It was January 6, and I stood watching my television screen with both hands over my mouth. My gut was roiling. My body shivered with random surges of fight-or-flight adrenaline as a flag-waving mob tried to lay siege to our center of government.
How can this be happening? I kept saying. Is this … real?? The answer, of course, was yes. And more importantly: no.
But by day’s end, I had come to a realization even more frightening than the makeshift gallows erected on the Capitol lawn: This could just as well have been us.
My political party won this time, as confirmed by every relevant authority at every level of government. But if it had gone differently? If we’d genuinely believed that something nefarious had undermined our votes and stolen the election from us? You’d better believe I’d be storming our Capitol with flak vest, bullhorn, and battle cry. I don’t do face paint and horns, but the point is this: I disagree ideologically with the people who rioted that day — but I understand their reaction as citizens.
They were not idiots. They were not maniacs. They were impassioned citizens who were lied to and lied to effectively. Consistently. Masterfully.
And they won’t be the last.
Truth is hard to come by these days. Polls show 10 percent of Americans believe QAnon’s whackadoodle conspiracies about cannibalistic, satanic pedophiles. Intelligence reports show Russian and even Iranian bots have fiddled with our elections. And anyone with a smartphone can now make a deepfake video; a Philadelphia mom recently harassed members of her daughter’s cheerleading team by producing a clip that supposedly showed them nude, drinking, and smoking.
Part of the problem is we’ve made social-media giants our information gatekeepers. The job used to fall to journalists whose livelihoods demand strict standards of accuracy, transparency, fairness, independence, and accountability. But Facebook? Twitter? They’re built to prioritize content engagement — regardless of that content’s integrity.
“Our ability to vet information matters every time a mother asks Google whether her child should be vaccinated and every time a kid encounters a Holocaust denial on Twitter,” Time magazine wrote of our growing inability to parse reality from fiction online. News Literacy Project founder Alan Miller told the magazine, “It’s the equivalent of a public-health crisis.”
So while Congress continues trying to blame everything on the Internet, let’s look at how the rest of us can take some responsibility for the information we consume and share.
(1) First, check your emotions. If you find yourself angry or shocked in reaction to something you read online, it may be designed to inflame rather than inform you. Agendas matter.
(2) Adopt a slow news strategy. It’s like slow food, but you’re consuming carefully crafted media instead. Pause before believing — and, dear god, before sharing! — news that is still developing.
(3) Use lateral reading to research an unfamiliar website. Rather than poking around on the site itself to assess it, Google that thang to see what others have to say about it. Who’s behind it? What’s their deal?
(4) Correct false information publicly. When a friend posts something untrue, resist the urge to tell them privately. Commenting publicly (and kindly) not only informs others who may see it, which prevents it from spreading further, it also reminds us all to think twice about what we share.
These issues aren’t going away, but neither are they new. Political theorist Hannah Arendt, a German-born Jew who was imprisoned by the Gestapo, wrote this in 1974 — and her words make me shiver all over again:
“What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed… If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer.… And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge.
“And with such a people you can then do what you please.”
Starshine Roshell is the author of Lather, Rage, Repeat: Frank Talk on Night Sweats, Day Drinking & Twitler.