“What I know for sure,” said Oprah Winfrey in her famous Golden Globes speech, “is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.” We’ve seen abundant evidence of this in the astonishing strength of the #MeToo movement, which began with creating a safe space in which women (and a few harassed men) can share terrible truths they kept silent about for years. We saw it again in the wake of the Parkland shooting and during the March for Our Lives, as students spoke out about an ugly, uncomfortable reality: an entire generation of American children has grown up in fully justified fear of being shot in their own classrooms.
“The brave students of Parkland, Florida, who saw seventeen of their classmates and teachers murdered on Valentine’s Day, are doing something astonishing: courageous grieving—and a strategic counteroffensive in the twin fogs of disinformation and gunsmoke,” wrote Virginia Heffernan in Wired. “Their uprising provides a new model for all of us who live in two worlds: The real one, where the blood is, and the digital one, where the lies are.”
These lies are not mistakes or accidents but deliberate policy. Within an hour of the Parkland shooting, Twitter accounts — many of which were already under investigation for being the source of Russian meddling in the 2016 election — burst forth with hundreds of posts designed to inflame the gun debate. “Any news event — no matter how tragic — has become fodder to spread inflammatory messages in what is believed to be a far-reaching Russian disinformation campaign,” said a NY Times article by Sheera Frenkel and Daisume Wakabayashi. “The disinformation comes in various forms: conspiracy videos on YouTube, fake interest groups on Facebook, and armies of bot accounts that can hijack a topic or discussion on Twitter.”
Even more troubling are the lies deliberately spread from the Oval Office, where it has become commonplace to present falsehoods as “alternative facts,” to label scientific research findings as “fake news,” and to insist that opinion carries the same weight as evidence. In The Art of the Deal the man who would become America’s 45th president wrote, “Tell people a lie three times, they will believe anything.” As National Public Radio’s Brooke Gladstone explained in her book The Trouble with Reality, nowadays the president and his cronies seem bent on convincing us that “facts are disposable, confusing devices that do not serve you, that do not matter.”
But facts do matter. Just because 41% of Americans are convinced that dinosaurs and humans once roamed the earth together doesn’t make it so. (Spoiler alert: we arrived 59 million years after the last dinosaur died.) Back in the 1950s, having doctors appear in ads promoting the health benefits of cigarettes didn’t make tobacco any less deadly. And today, when disinformation seems to be spreading like this year’s flu bug, we need to be more vigilant than ever to protect ourselves from becoming infected by false, harmful narratives about the issues affecting our lives.
So how do we sort out fact from fiction? We start by considering the source. Which writers, websites, and media outlets have proven most reliable over time? Which have not? As we browse the Internet or scan the papers at the supermarket checkout counter, we’re wise to be skeptical about lurid tabloid headlines about a Parkland student being a paid agitator or the shooter being a far-left winger; turns out those claims are no more accurate than the ones about celebrities being abducted by aliens and having ET’s babies. When a fact tickles your falsehood radar, consult a nonpartisan citizen advocate resource such as FactCheck.org, The Washington Post’s Fact Checker, and the Pulizer-winning PolitiFact.
When in doubt, go back to basics. Our nation was founded as a democracy in which the government is designed to serve the citizens. This year, many of us are honoring that heritage by working to register as many voters as possible, so we can all exercise our collective right to fire lawmakers who take blood money from the NRA and then suggest the solution involves children carrying bullet-proof backpacks and learning CPR. As one health professional put it, "I can confirm that performing CPR can't remove AR-15 bullets from a body. Get a clue." As for teachers carrying guns, how would you like to be a black teacher holding a firearm when the police show up in response to a school shooting? These so-called solutions are just ways of denying the harsh realities we face as a nation.
In challenging times, we need more truth, not less. Our ancestors knew they wouldn’t survive long if they insisted that winter was summer and planted crops in the wrong season. As CNN’s famous “Face Facts” ad points out, calling an apple a banana doesn’t make it a different kind of fruit. The Hawaiians like to say, “Never turn your back on the ocean,” a warning about the consequences of arrogance and disrespect. Those who ignore the truth, or worse, seek to suppress and distort it, may find a tsunami of reality sneaking up on them in ways they never expected. And anyone who thinks being extremely rich and powerful is enough to shield them from the consequences of their actions should ask Harvey Weinstein how that worked out for him.