*This was written as a writing sample submission for the Trib Total Media scholarship. However, seeing as it covers a topic that does need to be spoken about, I’ve also decided to share it here.*
Note: My father just passed away on February 14th due to complications that arose from contracting Covid Pneumonia in early January. His death easily could have been prevented had he simply gone to the doctor to get checked out. Unfortunately, his political leanings were extremely far-right, and he tended to believe every bit of propaganda he read online, thus he developed an irrational fear of doctors. This resulted in a frantic 3AM call from my sister-in-law, whereby I then rushed to my father’s house because he was no longer able to control his own movements and was only able to lay in place and pant for breath. I called the ambulance on my way, and they said if we had waited even thirty minutes longer, he would’ve passed that night. Unfortunately, he only got an extra month and a half of life, all of it spent sedated on a ventilator because the virus destroyed his lungs. We finally decided to let him go on the 14th, as there had been basically no improvement. Additionally, even if he had managed to turn around, he would have needed a lung transplant, which the hospital refused to even contemplate due to his advanced age. My father was 66 years old. This is my outcry at an ignorant nation that is content to continue living within their ignorance simply because it is easier, and they don’t know any better.
Let’s talk about the dangers of the rampant misinformation that is allowed to permeate our society unchecked.
More often than we’d like to admit, the fact that anybody can post anything online and call it truth has a detrimental effect upon our society. There is no real way to control it, because to do so would inflict far too many restrictions upon the American people. A classic case of “punishing the many for the crimes of a few.” Realistically, it is only a very small part of the population that is contributing new material to the ever-growing pile of misinformation that one can stumble upon. Even more unfortunate is just how loud this small part of the population can be. Social media and the ease with which we share articles among ourselves contributes to this problem. For instance, how often do you check the validity of a post, video, or picture before you click that share button? I bet not that often. Take the video of the robotic art called “Can’t Help Myself” by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, two China-born artists. The first time I came across a short clip of the robot, it was with a rather long caption explaining how it was scooping its own hydraulic fluid to “stay alive”, thus it represented our own needs to consistently work ourselves to death for money just to survive. The post went on to say that the robot died, despite its best efforts to save itself, in 2019 after running nonstop since 2016. The concept caught my interest, so I looked it up on Google. One search promptly disproved the claim that the robot was trying to save its own hydraulic fluid. Rather, it was just a mixture of red liquid that was created to look more like blood than anything else. Furthermore, it did not run for three years. It was actually only on display for about ten months, total. For four months in 2016 and for six months in 2019.
What does this robotic arm have to do with the dangers of misinformation I spoke of previously? Nothing, per say. However, it does demonstrate how easy it is to become impassioned about articles that resonate with us and our beliefs, even if the article isn’t necessarily true. This is exactly what happened to my father. As he aged, he needed something to believe in and something to fight for. When the Trump vs. Clinton election rolled around, he jumped on the Trump Train with no hesitation. This led to him falling down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories that he never managed to crawl out of. Instead, he kept digging in deeper, even joining a church where 85% of the members believe that Covid-19 is a hoax and that doctors and nurses are being paid off to “fix” the numbers to push the far-left agenda. Even more unfortunate is how easy it is to find information that seemingly supports these fears and ideas. Now, this is by no way an attack on the right by themselves. The far-left is just as bad when it comes to publishing inaccurate articles that are designed to read as informative when in all actuality, they are just propaganda aimed to further their own ideals. Neither side, at their extremes, wants to share the truth. They merely want to push their version of the truth to further their own goals. Many of which are not goals designed for the benefit of the whole, but rather to separate and alienate the two sides from each other. Sadly, we as a society make it all too easy for them. For being so connected and having a world of knowledge literally at our fingertips, we are utterly opposed to exerting any extra effort to fact-check the things that we read. Many think they do, and this is where the problem arises, especially within the baby-boomer generation. These older adults did not grow up with the internet as a research resource, thus they did not learn how to check their sources for bias and validity. Unless one graduated high school within the last twenty years or attended college within that same time frame, they aren’t aware of the dangers of biased information online. They believe that just because multiple websites or news sources say the same thing in a variety of ways, that the information must be true. This is not the case at all. Unless one takes it upon themselves to do a little extra research to check how factual a website’s reporting is (such as making use of the MBFC), then there’s no way for them to know that the website they are reading is not reporting completely factual information. Of course, even news sources and websites that report factual information can possess a political bias. This is when it falls on us as the reader to gather the base facts of whatever we’re researching while ignoring the potentially inflammatory wording of the article that contains them. This is where we fall short because it is too tempting to fall into our own echo chamber. We want to believe that which lines up with our personal values, whether it is completely true or not.
My father, like many others, needed something to fight for and somebody to fight against. Unfortunately, he was a very stubborn man and wouldn’t even consider the possibility that the information he was finding and consuming online was purposely designed to feed his fear of the world rather than to inform him. These non-factual websites and biased sources created the fear that resulted in him ignoring all recommendations to be seen by a doctor when he began having trouble breathing. My father was a very healthy and active man, and this virus killed him. All because he believed that these websites spoke the truth. This could have been prevented, had he just known how to verify the factual validity of his sources. Unfortunately, he didn’t. Nor did he care to learn, because to do so would have disproven everything he wanted to believe. So, my question is simple. How do we fix this? How do we teach our older generations what they told us as children: “Don’t trust everyone you talk to online.” Regulating free speech isn’t a viable option. Forcing websites and news sources to plainly advertise their political bias or admit that what they report may not be 100% accurate won’t work, either. We can’t make them put a warning on their front page like we do with cigarettes, cautioning users that blind belief without further research could result in death. I wish we could. Maybe if they had those warnings, my father would still be here today.