If you have been following along with my writing in the past few weeks about Solzhenitsyn and Havel, you will remember that they were thoroughly convinced that it was important for people to live within the truth. Even when somebody else from the outside, in their case the communist regimes that they both had to live under in the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia respectively, tells you that the world is a certain way but you know that it is not that way, it was an important step of rebellion to live within the truth. It was what gave power to the powerless according to Havel.
I was thinking about these two men last weekend I came across an article in the Washington Post entitled, “‘Nothing on this page is real’: How lies become truth in online America.” It was written on November 17 by Eli Saslow.
In this article, he shines a light on Christopher Blair, a 46-year-old man living in Maine, who spent his days during the 2016 presidential election creating fake news nonstop on a page entitled America’s Last Line of Defense. Ironically, he only created the fake news to get people to share it before publicly trying to shame them in front of their family and friends for sharing something false in the first place. Blair, a liberal, talks about his attempts at satire in the article. He would intentionally misspell headlines and include so many outlandish details that he thought that people would simply see through the falsehoods before deciding to share them. People would still share his content and apparently believed it was true despite the fact that there were actual disclaimers on the website indicating that all of it was false. Blair wrote on his personal Facebook page, “Is there ever a point where people realize they’re being fed garbage and decide to return to reality?”
Saslow then highlights some of the tactics that Blair and his associates would utilize to publicly put down those who were gullible enough to buy into the false stories. “They patrolled the comments, venting their own political anger, shaming conservatives who had been fooled, taunting them, baiting them into making racist comments that could then be reported to Facebook. Blair said he and his followers had gotten hundreds of people banned from Facebook and several others fired or demoted in their jobs for offensive behavior online.”
Let’s break down a few layers of this article, but please, before you go any further, go read the article. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on background. Also, please keep in mind that I live in Vermont as I am writing this, and I assume most of the people were going to read it also live in Vermont. I have witnessed similar behavior from my more liberal friends as they share things that are simply meant to be provocative but are entirely untrue. They are not all as obviously marked as America’s Last Line of Defense, but what I don’t want anyone to come away from my thoughts with is the idea that this is only a conservative problem. Yes, it is a conservative problem no doubt, but it is not only conservative problem.
First, when we think about living in the truth, the first layer of truth are the people who are passing around this intentionally misleading content. For these people, in this case conservatives, they are living within a world that has a certain set of parameters. These presuppositions color the way that they see the world. In this case, it is pretty obvious that the content being put out by America’s Last Line of Defense is lining up with those ideas. Because they may want to believe that Barack Obama dodged the draft for Vietnam (when he was nine years old), the content from websites like that resonates with them as true. It did not so much matter whether or not it made sense. We like things that confirm our pre-existing notions.
When you think about it though, it goes even further than that. I would be willing to bet you that most people who interact with this website do not have a bias wanting Barack Obama to specifically dodge the draft. I would be willing to bet that for a lot of people, they never even really considered that possibility. What they do have a bias towards is anything negative about Barack Obama. You can see the same phenomenon on the left with Donald Trump right now. You can imagine a story that said that Donald Trump had a secret child in the 1990s that no one ever heard about. It is not that anyone on the left is necessarily predisposed to believe that Donald Trump had this hypothetical child. Instead, there is a bias towards anything that portrays Donald Trump in a negative light.
Therefore, it is a second-level process. It is not that any of these people want to specifically share an article about Barack Obama dodging the draft. They want to share an article about anything that portrays him in a bad light. It doesn’t matter what it is.
I mention this because the entire tactic that Blair is trying to take advantage of is by making people look ridiculous for sharing false information. That only works if the people care about the information, and there is a percentage of our population on either side of the political spectrum that frankly doesn’t care. If it says that Barack Obama is bad, then it must be true because he is bad. If it says that Donald Trump is bad, then it must be true because he is bad. At least as far as I can tell, these people do not really care about the content.
Let me tell you a story of how I saw this happen. I have only shared one article ever from the Huffington Post according to my Facebook activity log, but this one stood out to me. The title of the article was, “Bernie Sanders Could Replace President Trump With Little-Known Loophole.” It came out just after the election in 2016 when you might remember that some people were little bit upset about the outcome.
If you actually read the article, you will know that the headline was intentionally misleading, much in the style of Blair’s work. However, it was calling people to apply a little bit of common sense and read what was written before they shared it. That would be a good thing.
I remember that a friend of mine shared the article as well, and I remember that someone commented almost immediately after on her post that she had to give it up because the election was over. This guy was right of course, but he didn’t read the article. He went by the headline. He didn’t really care about the content because he assumed that he knew what the article was about. My friend was much more graceful than Blair and Company, and she just pointed out that this guy should probably read the article.
That’s the problem inherent in this entire thing. Content is anything but king. Half the time people don’t read it, and they stop reading after the headline. That was what happened to my friend’s acquaintance. However, the other half of the time it seems like bias is already at play. We don’t really care about whatever is in the article. Really care about the higher-level question of whether or not we like say a particular president in general.
This raises questions about the efficacy of Blair’s methodology. It probably makes him and his followers feel better. They get to rant and rave and make conservatives look ridiculous. It is probably a similar feeling to what conservatives get when Ben Shapiro wrecks a college student who really doesn’t know what he or she is talking about. It makes you feel better about your side, but it is anything but a giant intellectual victory for your side of the aisle.
However, even beyond that, if people don’t care about content, then they are not going to care very much about whether or not you just disproved the article that they shared. They may even admit that a particular article wasn’t true. I would imagine when faced with simple information like his year of birth that no one would continue supporting the idea that elementary school Barack Obama was somehow expected to be drafted.
As I have outlined it though, the problem is not this particular article. It is a higher-level problem embedded in a general dislike of a person, regardless of the content. Therefore, refuting the article is not effective, and it really is no surprise. The article was never in question. The person may not have even read the article, but even if here she did, that’s not the central point of any of these arguments.
What do we do then? If Blair’s methodology is not overly effective because, as I have suggested, the truth of the article really isn’t what matters, there must be some kind of alternative that could be effective.
I don’t have a perfect answer for you, but if the problem is the more general agreement or disagreement with a particular person or perspective, then that is the level that we need to move the argument to. If someone shows a propensity to share articles that are untrue, on either side of the political spectrum, then the question is not why they decide to share any article in particular. The question is why they hold the perspective that they do. I have found that that is a much more constructive way to start these conversations.
For example, a lot of you know that I care about pro-life issues. I have seen plenty of ignorant articles shared about abortion. I have seen tons of misleading statistics and things that really deserve to be disputed. However, I could prove one person’s article wrong. I may even be right, and the person might agree with me at the end of the day. However, I have done nothing to really change that person’s propensity towards sharing other, similar articles in the future.
I then have to ask a follow-up question. I need to know why that person decided to share that article. Once I get to that level of questioning, then I at least can have a conversation about the heart of the matter. Did they actually read the article and come to an informed opinion based on the information presented? At least I can have a conversation about that, even if I think the person is wrong. It is okay to talk about the article if the person actually believes it. I may not change anyone’s mind, but at least we can talk about something.
However, if the reason for sharing that article is simply because abortion is a woman’s right and nobody can say anything to the contrary, then I have also learned something important. It was never about the article in the first place but rather it was about sharing anything that went along with that person’s preconceived notions.
My conversation here will be a little bit different. There’s no point talking about the article. This person doesn’t care about it. Therefore, I might as well go even one level higher. Rather than even talk about the article at all, I should then begin talking about the issue in question whether it is abortion or anything else. At least maybe I can get somewhere. People like this to share articles they don’t even know about are going to do it no matter what. Therefore, if I cannot change that behavior, I simply should try to get them to a better perspective on the issue. It is probably not going to be overly effective, but at least it is potentially more useful than talking about an article that the person may not even support anyway.
That’s the important part. It is all about maximizing effectiveness, and I think maybe that is our best approach for engaging people like this, no matter where you land on the political spectrum. We need to find out why they shared a particular article. If they shared the article because they actually believe the information in it, it is worth talking about the article. If they shared the article because it is simply aligned with a higher political view that they happen to hold, then it probably isn’t worth talking about the article. By engaging with the article, you really are not engaging with their key argument but rather something that aligns with the key argument, and you would be better off finding your way to the heart of the issue.
I think that these methods would be more effective than Blair’s method of humiliation. I might be wrong, and he obviously does this a lot more than I do. That being said, it might be worth giving my method a try. I think it might be more effective.