People can't tell the difference between 'alternative facts' and real news
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For those of us who, at the very least, are concerned about living in a post-truth society, here’s a new perspective: This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to human history.

Few generations are blessed with the ability to define a new world. Just as the Pilgrims moved to a new land for religious freedom, or the Allies of WWII who defeated the Nazis, or the activists of the civil rights movements who demanded justice, we have the chance to be immortalized for keeping reason and facts from withering away in the era of social media. 

Sadly, if there is no action taken, this generation could also be remembered as the one that infamously weakened democracy and helped destroy the liberties that so many before fought and gave their lives for.

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What makes this situation perhaps even ironic, is that the sacrifices that need to be made are virtually nothing compared to what the previous American heroes had to endure. It all starts where most people spend a significant part of their day — online. 

Creating a fact-based culture on social media 

Social media is a culture. Just like any other culture, there are written and unwritten rules. For example, it is a written rule that a user on Facebook or Twitter cannot harass or threaten another user on the platform. If someone violates this rule, that person may be suspended from using the platform.

Then there are the unwritten rules. The most contentious one right now is what to do about fake news, or more accurately, hoax news? 

Before a debate fires up in the comments about what is fake news, for the purpose of this conversation, fake news is malicious stories created with no intent for the search of truth. A story that says Hillary Clinton is running an underground child sex ring out of a pizza restaurant in Washington D.C. is a complete hoax. If that cannot be agreed upon, then stop reading and go find other conspiracy theories to be entertained with, as this conversation will confuse you.

While Facebook, Google and other media giants should, and are, taking the proper steps to combat the spread of fake news, there is a larger problem that must not be ignored. How has society reached the point where individuals cannot take the proper steps to do independent research and critically think online? 

It’s too easy just to blame those doing the egregious spreading of “alternative facts.” The truth is those who are apathetic on social media are to blame as well.  

That is not to say everyone should be ready to pick a fight every time they look at their feed. But when that close friend or family member posts something that is blatantly harmful to democratic values, it must be challenged. The reasonable majority has stayed quiet long enough.

By avoiding warranted conflicts on social media, a culture has been created where misinformation can spread instantly. Since there are limited ramifications for those who want to be careless with the truth, those who spread false information feel empowered, because society has inadvertently allowed the consensus to become that’s just what happens online. There’s nothing that can be done about it. 

The problem is by the responsible majority being unconcerned for so long with the careless behavior of the minority on social media, that culture has now seeped into the mainstream.

The rise of alternative facts

The degree to which society has allowed itself to accept misinformation as a norm has reached a critical point. Just look at Kellyanne Conway, the mother of the term “alternative facts. 

Conway recently said that the Trump administration’s restrictions on refugee admissions and travel from several predominantly Muslim countries were justified because of the Bowling Green Massacre. The problem is that this was a fictional event. It never happened. It was an alternative fact. Which when looking up the synonym for alternative fact, it means bull waste.

She didn’t say this online, though. She said this lie on a mainstream cable news station. Slowly but surely, the lines are being blurred. The United States is becoming a culture that tolerates this behavior. But it doesn’t have to be this way. 

Taking personal responsibility

It’s time to take responsibility for what has happened and to take action to correct it. The action may be different for everyone, but something needs to be done by everyone who cares.

For some, it means challenging online those who present propaganda as fact. It can be done by linking to accurate stories or questioning the person to explain how they can be confident that this isn’t conspiracy bull waste. Or to be politically correct for Conway, that it is not an alternative fact.

For others, it may mean using Facebook’s new mechanisms to identify and report fake news. Better yet, it could mean to subscribe to credible media outlets that have spent decades building their reputations. By ensuring that you are following quality news, you can confidently spread their fact-check articles that combat nefarious stories.  

It could also mean verifying that a story is accurate by verifying using a few different sources before clicking the share or like button. And always making sure to share story, not the headline. The entire story must be read before giving it a personal endorsement by sharing it.

If this all seems overwhelming right now, here’s a place to start; ask these questions after reading a story, and see if it could be a story that harms democracy and is an insult to critical thinkers. 

Ultimately, what it comes down to is that Americans have to reflect on what has been accepted in culture and now consciously begin to change it. Taking a stand on alternative facts is the great challenge for this generation to take part in. We must strive to be model citizens of this country and of history.

It can start with the next post you see.

Adam Chiara is an Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Hartford. He has worked as a legislative aide in the Connecticut General Assembly, as a journalist, and as a public relations practitioner. He's on Twitter at @AdamChiara. 


The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.