"It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so."
In today's crazy political world, Mark Twain's words could not be more relevant.
The Oxford English Dictionary has long been the gold standard for documenting our language. Its "Word of the Year" for 2016 is "post-truth," meaning "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion or personal belief." Our post-truth political environment is populated by many folks operating in a world where what's really so really doesn't matter.
NPR observed that the Brexit campaign and our presidential election were both decided on the basis of "feelings, identification, anxieties and fantasies … Not arguments. Not facts." Being uninformed about what you're voting for can be dangerous to your nation's health, a fact with which the United Kingdom, to its regret, learned about Brexit, and which the United States is fast becoming aware of. Fake news, or to be more precise, believing fake news stories, has become a major problem, so much so that even Pope Francis felt the need to speak out, calling the spreading of fake news a sin.
Research coming from Stanford University suggests that students have a "dismaying" inability to tell fake news from real; bogus stories posted on social media like Facebook and Twitter spread across the Internet with lightning speed and frightening consequences. Lenny Pozner, parent of one of the children killed in the Sandy Hook shooting, the fourth anniversary of which is tomorrow, received death threats from a person who believed a conspiracy theory that the shooting is a story invented by Obama to build sympathy for enacting confiscatory gun laws. The person making the threats was arrested on multiple felony counts before she executed the threats — or Pozner. Sadly, even though this crackpot theory has been thoroughly debunked, many people still believe Sandy Hook never happened.
Another such incident became front-page news across the country: a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C., became the eye of a hurricane of craziness when Edgar Welch drove himself and a small arsenal from his home in North Carolina to Washington, took his loaded AR-15 assault-style rifle into the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria to "free the children" he thought were sex slaves of Clinton's chief of staff, John Podesta. He thought he'd find tunnels from the back room leading to other locations where kids were held captive and abused. His concerns arose from a bizarre story spun from comments in hacks of Podesta's emails mentioning eating at Comet. Some lunatic with a vivid imagination posted that the emails used "pizza" as code for "pedophilia" and "pizza parties" were really sex parties with enslaved children. Welch shot off the lock to the pizzeria's computer room, where thankfully, the only casualty was a computer; there were no tunnels, no children chained to walls and no evidence of abuse.
One would think that would have put this bad joke to rest. It didn't. Michael Flynn pushed the insanity further with his tweet, "U decide – NYPD Blows Whistle on New Hillary Emails: Money Laundering, Sex Crimes w Children, etc ... MUST READ!" Flynn's son tweeted, "Until #Pizzagate proven to be false, it'll remain a story." Had they been just a couple of guys, those tweets would just be so much noise in the twitterverse, but Flynn Sr. is President-elect Trump's choice for National Security Advisor, and Flynn Jr. was his father's chief of staff. As for Welch, it took no time for kooks to concoct a crazy conspiracy, that he was sent to divert attention from Clinton's perversions.
What makes this incident noteworthy is not its weirdness. It's that Trump's national security advisor, the person responsible for coordinating defense, foreign affairs, international economic policy, and intelligence seemed unaware that the story contains not an atom of reality, and then he intentionally and maliciously passed it on. It's that the National Security advisor's chief of staff refuses to accept that the story is completely false. It is truly frightening to think that come Jan. 20, crucial decisions coming out of the office of the President of the United States could be informed by something other than hard facts. That Trump himself has spread many false stories only amplifies the problem.
It's been said, "A lie can run around the world before the truth has got its boots on." Our digital world makes it that much easier to speed a lie on its way. Just as social media must develop tools to check the spread of provably fake news, we must learn to recognize untruth, no matter who says it or where it comes from — or else …
Mitch Edelman writes from Finksburg. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org