This is the column as it appeared on the Voices page on Sept. 3, 2014, as well as the comments (the most ever for one of my columns) posted on Arkansas Online.
Believe it or not
One of the biggest complaints I get is, “You let (fill in the blank) say something that isn’t true, but you wouldn’t let me say something that is most definitely true!!!!!!!”
OK, maybe not with that many exclamation points, but you get the point.
You don’t have to log onto Facebook to see the utterly unbelievable things people believe. There’s a reason I stay far away from that particular corner of social media, and it’s not just because I’m not all that social.
The Onion has made a name for itself with often-brilliant satire, but also in making the gullible believe just about anything. And yes, at least once in recent history, this newspaper was taken in by an Onion-originated “news” story, so it should be no surprise that more than a few people have been taken in as well.
The blog Literally Unbelievable even combined Facebook reactions to Onion articles, and they’ve had no dearth of material.
Most of the time, the letters we receive are pretty easy to deal with, either being totally opinion and thus easy to expedite, or having fairly easily checked statements of fact mixed in. Others take more work, with a lot of things to be checked out, so they take longer to process.
And then there are the letters that have statements so over the top that I check them out myself because I want to prove to myself that something so outrageous is or isn’t true.
It should be no surprise that many of those involve Barack Obama, which I’m sure is why some people seem to think I’m biased toward all things liberal (or “librul,” as one caller said). However, I’ve also tossed several letters that contained myths about people such as George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan; if anything, I’m biased toward truth.
I know, strange coming from someone in the “mainstream media.”
One of the biggest myths about Obama is his religion, which is, according to him, Christianity (since about 25 years ago). However, some refuse to take his word for it, or that of others in a position to know. Numerous polls show that many think he’s a Muslim; though in at least one poll, more believed he was Jewish than Muslim. We get letters about his religion all the time, and most of those claim that he’s Muslim.
Religion is a very personal thing, and if someone says they’re a Christian and have been baptized, as far as we’re concerned here, they’re Christian. Assessing the quality of someone else’s Christianity calls to mind a certain directive from the Bible, but we won’t get into that here.
That’s far from the only myth spread about Obama. One that popped up in a letter we received last week was that two Harvard Law Review editors had been paid off to keep quiet about sexual advances supposedly made by Obama when he was president of the law review. In checking that out, I was led to a blog called the Kansas Citian, which published the original report.
Or did it?
When you click on the embedded link in the story, you’re taken to a 2011 Politico story about sexual-harassment claims made against Herman Cain. And then you start to see that it’s the same story, but with Obama’s name and circumstances replacing Cain’s from a real news story–so not only is it plagiarism, it’s libelous. That doesn’t matter to some, though, as several commentators and blogs took it as truth and ran with it, even despite the comments on the blog that point out the truth.
And people wonder why I’m so skeptical.
Political scientist Brendan Nyhan, along with Jason Reifler, found that the more fiercely partisan tend to dig in further if the truth doesn’t square with what they believe, what they call the “backfire effect.” That makes corrections, which reliable news sources will readily do when necessary, often ineffective.
This discomfirmation bias (related to confirmation bias, in which one seeks out that which confirms beliefs) poses a particular problem because of misperceptions in political discourse, says Nyhan. Bring up politics at the next family reunion if you want to test it out; just have the police on speed-dial.
Whether it’s the nonexistence of WMDs in Iraq or a massive Benghazi cover-up, the most partisan among us will never let their beliefs be shifted regardless of how much evidence of the truth is presented.
So really, it doesn’t matter that a fact-check will prove or disprove something; there will always be a group of people who will hold on to a misperception with their dying breath. Any proof to the contrary will just make them believe the falsehood even more strongly.
And yet I’ll keep fact-checking. I’m either nuts or a glutton for punishment.
Could be both. Ya never know.
Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Read her blog at blooper0223.wordpress.com.