OPINION – Sometimes, it really is best to shoot the messenger.
If you’ve so much as dipped a toe into the world of social media these days, you know what I’m talking about.
It’s a big pool with room for everybody, from 9/11 conspiracy theorists to fitness gurus who claim to hold the key to a longer, happier, healthier life.
You can justify your thoughts, no matter how far-fetched, because I guarantee, whether you are preaching that the world is under the dominance of evil aliens who have infiltrated our society at every level or following the path to financial independence paved by some self-proclaimed high-finance wizard, you can find a substantiating argument to support you on the internet.
The first website to go up was unveiled on Aug. 6, 1991, when World Wide Web was created by Tim Berners-Lee, a computer scientist at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, in Geneva. It described itself as “a wide-area hypermedia information retrieval initiative aiming to give universal access to a large universe of documents.”
Truth and accuracy, however, are lacking from that description.
Since that initial website, more than 1 billion competitors have been created. Although most are inactive or considered “parked domains,” there are still a minimum of 250 million websites for your perusal. Some are clearly legitimate, others label themselves as satire or humor. Many, however, take a discerning eye to determine fact from fantasy. Then, of course, there are those, mostly political, that deal in pure lies.
We’ve seen, locally, how these lies are perpetrated.
Not long ago, an outfit calling itself National Report posted a story claiming that St. George had made pornography illegal and that first-time offenders would be sentenced to 30 days in jail.
The story, of course, was untrue, but that didn’t stop its rapid circulation in social media outlets or dispel the concerns of those who fell for it.
More recently, an outfit called Associated Media Coverage posted a piece claiming that Warren Jeffs, the self-proclaimed prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, had died. The report, to borrow a phrase from Mark Twain, was “greatly exaggerated.” Jeffs is alive and well and serving a sentence of life plus 20 years in a prison near Palestine, Texas, for raping two young girls – one 12, the other 14 – who he had taken as spiritual wives.
But, in both cases, these malicious stories were widely circulated.
St. George News, and other reputable news agencies, stepped forward to set the record straight.
You see, this whole social media thing has cast a huge shadow over all of us who have worked as scribes over the years. There are good, honest newsmen and women out there searching for truth, a fading commodity, especially during this election season.
I won’t dignify any of the allegations, arguments or positions put forth by some of these sites since the candidates tossed their hat in the ring because to do so would offer a relative degree of credibility to them. Whether liberal or conservative, they are not deserving of the slightest hint of legitimacy.
But, as we have seen, the public eagerly swallows the click bait and before you know it, a story, a meme, an outrageous lie has gone viral because people have become too lazy to search for the truth. There are also those who are uncomfortable with the truth and seek a supporting document – from anywhere – to support their shaky claims.
The most recent fake story about Jeffs appeared on the Associated Media Coverage site, which, in fact, is neater and better organized than many professional media outlets I have cruised. It looked good, the story was written in a clean, traditional journalistic style and, to further cinch it, it was believable and within the realm of possibility.
As soon as the piece appeared on a Google Alert my wife has set up on Jeffs, it set a number of wheels in motion.
While our Kimberly Scott dug into the story from her end, I immediately contacted a number of my contacts within the polygamy community for comment and reaction. I think we both ended up on the line with the public information officer’s office at the Texas prison at the same time because although we had a lot of folks claiming the story was untrue, the only ones who could verify one way or another were prison officials, who quickly dispelled the disinformation.
I recall spending a lot of time over the years chasing stories that turned out to be false, leading to brick walls at the end of long and winding dead end streets. But, that’s part of the job.
A lot of the anger that simmers out there is generated by these falsehoods spread through zealots who realize that most people do not take the time to fact check before spreading news – particularly bad news – about a reviled political opponent, religious opposite, racial or social group.
When proven wrong, who gets the blame?
The media, of course.
It is difficult, working from inside the media, to acknowledge that these crazy, disingenuous groups posting lies are considered a part of what was once a highly respected profession, especially when you see how some longstanding news agencies have compromised their integrity for ratings and readership by click-baiting with exaggerated scandals or what was once termed “yellow journalism.”
The tragedy is that as we enter into this expanded information age, with input attacking us from all sides, it is increasingly difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Reporters are taught to find numerous sources for every story. I know of many professors who admonish their young charges: “If your mother says she loves you, get a second source.”
There are some tools out there that can be helpful in your search for the truth.
Snopes, About Urban Legends, Break the Chain, TruthorFiction.com, Sophos and a number of other reliable sites, are only a few clicks away. You can go to PolitiFact or FactCheck.Org for political answers, and if you want to learn who is influencing whom financially, just punch in at OpenSecrets.Org.
Despite what you may have read, these are independent groups without a political agenda.
We are already seeing the ugly side of this election with disinformation campaigns and smear tactics fouling the air and tainting the process even though we still have a long way to go.
We’re seeing fraudulent stories posted by faux news sites deliberately intending to mislead. Innuendo and lies permeate our news feeds.
That’s why we have to take it upon ourselves to seek the truth, even if it might be difficult to handle.
Ed Kociela is an opinion columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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