Misinformation for a gullible citizenry

Here we are, on the verge of one of the most important midterm elections in American history, and Russian meddling is being charged. Guess it never really stopped.

Last week, Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova was charged with trying to influence the 2018 midterm elections with what Justice Department officials are calling an “information war” against the U.S. and its elections. According to Reuters and other news services, Khusyaynova was chief accountant for Project Lakhta, an operation started in 2014 and financed by a Putin-friendly oligarch Evgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin, who was indicted last February for his part in Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

What’s more, this latest indictment comes with a broader warning by U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials: China, Iran and others are also trying to interfere with our elections.

Social media has turned out to be a great place to sow misinformation, disunity and some pretty hostile divisions among Americans—in part because a significant number of Americans are gullible enough to believe and share it all.

If this is what brings down American democracy, it’ll be our own damn faults. Not the Russians, or China or any other hostile hackers—us, as in U.S. We’re the ones who are setting aside rational discernment for political prejudices.

The old adage, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” applies to politics as well. If a “fact” is too incredible to believe, you probably shouldn’t believe it. At least be skeptical. Unfortunately, however, many opt for blind faith, because they want so badly to believe.

Forget the foreign enemies of our democracy, we’re doing it to ourselves.

Regular readers of this column know I consider Snopes.com an excellent go-to website for discerning internet fact from fiction, so let’s visit there for a moment. On this particular Sunday morning, we find the five most shared “fact checks” by Snopes.

Topping the list is news of a deadly new spider that killed several people this past summer (false). Then there’s one on how “another friend request” is tied to Facebook account cloning (false); followed by a photo of a young Christine Blasey Ford in a picture with Bill Clinton (false); another with her partially nude and passed out at a party (false); and a report that Judge Brett Kavanaugh ruled against Blasey Ford’s parents in a 1998 foreclosure case, thereby fueling the Blasey family’s motive to exact revenge against the judge (false).

Now, I will wager that most if not all of these “fake news” items above were created and generated by Americans. They are certainly born and grow on media platforms made in the U.S.A. You might say Facebook is the supermarket tabloid of the 21st century.

Meanwhile, here in New Mexico, the last Snopes debunking report I could find was from last year, when a prank Facebook post claimed that Bigfoot’s dead body was found at Elephant Butte Lake. I doubt that many took that one seriously, but if someone had said Hillary killed Bigfoot, somebody else would’ve believed that. Misleading and deceptive information is all over the place this election. I’ve seen outlandish direct mail circulars, propaganda-laced campaign emails, and internet and television ads that purposefully distort candidates and issues. Count the number of people who allow these hyperbolic and misleading campaign commercials to sway their vote and you’ve got a pretty good idea how many gullible voters are out there.

Then there’s the art of the lie, something that politicians have improved upon and the President has perfected. Check out the campaign “debates” over pre-existing medical conditions if you need an example of Orwellian doublespeak. Then again, if people actually believe that Republicans have been working to protect this important part of Obamacare all along, maybe short-term memory loss is an even bigger problem.

Frustrated as I am over such manipulations of the truth, I am still hopeful that most voters see through such nonsense. I have to believe that, otherwise I’ll grow sick with worry over the future of our democratic-republic.

Every year I encourage all to vote. This year, I say, don’t be gullible. Do your homework, consider the sources of your information, and then cast an informed vote. Just showing up isn’t enough.

Tom McDonald is founder and editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange. He also owns and operates The Communicator in Santa Rosa. He can be reached at tmcdonald.srnm@gmail.com.