Did you hear the one about how the deficit has soared under Obama, who is a gun-grabbing Kenyan-born Muslim socialist communist fascist traitor because he doesn’t agree with everything in which I believe?
How about the one that says the deficit is going down under Obama, an American Christian who has a long list of genuine accomplishments despite the mess he inherited from Bush, and who of course guards our liberties vigorously, even as he spies on the lot of us? Oh, and Benghazi! Yes, he did! No, he didn’t!
Welcome to what passes as political discourse — thanks not only to partisan cable networks, but to the Internet and social media.
A few years before Facebook became entrenched as a household name, the comic strip “Brewster Rockit: Space Guy!” nailed what we are seeing now,
A character tells a robotic newspaper rack: “Old Bot, your news is old,” and goes on to explain that, thanks to the Internet, he can have news that is tailored to his views.
“Won’t that just dumb people down?” Old Bot asks.
The reply: “Not according to anything I’ve read.”
Facebook amplifies the point made in the strip. My newsfeed (tailored by me, for me), includes updates from sites that I know are partisan and slanted. When they strain my credulity too much, I investigate — crossing my fingers that what I read in my online research is true. And, as the opening of this piece illustrates, you can match your Facebook friends, meme for competing meme. Some (if not most) of the political memes are objectively false, yet they are circulated with reckless abandon. Many not only bring out rancor, but deliberately incite it. (And, yes, I am guilty of posting my share of those).
One of the more ridiculous ones floating about in March showed pictures of Benjamin Netanyahu, Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama, all at age 23. Netanyahu and Putin were depicted in uniform, held up as examples of “manly men” and leaders. Obama was depicted smoking weed. You’ve got that right: Some people hate the supposed “communist dictator” president so much that they would compare him unfavorably to an actual dictatorial president, who in the photo offered as proof of his superiority was wearing a KGB uniform — and do so in full confidence that they are well-informed, good Americans.
They may be good people. But they are not well-informed. This is the danger of a cut-and-paste reality; it is why the old Brewster Rockit strip is more sad than funny.
The Internet is a gushing font of information, but not all of the water is safe to drink. I wouldn’t pretend to know how to tell, but I can offer a basic rule of thumb from my own experience:
If what you are reading online focuses exclusively on the positives of a public figure (other than a saint) or situation, or if it focuses exclusively on the negatives of a public figure (other than, say, a serial killer) or situation, it is probably propaganda. It may be brilliantly rendered. It may be enjoyable. The degree of its good or harm may vary. But there’s likely more to the story.
It falls to you to find out what that is before you swallow the water. Too many of us just drink up and start shouting. This is why such lunatic rumors concerning Obama’s birth certificate were able to get any traction at all, let alone persist. (There are cherished liberal myths that live on because of the Internet, too.)
To be clear: The Internet is not bad, nor is it to be shunned. It is in fact profoundly useful and has advanced our society far beyond what the wildest science-fiction tales of just three decades ago could have imagined. Its development and accessibility to the masses mark a watershed in human history.
Al Gore, in “The Assault on Reason,” calls the Internet “perhaps the greatest source of hope for re-establishing an open communication environment in which the conversation of democracy can flourish.” (An aside: If you believe he claimed to have actually invented the Internet you, uh, probably ought to check the Internet.) Gore calls the Internet “the platform for pursuing the truth,” but also calls for a “clear-eyed view of the Internet’s problems and abuses. …It is up to us — particularly those of us who live in a democracy — to make intelligent choices about how and for what we use this incredibly powerful tool.”
Gore is right. The Internet is an astonishing tool for spreading information that can help build democracy and aid people who have no other means of mass communication. (Remember the Arab Spring?) The Internet also helps rumor-mongers to spread gossip; con artists to reach more victims; marketers to invade even more of your life and the government to monitor you.
That is, you take the bad with the good. How do you separate the wheat from the chaff ? Whom do you trust to act as gatekeeper? You have to trust yourself; everyone else has an agenda.
The other edge of the sword, though: You, too, have an agenda. Open your mind to other information and do your best to evaluate it evenly. Or find the meme of your choice and share it on Facebook. Because that’s easier. Welcome to Square One, the last and first house on Vicious Circle.
Can people create their own reality? Of course. To a degree, everyone does. But to accord everyone’s individual reality the same standing as objective fact is to walk down a dangerous road. At the end of the road lies the sum of our fears: America’s ruin — which, with the way things stand today, each faction will take as proof of having been “right,” rather than see as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Katharhynn Heidelberg is an award-winning journalist in Montrose, Colo.