Before You Hit The Forward Button

Reading time: ~5 minutes

 

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While having breakfast with a friend recently, the topic of conversation turned to fake internet news stories. I had just received a text message that contained an image of a young Donald Trump above a quote he purportedly gave to People Magazine in 1998 in which he said if he ever ran for president, he would do so as a republican because republicans are dumb and believe everything they hear on Fox News. Seeing this, my friend asked me if I thought the quote was real. The quote seemed far too prescient to me to be real. But not knowing for certain, I responded that I would quickly research it to see whether it was; something I usually do when I am forwarded information like that. A quick search later, I determined that the quote had been debunked in 2015. It wasn’t real.

If I had a penny for every fake news story that was either forwarded or verbally relayed to me during this election cycle, I would have a whole lot of pennies. Of the doozies I received, one of the most memorable was an “article” claiming that the Pope had issued a statement in which he had endorsed Donald Trump for President. Now, think about that for a moment. On its face, that seems implausible for many reasons. Here is just one: it is very unlikely that the leader of the global, billion-member-strong Catholic Church would wade into a vitriol filled U.S. election and attach his religious brand and the authority it conveys to Donald Trump. Nor to Hillary Clinton, for that matter.

Just as every individual member of the press has a responsibility to operate with high integrity and refuse to engage in spinning false narratives, so to do each of us have a responsibility to take steps to verify the veracity of “news stories” we send to our family, friends, and colleagues. Within a few seconds, with a couple of taps on your keypad, you can find out whether that “news story” you so eagerly want to forward is, in fact, true. If the Pope had actually issued a statement endorsing Donald Trump, that news would most certainly have been a top story everywhere, not just on some obscure websites that no one has ever heard of before.

We tend to spread fake news stories because they bolster beliefs we have or positions we hold. They reinforce our sense of being on the right side of an issue. For example: The Pope said I should vote for Donald Trump. I knew I was right about him all along and now I’ve got the Pope’s endorsement to prove I was right. Or, Trump said nearly 20 years ago that Republicans were dumb. I knew it. Now they’ve gone and elected this guy and proved his point. Because these fake news stories support our own internal narrative, we neglect to look at them skeptically, and we miss some rather obvious indicators of their untruth. That is why they spread.

When we spread fake news stories, we are failing to operate in our own highest integrity. And, we become a key part of the problem. Fake news stories cannot spread without you. They cannot spread without me. Therefore, the most important culprit here is the individual who spreads the fake story. Yes, the writer of the story bears tremendous culpability. But that writer’s story won’t get anywhere unless you or I promote it through our networks.

So the next time you receive a news story that you would like to share or you come across one on the internet, take a few moments to verify its veracity by doing a quick search to see where else that story has appeared or whether it has been debunked. Commit to exercising your integrity muscle by taking steps to reduce the chance that you will fall into the fake news trap and become a source of the rampant misinformation with which we are being bombarded.

As Smokey the Bear used to say, “Only you can prevent forest fires.” Well, only you can prevent fake news from spreading. Exercise the Power of One – our individual ability to change the world for the better by focusing on our own actions and decisions.  

 

Wow. So…that just happened. Now What?

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Read time: ~5 minutes

 

While heading out to walk my dog this morning, I passed one of my neighbors in the lobby of my condominium building.  As usual, I said good morning and smiled. I was greeted with a scowl and the response: “It isn’t a good morning. We are all going straight to hell.” “Maybe not straight to hell,” I replied. “I think we have a few off ramps between here and there.”

My neighbor represents the sentiments of roughly half of Americans today as the sun rises across our country.  Shock, deep anxiety, fear and lots of finger pointing are on tap for some while jubilation, a sense of vindication and a feeling of having been heard are on tap for others.  The state of America has been fully revealed.  Bask in it or abhor it, we got what we got.

This election cycle represents where we are as a nation. Many of us forged an uneasy, and for some an unholy, alliance with the candidates for whom we voted. This election presented us with a choice between two of the most disliked and polarizing candidates in modern presidential election history. It presented us with a choice between two candidates who were both widely viewed as dishonest and untrustworthy.  This election provided a 24/7 platform for an endless stream of nastiness and divisiveness, for name calling and bullying, for the spreading of hatred and fear.  But this election also presented us with an opportunity.

Whether your candidate won or lost yesterday, we have the opportunity to put this kind of politicking in the rear view mirror—and we should take it. This election cycle is a call to action: we must restore the integrity of the institutions upon which our democracy relies.  The word “integrity” cannot be used to describe anything that happened during this election cycle. Neither our candidates nor our political parties nor our media has been acting with integrity. Each said and did whatever they believed would maximize their chance of winning either the Oval Office or ratings.  No matter who you supported, the American people lost.

After every election, there are always those who feel the republic is on the road to hell.  If we really are on that road, our only off ramp is the restoration of the integrity of our institutions.  Wide spread disaffection, disillusionment and disgust of the establishment across the political spectrum has brought us to this place.  Trust has been replaced by fear and loathing but this is fixable. “We” are our institutions (at least until the robot overlords take over). As long as “we the people” get up and go to work each day for politicians and parties, for newspapers, television networks and internet media sources; as long as we reward with our attention media outlets or with our votes politicians, then we have a direct say in what these institutions mirror back to us.  If we don’t like what we see reflected, then we need to choose to care enough to demand better through our actions and not just our complaints.  Each of us has a role to play and all of our roles matter.  Too many of us haven’t been playing our parts.  We have ceded our individual authority.

You and I may be sole individuals but we are not powerless. The media can’t pump out false narratives and fill our heads with nonsense if each, individual reporter refuses to engage in that or if each, individual viewer refuses to watch it. Candidates who lack integrity can’t get elected to office if each voter makes the individual decision not to support them. Each of us only has to worry about the one person whose decisions we control: ourselves. But here is an important key: if we aren’t in the habit of acting with the highest integrity, we won’t be able to recognize integrity or the lack of it in others.  It begins with each of us, individually.

For me, this election represents an opportunity to renew my commitment to always act with the highest integrity and to search out and support those individuals and institutions who are acting with high integrity. If our republic really is on the road to hell, I don’t intend to watch and lament this from the sidelines.  I intend to play my individual role—the role that only I can play—in being a part of the solution. It is my hope today that each of you feels the empowerment and courage to play your individual role.  We matter.  Our roles, our contributions matter.

We got what we got this election cycle. Now let’s act to make sure we get better from this moment forward.

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