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On and on the arguments go, driving us all further apart. Facts don't matter; nothing is resolved.
Climate change is a myth. No, it's a menace. Immigration makes the country strong. No, it's destroying the country. Taking a knee shows you care; taking a knee betrays America.
It's almost like someone out there was trying to divide us.
Pineapple is a great topping for pizza. No, it's a terrible topping.
Wait! That last one wasn't real. It's a fake controversy dreamed up by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to show how internet trolls really are trying to divide us.
The graphic at right shows how Russians and other foreign trolls seek to muddy the waters of public discourse by starting bogus controversies and seeding them with made-up “facts,” faux anger and pseudo-indignation. It might be called the “real” fake news.
Beth Dlug, Allen County director of elections, called our attention to the graphic after we asked her, during an interview, what individuals could do to help defend the democratic process from foreign interference.
“I think one of the most important things a voter can do is understand how the Russians tried to influence our elections,” Dlug wrote in an email a few days ago. “There is no evidence any votes were changed in 2016. The Russians were successful at launching influence campaigns. Voters need to understand the difference and know how to spot foreign influence on social media.”
As clear and present as it is, the danger foreign interference poses to our democracy still hasn't seemed to register with lots of citizens.
“It's not clicking,” said Andrew Downs, associate professor of political science at Purdue Fort Wayne, “because people have become distrustful of information in general.” Traditional media, academic institutions, government intelligence officers – the traditional arbiters of truth vs. fiction – have been undercut by doubt.
“I think it's important because (foreign interference) can actually undermine confidence in the system,” Downs said. “The system isn't perfect, but it's worked for 200 years, and a complete undermining of it is threatening to its survival.”
“I don't think it's because we're more or less able to distinguish truth from falsehood,” said philosopher and ethicist Abe Schwab. “But today, because the Internet so easily connects people who don't really know each other, people are more susceptible to what's called confirmation bias,” said Schwab, also a PFW associate professor.
“We like affirmation,” Downs said. “If I find something (on the web) that says I'm right, why should I keep looking? I don't have to have anything else, because I'm right.” Downs quotes his late father, Mike Downs, who also taught political science at PFW: “They went to the lamppost for support, not for enlightenment.”
“It's something that's on our minds as librarians all the time,” said Ann Marshall, PFW's information and instruction librarian. “It's a tremendous transition we're making from print to online.”
To fight back, said Schwab, learn to be skeptical. “Check your sources before you post things. Identify the reliability of the source of whatever it is you're consuming or sending to others.” Absolute truth may be hard to establish, he said, and it may sometimes be wiser to acknowledge “I really don't know.” But that doesn't mean every viewpoint is equally likely to be true. If actions or decisions are required, he suggested, “we should act upon the best available evidence. We can rely on experts who are more likely to have the right answer.”
It's not a question of intelligence. It may not be a question of values, or good intentions. The reason Americans no longer seem to be able to agree on a lot of pretty basic things is that we've lost something even more basic – trust. Somehow, we've got to get it back.