Come, now. Don’t act so surprised. You didn’t really think it was going to be free, did you? You didn’t believe the extraordinary privilege of being alive and plugged in during the digital era would come without a cost — that having a handy portal to the sum of all human knowledge in your jeans pocket would be devoid of downsides.
You know how this works: Just as puppy kisses are edged with needle teeth and peanut-butter cheesecake brownies require a penance of kale and burpees, all exquisite things demand something unpleasant in return.
So in the wake of a heinous election that may very well have been won by the viral spread of fake news articles — and insomuch as Oxford Dictionaries just named “post-truth” the 2016 Word of the Year — it’s payback time. Ye Pitiless Gods of Ubiquitous Information and Pervasive Propaganda have come to collect their debt. Their pound of flesh. Their click-bait kickback.
Consider Paul Horner, who creates fake news for a living — including the story about the guy paid $3,500 to protest at a Trump rally (never happened). Horner told the Washington Post, “I think Trump is in the White House because of me” and “[his] followers don’t fact-check anything.”
Consider the dude who fired shots in a pizzeria in Washington, D.C., on December 4 after reading fake news online that the restaurant was sex-trafficking children (it isn’t). Or the woman arrested last week for making death threats to the parents of a child killed at Sandy Hook in 2012; she believed fake news reports that the Newtown massacre was a hoax (nope).
Consider even the Santa Maria police department, which admitted last week to having issued a fabricated press release — and fooled local media into reporting it as fact — to protect two men from gang hits. “The false, ruse press release worked brilliantly in our favor,” said the police chief.
The lesson, my friends? Don’t believe everything you read — including the hip new assertion that the truth is irrelevant. If we’re to navigate the murky waters of a “post-truth” news lagoon, we must remember that no matter how good it feels to share a too-good-to-be-true headline with Facebook friends or cite a delicious-but-questionable statistic during a contentious debate, facts are never truly squishy. Evidence is never immaterial. And reality, like climate change, just isn’t up for debate. There’s what is, and there’s what someone is trying to sell you — and it falls to us now to distinguish the two.
So join me in making the following pledge from this day forward:
• I will not make knee-jerk social shares of posts I haven’t actually read but whose headlines I find amusing, enraging, or otherwise engaging.
• I will check the source of all news stories I read. If I don’t recognize it, I will Google the details to see if anyone else is reporting them. If not, I will be crazy-skeptical and unlikely to shoot up a pizzeria over them.
• I will point out to my friends when they’ve shared an erroneous fact or false story — even the friends with whom I agree politically. And when my friends point out my own sharing of misinformation, I will thank them and correct it immediately.
• I will not assume that everything I see on video is factual. Starshine’s 11-year-old son can create, edit, and upload videos, and he’s no Gwen Ifill.
• I will make the time and effort to find and support sources I trust, keeping in mind that true journalists follow a strict ethical code of reporting the truth accurately, acting independently of outside influence, and being accountable for and transparent about their methods. They don’t do this because they’re elitists or control freaks; they do it because without these safeguards, journalism fails, and no one trusts the media, and they’re out of jobs.
This list is the price we pay for the magic of being mere fingerswipes away from search results for “synonym for ubiquitous” and “wtf is pizzagate?” (both of which benefited this column). These vows are our miserable, vital burpees. They’ll make us stronger. More resilient. And, my friends, we need it.
Starshine Roshell is the author of Broad Assumptions.