I think it was in the mid 1980s, I went to my first Internet workshop. I remember the presenter explaining how he would find information on the Internet, “Maybe we’re looking for a chart of the solar system.” He typed “solar system” into a primitive search engine. “Look,” he exclaimed, “thousands of hits.” But he never opened one. I quickly realized he might have opened dozens before he found a chart of the solar system. I thought, get an atlas in the library, in minutes I can hand you a chart. Of course, search engines have improved drastically and to some degree his promise has been fulfilled. But it wasn’t then.
In back of me there was a group of twenty-something female teachers. I could hear their excitement about e-mail. One exploded, “It’s amazing, you can contact and communicate with …. (fill in celebrity of your choice)… on line.” Her friend jumped in, ” I heard somebody might pretend to be … oh, Madonna . .. and you won’t know it’s not Madonna.” Her friend’s response, “It really doesn’t matter if it’s not Madonna, it’s fun.” My head swung 180 degrees. Talking to a Madonna impersonator is as much fun as talking to Madonna. And of course, we don’t know which is which. Fact or fiction — it doesn’t matter.
I thought of this incident in the past few months as we’ve begun to hear about the amount of fake news on Facebook and other Internet social mediums. We are up to our necks in fake news from foreign countries, ideological organizations and individuals. Why is it accepted as fact; what does or matter? It’s fun.
From the New York Times:
“Not coincidentally, it was also the year of “fake news,” in which pure fiction masquerading as truth (like posts that claimed Hillary Clinton used a body double and that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump) may have spread wide enough to influence the outcome of the election. Some were certainly deliberate lies spread by right-wing Clinton opponents and all-out profiteers, many in countries outside the United States (and possibly even the Russian government).” We are still waiting to see how much the Russians were involved in the election.
And now we have a President who doesn’t believe truth and reality are very important. He claimed repeatedly that Obama wasn’t born in America — then he denies the statement. Or he claims that he really won the popular vote since millions of illegals voted for Clinton. His electoral college win was a historic landslide. President Obama wire tapped Trump Towers during the election. The list goes on and on. No support or justification for any of the claims. Believe Trump. Listen to his speech to Congress, “believe Trump.” Forget that it’s a Presidential twitter vent, an outright fiction. The mainstream (read, liberal, lying) media report Trumps lack of facts but of course his supporters don’t believe the mainstream or don’t listen to it. Trump trumps.
I read commentaries that chastise and exhort. We need to teach students critical thinking. We need to teach students to distinguish between real news and fake news. We need to teach students to critically evaluate information on the Internet. I want to say I agree but I also thought I was doing that for the past 40 years. How many of my former students are sucked in by the conspiracy theories, fake news, and Presidential lies.
In the 1970s, I taught students about Marshall McLuhan’s concept that the “the medium is the message.” I wonder what McLuhan would think of social media like Facebook? Is it hot or cold? Individual or tribal? What would he say about the President’s use of twitter?
There is no question that President Trump has exaggerated, spread false information and lied. Constantly; consistently. It is surreal. How can we have media commentators, journalists, and politicians discuss his tweets, comments, and statements as if it was real and truthful. No surprise that George Orwell’s book, “1984” is a best seller on Amazon.
We can be Democrat or Republican. We can be conservative or liberal. We can and should debate public policies. But we cannot have a chief executive, President, that has no grip on reality. Trump probably believes his exaggerations and lies. We can’t. Alternative facts are not facts.
Resistance must continue, it must grow. Republicans must recognize that Trump is a danger to the country. Fact or fiction? — it matters.