Perhaps the most potentially dangerous byproduct of social media has been the democratisation of information. Not so long ago information was dominated by what you could find in books and what you saw on TV or read in newspapers. While it’s true, that information was occasionally wrong, for the most part it was governed by standards. Facts were checked before they were reported as facts. Legal ramifications of claims were examined before they were printed in books.
Again, I’d be the first to admit that, as is true with all things human, those methods of purveying information accurately back then were imperfect, to be sure. But they were light years ahead of what we find today on the internet. Today, anything goes, and an opinion is frequently given unmerited weight simply because it is said in a clever way.
People are quick to offer their opinions as fact, and all-too-often, they are received as fact. Sweeping generalities are the order of the day. Irresponsible prognostications are made without fear of any consequences if the prognosticator should turn out to be wrong. All they need to do when they are proven wrong is not mention it and rely on the internet’s notoriously bad memory to forget they ever said it. And if they turn out to be right, well, rest assured they will never let you forget it.
The problem with this kind of poisonous milieu is it makes it very easy for our leaders to lie. For example, recently a “burn pit” bill giving financial relief to American veterans exposed to toxic burn pits was defeated by Senate Republicans because they said an additional rider was added to the bill. This was a lie. The real reason Republicans defeated the bill was because they wanted to punish Democrats, so they invented that easily-disprovable lie.
Fortunately the story has a happy ending. Comedian Jon Stewart, an advocate for healthcare for veterans, brought so much publicity to the matter that the Senate voted again and passed it by an overwhelming majority. But had it not been for Stewart they might have easily gotten away with that transparent lie, to the extreme misfortune of America’s veterans — people Republicans claim to support. And though all’s well that ends well, those perfidious Republicans will never suffer the infamy they deserve for such a filthy lie.
Forty years ago the lie those Senate Republicans told might have been a career-ending mistake. Today it will be forgotten in a week. That is the world we live in now. It’s a world where a twice-impeached, insurrectionist-leading president of the United States can tell 30,000 lies in a single four year term. It is a dangerous world indeed. It’s up to us to keep alive the traditions of truthful, critical thinking, because no one else will. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.