A few days ago, my wife had me read an email she’d received from a relative. It had the kind of urgent subject line “(A Must READ)” that often occurs when people forward politically charged content that has them all hetted up.
It just so happened that on that very day I had received an email notification on a new blog post that concerned a topic totally different from her email, and completely apolitical.
Yet while the subjects and the tone of the two were worlds apart, they were both troubling in more or less the same way: one was a complete paranoid fantasy creation of a supposed event; the other was a declaration that there are no objective facts, and that the truth somehow belongs to whomever it may be who is telling the story.
I found each to be a strand of the same trap that increasingly ensnares the Internet, namely that just writing something and hitting the Send button on a keyboard makes it true. It is now rampant, and it is pushing discourse (online and otherwise) to a divisive and ultimately self-devouring conclusion.
In the first example, the email related an incident in which 11 Muslim men supposedly boarded a flight in Atlanta headed for Houston, and then proceeded to run wild, acting out with their hands the shooting other passengers, watching porno, etc. And, of course, this was said tho have gone essentially unreported by the media, despite it being a “dry run” for a terrorist attack.
This story was passed along to who knows how many people as the truth, a matter of urgency, and yet another indication of a massive coverup by the government and the media. Absent was the slightest indication that the sender had paused for even a moment of skepticism and done a little checking.
Had he done so, the reality just might have had him pull his finger back from the trigger. The sorry, sordid details of the actual incident and of the guy whose fantasy claims went viral are readily available (visit FactCheck.org and search for AirTran Flight 297), but my wife’s relative had breathlessly, naively and, yes, stupidly bought the story whole as he got it from some other sucker, and then passed it along further (this viral email chain began five years ago).
The blog post I received was a problem of a different sort. Heartfelt and meaning well as it was, the post stopped me short by vaporous assertions such as, “…writing is its own truth– each story has its truth, and it has no relationship to facts, and what are facts, after all,” and “what’s right or wrong, anyway? who decides what’s right?”
Sorry, but there we have the same way of thinking that allows such lunatic writing as the AirTran fantasy to masquerade as fact, as the truth.
As Barack Obama noted not too long ago about his political adversaries, they are entitled to their own set of opinions, but not to their own set of facts.
And to paraphrase the journalist Carl Bernstein (of Watergate fame), the truth (at least in journalism) is the best verifiable version of an event.
The key word in Bernstein’s definition, of course, is “verifiable.” Why? Because if we choose to rely solely on our own interpretations of events (personal or social), or on what someone else simply asserts is so, we’re in for an ugly encounter with reality. This is why journalism continues to exist. And if readers step back just a bit from the dumbing down environment of social media, they will begin to see in real journalism the way in which actual events, claims of truth, etc. are presented.
Would this suddenly lead to a saner, more reliable public discourse? That’s undoubtedly too much to ask for. But maybe, just maybe, some of us out there will think about what is missing in the account they themselves have just read or written and decide not to press Send before doing a little homework.