, he was universally touted and accepted as an expert due to his extensive career as a physician and as one of the top immunologists in the country. Slowly but surely, his reputation took a hit amongst a not-insignificant range of the population accusing him of flip-flopping, incompetence, and even political bias. Looking back, we can trace the descent. The scientific method requires not only careful observation and study but a re-evaluation of conclusions based on the results of new data. At the start, no one knew much about COVID-19, and so recommendations were made based on what we did know. Those changed as our understanding changed, per the method. Science adjusted, people did not. Either a misunderstanding of how science works or people adhering to the talking heads led to fervent push back against Dr. Fauci, science, and even what they can see happening with their own eyes. People continue to criticize the deathtolls based on a misunderstanding of how the virus affects the human body and how medical examiners determine causes of death. These dissenters post their “evidence” from doctors and articles and sources that when placed under examination are overwhelmed by the real data.

AFP via Getty Images

Some do this for specific, nefarious reasons, but others are innocent casualties of this ongoing war with the truth. They say “History is written by the victors,” but in a world where information of all kinds is available on tap, 24/7, from millions of sources, history is literally being rewritten by the minute. We saw Trump supporters storm the Capitol, then suddenly it was Anti-Fa (which isn’t even an organization), then that was retracted. They were violent, then they were peaceful, then they were violent again. The problem here isn’t that a full understanding of what happened becomes clearer as new information comes to light; the problem is when people pounce on partial information as fact and/or refuse to accept new information.

Those who continue to push falsehoods lure in citizens who are just trying to suss it all out and instead end up aligning their beliefs with whatever echo-chamber they’ve come to trust.

We need look no further than the laughable Q-Anon conspiracy starting to unravel. If there was ever a tinfoil hat brigade, it’s this, and yet not only has this cult only grown in recent years, it now can tout several elected officials in its ranks. These are people who fervently believe some of the most insane things, and yet they aren’t just the basement-dwelling kooks anymore, they are our friends, our family members. And when Inauguration Day came and went and there was no “plan” enacted, many of these believers felt their reality begin to unravel. Or worse, several came up with even more insane justifications for what did or didn’t happen.

And so we come back to why this is a problem. When we take in misinformation or give credence to conspiracy theories, there are real-world, life-and-death consequences. At the time of writing this, over 400,000 Americans have died from COVID, thousands a day with thousands more newly infected. People truly believing that the last presidential election was fraudulent stormed our nation’s Capitol and five people died, and it could have been much worse. Families are divided by political and ideological impasses. Friends are de-friended. And unfortunately, it’s hard to even attempt to heal these rifts without some kind of common ground to stand on.

Misinformation is not exclusive to one group or even one side of the political spectrum. In a world with hundreds of channels on our TVs and millions of websites competing for our attention, a voice will be given to every possible interpretation of events. And to pull your notice, headlines and articles become ever-more salacious, outrageous, seductive.

So what I’m asking you, and myself, and everyone, is to understand that; to understand that we each have a responsibility to curate the information we take in.

If you follow Rachel Maddow or Michael Moore, know that they have a specific agenda. If you follow Sean Hannity or Ben Shapiro, know that they have a specific agenda. If these are your only sources of information, I’m telling you straight up right now you are not getting the full story. You just are not. And thus, it’s hard to have intelligent discourse. Anyone who claims they have the answers that no one else does, that they have access to information no one else does, that only they are telling it to you like it is when no one else will, they are selling you lies.

I’m not suggesting you tune in to both Maddow and Hannity every night to be well-formed (you won’t be, because they are both commentators, not meant to be taken as straight news), but I am asking you to consider that seeking out more neutral sources with more rigorous standards would be beneficial. No one source is ever going to be perfectly neutral, that’s really just unrealistic. But it doesn’t make all media the enemy either. You can read that New York Times article and judge for yourself how reasoned it is. It’s just a matter of being careful of your sources. Like any critical thinking or analysis, the more primary the source, the more assured you can be of its veracity. If you get most of your information from secondary sources commentating on an event they had no part in, you should automatically be wary.

Find those primary, unedited sources, whether they be raw video evidence or direct comment. Be skeptical, even if it’s something you agree with (maybe even especially then).

The events of January 6, 2021, are so painful because it showed how misinformation can come within a hair’s breadth of changing our entire history. Before the election, Trump suggested he’d question the results of the election. After the election, he did just that. He had every right to explore all his legal options. But when he went to court and could not produce any evidence of fraud in over 60 cases, then the facts are not in his favor. When recounts are done and show the same results, the facts are not in his favor. When all video and documented evidence contradict all of his claims, the facts are not in his favor. And when his fellow Republicans in charge of the election repeatedly refute all of his claims, the facts are not in his favor. And yet, thousands of Americans, perhaps millions, truly believe the election was fraudulent. Some believed so intensely that they stormed the Capitol. All because certain people, groups, networks, and websites perpetuated claims with no credible evidence. Some even had to retract those claims. And with those beliefs very much still in place, what might these misinformed militants do next in the name “Freedom”?

They believe with such conviction because that is all they have heard. When facts contradict their beliefs, they don't explore a wider range of information, they contract. Once again, I turn to Arnold Schwarzenegger who said it best in his response to posters criticizing his taking of the vaccine:

"In general, I think if the circle of people you trust gets smaller and smaller and you find yourself more and more isolated, it should be a warning sign that you’re going down a rabbit hole of misinformation. Some people say it is weak to listen to experts. That’s bogus. It takes strength to admit you don’t know everything. Weakness is thinking you don’t need expert advice and only listening to sources that confirm what you want to believe." —Arnold Schwarzenegger

A lot of righteous fury has been directed lately toward companies such as Twitter and Facebook for removing Trump’s accounts and cracking down on hate speech and misinformation. Once again, you see cries about censorship. But that’s not how that works. Private companies are within their rights to (and should) take steps against the spread of inflammatory misinformation and conspiracy theories on their platforms. That is not censorship; that is a private company making an isolated decision about their company. Censorship is the government limiting your speech (and as we mentioned, they can in certain ways). The outrage is misplaced, because people either don’t understand the law or are simply angry and want others to be angry too. And so they leave the wider ocean of communication for tiny ponds where they perceive to have more freedom when in reality they are simply stoking singular views and pushing the same narrow ideas without the check and balance of debate.

And thus, anger isn't balmed but inflamed. And when that anger spills over into threats of violence, we can trace its inception and cultivation. We can't stop other people from acting against their best interests, but we can monitor ourselves and make sure we aren't making things worse.

When we buy into the misinformation, we are contributing to the problem. When we spread it, we are contributing to the problem. When we act on it, we are contributing to the problem.

In those cases, we can’t have civil discourse because we cannot agree that water is wet, the sky is blue, and the Earth is round. When you refuse to wear your mask and throw your party or gather shoulder-to-shoulder in the streets because you think what you heard from that one dude on the porch in that one video makes you an expert, we can’t even have a rational discourse about why you are putting me and everyone else at risk. When you take to heart the calls to “fight like hell” and win through “trial by combat” despite no evidence of wrongdoing, we can’t discuss the ways you might be threatening the very ideals of liberty you hold dear. When you believe that the country is run by a pedophile ring of Satanists . . . , I can’t even. I don’t know what to say to all that. I don’t know how to argue against it because we seem to be living in different realities. I have the same access to the same information you do. I can point it out, I can explain the science and the law, or at least point you to vetted experts who know more than I do; but if I can’t convince you the Earth is round, I don’t know what else to do.

So I guess I could write a long-winded diatribe in the hopes that I might reach someone. And when I do, I’ll tell you straight: I’m definitely biased, and this is my opinion. So please take it for what it is.

Derek May is the Editor in Chief of Flapper Press. He has over 15 years experience working in educational testing and has been teaching various martial arts for over 25 years. He's written numerous articles for Flapper Press and Movieweb, over a dozen film and television spec screenplays, and is the creator of the stop-motion series Highlander: Veritas, currently in production on its second season starring Elizabeth Gracen and Anthony De Longis.

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