Friday, January 06, 2017

We must be better than that

If there’s only one thing that those on the centre and left in the USA can agree on, it must be this: Facts matter. This isn’t about rote repetition of the phrase whenever we call out the lies and disinformation of our adversaries, even though debunking them is important. Instead, this means that we must be better than our adversaries in being extra super factually driven.

Today I saw an example of how important that is.

A nominally leftwing site posted a piece headlined, “BREAKING: GOP Launches Bill To Charge You With TERRORISM If You Protest Trump” (all caps in the original). Their Facebook teaser said a similar, “BREAKING: The GOP just launched a new bill to charge you with TERRORISM for protesting Donald Trump,” before adding, “Tyranny has arrived in America.” Not one word of this is true.

To be clear, Don and his Gang absolutely represent an existential threat to democracy, freedom, and liberty, and they absolutely are already flirting with tyranny. However, this was NOT and example of that.

The post, which was shared on the site in January with neither dateline nor byline, declares that, “A Republican lawmaker just introduced…” but that’s not true: It was actually last November when a state senator in Washington state talked about proposing a bill to make it possible to charge protesters that block traffic or disrupt economic activity with a felony for committing “economic terrorism”. I checked the official website of the Washington state senate, and the guy never actually introduced his supposed bill. In fact, he never introduced a single bill in the entire session that ended in December—not one bill.

The post goes on, “This would allow anyone that is deemed ‘disruptive’ to be charged with terrorism,” which is also not true: The guy was talking about economic disruption, and while that may seem like mere semantics, the site’s intent was clearly to imply that anyone engaging in their First Amendment protest rights could be charged with a felony.

The hyperbole continued: “This is the beginning of the end of American democracy as we know it. What’s next, is Team Trump going to start going after every American who posted a disparaging comment about Trump online?” The particular bill they’re talking about doesn’t exist, so the extreme question following is based on hot air and nothing else. It’s also an absurd question that can only be taken seriously if one believed that Republicans were really moving to make “protesting Donald Trump” illegal. The facts do not support that hyperbole.

I mention all of this because it’s an egregious example of propaganda divorced from fact and reality in order to rile up partisans—exactly like the right wing does. We must be better than that.

Every single time we screw up and share something that's utterly untrue (let alone things like this that are just incredibly misleading), our adversaries will jump to rub our noses in it and subject us to abject ridicule. Their media—Fox, their websites, along with their echo chamber on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, etc., etc., will all join the chorus. That matters because “Middle America”, who we need to win over, will think, "Jeez, the two sides are as bad as each other—always lying and exaggerating." That, in turn, means that when we use undeniably fact-based, unassailable information to mount legitimate criticism, “Middle America” won’t be listening, assuming we’re unreliable and “as bad as” those we criticise. To win, we MUST go out of our way to stick only to verifiable facts. ALWAYS, and without exception.

The particular site is suspicious. It uses a name that’s very similar to a legitimate progressive site, it goes out of its way, it seemed to me, to use emotive, hyperbolic language in an attempt to appeal to those on the Leftward side of Left—think “Bernie or Bust” types. And yet, many of their posts—and I looked at quite a few—don’t use such language consistently, and that made me feel they were posing as a site on the Leftward side of Left. That, or maybe it’s just not edited tightly enough.

In any case, here’s what I do:

I always follow the links to the post’s source(s). If a post on politics doesn’t include links, I move on assuming it’s either lying or incompetent. So, I follow the links—and whatever that links to—to try and get to the original source for the information. Sometimes this turns out to be a self-referential circle of links, with no mainstream verification, and that always raises a red flag. Rarely, I’ll try searching the subject to see if there’s any information from a reliable source. But if I’ve waded through self-referential ooze, I’m not likely to bother.

I try and verify conclusions purported to be based on official things. For example, I’ll read the text of a bill (which is how I found out that the bill in the example I talked about above doesn’t exist at the moment). If there’s a government report, it’s almost always available online somewhere. Same with scientific studies and opinion polls. When I do this, I sometimes don’t think the conclusions the author drew are justified, which has been a topic in several posts on this blog. Most times, however, the conclusions are legitimate, even if framed in a partisan way. But I can’t know that if I don’t check.

All of this can be a lot of work, and it can require a lot of time. So, I have one other rule I always follow: If I’m not certain about the trustworthiness of a site or what it shares, then I don’t share it. I rarely share political things, memes included, for this reason.

We have an obligation to be better than our adversaries. If we keep saying that "Facts Matter", we have to mean it. Scepticism and doubt are among our best tools right now, and that has to apply to those operating (or appearing to operate) on our side as well as those backing our adversaries.

Footnotes: I never link to sites at the farthest ends of the spectrum, so I won’t share a link to the post I’ve been talking about. However, you can copy and paste this link to get there: http://bit.ly/2iNyw28

Also, the site’s reviewed on Media Bias/Fact Check, which, while highly imperfect, is nevertheless pretty fair in its review of the site.

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