America’s easy fake news fix

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“We swallow greedily any lie that flatters us, but we sip only little by little at a truth we find bitter.”

– Denis Diderot

It wasn’t until I was reminded of one of my father’s most aggravating comments to me as a child that the light flickered above my head.

Since the Nov. 8 election, the United States has been swept up in the debate over fake news and how to combat it. The answer is simple and one that would make dad proud – “look it up.”

Growing up, I bristled at the words. 

“Dad, how do you spell ‘encyclopedia’?”

“Look it up.”

“Dad, what’s the capital of Poland?”

“Look it up.”

Why didn’t he just tell me the answer? He was a fairly smart guy, so I was sure he was just being difficult. He was teaching me to be responsible for knowledge, to be informed and not rely on someone simply telling me the answer to everything.

The answer to dealing with fake news, misleading news or misrepresented facts is as easy as looking them up. And each one of us is responsible for that.

All those English and history teachers who painstakingly pounded bibliographic references into us as children are shaking their heads today. Chemistry and physics teachers everywhere wonder how we forgot everything we ever knew about the Scientific Method.

When the World Wide Web came along, there was a sudden rush of information. We had more information at our fingertips than anyone ever imagined and we assumed that would be a good thing. One of the unintended consequences, though, was that publishing information was as easy as looking it up. Seeing something in “print” on a screen suddenly gave it the same legitimacy as an encyclopedia entry.

In the past, book publishers and media outlets created a sort of filtering system to keep most information reasonably legitimate. With the Internet came a proliferation of new “legitimate” sources of information. Some are, some are not.

Fake news today comes in two categories. The first is fabricated. Maybe it is made up to entertain, because someone is bored or to push an agenda, but it has no basis in reality. The second is fake news that grows legs from a seed planted by a source.

A few months back a site published a report that President Obama had raised his presidential pension in his last year in office. The story was quickly proven to have no basis in fact. But millions of people latched on to it as another sign of greed and underhanded activity by the president. It was not hard to disprove, all anyone had to do was look it up. 

Last week, Trump supporter and former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, did the talk show tour and casually threw out the “fact” that now trees in the White House would be referred to as Christmas trees again, and Christmas would no longer be a bad word. This was another story, given life too long by those hoping to disparage the president, which has annually been

dispelled.

All anyone had to do was look it up.

But Americans don’t seem interested in looking things up. Even sources of information have been divided into red and blue categories. Those matching our own political leanings are accurate while the others spread lies. But again, it is not difficult to find the truth, all we have to do is look it up.

Are we so divided and suspect of one another that we are so afraid of the truth we choose to rely on unproven facts because they are comfortable?

No one can legislate good, bad, real or fake news in the United States without endangering our freedom of speech. As much as fake news is a pariah on the information landscape today, a restricted freedom of speech is far more dangerous to our future.

No, we should cling to our freedom of speech and our liberty. But those come with the responsibility to think, discern and question, more important than ever in the age of endless information. Don’t trust the comfort zone. Don’t assume the worst about the other side. Don’t let anyone tell you asking questions is wrong or disloyal. 

Weigh all the data, look for common sense, ask who stands to gain and where the information comes from. Information is never a bad thing unless it is never questioned. In the end, question what you believe as much as what you don’t, and “look it up.”

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