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Sorting Truth From Lie in Political Campaigns

By Reed Anfinson
Swift County Monitor-News
It appears appalling. Former Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden making a racist statement. With more than 1.4 million views on Twitter already, his alleged comments are spreading with the speed only the internet enables. There is just one big problem – the video of Biden’s remarks in New Hampshire were doctored.

His comments were made in response to a question on combating sexual violence. “Folks,” he said, “this is about changing the culture, our culture, our culture. It’s not imported from some African nation or some Asian nation. It’s our English jurisprudential culture, our European culture that says it’s alright.” However, the person who posted the edited version of Biden’s comments left out the “Folks this is about changing…”

Without those first words, what you get is this apparent racist comment: “The culture, our culture, our culture is not imported from some African nation or some Asian nation, it is our English jurisprudential culture — our European culture.” It leaves just the opposite impression.

The person who created it goes by an anonymous name and is part of a group that says it likes to create and post “elaborate jokes or art.” In this case, its post has been picked up by political partisans and retweeted as fact.

We had better get used to such outright deception because we are going to be overwhelmed with it in the coming presidential and statewide races. We will get lies, deceit, and outright fabrications from political partisans, super political action committees, and from foreign countries trying to influence our elections.

Combating the misinformation we are inundated with these days requires literacy. It’s not the kind of literacy where you know how to read and write, but literacy that gives you the ability to sort fact from fiction. It gives you the foundation from which to suspect faked videos, doctored images, and misquoted politicians.

A first requirement for inoculating yourself against the avalanche of false information you will find this election season is a healthy dose of skepticism. People have to ask whether what they are reading or watching makes sense. Is the information one-sided, dismissive of other points of view, or outlandish in its claim? Would Biden really say something racist and sabotage his campaign?

The credibility of the information you are getting has to do with the bias of the source. Do you know where the information came from and whether or not the source has an identified political, social, or religious affiliation? Knowing a writer’s or producer’s associations helps you put into perspective his or her point of view and how it colors what you are reading or seeing.

Unfortunately, these days it is getting harder all the time to know who is behind the information we are getting.

A few other questions to ask are, how are the writers, or producers, of the information trying to make me feel? What do they want me to think? How are they trying to encourage me to act?

What emotions the writer or producer is trying to excite in you will tell you something about the intent, fairness, and truthfulness of the information. Does the message create feelings of hope, trust, and enthusiasm to do something positive, or does it create despair, fear, and jealousy that stimulate anger and resentment? Negative emotions are powerful motivators. Playing to those negative feelings will be at the heart of much of what we will see in the coming months as the political campaigns ramp up. Those who use negative emotions to motivate people often twist facts beyond recognition.

Even if we can educate ourselves to recognize false information, we still have to contend with perhaps the most challenging of all manipulators of information – ourselves. Consuming information with an open and skeptical mind means putting aside the inherent biases we carry.

There is probably nothing harder to overcome then what we are taught when we are young. We tend to harbor the worldviews inculcated in us by our parents, schools, churches, and friends.

Shaking loose the shackles that limit open mindedness, that cement us into narrow ways of thinking, and that curb our ability to accept those with thoughts that run contrary to our own, is not easy. Expanding the horizons of what we believe can be a heart-wrenching, disturbing exercise.

We are all subject to something that has been identified as “confirmation bias” - a willingness to believe things that reinforce the beliefs and prejudices we hold. “Research has found that when psychologists confront political partisans with facts contradictory to their opinions, they become even more convinced of their existing beliefs,” Gregory Ferenstein, a fellow at the University of California Center for the Study of Democracy, writes.

Motivated cognition is “a tendency to bias our interpretation of facts to fit a version of the world we wish to believe is true. For instance, one study found that college basketball fans, viewing the same video of a game, were likely to believe the rival team committed at least twice as many fouls as their own,” Ferenstein says. This motivated cognition can be a passive willingness to accept false information we read or see, or as routine as watching only MSNBC or only Fox News.

We know there are many reasons for people to harden their views – fear of change, fear of others not like us, and the need for acceptance among peers. Overcoming those fears is challenging and unsettling.

Keeping an open mind, being skeptical of what we hear, see and read, will not only help us identify misleading and false political information, it will also help us in many other areas of our lives as well.

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