Changing One Mind

Yesterday I read an article about a guy in Maine who posts online satire — totally made-up stuff — and then watches it liked and shared far and wide, mostly by people who think it’s true. The article, ‘Nothing on this page is real’: How lies become truth in online America, also tells the story of a woman in Nevada who reads, likes and shares such web content. This article has been one of the most-read items on The Washington Post website during the past 24 hours.

The Facebook site “America’s Last Line of Defense” was created in 2016 as a prank, but it has since become a full-time endeavor for Christopher Blair, who is assisted by about a hundred liberals in policing the site. Blair and his crew dream up outrageous disinformation — “The more extreme we become, the more people believe it” — post it online, watch it go viral, and eventually post a truthful explanation. After that, people berate some of the folks who have promoted the bogus story. If you’ve been on social media, you know what this looks like.

Keep in mind that the site tells people point blank that what they’re reading is fiction. The “About” section on ALLOD’s Facebook page states: “Nothing on this page is real. It is a collection of the satirical whimsies of liberal trolls masquerading as conservatives. You have been warned.”

The Washington Post article, well written and informative, tells much about the attitudes of Mr. Blair, and quite a bit about one of the hapless, lonesome people who refuses to accept that what Blair publishes is pure fiction.

This, we might guess, is a cause for much concern, and it should be. If Americans in large numbers can’t tell the difference between fact and fiction even when fiction is clearly labeled as such, then we’re in big trouble. Discerning the truth is an essential skill in dealing with the world. If we cannot figure out what’s real, the only problems we’ll solve will be accomplished accidentally or by divine intervention. Without getting into the theological weeds, I never got the impression that the divine will was for humanity to sit around online and hope for the best.

We already knew that people tend to believe what aligns with their preconceptions. We also knew that people seek out others who share their interests and views. This is nowhere more true than online, where the biggest, most successful companies are doing everything they can to find out what we like so they can deliver more of it.

No surprise, either, to read that a lot of people are reality challenged. We elected a president whose greatest documented accomplishment prior to his election was arguably a stint on a “reality television” program. And if we’re going to call The Apprentice reality television, we might as well put The Flintstones on the History Channel.

Furthermore, even our language is devolving in a way that makes it more difficult to distinguish the truth from wild exaggeration or outright fiction. The first example of this is the word “literally.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “literally” can mean “in a literal manner or sense; exactly” OR it can be a word “used for emphasis while not being literally true.” In other words, literally sometimes means the opposite of literally. “America has literally been torn in half!” It has? “My head literally exploded!” It did?!

Similarly, the word “incredible” has morphed from being “impossible to believe” or “difficult to believe; extraordinary” to “very good; wonderful.” I’ve known a lot of folks in the political realm who use “incredible” to describe people and policies as though the word were an unqualified, unambiguous endorsement. “He’s an incredible candidate!” When party hacks call their own candidates and policies incredible, are they saying they’re unbelievably good, or just unbelievable? Do I have to vote for them to find out?

Think I’m just a pedantic snob? Well, if I were going on about the proper use of apostrophes or homonyms, maybe. Someday perhaps I’ll do that, as there’s plenty of material for an Andy Rooney-styled rant. But here I’m making a point about language, beyond the growing illiteracy of American English speakers: We need a common frame of reference to describe and interpret the world around us. People need to know whether we’re stating facts or telling tales. People need to know whether something is to be believed or not. Words matter.

Some of the words that jumped off the page at me (figuratively) are the following: “What Blair wasn’t sure he had ever done was change a single person’s mind.”

For two years Mr. Blair has been posting absurd fabrications, watching them spread, marveling at the gullible people who are taken in, and holding them up to ridicule. In some cases Blair has used phony profiles to bait people into making inappropriate comments online and getting them in trouble for it.  He’s outed propaganda consumers and distributors alike. Now he wonders, “Where is the edge? Is there ever a point where people realize they’re being fed garbage and decide to return to reality?”  He wonders whether he has changed a single mind.

The question here, for me, is whether the world is better served with more disinformation and incivility online. Are we making the world better or worse? And by lying to people, then calling them names and embarrassing them online, are we winning hearts and minds or creating more entrenched and intractable enemies?

Mitt Romney disparaged “the 47 percent” who allegedly paid no taxes and would naturally vote for his opponent. He wrote off about half of the country and went on to lose the election. Hillary Clinton said “you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables…” and lose the election. Call them what you will; they won’t be calling you “Madam President.”

It doesn’t take Dale Carnegie to figure out that this is NOT How to Win Friends and Influence People. Baiting people with lies in order to shame and humiliate them only drives them into their corners.

One more point: liberals and Democrats in particular should not make too much of the blue wave election of 2018. Yes, Democrats did well, especially in places where Donald Trump did poorly two years ago. And Democrats did very well with some demographics. But they also did badly with some others who are seemingly as unreachable as ever. You know where Democrats did very well in places like Colorado? INDEPENDENTS. The lesson here is don’t mess it up.

Like it or not, the 2020 campaign has begun. We’re going to have to do better than this.

If the past two years of satire and public shaming have left Mr. Blair wondering whether he’s changed anybody’s mind, maybe it’s time for another approach. At the very least he and his supporters have persuaded a bunch of conservatives that liberals are every bit as nasty as they already believed. And if I ever thought that it made sense to fight fire with fire, believe me, one mind has been changed.

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