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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…