I fell for two stories that seemed entirely plausible and drew my immediate accepting response. Both storytellers were quite pleased with the success of their April Foolery. I was chagrined that I was such an easy target, and while I know it was all in fun, I wondered if I needed to stop being so gullible and learn to sharpen my critical thinking skills.
Actually, there is a growing need to bring critical thinking and a questioning response to our world. While there have always been conspiracy theories and debatable mysteries – remember the furor around alien-generated crop circles? – the global disbursement of information requires an equally thorough need to question what is being said and who is saying it. It seems that the only way to deal with the information flood from the digital firehose is to ignore the headlines and sound bites and check for perspective, bias and back story. The news is no longer about being informed, but about determining what to believe and who is trying to convince us otherwise.
At the end of what was described as the most highly charged political year in modern history, the Oxford Dictionary declared “post-truth” as the 2016 Word of the Year. The Economist magazine further expanded on the concept as it linked “post-truth politics” with “the art of the lie.” It is frightening to realize that we no longer know who or what to believe. At what point did it become acceptable to leave the truth entirely behind?
In these times where anyone with a cellphone, a data plan and a social media platform can find an audience, it falls to each of us to become and stay informed. It seems counterintuitive that the “information age” has become the era in which what is newsworthy is determined by how often a story is shared. Technology has changed the framework of how we live and work; now it seems to be positioned to challenge what we might think, accept and believe.
Gone are the days of accepting the plausible. The challenge now is to question what we are being told, and, more importantly, examine who’s telling us and why. It can be disheartening to recognize that society’s public discourse has been so challenged. But in recognizing and questioning what we see, hear and are told, we begin to take responsibility for being informed for ourselves.
Fake news? It’s frustrating and here to stay. It’s up to each of us to figure out who and what to believe, and to not accept substitutions for the truth.
Jan Matthews writes her column for the Cumberland YMCA.