it ain’t what you know that gets you in trouble

SINCE THE RISE OF TRUMP, he has co-opted a term that has been in use for several years—fake news. The term was originally used to describe the staggering amount and array of disinformation, misinformation, propaganda, and lies that were circulated by rightwing sources and echoed endlessly by rightwing blogs. The “news” was so blatantly unbelievable that it required a religious-like faith to not gag or laugh uproariously!

While bringing some of my old posts up to snuff, I came across this one. While i didn’t use the term fake news anywhere, the article is about that very phenomenon. I personally have been aware of the term fake news for years, although it’s so imbedded in my conciousness at this time that I wouldn’t guess when I first became aware of it.

Here’s my old post with the text modified both editorially (mostly I removed some redundancies and tightened the writing) and visually (I switched from a smaller san serif typeface to this larger, serifed face and added a few images). To separate it from these opening paragraphs, the original text is below the horizontal line and indented:

Trouble: Cartoon by Nate Beeler of The Columbus Dispatch.

Cartoon by Nate Beeler of The Columbus Dispatch.

VIRAL RIGHTWING EMAILS are so common many of us don’t notice them anymore. The stories within are almost always extraordinary—as in “unbelievable”—and it usually takes only a few minutes to track down the actual facts. They invariably denigrate liberals (“Hillary is a congenital liar”) or praise conservatives (“Pope backs Trump”). 1

I have a conservative friend who regularly sends me “information” gleaned from these rightwing emails. I send links to the factual pieces back to my friend, but of course he never wastes his time by actually following and reading them.

He usually looks up some opinion piece—usually from Fox News or a conservative columnist or website—“proving” the original fabrications to be so and then sends that back to me—without having read a thing that challenges his opinion or belief.

Here is the latest such “information” that I just received from him.

“America has always prided itself on its work ethic. American capitalism is supposed to reward you for working hard with a higher quality of life, while socialism makes sure that everyone’s life is average. A new study shows that America has taken another step closer to socialism.

The Cato Institute released a study showing that welfare benefits pay more than a minimum wage job in 33 states and the District of Columbia. Even worse, welfare pays more than $15 per hour in 13 states.

According to the study, welfare benefits have increased faster than minimum wage. It’s now more profitable to sit at home than it is to earn an honest day’s pay. Hawaii is the biggest offender, where welfare recipients earn $29.13 per hour, or a $60,590 yearly salary, all for doing nothing.” 2

Trouble: Cartoon by John Darkow for The Columbia Daily Tribune.

Cartoon by John Darkow for The Columbia Daily Tribune.

Homeless on $29 an hour!

Got that? According to this, welfare recipients “earn $29.13 per hour” in Hawaii. Most of us would read that to mean that welfare is like a job and they receive regular paychecks.

The letter lists 27 states where welfare recipients receive more that $25,000 per year—eight are in excess of $40,000! The state of Washington, where I reside and which may be the Homeless Capitol of the United States, is claimed to bestow an annual dole of $28,840 per indigent.

My home state, Pennsylvania—long one of the most glaring hardship states above the Mason-Dixon line—is equally generous, allowing their impoverished non-workers a chance to “earn” $28,670 a year!

Of course, “common sense” would tell anyone possessing it that this just ain’t so. That these figures—this very argument—fly in the face of any reasonable awareness of the state of the union seems to have escaped the Cato “fellows” and their followers.

In fact, followers of Cato and similar “think tanks” seem never to have heard of skepticism, a dash of which would go a long way for these people.

Trouble: Cartoon by Drew Sheneman for the Tribune Content Agency.

Cartoon by Drew Sheneman for the Tribune Content Agency.

Bring in the National Guard!

When I received the message above, I resorted to some mild sarcasm in my response to my friend: I asked him when the governor of Hawaii had called out the National Guard to protect his shores from the influx of unwanted and unemployed immigrants. I certainly hadn’t heard anything about it.

Hell, I might even want to emigrate to a war, sunny clime where I could “earn” twice as much as a normal job in the cold, wet environs of the Pacific Northwest!

Forbes magazine is a bastion of American capitalism and corporatism. Nonetheless, even they were called to arms by this information: in an article titled “The Conservative Case For Welfare Reform Suffers Massive Blow Via Cato Institute Study,” Rick Ungar says that the Cato findings are based on a “shocking bogus methodology” and that their report to be “complete unadulterated nonsense.”

If this topic is of interest, please click on over to Forbes and read Mr. Ungar’s column, especially where he asks the question, “So, how did the Cato produce this particular masterpiece of disinformation?”

You need to read the answer: it’s a manipulation of facts so that the truth ends up a lie.

Trouble: Cartoon by David Horsey for The Los Angeles Times.

Cartoon by David Horsey for The Los Angeles Times.

What gets you into trouble

As expected, my friend sent me an article from the New York Post reporting on the Cato study as “proof” of welfare fraud. My response was that the Post’s printing the Cato findings does not verify those findings, as there as no research by the Post—they just posted the Cato’s article from their news-feed.

The back-and-forth could go on forever in a manner too familiar with every “liberal” in the country: I look up both sides of the story and argue with facts while my friend indulges in endless confirmation bias and regurgitates echo pieces and editorial opinion pieces. 3

I will end with a pair of quote—my favorite definition of common sense comes from Tony Randall (and I am paraphrasing from memory): “Common sense is that which every one is supposed to have but nobody seems to.”

And my favorite maxim of all time is generally attributed to a variety of 19th century American observer: “It ain’t what you know that gets you into trouble—it’s what you know that just ain’t so.

Trouble: photo of a computer keyboard with FAKE NEWS written on eight of the letters.

FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of the page was listed from an article titled “Fake News, disassembling it with scientific methods is counterproductive” on the Democratica website. “A large amount of data from [a recent study] it is clear that rarely those who believe in fake news come into contact with debunking pages. On the contrary, these users dialogue within a closed context, a “sounding board” that reinforces their starting thesis.”


1   Is there such a creature as a viral liberal email, because I have never received one?

2   “The Cato Institute is an American libertarian think-tank headquartered in Washington, D.C. It was founded as the Charles Koch Foundation in 1974 to have a focus on public advocacy, media exposure, and societal influence. According to the 2014 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report, Cato is number 16 in the Top Think Tanks Worldwide and number 8 in the Top Think Tanks in the United States.” (Wikipedia)

Despite their claiming otherwise, most Libertarians are slightly to the left of most extreme rightwingnuts.

3   “Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses. It is a type of cognitive bias and a systematic error of inductive reasoning. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs.” (Wikipedia)

And everyone—regardless of which side of any issue they take in any kind of disagreement—falls into the trap of using confirmation bias. But it sure helps to know that when looking for facts . . .

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