The truth police


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The new truthers have latched onto “fake news,” and the need to clean up the internet. It is a good and holy cause, but the people invested in this idea are a lot scarier than fake news.

“We can create the technology, re-work social incentives, and encourage the laws to create the internet we want,” writes Sunil Paul at “Imagine a future where content creators and aggregators are accountable for the validity of what they create and promote. It is a world where the people and the sources that tell the truth are valued and prosper and those who deceive suffer ignominy and failure.”

George Orwell, the late author, imagined that future and wrote a book about it. The title was “1984.” It was set in Oceanic where the “truth” was neat and tidy because “Big Brother” made it so.

Totalitarian governments strive for neat and tidy.

America’s Founding Fathers wrote a Constitution that recognized this danger. They understood democracy lives and flourishes  on the edge of chaos. They intentionally established a government designed to favor chaos over control.

The First Amendment ensured a free and open forum for argument such as the world had never before seen.

Back to the future

And make no mistake, the people who founded this country knew “fake news,” and knew it well.

Long before the Russians, who may or may not have gotten involved in the last U.S. election, there was John Callendar. During the election of 1800, he sold the country the idea that John Adams wanted to wage war on the French.

“Callendar proved incredibly effective, convincing many Americans that Adams desperately wanted to attack France. Although the claim was completely untrue, voters bought it, and (Thomas) Jefferson stole the election,” Kerwin Swint, a professor of political science at Kennesaw State University and the author of “Mudslingers: The 25 Dirtiest Political Campaigns of All Time,” wrote for Mental Floss magazine in 2012.

And Callander was just one of the fake newsers feeding the 1800 race between two of the country’s now-revered “founding fathers.” Adams had a dirty-tricks gang of his own.

“Adams’ men called Vice President Jefferson ‘a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father,'” Swint wrote. “As the slurs piled on, Adams was labeled a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal, and a tyrant, while Jefferson was branded a weakling, an atheist, a libertine, and a coward.”

Sounds kind of Donald Trumpish, doesn’t it?

America moved on

The country survived the Adams-Jefferson dogfight. The citizenry sorted out the false from the factual, and it moved on.  The laws already on the books were used to do something about the worst of it, but that was it.

Callendar actually did time in jail for the criminal slander of Adams. He got out in 1801 and quickly turned his anger on Jefferson. In 1802, he broke a story – not fake news, though Jefferson tried to treat it as such – claiming Jefferson and Sally Hemings, one of the President’s African-American salves, were having an affair.

“In a series of articles, Callendar claimed that Jefferson had lived with Hemings in France and that she had given birth to five of his children,” Swint wrote. “The story plagued Jefferson for the rest of his career. And although generations of historians shrugged off the story as part of Callendar’s propaganda, DNA testing in 1998 showed a link between Hemings’ descendents and Jefferson’s family.”

The once “fake news” turned out to be “true news.” It just took time.

Unfortunately, the new truthers are impatient as so many are in America today. They want the truth now.

“Ultimately the power of the state will be required to help improve the integrity of content on the internet,” Paul writes.

Imagine what Jefferson might have done to “improve the integrity of content” in the 1800s or former President Richard M. Nixon much later or other presidents between if given this power. No doubt Paul is well-intentioned, but this is a slippery slope.

Only American elites inherently uncomfortable with the masses would risk going there because, of course, nothing the elites read is “fake news.”

Only those blue-collar suckers read fakes news.  The problem obviously rests with those of low intellectual levels who need to be protected from information. The people with dirt under their fingernails can’t be expected to sort things out.

They need the truthers to protect them.

What is truth?

Here is one of the truthers at work in Alaska this week:

“(Amy) Demboski passed along a bogus claim on her Facebook page linking an Alaskan to a tale about compounds and weapons stockpiles. There was an informative map with an arrow showing a secret compound on the eastern North Slope of the Brooks Range, somewhere in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” writes Dermot Cole of the Alaska Dispatch News.

Demboski is an Anchorage radio talk show host, a member of the Anchorage assembly, an unsuccessful candidate for Anchorage mayor, and a diehard conservative.  Cole is a longtime Alaska newspaper reporter and columnist from Fairbanks, and a liberal.

In this day and age, Cole easily could and ethically should provide a link to the map on Demboski’s Facebook page so a reader can access the untruth that offended Cole, but he didn’t did that.

He did provide a link to another story about the Demboski Affair that also seems to lack a link to the Demboski Facebook page, but does contain a  link to an Alaska story that started its own little jihad against Demboski for her comments on Muslims, and the Alaska Commons story has a link to Demboski’s Facebook page where there is a map with arrows clearly pointing to Alaska, California, Texas, Michigan, New York, Virginia, Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia.

If the arrows on the map are intended to point to the specific locations of the stockpiles, as Cole claims, then there are apparently three such stockpiles somewhere north of Saratoga, NY; two such stockpiles around Harrisonburg, VA; and two such stockpiles south of Albany, Ga.; and two such stockpiles near Kirkwood, CA.

Since this clustering is unlikely, it should be pretty obvious to anyone with half a brain that the map isn’t pointing out the locations of stockpiles; it is simply pointing out the states a semi-legitimate group monitoring this sort of things claims have stockpiles.

The big giveaway is at the top of the map where it says: “Islamist Compounds in the U.S. per state.” Cole’s disingenuous and, frankly, dishonest attempt to make the map into something other than what it is represents well why so many in this country distrust the mainstream media.

And what exactly does Demboski say about this map? Here’s her comment in its entirety:

“Somehow we are the only ones talking about this group in Alaska. Oh wait, no we aren’t, so is Fox News nationally.

“How is it a candidate pops up in the last Alaskan election, who is a member of this group, and we are the only ones who even mentioned it (or asked him about it) here in Alaska? He seemed like a nice guy, but doesn’t the group, associations, and past history deserve at least a little attention? We thought so, especially since the cleric is a militant Islamic guy living in Pakistan. Reassuring that national media highlights Alaska has our own “compound” too…. #AKmediafailure

Guilty of bad writing!

There is no doubt her post is poorly worded. One could read it to mean the Alaskan in question is a cleric who “is a militant Islamic guy living in Pakistan.” Take her to task for bad use of antecedents and the fact that given the touchy nature of Islam in America today someone could possibly infer from her post that the “nice guy” might actually be a secret militant.

Demboski should be slapped on the fingers for her careless (or ignorant) use of language, especially in these times when some Muslims are being threatened for their religious beliefs. But that isn’t what Cole does. Instead, he accuses her of “spreading a bit of nonsense about a Muslim compound that doesn’t exist” and ties to underline that statement with some wrong-fingered finger-pointing at a map he claims places this compound in ANWR.

As for the rest of it, anyone reading this story can click the links back to Alaska Commons and Demboski’s Facebook page and follow the other links at both to try to figure out for themselves what to make of  the Muslims of the Americas. ADN reporter Michele Therriault Boots did that and came to this conclusion: 

“The link Demboski posted traces the assertion about weapons stockpiled at compounds back to an exchange between a Fox News host and Ryan Mauro, a self-styled security analyst for the Clarion Project, the same group that said Gregory Jones was a member of a ‘terror cult’ back in July.”

A headline at Clarion does say “Sanders Delegate is Member of Fuqra Terror Cult,” but that isn’t exactly what the story says. The July story says that Alaska Democratic convention delegate  Greg Jones “is a member of Muslims of the Americas, which is a rebranding of Jamaat ul-Fuqra, a cultish Islamist group that is led by an extremist cleric in Pakistan and has a history of terrorism and criminal activity.”

The website also says the group is working to become a mainstream moderate organization. The Clarion Project clearly doesn’t believe that, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

All of which illustrates the problem with the “truthers” and the truth. The truth is seldom black and white. It is invariably a bunch of grays.

Demboski admits she hasn’t a clue to the truth. Coles tries to smudge some facts to create his own truth.  And Boots, who to her credit goes looking for some facts, concludes the truth is that the government says there is no Muslim compound in Alaska so it must not exist.

Why? Because the government is never wrong?

It’s too bad she never called the Clarion Project, an interest group, to ask where exactly it got its information instead of noting only the Southern Poverty Law Center, another interest group,  “says the Clarion Project peddles in ‘anti-Muslim conspiracy theories.'”

Boots paint Jones as nice guy unfairly caught in the spotlight. That’s true as far as it goes. He is also a politician, albeit an unsuccessful one. He went seeking the spotlight. With the good sometimes comes the bad.

Ask his Matanuska-Susitna Valley neighbor, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, possibly the most vilified woman in the country. She can tell you about the politics of America today. But don’t count on her for the truth. She doesn’t have it either, and she’s regularly short on facts in a world full of facts.

Facts versus truth

Facts, it must be understood, are not truth. Truth is something composed of a whole bunch of facts that align, and it is pretty rare. Gravity is a truth. Things go up; things come down; every time. The experiment is infinitely repeatable, and it always turns out the same.

Almost nothing in politics is truth. Some science has reached the point of truth, but a lot hasn’t.

Religion is decidedly not a truth, but various religion at various times have been full of truthers. Christianity waged some nasty wars to spread the “Christian truth.”

Christianity does offer some sensible rules for living. It promises hope for an afterlife. These are good things. But they are not truth; no one knows where we go after death because no one comes back to report.

ISIS is now murdering people left and right in the Syria and Iraq to bring them its idea of truth. Be very wary of people who start talking about the truth. Tell them to stick to the facts.

I admit to a bias here. I’m a facts guy. I’ve called out more than a few reporters over the years for reporting information that wasn’t factual. Reporters who make crap up or traffic in ignorance drive me nuts. Their mistakes need to be corrected.

If it’s a simple error, fix it and move it on. If it’s more than that, well, a good dose of public embarrassment might help.

But this truth stuff is troubling, this Paul-talk about “technology that allows content to be tagged with a truthfulness score. There are lots of ways this could be implemented and smart people are already working out schemes for it. I went a layer deeper in ‘More on Technology’ at the end of this article and there is already a lot of work underway trying to develop solutions.”

Who controls this truth? Who decides what is truth?

Paul’s “smart people?” Who determines entry into that select group?

Historically, the truthers who’ve gained power don’t have a very good reputation. Adolph Hitler’s truth was that Jews were  “parasitic vermin,” not fellow humans, and thus worthy only of eradication. He brought “truth” to Germany. Millions of innocent people were murdered, and the world almost went up in flames.

Josef Stalin had his own twisted truth that left millions more dead.

Yes, fake news is bad, and it should be found and countered by real news wherever and whenever it appears. Yes, fake news might have influenced an election, though who is to say Trump supporters were anymore susceptible to “fake news” propaganda than  Hillary Clinton supporters were susceptible to “her turn” propaganda.

“So in Hillary, we have a candidate who has dedicated her life to public service, someone who has waited her turn and helped out while waiting,” First Lady Michele Obama said on the stump, and for some the election was this simple:

“America elected an African-American president in Barak Obama, and now it is a woman’s turn and Hillary is up.”

Americans have varied and sometimes odd ways of deciding on how to cast their votes, but somehow democracy has survived.

It has survived a lot of fake news, too; and it will continue to survive this. The only thing it really has to fear are the people with the “truth,” because if there’s one thing history makes clear it is that truthers of all sort are inherently and dangerously opposed to minority views.

What they really want is their truth and only their truth. Because of that, they are more than happy to settle with the wrong truth just so long as it is their truth.

This is the one thing all Americans ought to be wary of in president-elect Trump. He often seems to be following some truth of his own making. Imagine if he gained the power to, as Paul puts it, “improve the integrity of content on the internet.”





















5 replies »

  1. You know something is wrong when the activist of the day wants to herd you to the “approved” news outlets. I enjoy reading a blend of ideas and finding facts and truths in unlikely places.

  2. The best solution to the “questionable facts” problem is teaching people to think critically. People treat their beliefs as truth, and accept the version of the “facts” that fit that truth. It’s confirmation bias on a personal level – the antithesis of critical thinking.

    • It seems that critical thinking has been in decay for decades, and has been mostly bred-out of the generations that came along after the baby boomers. Critical thinking requires you to question. To question “the truth”, to question “the facts”. Seems that was done a lot more in the 60’s than it is done today. The reason we have such divisive polarization in the US is because people don’t bother to question or think critically. That’s too much work. It’s easier to just choose a mantra on the far left or far right and emote it. Critical thinking leads to centrism and middle of the road political views. Because centrism is so rare these days, that implies that critical thinking is a rare phenomenon also.

  3. The solution is to revisit the laws pertaining to libel and slander in this age of expanded media. Certainly, the courts have established that one can report events “absent malice”; however, they have also ruled that one cannot shout “fire” in a crowded theater. A basic legal protection against slander and libel accusations is that truth is an absolute defense against libel and slander; however, if a claim by another causes damage, those affected should have recourse that does not place the entire burden of proof of both damage and intent to damage on them. The bottom line is that if someone is going to cry “fire” in a crowded theater and that alarm harms others, an actual fire had better occurred. That standard should apply both to those who originate this “news” and those who further report it. In this case sounding an alarm regarding caches of weapons being stored in Alaska and intended for armed rebellion is analogous to that cry of “fire” and the originator of the report and those who promulgate this unsubstantiated report should be legally responsible to produce the truth that substantiates the claim.

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