Skepticism has always been important: it helped our ancestors outsmart predators, and it continues to help us avoid other dangerous pitfalls even today. But there is perhaps no time in recent history in which this skeptical mindset is more urgent than now.
I’ve spent my entire adult life promoting skepticism of false claims, so I was excited the first day “fake news” was discussed in mainstream media, but that enthusiasm faded quickly. The reference was in relation to false news stories and propaganda that propelled Donald Trump to the White House, of course, but that didn’t stop him from coopting the phrase and using it to shoot down anything critical of him.
And that’s exactly the problem: Trump, arguably the most powerful man in the world, is promoting false information at a record rate and discrediting investigative journalists at the same time. In essence, he is attempting to become the sole arbiter of “Truth” (or his twisted version of it) in America.
Since the launch of his campaign, Trump has posited a number of false claims and conspiracy theories, including that vaccines cause autism and that global climate change is a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese. He also promised to release his taxes and to “lock up” Hillary Clinton for her alleged email-related crimes. Unfortunately, taking the oath of office hasn’t stopped him from continuing to lie to the American public.
Don’t all politicians lie, though? Not this much, and not for the same reasons. According to POLITICO:
The sheer frequency, spontaneity and seeming irrelevance of his lies have no precedent. Nixon, Reagan and Clinton were protecting their reputations; Trump seems to lie for the pure joy of it. A whopping 70 percent of Trump’s statements that PolitiFact checked during the campaign were false, while only 4 percent were completely true, and 11 percent mostly true. (Compare that to the politician Trump dubbed “crooked,” Hillary Clinton: Just 26 percent of her statements were deemed false.)
On Sunday morning, Trump poured some gasoline on his presidential propaganda machine when he falsely tweeted that Bernie Sanders called CNN “FAKE NEWS” and was subsequently cut off the air. Of course, Trump conveniently neglected to attach a video of the interview in which it is clear that Sanders is mocking Trump when he jokingly says the President must have been watching “CNN fake news.”
This is all part of Trump’s larger goal to destroy the credibility of any news organizations — most notably CNN and the New York Times — that report negative aspects of his presidency. Why does he do this? Well, it’s likely not a coincidence that his CNN tweet came just one day after the organization reported that parts of a controversial Russian dossier have been confirmed by U.S. intelligence officials.
Trump’s “FAKE NEWS” mantra is ever-present in his tweets, where he even went as far as to say “Any negative polls are fake news,” but the problem doesn’t end with him. In fact, it seems that much of his administration is concerned with changing how the media reports on the White House, even giving more attention to less credible news outlets.
They took that to a new level on Jan. 22 when Kellyanne Conway, counselor to Trump, said White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer used “alternative facts” when discussing the size of the President’s inauguration crowd. Spicer doubled down on Conway’s line of reasoning a day later, saying that the administration will sometimes “disagree with the facts.”
With this type of behavior and language coming from a White House administration less than a month old, it is clear that skepticism, critical thinking, and fact-checking are more important than almost any time in the collective memory. We must be vigilant and focus on the evidence if we want to avoid being manipulated.
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