Tuesday, March 18, 2008

False Witness

As campaign season ramps up, we'll be seeing more and more political spam in our in-boxes. If my in-box is any indicator, 98% will be distortions and lies. What's increasingly disturbing about this information superhighway trash is what its proliferation says about our relationship with reality itself. Truth, it seems, is now an endangered species.

New York Times Magazine weighed in on Sunday, March 16. Internet rumors such as Obama-is-a-Muslim die hard:
The Obama-is-a-Muslim rumor does not seem to have hurt the candidate’s fortunes, at least not yet. But the myth’s persistence illustrates a growing cultural vulnerability to rumor. Journalists typically presume that facts matter: show the public what is true, and they will make decisions correctly. Psychologists who study how we separate truth from fiction, however, have demonstrated that the process is not so simple.
Psychologist Ian Skurnik studied the phenomenon at the University of Michigan, using health claims, finding . . .
. . . it helps to know how our brains suss out truth from fiction. To determine the veracity of a given statement, we often look to society’s collective assessment of it. But it is difficult to measure social consensus very precisely, and our brains rely, instead, upon a sensation of familiarity with an idea. You use a rule of thumb: if something seems familiar, you must have heard it before, and if you’ve heard it before, it must be true.

The rule obviously invites many opportunities for error. The seniors in Skurnik’s study couldn’t remember the context in which they had heard the health claims (research shows that we are quick to forget “negation tags,” like whether something is said to be false or a lie), so they relied, instead, on a vague sense of familiarity, which steered them astray. Repetition, psychologists have shown, easily tricks us. Kimberlee Weaver of Virginia Tech recently found that if one person tells you that something is true many times, you are likely to conclude that the opinion is widely held, even if no one else said a thing about it.
Some say, FoxNews?

But it's the enthusiastic distribution of scurrilous Internet rumors I find disturbing. Among the right wing, electronic poison pen letters go around like wildfire. Some I receive have had as many as seventy-five e-mail addresses attached. (Have none of you people ever heard of a blind copy? Your e-mail addresses are being compromised. Got it?)

After years of lies and propaganda from the highest levels, the ability to distinguish truth from fiction has itself been compromised. Point out that they're being used as propagandists by propagandists, and friends and relatives still persist in spreading lies. Either because they can no longer distinguish them from the truth, or because the lies are more fun, or because they just don't care what the truth is if it conflicts with what they'd rather believe.

As Rick Perlstein observes in his new book, we have arrived in Nixonland.
Nixonland, which will be published by Simon & Schuster, takes its title from a coinage of former presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, who once described “Nixonland” as a place with “no standard of truth but convenience, and no standard of morality except sly innuendo, the poison pen, the anonymous phone call.”
The greater irony is how many of our friends among the religious Right gleefully play along. You know, the people convinced that liberals are to blame for the decline of values in this country. The ones who quote Matthew and caution that we "become what we behold." The people obsessed with putting displays of the Ten Commandments in courthouses. Including the Commandment about not bearing false witness.

Until recently, what I receive came from the Right. But even that may be changing. This weekend a friend reported receiving one of the poisoned-Barak letters. Only not from a right-winger, from a relative.

After my friend pointed out that the entire thing was bogus, his relative replied, "I know, but I'm a Hillary supporter, so I forwarded it anyway."


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