Fool Me Once



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Most folks, I think, are familiar with this self-admonition: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.  There is some truth to it, insofar as we should definitely be more wary of being conned or scammed by the same person a second time around.

But there is another caution to which we might well pay heed, this one written by Mark Twain: It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.

I’ve been fooled a few times in my life by refusing to acknowledge something later shown to be right.  But such situations were usually the result of my own miscalculation, not a nefarious attempt by another to deceive me.  On many of those occasions, it was harder to admit my mistake, as Twain suggests, than to concede that I had misled myself.  Over the years, I’ve learned that I ofttimes find it easy to believe the things I think.

 More sinister, however, are those times I’ve been bamboozled into accepting something that ultimately proved false, the victim of a deliberate attempt by malicious actors to mislead me.  I console myself that, in the grand scheme of things, those turned out not to be life-altering mistakes, and those same people didn’t fool me twice.  But on every occasion, it took me a good long while to admit I’d been duped.

Today, we—all of us—are subjected non-stop to claims we either believe or not, assertions on abortion rights, censorship, climate change, education and schools, freedom, gun control, healthcare, pandemic disease, political corruption, widespread war, and what can seem like a zillion other matters.  And where, we might well wonder, lies the truth in all of these assertions?

Are we being fooled?  More than once?  And if so, by whom?  For what purpose?  How will we know if it is so?  And will we ever be able to admit it?

The World Health Organization has stated we are living in an info-demic world, defined as: an overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for us to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when we need them.

We are constantly subjected to a sweep of mis-information—the spreading of false information, such as rumours, insults, and pranks—and its more dangerous subset, dis-information—the creation and distribution of intentionally-false information designed to fool us, usually for political ends, such as scams, hoaxes, and forgeries.

Sander van der Linden,  professor in social psychology at Cambridge University, has identified six degrees of manipulation commonly used by purveyors of falsehoods—impersonation, conspiracy, emotion, polarization, discrediting, and trolling—to spread misinformation and disinformation.  For instance, a false news source may quote a fake expert, use emotional language, or propose a conspiracy theory in order to manipulate its intended audience.

Norbert Schwarz, professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, has established five filters people use to decide whether information is true: compatibility with other known information, credibility of the source, whether others believe it, whether the information is internally consistent, and whether there is supporting evidence.

Thanks to the work of these men and others in the field, there are ways we can try to cut through the morass of conflicting claims, to ascertain the truth.  One effective way is to identify the sources from which information emanates, and to examine their credibility.  Do those sources provide authoritative citations or evidence to back up their claims?  Have those sources been accurate in the past with respect to other claims they’ve made?  Who owns or financially supports them?

Another way to cut through the miasma of misinformation is to help people learn to think analytically and critically about what they see and hear.  Help them learn how to question things, not belligerently or ideologically, but clearly and with a view to illuminating the issues central to the claims being made.  This could mean providing people with valid questions to ask about particular issues being debated in the public square, so as not to send them unarmed into the fray.

It is not unwise to question everything.  As Rudyard Kipling wrote long ago: I have six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who…

Yet another way to get at the truth is to apply one’s common sense to what is being presented, the personal smell-test.  If it walks like a skunk and stinks like a skunk, it’s most likely not a striped pussycat.  Common sense, alas, is not standardized across our random population, not universally reliable, so some caution is required.

A more controversial way to deal with mis- and dis-information is more fraught with the potential for abuse, and would need to be addressed carefully.  Perhaps we need to consider attacking the propagation of falsehoods at their points of origin, act pre-emptively, to prevent the sowing of mistruths.  Critics will claim, of course, that such censorship must never be tolerated, that it would contravene the very notion of free speech so enshrined in our history and culture.

I’ve long upheld that view, too.  But recently, ‘midst the plethora of damaging information that inundates us, I’ve begun to consider the wisdom of somehow regulating the relentless spewing of falsehoods, particularly from online sources.  Our minds are being poisoned, and those of our more malleable young people.  There is nothing included in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms that protects free speech of a sort deemed anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, hate-filled, Islamophobic, life-threatening, misogynistic, racist, treasonous, or in any other manner harmful to our collective notion of peace, order, and good government.

Would intelligent regulation, impartially applied within the context of our national ethos, amount to unjustified censorship?

There are two other maxims I finish with.  The first is lightly-edited from Thomas Friedman, an American journalist: When widely followed public [sources] feel free to say anything, without any fact-checking, it becomes impossible for a democracy to think intelligently about big issues.

The second is a tenet often attributed to Edmund Burke (but now thought to be a distillation of ideas from John Stuart Mill): The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good [people] to do nothing.

Fool me once…

Tell It Like It Is

Tell it like it is!

Grammatically incorrect ‘though it may be, that sentence succinctly describes the prime duty of every responsible journalist.  Consumers of our many print and digital mainstream media (MSM) outlets have the right to expect balanced, accurate reporting from them.  How else will we citizens learn about events transpiring in the world around us?

There are currently several threats confronting trustworthy journalism, however.  The first centres on how we are to define the words responsible, balanced, and accurate.  Each of us may have our own definition, but ours might well differ from someone else’s.  Who is to say whose version is correct?  In an environment where media entities range from the far-right of the political spectrum (eg. Breitbart or Sean Hannity) to the far-left (eg. New Yorker or Slate), woe betide the consumer who does not comprehend the disparity in the balance and accuracy of their reporting.  Each of them defends their coverage of the news as responsible, balanced, and accurate, so it falls to us to ensure we are knowledgeable of their respective stances.

Almost every media outlet has its own bias; the responsible ones make their position clear to their followers, who can then interpret what they’re receiving through that filter—thus becoming informed citizens.  But those outlets that mask their editorial stances encourage a rising mistrust of all MSM among the citizenry, who, as a consequence, begin to paint every one of them with the same brush.

Both dishonest journalism and a widespread mistrust of journalism are bad for the survival of democracy.

Another threat to be taken seriously arises from the deteriorating economic conditions facing segments of the industry.  With the rise of digital platforms across the internet, and with almost-universal access available to so many people, the established print outlets are faced with declining revenues from shrinking advertising and circulation.  These losses are resulting in layoffs of journalists and closing of newspapers, with a concomitant reduction in comprehensive coverage of local issues so important to us.

It is at the local level where much of what we citizens need to know is reported.  If all media outlets were global in scope, such as those found on the internet, who would inform us of problems facing us in our own communities and neighbourhoods?  One of the most important, yet undervalued, roles of local media is investigative journalism, inquiring on our behalf into questionable practices by government and private enterprises.

Who, other than those directly affected, would have known of the tainted-water scandals in Walkerton, Ontario or Flint, Michigan, for example, if local media had not persevered in their probes?  Who would be reporting chemical spills or pipeline leaks, if not responsible journalists?  Who else can rouse governments to action around contraventions of regulatory inspections of dairy- or meat-manufacturing facilities, for instance, that result in danger to the public?  Who will rail against the delays in bringing accused felons to trial in an overcrowded, underfunded court system—delays that result in the staying of charges and release of those persons because their rights have been violated?

Concerned citizens’ groups can’t do any of these things if they are not first made aware of the issues by the journalists who find and pursue them.  If we don’t have responsible investigative journalism at the local level, who will watch the watchers on our behalf?

Toronto Telegram (front page).jpg

A third threat, perhaps the most serious, is posed by government.  The threat may arise from a well-intentioned, but misguided, attempt to bolster the media by subsidizing them through the public purse in order to maintain local coverage.

Or, more ominously, it may come from an unbridled attempt by government to discredit or even censor media outlets that don’t adhere to an ideological, doctrinal line.

The subsidizing of MSM outlets from public tax dollars, which at first blush could be seen as helpful in this era of declining revenues, is a two-edged sword.  While an infusion of revenue might well enable local media outlets to remain viable, thus allowing them to continue their reporting of the news, that support could come with strings attached.

What happens, for example, when the reporting of an issue is contrary to the government’s position on that issue?  Does the funding suddenly dry up?  Or does the coverage change?  Either option is a blow to a healthy democracy.

It’s a well-established maxim, after all, that (s)he who pays the piper calls the tune.  It would take a highly-ethical party on either side to resist the temptation to bully the other, or to refrain from caving in.

Censorship or assaults on the integrity of the media are equally evil, if not more so.  And even in prospering democracies, both can raise their ugly heads.  Just the other day, a highly-placed official in the recently-installed American government referred to the MSM as “the opposition party”, and said they should “keep its (sic) mouth shut.”  Although that official is the founder of one of those far-right news outlets (Breitbart)—which might lead one to expect such a stance—the tacit threat from one so close to the seat of power is chilling.


     [Photo Credit: Copyright © 2013 Universal Press Syndicate]


As I’ve written in previous posts, it is one of the expectations of the MSM that they must act as guardians of perhaps the most precious of all our rights, the right to free speech.  And a closely-related tenet in a democratic society is citizens’ right to a free press, unconstrained by government interference or intimidation.

When a government claims that media outlets disagreeing with the party line are dishonest, fake, and disgraceful, publishing deliberately false information, and involved in a running war with the government, there is a clear and present danger to those cherished rights.

In the face of such attacks, it is incumbent upon citizens to defend the media, lest we lose them—whether for economic reasons or other, more insidious, pretexts.  And we must defend all of them, far-right, far-left, and every outlet in between, because they all contribute to the dialogue that generates and nourishes a flourishing democracy.

Additionally, it is every citizen’s responsibility to make him- or herself aware of the widely-discrepant editorial leanings of those outlets in order to make sense of what they are reporting.  Otherwise, the media will be rendered unable to fulfil their essential mandate, which is—

Tell it like it is!

Free Speech? Free Press?

A cornerstone of democracy is the right to free speech, a principle perhaps best expressed in a 1906 work by the English writer, Beatrice Evelyn Hall, a statement often erroneously attributed to Voltaire:  I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

A second foundation of a democratic society, closely related to the first, is the right to a free press.  Newspapers as we know them made their first appearance in 17th century Europe, and in the mid-1700’s they were dubbed ‘the fourth estate’ by Edmund Burke, a British politician (the first three estates being those represented in parliament—the clergy, the nobility, and the common people).

Burke went so far as to describe this fourth estate as more important by far to the health of a nation than the other three, a sentiment echoed a hundred years later by Thomas Jefferson, author of the American Declaration of Independence, who wrote:  “…were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”


The invention of the telegraph greatly enhanced the spread of news across nations, and around the world.  Thanks to technology, reporters could file their stories from anywhere (traditionally ending them with the rubric – 30 –  a shorthand for End), assured that they could be read everywhere.

But why is it so important to a free society that its citizens have the right to speak their minds, and the right to access a free press, unrestricted by government censorship?  Especially today, in this age of unlimited entrée to digital social media.

The answer lies in the fact that until very recently, we have been able to trust our news sources to deliver truthful accounts of events in the world around us.  Most reliable outlets reported the facts as they happened, based upon the best information available.  Serious journalists regarded accuracy and bias-free reporting as sacrosanct.  Editorial beliefs were confined, for the most part, to the opinion pages, and op-ed viewpoints were included to ensure balance in the presentation of the news.

Throughout my lifetime, it has been relatively easy in our democratic nation to educate and inform oneself about the world in which we live by reading, listening, and watching a variety of news outlets, their spectrum of viewpoints providing a balanced picture, as accurate and verifiable as it is possible to be.

Today, however, anyone can report the news through a variety of social media, regardless of their qualifications (or lack thereof), degree of impartiality, sense of right and wrong, education, or bigotries.

As an example, have a look at the headlines below, from different decades, and decide how many (if any) were actually reported:

Titanic Torpedoed by U-Boat; Tragedy Covered Up by Admiralty

FDR Knew About Pearl Harbor; Allowed Attack to Mobilize War Effort

JFK, Marilyn Buried at Arlington; Lovers Reunited Under Eternal Flame

Lennon Survived Murder Attempt; Lies in Coma in New Jersey Hospital

Chinese Colony Established on Moon; China Claims Lunar Sovereignty, Alarms West

Now, before deciding about that first group, check out the next list:

 Elvis Sighted; Rock Legend Living in Wax Museum

Microsoft Patents Ones, Zeroes; Computer Industry in Freefall

Pope Francis Shocks World; Endorses Donald Trump for President

Would You Rather Your Child Had Feminism or Cancer?

Gay Rights Have Made Us Dumber; Time to Get Back in the Closet

Which of the two groups is the more credible, which the more ridiculous?

Well, as you may have guessed, none of the headlines in the first group ever surfaced in any news outlet; I made them up.  But, incredibly, every one of the second group has actually appeared in a newspaper or digital news source—many of which inhabit the social media universe.


That could strike one as funny, but there’s a serious consequence to the burgeoning glut of fake news stories.  Many readers, listeners, and viewers (let us hope most of them) have the wisdom and experience to differentiate between what’s real and what isn’t.  And to base their subsequent actions on those conclusions.

But increasing numbers of uneducated, unsophisticated, gullible consumers of information do not have the ability to separate truth from fiction in such stories.  They are, therefore, susceptible to the persuasive powers of those who purvey pernicious falsehoods, often for political or financial gain.

To one who is colour-blind, all the various hues may appear the same; to those who are media-illiterate, all news accounts may possess the same weight, the same degree of veracity.  And that being the case, which are paid the most attention?

Unfortunately, all too often the attention goes to the lurid, sensational, graphically-charged, and blatantly false packages, at the expense of the sober, dispassionate, accurate accounts a free society and informed citizenry needs.  And this is coming at a time when traditional newspapers are increasingly falling by the wayside, unable to financially survive in our digital communications world.

I see three possibilities if this trend continues, and two of them are alarming.  One is a persistent proliferation of fake news sources, many of which reap great financial rewards for their producers, and all of which contribute to the continued dumbing-down of our society.  Ignorance is greatly to be feared.

A second is the institution of censorship by governments worried about the loss of press freedom—or, more ominously, about the unbridled existence of propagandizing news outlets that would replace elected leaders with demagogues not concerned or constrained by democratic principles.  Censorship is also to be feared, for it is a death-knell for freedom of speech.

The best possibility, but less likely I fear, is a re-awakening on the part of citizens of countries such as ours to the importance of a free press; to the obligation we have to teach young people (and their media-illiterate elders) how to differentiate between the real and the fake; and to the absolute necessity of safeguarding both free speech and a free press if we are to preserve our democratic way of life.  No number of fact-checkers can ever substitute for an informed, discerning, and open-minded citizenry.

If we are unsuccessful, I believe, we shall arrive at the point where the last credible headline we shall ever see is:

– 30 –