Given the national despair over election ugliness and the ever-worsening pandemic, I’ve tried to steer clear of both topics recently. But now that the election is over, I couldn’t help but be even more dismayed by the warp speed the misinformation superhighway seems to be traveling at these days.
At this point, politicians seem to be confident that they are preaching to a nation of sheep — and I say that with apologies to ovines everywhere.
Is curiosity dead? How hard is it to run information you read or hear through a quick mental filter of “Does this make sense?” “Does this ring true?”
It’s just so easy to check the veracity of information — for example, on the website snopes.com. So why don’t more people do it?
I wish the entire nation could get a Ph.D. in skepticism. This whole year has been a bottomless slough of disingenuousness, invidiousness, dissembling, speciousness, obfuscating, perfidy and prevarication. On top of that, there was a lot of lying.
I think the only thing that has saved me from locking myself in a bunker and having my meals delivered by Uber Eats is that I’m not on social media. That would have pushed me over the edge. Still, I’ve received many disheartening email rants — political and otherwise — from people whose intelligence I would normally respect but who seem inexorably committed to believe — and pass on — whatever shows up in their “in” baskets.
Some time ago I wrote a column called “Please don’t send anything to everyone you know” about the internet screeds that the wingnuts of the world forward to everyone in their address book without passing them through even the most rudimentary filter of credibility.
One example: An otherwise intelligent acquaintance from La Jolla sent me (and about a hundred other of his closest friends) an email titled “REFUSE NEW COINS!” The all-caps subject line is usually a good tip-off that it’s either an urban legend or some mass hysteria among the conspiracy set, which was only confirmed by the 3-inch-tall exhortation to “SEND THIS TO EVERYONE YOU KNOW!!!!” That always seals the deal for me.
In this particular tirade, “true Americans” (Strike 3) were implored not to accept the “new” dollar coins that were intentionally missing the words “In God We Trust.” In doing so, the email ranted, “together we can force them out of circulation!”
Actually, that wouldn’t be necessary. They were already out of circulation since they constituted some 50,000 incorrectly imprinted coins out of a batch of 3 million that the U.S. Mint struck in early 2007, and instantly became collectibles. You should be so lucky to get one.
I ascertained this in approximately three seconds by typing the words “U.S. coins without In God We Trust” into my browser and getting pages of articles about the error — and the ongoing annoyance of the U.S. Mint plagued by the dingdongs who have persisted in circulating this conspiracy story over the years.
As the oft-quoted saying goes, we are entitled to our own opinions, but not our own facts. Or we used to be anyway — apparently we are now entitled to our own facts. Alternative facts. Or, in fact, any “facts” that anyone cares to dream up and post.
So here’s Inga’s short guide on how to recognize informational insanity:
• Did the writer finish third grade?
• If the bells going off in your head sound like klaxons, maybe it’s not true.
• If there is even a single phrase in capital letters accompanied by more than one exclamation mark (“TOGETHER WE CAN STOP THIS!!!!!!”), YOU ARE BEING SCAMMED!!!!!
• Has the sender sent it to 150 of his or her closest friends?
• If the conversation starts with “I heard,” stop listening.
• Consider the source. The text of a hilariously clueless speech several years back that was attributed to Mitch Romney quoted him as saying that he could relate to Black people because his ancestors once owned slaves. (They didn’t.) The “speech” was from a spoof article on a satirical website that, incidentally, proclaimed prominently at the top that it was a satirical website and was just funning you. I guess it needed to be clearer on what the word “satire” means, as in “We make up everything we put on this site for entertainment purposes and you should not believe any of it.” But would that even be enough anymore?
As for the chronically overused and abused “forward” button, I think it should be programmed to give you three sequential prompts before it will allow your screed to contaminate the ether. As in:
• “C’mon, really?”
• “Are you SURE some yahoo didn’t send you this?”
• “Do you want people to think you’re a yahoo, too?”
Of course, it won’t help. But I’ve done my best.
Inga’s lighthearted looks at life appear regularly in the La Jolla Light. Reach her at [email protected]. ◆
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