A few weeks back, I failed at one of my post-election resolutions—to fact check everything I post on social media before I post it. I’d been doing well. I verified. I called. I looked up and added back-up news sources in the comments if I shared a status that didn’t have citations in it.
It was startling to me, as someone who had thought of myself as a fairly skeptical news consumer before, well familiar with Snopes and possessed of a decent BS meter, how different it was to actually do this.
I shared less. I caught a lot of things that weren’t accurate that I might not have caught before. I started to become very aware of just how much many of the people with whom I am connected, many of whom are quick to deride Fox News–watching gullible folks who will believe anything, would also believe nearly anything if it supported their own confirmation bias. And sometimes were not chastened to have what they shared thrown into question.
I also noticed that I wasn’t alone. I saw a lot of people taking the same path. A lot more back up sources in the comments. A lot more challenging of questionable facts that would have supported their political narrative.
But then I got suckered in in a moment of laziness, and followed up a fact-checked post with a not-true “example” about The Wall Street Journal manipulating different audiences by printing essentially contradictory headlines for two different markets to match what people wanted to hear (turns out it was actually a morning and afternoon edition, and over that time Trump made a speech and reversed himself, as he does). Ironic to be fooled by fake news about manipulated news, no? Happily a sharp-eyed acquaintance caught it and I took it down.
Nonetheless, my slip up was a perfect example of just how easy it is for our political biases to be manipulated. Amanda Taub wrote in The New York Times last week about research on just how deep partisan bias has gotten—and how it is therefore one of the major fuels for the spread of fake news. Because source trustworthiness is one of our most major shortcuts for assessing reliability when we are drowning in information, and because we have come to have a major trust gap between political orientations, anything that comes from someone associated with a group with whom we identify is seen as trustworthy, and anything that does not—including neutral fact checking—is often dismissed. This goes beyond, but is compounded by confirmation bias (in which we believe things that reinforce our pre-existing views).
We are all vulnerable to these two problems.
As many people have pointed out, the United States is currently in serious danger of descending into fascism. We are seeing a leader who is systematically discrediting the press, the intelligence agencies, the entire civil apparatus of government. Things are very, very scary.
Researcher John Gottman, known for studying what factors are mostly likely to make romantic relationships succeed or fail, has famously identified contempt as the worst poison pill in a relationship. Relationships can survive a host of other things—conflict, anger, differences of opinion. But once contempt makes a showing, he says, it’s hard to recover. That’s bad news for this country right now.
I would argue that fighting what’s going on (and we need to fight it, hard), will require letting go of our contempt for people who have swallowed untruths that led us here. Not our criticism. We can, and should, keep attacking the lies, the hate, the denial of the implications. We should not for a second normalize or excuse any of the behaviors, positions, abuses. We should not give Trump any benefit of the doubt, any “wait and see.”
But to fight this we need to find ways to create a resistance narrative and make the storyline coming from Trump not sit right with as many people as possible. We can’t do that by fooling ourselves into believing that we can never be fooled. And we can’t do it by constantly leading with “you stupid uneducated moron” and cousin-incest jokes. That’s the language of people who have given up on democracy (and thus it doesn’t surprise me that I see it less from the more politically active on other fronts).
We can (and must) be angry; devote our attention to marching, organizing amongst ourselves, protecting those under attack, holding our elected officials accountable, and otherwise doggedly and relentlessly fighting back; and call a spade a spade, whether it’s in terms of white supremacy rearing its head or misinformation coming from this post-truth administration, and still choose not to wield contempt for broad swaths of people. We’re fighting for something much, much more important than the right to say, “I told you so.”
Now let’s get up and fight. It’s time.