With the Internet as its promulgating agency, and social media exploiting the vulnerabilities, ignorance has become pandemic. Perhaps this is a logical evolutionary progression, but at no time in history has the public become so susceptible to the spread of willful ignorance, intentionally deceitful lies, and blatant stupidity. As some elements of falsehoods are skillfully crafted on one hand, but gullibly accepted on the other, rumors prevail in a fact-free world in which even seemingly intelligent people frequently respond with the resonating, yet dangerous refrain: "I don't care!"
Millennia ago, from our humble ancestral beginnings as hunter-gathers, the Agricultural Age emerged. As centuries passed, technology slowly evolved and yielded the Industrial Age. Then, technology accelerated, advancing at an ever-increasing pace and as data became dominant transcended into the Information Age. Unexpectedly, it appears, the tsunami-like exponential explosion of information has devolved into the Age of Ignorance. As agriculture before it, farming did not cease to exist as industries became preeminent, and industries continued but were subjugated by information. So too does information continue to be present in the Age of Ignorance which was spawned by critical failures of control and permeated the boundaries of the evolutionary process.
While observable ubiquitously, nowhere is this intellectual dilemma of the Age of Ignorance more perilous than in the current American political cycle. Rather than thoughtful discussions of issues, blows and counterpunching have devolved into a battlefield of tweets. Twitter, with a 140 character limit, so narrowly constrains content that important context is lost, and individuals frequently left to interpret the meaning. The current progenitor of this manner of political parlance, Donald Trump, exploits the public vulnerability by seeming to assume that the audience will not delve more deeply into any given topics, but as sheeple, they will mentally embed the simplistic message and divest themselves any further cognitive effort.
The Internet is both a blessing and a curse. Fathomless amounts of data are near-instantaneously available to all with access to computers. Except in relatively closed societies, there are few established boundaries on that vast information sump. The eminently glaring problems are lack of both provenance and accountability. Even the formal news media contribute to the consternation as the need to be first almost always trumps the need to be accurate and often entertainment value ranks higher than importance. Their financial motives for such reporting are patently obvious.
We are living in a time in which anyone can post anything with little to no culpability. While liability for slander and libel still apply, rarely are the legal avenues pursued as the process is long and complex. Such claims, must navigate an intractable labyrinth so arcane as to be understood only by a small cadre of jurists. One highly unusual exception was the case of Terry Gene Bollea, better known to his wrestling fans as Hulk Hogan. Bollea sued the online tabloid Gawker for publicly transmitting a video recording of him engaged in a sex acts with a friend's wife. The case was initiated in 2012 but it took nearly four years and many thousands of dollars to resolve. Uniquely, the jury awarded him nearly two hundred million dollars after which Gawker filed for bankruptcy. Few people have either the time or financial resources necessary for such remediation. Therefore, reputations built on years of exacting and strenuous effort can be destroyed with a few adroitly placed keystrokes. As demonstrated by the host of tabloids and lascivious Internet sites, the public's thirst for salacious details for the private lives of others is near insatiable (not to mention the leviathan porn industry). Unfortunately, those mental diversions are often at the expense of deeper cognitive exploration or thought.
Google, Bing, Yahoo! Search, Ask, WebCrawler, and similar programs are part of the problem. No longer do most American students feel required to learn detailed material as vast quantities of information is instantly available via these search engines. For many students there is no need to personally study anything as reports on any topic can be acquired and regurgitated with ease. Missing in this educational process is the development of the mental agility to engage in any in-depth analysis.
Masquerading as free speech advocates, unscrupulous agents exploit the most fundamental vulnerabilities of democracy: veracity or lack thereof. Cloaked in near-obscurity, faux news web sites knowingly and intentionally post lies to damage their political opponents. One of the most effective techniques used to implant a concept is the high repetition rate of short statements. Whether real or false they tend to be remembered. An example is Trump continuously talking about "Crooked Hillary." That approach was employed by him throughout the primary with derogatory nicknames for his opponents. Remember "Little Marco," "Crazy Bernie" or "Low Energy Jeb?" While they are juvenile taunts, they stick in the consciousness of the general public and fit well with his target audience. More vociferously attacked was, "Lying Ted," not to mention an inexcusable ad hominin assault on Cruz's wife. Obscured from thought is that fact checking revealed that Trump himself lied an astonishing 76 percent of the time.
Also arising are zombie lies. Those are falsehoods that are demonstrably not true, yet repeatedly resurge from their grave. Examples are perennial claims such as President Obama was not born in the U.S. (once touted by Trump and still believed by 20% of Americans) or that he is a Muslim, or non-Christian (as believed by 30% of Americans & 43% of Republicans). Then there are frequent claims that Obama personally fired large numbers of senior military leaders (some lists are in the hundreds), and cut Department of Defense personnel pay for the last three years (actually military pay increased each year).
Prevalent among the nefarious tactics are some of the following:
- The use of questions as if a statement of fact. Any viewer of the popular program Ancient Aliens will recognize the oft repeated phase "What if.... ?" or "Could it be that...?" used to infer reality. Again, on the campaign trail Trump has employed this approach saying, "I don't know, but I hear..". That statement then infers the premise is correct but without any supporting basis in fact.
- Quotes comprised from whole cloth are a staple on the Internet. As an example Michelle Obama is quoted as saying "white folks are what's wrong with America," Such statements are made knowing few people will ever check, and those that agree with the sentiment will accept it as true - often retransmitting it regardless of its veracity.
- Use of partial truths then departing into falsehood. A classic example is that Hillary Clinton was appointed to defend a rape suspect in her early years as a lawyer. (Appointing civilian defense counsels is common in many jurisdictions.) However, the proponents of the rumor go on to infer that she intentionally got him off and laughed about it. The reality was that the defendant accepted a plea deal that she negotiated. (Approximately 90% of criminal trials result in plea deals) For her to have done other than vigorously defend her client (whom she thought was guilty) would have been a failure to do her judicial responsibilities.
- Denial of facts is a common practice in willful ignorance. Despite record global temperatures and ice caps shrink in recent months opponents of climate change suggest the measurements are not accurate or humans are not involved. When polls were all showing Trump in decline and when attempting to influence the public on CNN, he sent Michael Cohen, his arrogant and counter-charismatic senior counsel, whose approach was to deny reality.
Sound bites have been a certainty of reporting since inception of radio and television. Some brevity is necessary and appropriate. But like the use of condescending nicknames, they can totally distort their meaning. Assuming the ignorance of the majority of the audience, commentators and agenda-driven pundits alike often attempt to reduce extremely complex issues to a point of absurdity. Such topics as domestic and global economics get conflated with personal living expenses, the global climate change compared with a local weather event, illegal immigration can be solved by deportation, or blaming one political party for difficulties in a small geographic area. (Consider Milwaukee, Wisconsin with a Democrat mayor, an outspoken Republican sheriff and a Republican governor, or Flint, Michigan with a Democrat mayor and Republican governor)
Of immediate concern to all Americans should be oversimplification of terrorism in general and ISIS in particular. As an issue designed to generate fear, political candidates have elevated ISIS in the minds of the public to something it is not; an existential threat. Conceptually versus geographically based, the defeat of such an amorphous adversary is extremely complex. Yet, on this topic Trump has claimed he "knows more about ISIS than the generals" who have been engaged on the battlefield for several years. He further stated erroneously that ISIS was created by President Obama. Even his chief military advisor, retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, has given conflicting statements regarding the origin of ISIS. With his former JSOC commander, General McChrystal, on CNN's Declassified Flynn stated unequivocally that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was the acknowledged father of ISIS, and that was well before Obama had been elected. International security is extraordinarily complex and often enigmatic. "We can kick their ass" is not a policy. Unfortunately it is a common sentiment with many people in the U.S.
Of commensurate difficulty, and immense gravity, is the emergence of law and order as a fundamental campaign issue. Despite violent crime being at a relatively low rate, one not seen since the 1970's, Trump has chosen to frighten the general public by emphasizing specific events in limited areas. With no stated solution, he claimed that upon his inauguration crime in America would end. One must assume he will wave a magic wand and crime will cease. To be fair, law and order are perpetual campaign issues for all candidates, however, solutions matter. The basic assumption of the voting public is that any new measures will apply to others, not them. In reality, law and order is a code for increased arrests and incarceration--which always falls predominantly on minorities. To capture Trump's sentiment try this memorable toothpaste-inspired ditty:
"You'll wonder where your freedom went
When you vote for Trump for president"
Even with prison populations declining, the U.S. is far and away the developed world's leader in percentage of its citizens incarcerated. A breakdown of prisoners can be found at this link. Worth noting is the count of inmates that have not yet been convicted of anything. In addition to incarceration, about two times that number are in the correctional system on probation or parole. All criminologists acknowledge that the causes of crime are extremely complex. To simply state that crime will stop, or even significantly decrease, with a new president in office is absurd; but an example of what the public is being spoon-fed and many seem to believe.
Having entered the Age of Ignorance we will not escape its tenacious grasp after this year's election. Dishonorably executed, intentional misrepresentation of facts, coupled with the naïve replication of those statements by the gullible, will continue to proliferate. The question becomes how deeply we will allow ourselves to fall into the Intellectual Dark Ages? Will those well-educated and cognizant of the trap be sufficiently influential to overcome the seductive morass of emotionally pleasing tripe, nonsense and willful ignorance? Today the answer eludes us. However, based on the prattle of social media, and if the current political polls are correct, the future does not look promising.
Disclosure: The author is a registered Republican and did not support any of the registered candidates in either major party