“It must be true—I read it on the internet.”
The 2016 presidential election is just one example of how many people place their trust in social media. A group of like-minded ‘friends’ can amplify messages, whether true or false, adding to a toxic online commentary that spreads falsehoods or partial truths. Without subjecting information to the scrutiny of other sources, undocumented spouting, frequently shared, lends false authority. Gullible information consumers can believe lies and take actions that endanger others, like in the case of the pizzagate gunman who shot up a restaurant, based on a false report of trafficked children. Fake news can have real consequences, like yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. The 1919 Supreme Court case Schenck v. United States ruled that First Amendment freedom of speech protection could be restricted if the words represented a “clear and present danger.” Justice Holmes stated: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.”
Trust and truth are fragile. The roots of the Russian cyber-attacks in the US presidential election stem from the connection between truth and trust. Trusted social media ‘friendships’ steered many (more than 100,000 Twitter followers) into becoming Russian collaborators. Paid trolls crafted and spread messages with the intention of promoting one candidate over another. Apparently Facebook users believed their virtual ‘friends’ and engaged in “information warfare against the United States.” These unsuspecting Americans took the bait and cooperated with Russia, covertly undermining the electoral results–accidental but consequential collusion.
In the process of researching my thesis, I filter sources for “peer-reviewed,” a term that indicates validated research, ensuring the accuracy and authenticity of scholarly efforts. I look for journal articles or university press books that I can trust. In higher education, students are cautioned: Wikipedia doesn’t work as an academic source. Every point must be backed by evidence. Academic writing is not about opinion. It is about providing, explaining and analyzing evidence for a community of thinkers.
The Washington, D.C Newseum’s mission is to increase public understanding of the importance of a free press and the First Amendment because: “A free press, at its best, reveals the truth.” Propaganda is information intended to influence and manipulate. Some information on the internet falls into the category of propaganda, but Americans are also dealing with a boy crying “wolf.” After repeated distortions, you disregard any remarks because the source has proven to be an unreliable liar. This person has demonstrated bankrupt character, leaving damaged trust and compromised truth in his wake.
Who do you trust? Who has your back? How can you tell when something is true? For the sake of democracy and relationships, we need trust and truth. While physical violence can take the form of guns or cars, words also have power to incite violence. Trust is hard won and easily destroyed. Speak your truth, but check your sources.
© Joan S Grey, 23 Feb 2018
IndexCardCure™: exercising 1st Amendment rights