Fake News Splits Americans and Destroys Our trust in Democracy

By Bill Powers

                               “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble.

                                  It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”  – Mark Twain

     “Fake News”, also known as disinformation, is not new. These days It gives rise to a toxic environment that splits Americans, and negatively affects our political process, our institutions and the integrity of our democracy. 

    These days with disinformation running rampant, it becomes difficult to be sure that what you think you know is based on fact. Outright lies and messages of hate are intentionally spread through the traditional media sources, social media and social networking in efforts to persuade. Messages of disinformation arise not only from domestic sources but also from foreign sources often originating from places such as Russia, Iran and China. In the 2016 U.S. election Russian operatives famously flooded social media with disinformation designed to influence the election. In 2022, China has ratcheted up their ability to “create controversy along racial, economic, and ideological lines” while targeting American voters, according to Clint Watts of the Microsoft Threat Analysis Cener (September, 2023). The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has also recently warned that China is attempting to influence U.S. elections. On September 9, 2023, President Biden extended the National Emergency for Foreign Intervention in U.S. Elections citing “unusual and extraordinary threat” to national security. Domestically there is an overabundance of nonsensical conspiracy theories that infest our society today.

    Is “disinformation” the same thing as “misinformation”? During the cold war of the 1950s, the term “disinformation” became popular to describe the intentional spreading of false information in order mislead. The word propaganda also comes to mind especially during the mid-1900s. The term “misinformation” is used when incorrect information is spread without the intention of misleading. These days we need truth more than ever before, since there are now countless sources of information where real facts and the truth can be so elusive. 

    A popular term used today is “fake news” that can be defined as misleading information presented as intentionally and verifiably false news. A concern is that being barraged by so much information in a short period of time by so many sources can be so confusing, overwhelming, and confounding. Rephrasing Mark Twain’s quotation: “What gets you into trouble is what you think you know, that factually isn’t true.” It’s hard to know if what we know is true, especially these days. Thinking critically involves sorting out fact and truth, and that takes time and energy. Frequently, I endure the many pundits and bloggers who put forth all sorts of ideas and I’m not really certain if I have just been bedazzled by brilliance or baffled by bullshit. When that happens, I try to pay attention to the resulting unsettling disparity that I am experiencing and simply try not to just laugh it off.

   “Fake news” was a factor 100 years ago. It was the topic of a September, 1923, Willimantic Daily Chronicle editorial titled “FAKE NEWS ITEMS”. Here’s what the editor wrote: “Every now and then some person with a poorly developed sense of humor sets to work to get a fake news item printed, either telephoning it to the office or sending in an unsigned communication.  

   “This is one of the many things with which newspaper workers have to contend and to their credit let it be said that a few items of this nature appear in print. It takes all kinds of persons to make the world and we suppose that there is bound to be a certain percentage of these so-called humorists among them. A law making it a criminal offense to furnish a fake news item to a newspaper or its workers would go a long way towards stopping this despicable practice.” 

    Clearly, one hundred years ago fake news was a concern and according to the editor, in an effort to prevent fake news, the Chronicle employed a practice for screening anonymous items. However, one could provide disinformation or misinformation as long as they took credit for it. Effective screening is not so easy these days with so many sources of information and fake news. Screening or thoughtful review is preferable to censorship or suppression; finding a happy medium can also present a slippery slope. 

     From the time of Colonial America, newspapers in America were very politically biased. Using the Willimantic Chronicle as an example, its first issue was published on December 3, 1879 and it succeeded a weekly paper called the Willimantic Enterprise, thatwas first published only two years earlier. The Chronicle incorporated many new changes compared to the Enterprise. Perhaps the biggest change was its devotion to a political ideology. Whereas the Enterprise had been apolitical, the Chronicle immediately declared itself to be the local advocate for the Democratic Party’s views and ideals. As explained in the first issue: “The need for such a paper as we intend for the Chronicle, has been felt by those in this community who are in sympathy with the political struggles which it is designed to advocate. Within the past eight years the growth of the Democratic party in the town of Windham from a minority, counted by hundreds, to a majority, has been in the face of the open or disguised opposition to our local press. It is high time the party had some local organ which will inspire into its ranks a united, organized and persistent zeal, and to marshal an unbroken phalanx to the triumph at the ballot box of liberty, equality and law.”  

    The reporting of the news in America, when first amendment freedoms exist, has always been biased and polarized and to some extent characterized by disinformation and misinformation. However, today’s electronic social media, with or without interference from foreign sources, further splits Americans and predisposes the destruction of trust in our political process, our institutions, and the very integrity of our democracy.

     Perhaps the Willimantic Chronicle editor’s intuition, from a century ago, calling for “a law making it a criminal offense to furnish a fake news item”, was on the right track. The problem has grown one hundred fold since that time. The editor got it right! “Fake news” is a “despicable practice” especially when it undermines trust of our political process, our institutions and the integrity of our democracy

Bill Powers is a retired teacher and resides in Windham

These Words of Wisdom Might Have Been Useful

by Bill Powers

   For millennia humans have recognized the existence and value of the notion of wisdom.  A dictionary definition of wisdom states: it is “the ability to use your knowledge and experience.” It is often acquired as one ages. Leonardo Da Vinci proclaimed: “Wisdom is the daughter of experience.” Albert Einstein said: “The only source of knowledge is experience.” Ancient philosophers such as Laozi addressed the importance of wisdom when asserting: “Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom.” The Greek philosopher Sophocles professed: “Wisdom outweighs any wealth.”

    As a child and growing up in Hartford, the older kids in my neighborhood attended Hartford Public High School and I was always intrigued by their mascot, the owl. I was told that the owl represented wisdom. So, the connection in my mind for wisdom and schooling was established early on. Indeed, the association of wisdom and owls was reinforced by the advertising for Wise potato chips, where the owl was their mascot.

   A popular concept in our society is that age and experience bring wisdom. I wondered: Why not tap into the wealth of experiential wisdom from some of my older neighbors, to gain further insight into this. So, on a random basis I asked people the following: “What is one important thing that you wish someone had told you when you were young?”Here is what they replied when they were at the Windham Senior and Community Centers, the Veteran Center in Willimantic, or Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Windham Center.

Jean age 85 – At a certain point as you age increases, your physical strength begins to decline. The older you get the more quickly that happens. Stay active and exercise frequently.

 Marilyn age 71 – How devasting smoking tobacco, excessive use of alcohol, and abuse of drugs can be and can ruin lives.   

 Robin age 68 – Two things – 1) The importance of participating in sports can have significant positive effects on the physical and mental health and well-being. Girls need to appreciate the importance of Title IX and make use of the opportunities it has provided for female athletes. 2) What is important in life is ½ knowing what want and ½ is asking for it.

 Jevena age 63 – Get to know what makes you happy and strive to keep that happiness in your life.

 Bill age 77 – Don’t wait too long to thank people who helped you when you we young, because when I tried in my fifties, I found that half of them were already dead and I had missed that opportunity.

 Ethel age 81 – Listen to and respect your kids’ needs and plans for the future. 

 Rosemary age 80 – Begin early on to save for your future, even if at first it is only a dollar a week.

 Frank age 77 – Plan on having many careers during your lifetime.   

 Paula age 67 – Embrace each day with joy, no matter what difficulties you may be experiencing.   

  John age 70 – Don’t count on the government to help vets when they return home.

  Margarita age 74 – (with the help of an interpreter) I had many life lessons from my family as I grew up. I would tell children today to respect their family and value religion.

  Joellen age 75 – Bloom wherever you are planted.

  Kerry age 61 – Always do the job right and with no short cuts.

  Ruth age 67 – Become self-sufficient and try to get along with everyone.

  Caroline age 73 – Love yourself and care for yourself first. You can’t pour from an empty cup if you want to care for others. 

  William age 81 – (with the help of an interpreter) I learned many life values growing up from my family. What I would say to young parents is that discipline is very important for raising children. It helps them learn right from wrong. 

  Karen age 65 – Stay healthy – just keep moving and take time for yourself.

  Judy age 64 – To breathe before I talked.

  Bernie age 76 – Turn over the stone to see what is under it.

   Al age 75 – That girls have different emotional/sexual awakening times.

   Mitch age 56 – I wish someone had educated me on how to invest in stocks that generate passive income when I was 18.

   Candice age 78 – I am in control of my own destiny and other people are not.

   June age 89 – Love everyone no matter who they are.

   Patricia age 74 – Everybody deserves to be loved.

   Ann age 60 – Be kind to yourself. 

   Rosario age 74 – Don’t get old in mind and spirit.

   Elizabeth age 75 – Facts of life. 

   Dave age 79 – Life is more enjoyable than you may think. Don’t take yourself so seriously.

   Michael age 62 – Start saving when you are young.

   Steve age 65 – Take as much time as you can with your family – especially your children.

   Priscilla age 80 – You are what you eat.

   Wayne age 90 – Keep the faith.

   Don age 77 – Aim high in life!

   Gerhard age 84 – Emphasize the role of human language.

   Lynne age 65 – Learn how to type.

   Murphy age 81 – When you meet somebody new, ask them more questions than they ask you.

   Rob age 80 – Learn to calmly and respectfully say no! To help you stay on your very own path.

   Patty age 83 – Be sure to nurture yourself by keeping people in your life who have a positive attitude.

   Arlene age 78 – People are the most important things – more than things or projects.

   Jake age 70 – To maintain a balance between a focus on your future but also on your future life

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