Truth or wishful thinking?
A hundred years ago, newspapers and leaflets used to form public opinion and condition the worldview of the population at large on the topics that are outside of the immediate experience of the majority of people. Public speeches and speaking tours around the country were also among the primary ways to spread the message and promote the desired worldview.
Then radio came along. FDR took advantage of it and became almost a member of each household. Soviet propaganda utilized the radio too.
In the USSR — even as late as 30 years ago — each house was required to have a cable radio. The justification was that, in the case of a war, this line of communication between the government and the people might become the only one. In Stalin’s time, one was not allowed to turn it off, so in each home, the radio was talking (even if very quietly) from 6 am until midnight. It delivered news and music (it was actually often good classical music).
Many people used it as an alarm clock. It started at 6 am by playing the national anthem. I have used to it so much that even today mumble the words of the anthem sometimes at the back of my mind when I have to get up very early — the habit apparently wired in me after many years of exposure. This tiny background sound — all day, every day for years — definitely was able to mold public opinion.
When TV came along, Kennedy (and Soviet propaganda) utilized it to his advantage. The imagery is very effective.
Today Google is added to the arsenal of tools that are used to bring the message to the masses (and to manipulate public opinion), and the new 45th American president tries to use Twitter the same way FDR used the radio.
At first, Google’s ranking algorithm was very helpful at finding the most relevant information, selected by the references — it usually correlated with the quality of the information. Then people, companies, and states started exploiting it to bring up the rating of their web pages.
Now there are many bots out there that coerce us into certain ways of thinking, distorting the truth, and shaping our world views. It becomes increasingly more difficult to discern between a new revealing revolutionary truth and the most outrageous lie or fantasy. It is easier to do after the news becomes not new, but in the heat of the dialog, the muddy waters work in favor of the boldest liar. The good quality info is drowned in the sea of lies, half-truths, and honest mistakes.
The criteria for accepting something as true on the spot are based on gut feelings, heavily influenced by the “feeling good.” The confirmation bias rules.
This behavior is not new. Religious relics, for example, are spread across many churches in great numbers. So many pieces of “true cross” are on display today that, if brought together, one could build many crosses from them. And yet, every believer and often even non-believer feels “something special” in the presence of a relic. Who knows? Maybe this relic is the true one?
Today “fake news” term is used by everybody against everybody. To add some stats, recently, Facebook estimated that between 5–6% (40–50mln) of its accounts are fake. Others estimate this number as high as 27% (200mln). They are used for various purposes, including dissemination of the views that would exploit your desire to confirm your worldview. Would not you prefer to feel correct and vindicated over the need to re-evaluate your point of view and learn the opinions of your opponents?
Well, if your answer is yes, then you can be sure that your preference can be exploited, too. So, you better be aware that not all of your “friends” are acting in good faith, not all of them even real people, and those real and sincere ones can be under the influence (pan was intended), including me, of course.
Is it possible to form an independent opinion in the area where you do not have the expertise and cannot verify the fact yourself? I don’t think so. But is it possible to decrease the chance of being deceived? Yes.
Just keep an eye on the quality of your sources. This proverb remains a very useful guideline: “If a man deceives me once, shame on him; if he deceives me twice, shame on me.”
I also find that writing about something helps me to correct myself and to understand the topic better. If you never did, try it. There is a good chance you will be very surprised.