Opinion: Fake news has fractured public trust

Our democracy cannot properly function on distrust.

  • Tuesday, April 30, 2019 9:18pm
  • Opinion

“Fake news!”

Almost daily we hear President Donald Trump or White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders publicly proclaiming that The New York Times, Washington Post and news media are promulgating fake news. We hear assertions that the Mueller report is nothing more than a “witch hunt” concocted by 14 “angry” Democrats.

Through tweets, blogs, Facebook and YouTube, we are besieged with an ongoing glut of misinformation, misrepresentation, distortion, half-truths and spin. White House press releases and Fox News commentators regularly broadcast fabrications that have virtually no basis in fact.

Don’t believe anything you hear unless it has been fact-checked by a reliable source. And should we also question the reliability of the reliable source?

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Prior to the 2016 election, we the public assumed what we heard from our government, our politicians, our news analysts and our media was essentially accurate and reliable. We could and primarily did accept what we heard unless some hard evidence surfaced to question or challenge it. One might say the default setting of the public at large was, and had been for some decades, mainly “yes.”

That is no longer true. The public trust has been fractured. It has been shattered.

The fake news plague has shifted our default setting from “yes” to “no.” Our caution light is always on. We no longer impute the assumption of underlying positive intent behind what we see and hear through our newspapers, electronic news and social media. We are more disposed to suspect negative, devious or malicious underlying intent.

Both culturally and personally this has had a profound effect on us and how we respond to our world.

With our default setting at “yes,” we are basically in a credulous stance.

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We sort what we’re hearing for the truth in it. We try the viewpoints presented on to see if we like where they take us. Do they fit with our values? Can we build on them? Do they help take things where we want them to go?

A “yes” default setting is essentially grounded in hope. It draws us to listening, involvement, openness, flexibility and often even cooperation and commitment.

With our default setting at “no,” we are principally in a skeptical, suspicious doubting stance.

We seek the error in what we hear, assume it is untrue or faulty so as to discount it or surface its weaknesses. We put on our negative filter and sort for what is wrong with it. We are disposed to be against or apart from what we hear. We are not focused on what we want or how we want things to be, we are instead focused on what we do not want and how we don’t want things to be. We tend to move from skepticism to cynicism.

The “no” default setting is essentially grounded in fear and distrust. It often leads to hardness, rigidity, disengagement, closing up, detachment, aggressiveness, apathy or passivity.

I believe this public trust fracture has knocked our vision of who we are off stage center. It has shifted our focus from want to don’t want, from trust to distrust. Our democracy cannot properly function on a default setting of distrust. It can’t lead us where we want to go.

Like our computers, our default settings are automatic. They are below our conscious awareness. We go to them without even thinking. Fortunately, again like our computers, we can reprogram our default settings and intentionally switch on “yes” when taking in new information while keeping “no” in reserve to inhibit any slips into gullible naiveté.

For the good of ourselves and the good of our democracy, it is time we did that.

Bill Dillon lives in Juneau.

• Bill Dillon lives in Juneau.

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