I grew up in a blue household deep in red America. As a result, my social media feeds run purple. Unlike many of my friends in Colorado and Mississippi, I can’t count on a nonstop echo chamber for my views. Whatever I say, someone will disagree with and I’m okay with that. It’s not good for anyone to live in a cocoon of affirmation.
Here are a few things I know to be true. Conservatives who feast on a steady diet of Fox News are idiots. Ditto liberals who immerse themselves in the smug self-righteousness of MSNBC. But the least-informed people, the ones who ought to be fully ashamed of themselves, are the folks who get all their news from the internet. I have seen people who ought to know better post links to fully fabricated and sensational “news” stories, as if they were handed down from God. The fake news postings come mostly, though not exclusively, from my conservative friends. My liberal friends are far more likely to spread junk science. I wish that a steady diet of strong coffee, red wine, and dark chocolate would increase my life expectancy, but I’m not gullible enough to believe it’s true just because someone posted it online. We all need to learn how to be more discerning about the information we receive and disseminate.
For years my husband and I lived across the street from a Pulitzer winning journalist. Sometimes he and my husband would sit on the porch, sip whiskey, and talk about the world. “Always be a skeptic,” the man said. “Never a cynic.” That man passed away years ago and we moved to a different neighborhood, but I’ve never forgotten his words. I wonder what that man would think of today’s nonstop barrage of misinformation? Would he slide from skepticism to cynicism as I’m so tempted to do? Probably not. He was a better person than I am.
We all need to be more skeptical. Just because something makes you feel good about yourself doesn’t mean it’s true. Sometimes you have to digest information that is unpleasant and contradicts your worldview. Here’s an example: I think Betsy DeVos is the single most unqualified person we could ever have running the Department of Education. Her plans to institute voucher programs and siphon money from public schools will hurt the children who need the most help. But this week DeVos pushed against Jeff Session’s mean-spirited and wrongheaded decision to rescind the rights of transgendered people. DeVos, it seems, worries that we might be putting transgender students in danger. On this narrow point, I agree with DeVos and I don’t feel great about agreeing with DeVos on anything. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve found myself in agreement with Sen. Lindsey Graham or Sen. John McCain recently, and that makes me deeply uncomfortable. I don’t care for either of these men, but I can’t dispute the fact that I too want deeper investigations into the administration’s ties to Russia and I agree that any policy that raises the price of Mexican beer and tequila is a bad idea. On the other hand, Jeff Sessions continues to be the man I expect him to be: a small-minded bigot who has spent his life stripping basic human rights from anyone who doesn’t look exactly like him. So, there’s that.
Still, I think we would all do well to be on high alert for any piece of news that makes us feel good about ourselves. We need to learn how to poke and prod at the information we receive, especially the information that reinforces what we already think we know. We need to be critical and skeptical and curious. When the president of the United States can’t tell the truth from a lie, it sets a bad example for the rest of us. When the administration speaks of imaginary massacres at Bowling Green and terrorist incidents in Sweden, we must be highly skeptical about any information they provide. You know who is highly skeptical about the information coming from this administration and all other administrations in our nation’s history? The mainstream media, that’s who.
Hardworking and largely underpaid journalists like my former neighbor live their lives as professional skeptics who poke and prod and search for the truth. We should be grateful every day that we have a free press and we should support the work they do. How? Subscribe to a newspaper and read it. Change the channel and watch the news on a different network a few times a week. When you read a news story online from an unfamiliar source, do some research to see if you can independently verify its validity. If you can’t, don’t pass it on. Talk to people who have different views than you do and listen to what they say. When someone on the other side of the aisle says something you agree with, admit it. It’s called common ground and it’s a good thing. Ask questions. Challenge assumptions—your own and others. Don’t be a jerk. Don’t be a cynic. And if you choose to spend time scrolling through social media platforms like Facebook, don’t scrub your feed of dissenting viewpoints. Feel free to silence the hate-filled tirades, but don’t mute someone just because they don’t agree with your every thought. Yes, your friends and relatives on the other side of the aisle are infuriating, but they are your friends and relatives. Call them out when they share news from bad sources. Maybe you’ll change their mind about one small thing or maybe they’ll change yours. God help us if nothing changes. We are too divided to stand.