A recent spate of fake news has gotten everyone in a tizzy. But, this isn’t news — phony stories have been around forever. It’s just that the Internet is delivering them faster, in greater quantities, and to more people than ever before. Fake news is a virus of the information age. We inoculate ourselves with skepticism. The net result is that people have lost their trust in authority. And, I believe this is a good thing.
The opportunity to deceive people online began almost immediately. On July 5, 1993, The New Yorker magazine published Peter Steiner’s cartoon of a dog sitting in front of a computer with the now famous caption: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” The anonymity of the web has enabled many scams. Most of us have received an email from a Nigerian prince who wants to transfer millions of dollars into our bank accounts; or from a celebrity who we could only dream of meeting.
Some have been catfished. That’s when someone lies to you about who they are on social media or dating sites; then work to build your trust so they can take advantage of it. I have a friend who met a man on a dating site, then after several weeks of phoning and emailing back and forth, she fell in love. So, she drove 1,000 miles in order to meet him. He looked nothing like his pictures; in fact, they weren’t pictures of him at all. Devastated, but wiser, she got back in her car and drove home.
Lately, I’ve been wondering when I first started to become skeptical. A friend suggested it was when I learned that Santa Claus wasn’t real. I remember the neighborhood kids telling me that Santa was actually my parents. I didn’t believe them. I ran home, distraught and confused, and demanded the truth from my mother and father. When they confirmed it; I was shocked that they would lie to me. I felt so deceived. Then my parents explained that it was like a game, and ordered me to go along with the pretense so that my sister wouldn’t find out until she was older. Being included in the secret made me feel somewhat better.
Years later, when I was married (and before having children), I told my wife I didn’t think we should introduce the fantasy of Santa to our children. I said it was lying to them, and cheating ourselves out of the credit for all the gifts they would get. She disagreed, and said she wanted our kids to enjoy the fun and magic of Christmas. She won; and when we had kids, I immersed myself in the spirit of the season — and continued the deception.
We stop believing and trusting after we’ve been fooled, hoaxed, or defrauded one time too many. I was curious when other people first became skeptical and quit blindly accepting their sources of information. So I ran an informal survey on social media to get some specifics.
People told me they became cynical because of government lies, false advertising, and fake news. Sadly the most heartbreaking were those who told me they stopped trusting when friends and family members lied to them, abused them, or otherwise betrayed them.
Government lies that disillusioned people included: the Warren Commission’s implausible report on the John F. Kennedy assassination; Lyndon Johnson lying about the Gulf of Tonkin incident to escalate the Vietnam War; Richard Nixon denying knowledge of the Watergate break in; George W. Bush stating, “We found the weapons of mass destruction [in Iraq]” when there were none; and Barack Obama saying, “If you like the [health care]plan you have, you can keep it” when that wasn’t true.
False advertising that duped some included: Volvo reinforcing one of its cars before having a monster truck drive over it; Big Tobacco citing bogus research that, “Cigarette smoking is no more ‘addictive’ than coffee, tea or Twinkies”; Kashi Company claiming its products were “All Natural” when they were actually full of synthetic and processed ingredients; and Listerine and Airborne’s claims that their products prevented colds when they didn’t.
Fake news stories that conned people included: Dateline NBC reporters rigging a GM truck in 1993 with explosives to demonstrate that gas could leak from its fuel tank and cause a dangerous fire after a crash. Others were hoodwinked by reporters who were caught creating career-ending fake news stories: Jayson Blair at the New York Times; Stephen Glass at The New Republic; Dan Rather at CBS News; Brian Williams at NBC News, and Sabrina Erdely at The Rolling Stone.
Some of the “click-bait” stories that suckered me included these headlines on Facebook: “Woman Arrested for Defecating on Boss’s Desk After Winning the Lottery.” “Morgue Worker Arrested After Giving Birth to a Dead Man’s Baby.” and “Billionaire Founder of the Corona Beer Brewery Makes Everyone in the Spanish Village Where He Grew up a Millionaire in His Will.” All false!
Apparently there is a whole lot of lying going on in the world. Even scientific research has come under scrutiny as many “new findings” and “breakthroughs” cannot be duplicated or reproduced. When something shatters our worldview, when we lose faith, it’s our innocence that gets sold out for an aggrandizing lie.
Recent polls by the Pew Research Center, Gallup, and CNN show that Americans’ trust in government is at an all-time low. The CNN poll in 2014 showed that only 13% believe the government can be trusted, while the Pew poll in 2015 put it at 19%.
Nevertheless, all of this disbelief, distrust, and even suspicion is good. Especially if it leads you to start challenging the status quo and not accepting everything you’re told. Questioning authority is one of the most important characteristics of an innovator. It means you’re opening your mind to new possibilities.
Inquiry, examination, and debate stimulate curiosity and creative thinking. You can’t come up with new ideas if you aren’t doubting the old ways of doing things. Ask, “Why does it have to be this way? Why can’t it be that way?” or “Is this the best way to do _____? Perhaps we can do it another way instead.”
There’s always room for improvement — whether it’s government, business, or your personal life. Investigating deeper may even enlighten you to problems before they occur. Don’t buy a story outright — raise an eyebrow instead.