If you read a lot of conservative Internet media, or if you spend a lot of time on Facebook, you probably believe some or all of the following:
Barack Obama was born in Kenya. His great-grandfather founded the Communist Party. He has a Muslim inscription on his ring, which he doesn’t wear during Ramadan because he is secretly a Muslim. He had four gay men in Chicago killed while running for the Presidency in 2007. Also, he is secretly gay. He is planning to declare martial law to prevent the next election and keep himself in power.
Michelle Obama hates America. Michelle Obama is a man. Michelle Obama’s children were secretly adopted (because Michelle is a man.) She signed the school lunch bill. Her hair is actually a wig she bought in an Indian temple from Hindus.
Bill and Hillary Clinton have murdered literally hundreds of people, including Vince Foster and a former White House chef. Bill is a pedophile, and Hillary is a lesbian. Hillary had an affair with Huma Abedin. The Clinton Foundation is a slush fund that the Clintons steal money from. Hillary is a (literal) witch. She has Parkinson’s disease, a body double, and might sometimes be a robot.
Valerie Jarrett is Iranian and Huma Abedin is Saudi Arabian. They are part of a secret Muslim plan to take over the country and impose Sharia law on the states.
If you are in deeply enough, you may also believe the following:
The economy, media, and educational systems are run by Jews as part of an international Jewish conspiracy to control the world. White people are currently undergoing a “genocide” designed by this Jewish cabal that operates by using international trade to open all national borders and overrun “White” nations with black and brown people, whose intent is to impose Sharia law on all non-Muslim nations.
Women, blacks, Jews, and gays are usurping the rightful power of white men.
Jesus was white.
Set aside whether any of this is true or not, the fact is these claims have been pushed on the Internet for the past eight years, and many people believe them—except for a few that I just made up off the top of my head. The fact that they all have a similar rooting in empirical evidence (none) should tell you something.
There was a time in American culture when a person wouldn’t speak publicly on a subject unless they could speak somewhat authoritatively, and listeners were discerning. If someone came to speak at your public library on the subject of China, for example, you would expect them to be Chinese, to have lived in China, to have visited China, or to have studied it in some significant way. If instead they asserted that they “knew” these things because they had heard a lot around town or read a pamphlet, the gathering of people with nothing to do on a weekday afternoon in Room A might well not have them back. Someone might even complain to whoever let them the room to begin with. Time, after all, is precious, and listening to people who don’t know what they’re talking about is a waste of it.
And, yet, that’s what conservatives basically do all day on the Internet and especially on Facebook. They read non-authoritative nonsense from people whose agenda is one-part ideological distribution and nine parts click-bait, and spread it to others with similarly low levels of discernment.
When was the last time you actually checked whether something on Facebook was true—and not just because it seemed “too liberal”? When was the last time you actually read a book or a journal by scholars, or the original study an article was based on, or the methodology for that online garbage poll you cited?
There are people who know what they’re talking about. They are called “scholars,” and they rarely write on the Internet. They do research—original and aggregate—and their conclusions are valid and valuable. There are also people who don’t know what they’re talking about. Many of them are called “bloggers” and “commentators”, and they have little background in the subjects they write or speak on; their conclusions should be checked before they are passed on.
Then there are memes. Political memes tend to feature a picture of a loved/hated figure, accompanied by supposed quotes from them. However, often, the quotes are fake. Without checking the source (usually not provided), it is foolish to believe or pass these on.
The problem is that websites need clicks, so they play to the crowd they have, and the crowd they have is increasingly polarized, right or left. Ironically, while conservatives complain about the mainstream media’s agenda-driven content, the fact is that all public writing that contains advertising essentially exists to carry advertising, not just ideas. The more the audience likes what it sees, the more benefit the advertiser gets. So, websites tend to feed the audience what it already agrees with—and fuels outrage against its already-hated enemies.
The problem with Facebook is much, much worse—though unintentional—and might be impossible to solve. Facebook is fine for what it was originally intended to be—a place for people to keep in touch with friends and make new ones, through shared interests and positive (“liked”) interactions. The Facebook algorithm attempts to provide users with things that interest them—things they will enjoy, agree with, and “like.”
That’s great for cat pictures, new baby announcements, and YouTube videos of flashmobs singing Christmas songs at the mall.
It might, however, prove fatal to the Republic, and here’s why. (For an in-depth radio commentary on this from Steven Crowder, click here.) Political content on Facebook—which conservatives, especially elderly ones, consume a lot of—is designed to be what you already agree with, which it discerns when you “like” something. After a while, you see nothing else.
If you “liked” the Donald Trump page when he entered the race, by now all you see are posts re-inforcing your own biases. New information—mistakes, scandals, upcoming trials for fraud and child rape—don’t land on your page. You are pre-disposed to refute, ignore, or deny everything you come across to the contrary—such as in a seemingly hostile debate question or a non-Sean Hannity television interview.
This is also true for people on the other side. They are receiving information that is the opposite of what you see. At this point, you can’t understand why they think what they think, and they can’t understand why you think what you think.
This isn’t good for our political system. Democratic theory takes as its basic assumption an informed population voting on its perceived interests. But a person who only has one side of the argument isn’t informed enough to know where their interests lie, and they are easy targets for manipulative politicians whose own interest has become to build teams instead of serving the public.
So, if all you know now is Trump=good, Clinton=bad, Johnson=Aleppo, Stein=who? and McMullin=wait—what? take some time to expose yourself to the other half of the argument. Find out why Obama’s popularity rating is so high and why Michelle Obama is likely to be president within the next ten years. Do some research on something you think you already know—like global warming or gun control. Find out the other argument so you can do better in a battle of wits than “nuh-uh” or “is not” or “you’re a cuck.”
Your opponent is not your enemy. He or she is an American with different ideas than you have. And if both sides can let go of their memes and pick up some truth, we might all be able to end this uncivil war after November 8, regardless of who wins.
By the way, Valerie Jarrett is an American, born to American parents working in Iran. She was raised in London and Chicago, and her maiden name was Bowman. Huma Abedin was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and her parents moved to Saudi Arabia after she was born. She went to British schools, returned to the US for college, and speaks four languages. Jesus wasn’t White.