Political thoughts

Sharing Our Thoughts about Politics

Written by Carolyn Bertolino and published in Medium.com 4/15/2022

Photo by Headway on Unsplash

After public pressure and the Facebook whistleblower coming forward last year, social media has come under scrutiny for the massive amount of disinformation shared on the platform. That’s good, but I think it’s also important to help Americans determine reliable sources of information.

The culture wars are heating up in anticipation of this fall’s midterm elections. As usual, Republicans are a couple steps ahead of Democrats on “messaging”, having successfully convinced an alarming number of regular Americans that reading a book about two moms or dads is equivalent to teaching them about sex. They don’t really think first graders are being taught about sex, it’s just an attempt to distract from beneficial Democratic legislation like the Infrastructure Law and the Affordable Insulin Now Act.

Even so, I’m optimistic about the future. Trump and his henchmen are out of the White House and laws are being passed to do things like fix dangerous bridges, mitigate climate change, and quit forcing poor children to drink water containing lead.

Still, it’s discouraging to see so many people buying into harmful misinformation. COVID was an eye-opener in terms of how dangerous fake news can be. It was truly frightening to see so many people die because they believed a lie and refused the free, safe, life-saving vaccine. We also saw the Big Lie about the election culminate on January 6, 2021, with the violent attempted overthrow of our country.

The battle against disinformation is beginning to show some small, encouraging results. Cable news, the most biased source of political commentary, has been seeing a steep decline in its viewership. That phenomenon is in fact borne out by a recent study. When Fox viewers were paid to watch CNN instead, they were less likely to believe fake news, and the results began in as little as three days.

It’s usually pretty easy to verify things, but a lot of people don’t know that. Sometimes those of us who are skilled at and used to seeking out reliable sources forget that a lot of people have never really learned how to do it. This can lead to major breakdowns in communication. If we want to reduce the decisiveness, we need to work toward a standard fact-checking skills curriculum in public schools. We also need to learn how to help our friends, families, and acquaintances stop falling victim to misinformation machines like QAnon, Fox, and Newsmax.

I used to be really judgmental of people who believe conspiracy theories. Then I started reminding myself that some of them are smarter than me in other ways, and most people aren’t out to harm anyone. With those things in mind, it got easier to find common ground and help them question those phony sites and shows for themselves. When that happens, it’s easier for people to form their own opinions based on facts rather than rhetoric or even lies.

It doesn’t even cross a lot of people’s minds to cross-check their sources, to make sure they’re not receiving self-serving information from that source. An example would be a website run by the fossil fuel industry claiming to deliver official information about climate change. Once you find out that page was written by the very industry that profits from people’s misunderstanding, then you can check with NASA or NOAA, actual scientific agencies who specialize in that field, to get the facts.

It’s also beneficial to learn how to use government websites to verify statistics, budget facts, and how congresspeople voted. Of course, you’ll probably run into people who say they don’t believe anything from any governmental agency, but that’s a different topic. Most people will be receptive to something like “Well, we can check the actual bill or law by going to www.whitehouse.gov or www.congress.gov.” If you want to know the truth about the deficit or budget, go to www.cbo.gov. It may sound obvious to go to those websites, but it never occurs to people who’ve either forgotten or never been taught.

An early example that comes to my mind was the Affordable Care Act debate. That’s when I first noticed people from my hometown become armchair political pundits after not having cared about politics before. If you wanted to know the tax penalty for not having health insurance, you could do a Google search for “Obamacare penalty”. Then when you looked through the results for websites ending in .gov, you would have come across the one highlighted here. It’s still there today, with updated information to show that the penalty has been discontinued. If you want to know the facts about what’s in a bill or law, the website ending in .gov is the one to choose from your Google search.

A lot of people were convinced that they were going to have to pay a penalty if they didn’t have health insurance. They simply didn’t know that the fine had all kinds of exceptions to keep from penalizing regular people. Hardly anyone had to pay those fines because most people making that much money already had health insurance through their job, and if they didn’t, not only did the fine have an income threshold, but was not applicable unless the available plan was less than a certain dollar amount compared to your income. Knowledge about how hard it is to find people who had to pay the penalty helps you make an informed opinion based on something other than the Fox lie about how many were actually affected.

And these are not stupid people. These were people I knew from my hometown, school, or previous jobs, as opposed to the social media connections I’ve only met online either from political groups or shared activity interests. Most of these connections originating from real life had passed the same classes, at least in high school, that I had, requiring research from credible sources. But back then the only sources we had to choose from were newspapers, magazines, and books.

They, like me, also got most of their formal education before 24- hour cable news and the internet. After technology took over, we no longer had to go to the library, and we also had more “news” stations to choose from than just the standard networks. I believe it was this 24-hour news cycle that got a lot of people interested in issues they didn’t really care about before. Unfortunately, that 24-hour news cycle has only one goal: to keep viewers engaged. And nothing is more universally engaging than controversy.

When I’m talking with people who want to develop good research skills, I tell them one good way to start is to go to websites that end in either “.gov” or “.org”. The first ending means it’s a government website that’s got reliability requirements overseen by a legally bound inspector general. Websites that end in “.org” are those of non-profit organizations. Granted, there are some questionable nonprofit organizations, but it’s a good starting place. If the organization isn’t something widely known such as www.americancancersociety.org or www.worldwildlife.org, additional things to look for in the site or article could include links to government agency websites or other well-known non-profits.

Another thing I recommend using the Associated Press and public, or non-cable, news sources. Those networks, ABC, NBC, CBS, and PBS, still hold themselves to internal standards from the Fairness Doctrine they were subject to from 1949 until 1987. Cable news was never subject to any of that, which is why it’s important to check the sources of info from them. I always verify through one of the three networks or a government watchdog website.

People who get their news from questionable sources are grossly uninformed about the recently passed Infrastructure Law and the Build Back Better bills being planned by congressional Democrats and the president. Both bills are incredibly popular, but a lot of people still honestly don’t know that the infrastructure law doesn’t raise taxes at all, and the Build Back Better bills don’t propose any taxes on people making less than 400,000 per year. And what’s really sad is that so far at least one Republican who voted against the extremely popular Infrastructure Law is already claiming they voted for it. All anyone has to do to see if those congresspeople are lying about their support is to go to the congressional website. I got there by typing “how congress voted on infrastructure bill” in Google and then put “.gov” behind it.

Now Biden is talking about a special billionaire tax. Judging by current standards, there will be a lot of misinformation surrounding it, which is another good example of why it’s so important to steer people toward reliable sources. It might be a little harder for the conspiracy theorists and Republicans to drum up opposition to the billionaire tax, because Democrats are actually calling it what it is, as opposed to the inaccurately nicknamed Defund the Police. Hopefully they’ll remember the lesson they learned on that one.

I hope things have gotten better in the debate on how to help people avoid fake news since I attended a presentation about fake news at my local library. It was given by a panel including a representative of a local TV station, someone from our state public radio, and a journalism professor from our local university.

They kept saying the only way to hear any truth was to subscribe to a print newspaper. When I got the mic, I asked for ideas on how to educate kids on reliable internet sources, because they and their parents don’t buy newspapers. I told them that even as a middle-aged adult, I don’t subscribe to print newspapers, but I know how to verify info online by checking with reputable news sources like ABC, the Des Moines Register, or the congressional budget office website. They looked down their noses at me and literally told me that if I was unwilling to pay for a print newspaper, I was buying into fake news. I really hope they have since evolved. This was 2017, at the height of the Trump-era fake news heyday.

As much as these guys wanted to, they weren’t going to be able to bring back print newspapers any more than they can bring back the horse and buggy or coal power plants. And when they claim the only source or correct news is print newspapers, they’re doing society and democracy a real disservice. They were basically discouraging families and our education system from teaching kids how to find reliable sources.

Young people seem to be getting more educated in their fact-checking, on a lot of political issues, and I think part of the reason is because they’re living the consequences of cable news lies. They’re the ones who have to do active-shooter drills in school and then can’t afford their rent or to put themselves through school even while working full-time. I commend today’s young people for taking it upon themselves to stand up against the lies, and it gives me hope for the future. At the same time, I see it as an unfortunate sort of “chickens coming home to roost.”

Now the Democrats are passing laws that will help bring us closer to the prosperity our parents and grandparents enjoyed before cable news reared its ugly head. If we help our friends and neighbors reach their own conclusions based on facts rather than lies, we’ll be able to keep the freedoms we have and restore the ones we’ve lost.