Facts Aren’t Stubborn Things

In response to my comment urging good folks on our side to “get involved on platforms like Twitter” as a way of fighting back against what we have seen and are seeing in our new Trumpian world, a first-class thinker and blogger, Jim Wheeler, wrote:

Get involved in Twitter? It’s discouraging to think that 140-character opinions can be effective. Feels like he’s dragging us down to his level, a landscape of trolls and brain-farts. Ugh.

Here is my reply :

Jim,

I feel your pain.

But the good guys don’t always get to choose where the battles are fought. I agree with you that it is a little depressing that here in the 21st century we are forced to fight part of the war against Trump-inspired ignorance and bigotry on 140-character terrain, but Twitter is Twitter. It is one of the fronts. There are other, larger battle zones accessible to the public (like Facebook), but Twitter played a significant role in this election and it is something I have chosen to focus on. My thinking, post-election, is that we can’t just allow the bad guys to occupy all the Image result for twitter logosocial media space without a fight. And tweeting is relatively easy. You can do it anywhere, anytime. All you need to do is adapt to the medium, supply good information and argumentation—and develop thick skin.

Let’s review: Trump’s use of Twitter proved effective in two ways. He used it to bring in followers with whom he could communicate directly—and pass on lies and conspiracies and propaganda—who would then retweet his messages to others, amplifying those messages and attracting more like-minded people. And, more important, he used it as a way to get the media to amplify and replicate his messages and present them to an even broader audience, some of whom were then attracted to Trump’s blustering persona and his dark world view and became a part of his loyal following. Think of Trump’s tweets as 140-character rallies. He used his Twitter account much like he used his numerous rallies: to attract adoring fans who would praise him, to give those fans lots of rancid red meat, and then to get out of the way and allow television do the rest. Facts were never a part of the formula, which leads me to my main point.

We all know the old, old saying, “Facts are stubborn things.” But, really, they aren’t stubborn at all. They are easily pushed out of the way, as this past election demonstrated rather painfully. Facts are only as stubborn as the people who value and use them—people like us. It is we who must be tireless in defending and wielding the facts, who must obstinately maintain their place in our discourse. If we give up, if we refuse to engage others with the facts wherever they might be, then ignorance and bigotry will certainly win. Because the truth is that ignorance and bigotry and tribalism really are stubborn things. They tend to be default positions.

Thus, I think we, those of us who want to see more of a fact-loving, inclusive electorate than we saw this cycle, ought to get on social media platforms—my personal emphasis is on Twitter, but Facebook and other forms need us too—and engage those who are spreading misinformation and falsehoods and propaganda. This past summer, Clive Irving, writing for The Daily Beast, argued that “Trump is never going to be the monster that Hitler was,” but, rather, Trump is more like Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi’s Reich Minister of Propaganda:

Had Goebbels been around today he would probably be the master player of the media—of any or all media. He would have grasped and exploited the ubiquity of social media. He would have relished the random distribution of defamatory vitriol via Image result for joseph goebbelsTwitter. In fact, few people have ever understood the technique of selective messaging better.

Goebbels was Hitler’s indispensable genius of spin. Long before the Nazis came to power, Goebbels understood what had to be done to gain that power. Fundamentally the German public needed to be made to happily acquiesce in the idea that the nation needed a demagogue to right its grievances.

It was Goebbels who proved that if falsehoods were repeated often enough they became, in the minds of the ignorant and aggrieved, facts.

I don’t think for a minute that Trump is smart enough to pull this off alone. But media made him who he is, and with a cadre of other liars and deceivers to help him, along with too many profit-chasing news outlets, it does seem we are now experiencing something that looks a lot like a Goebbels strategy. I have called it quasi-fascism. And that is why we must fight falsehoods everywhere they appear. And “everywhere” especially includes social media, since those are home bases for Trump and his followers.

As I have said before, we shouldn’t be under any illusions. Changing minds is difficult, mostly impossible. There are incorrigible assholes and trolls and fake accounts all over the place. But Twitter and Facebook and other platforms are networks that connect all kinds of people. Some of them are without a doubt hardcore haters and fanatics who are beyond rational redemption. Others, though, are only passive participants in the back-and-forth, and if these relatively passive people are only half convinced on one topic or another, seeing a determined person on our side might keep them from turning to the dark side. At the very least they will know there is an aggressive defense to be made against certain assertions, and they may think twice before they pass on falsehoods as “facts.”

And the good people who fear the dark side, but don’t feel confident or competent enough to get in the fight against it, need to know, if only for their psychological well-being, that there are determined people out there willing to fight against ignorance and stupidity and bigotry on all fronts, so that a Goebbels strategy doesn’t become normalized, and successful, in any large-scale way. We are dangerously close to that happening, in my opinion. If we don’t stubbornly defend and advance fact-based information, then falsehoods will become facts “in the minds of the ignorant and aggrieved.”

Finally, like the Internet at large, there is a lot of useful information available on Twitter and other platforms. It’s not all a fact-free sewer. Twitter especially can be a good way to follow what is going on in the country and the world, if you follow the right people. A lot of world-class journalists, literally from all over the world, are on Twitter and offer some valuable insight on whatever is breaking, or whatever has broken. There are, too, a lot of smart people, including academics, sharing pithy commentary and analysis, as well as graphs and charts, etc. These folks need our encouragement. If you look at the nasty responses they often get, you can see why it is important that our side is there to back them up and help shout down the shouters and, if necessary, bully the bullies. We can’t just let the trolls, the misinformed, and the misinformers dominate useful, often mind-expanding, platforms.

For all these reasons, while I share your “ugh”and fear the possibility of Trump “dragging us down to his level,” I think it is necessary for the triumph of good that bad folks pushing bad information be confronted, on Twitter and elsewhere. And even if the good does not ultimately triumph, at least we will know that we did all we could, that we fought the good fight.

 

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9 Comments

  1. Anonymous

     /  December 4, 2016

    Mr. Wheeler,
    I wish I could have written what you submitted.
    Jerry Elton Waltrip

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  2. You make good points about Twitter, Duane. I hope you will keep us informed about your Tweeting experience.

    So far as I can see now, there’s little feedback to the Tweeting process. In a blog, comments provide such in a meaningful way. For example, your thoughtful and reasoned posts have definitely helped me to clarify and change my own political thinking these past 4 or 5 years, although I have to say, I can’t think of others to whom that would apply. Anson, for example, seems unaffected. However, I can see the logic to perseverance that you lay out so well.

    I will keep an open mind about this.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    • Ben Field

       /  December 5, 2016

      Jim,

      Duane’s writing has affected us all I think to some degree, even Anson. I was “anti-Clinton” at the beginning of this election, and every concern I shared with Duane was met with polite, reasoned responses and even shared concern over her Kissinger influences. It motivated me enough that I began sharing those responses with family and friends. This blog has a few new readers readers now because of those efforts, even if they don’t comment for fear of the wrath of King B type of response. Those type of responses, though not as polite as Duane’s, prepare you for the other sides vitriol.

      I have commented on Anson’s own personal blog many times, as you have, and I can see the effect Duane had on him until he gets back into the right wing echo chambers. Billy Long is a prime example, even though he keeps winning re-election, Anson claims to no longer support him. He doesn’t engage him directly on particular issues, but instead just rambles conservative talking points, I suspect not as he claimed initally to “know the enemy” because he lives with “the enemy”, a person that also supports progressive values. That in and by itself is an accomplishment.

      I cannot understand how to tweet the eloquent responses given in this blog, but I do know you share the ability to communicate effectively with the other side, I’ve seen it in Anson’s blog and on this one. I borrow from y’all, Herb, Dr. Morgan, and other thoughtful commenters herein to make my arguments. Please do not be discouraged, your opinions value to more people than you know, as they may not be re-tweeted, but they are shared.

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      • Ben,

        I appreciate the very kind and inspiring remarks. All of us benefit from these exchanges. Iron sharpens iron, as the Book of Proverbs tells us. 

        For the record, while I completely agree with your assessment of Jim Wheeler’s (and the others you mention) “ability to communicate,” I think you sell yourself short. I have always found you to be a thoughtful contributor, firm but willing to listen to contrary views. You’re exactly the kind of “tweeter” we need!

        Duane

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        Reply
    • Thanks, Jim. Our interactions over the years have been highly profitable to me. I value them greatly.

      There is developing on Twitter a longer-form method of tweeting out mini essays, using successive tweets. They are not the same as blog posts or other long-form methods of communication, obviously, but they are surprisingly good ways of quickly introducing oneself to new ideas or new takes on old ones, especially if you’re sitting somewhere in public otherwise doing nothing.

      Oh, thanks for keeping an open mind. Those are getting rarer and rarer.

      Duane

      Like

      Reply
  3. ansonburlingame

     /  December 5, 2016

    Duane and Jim,

    If I tried to use Twitter to state my politics, or my wife for that matter, here are a few such tweets that would show up.

    “Trump will try to outdo Reagan in restoring out economy” (mine)
    “Romney is a whore” (Janet’s)
    “Good for those Indians” (Janet in regards to the pipeline drama)
    “Putin is doing what is best for Russia” (mine)

    Where do I or Janet get such ideas and is such communication good for America? In my view it is pure blather with no substance whatsoever provided to any readers. It is simply another opinion to mix in with the millions (billions?) of other opinions.

    I have found that the far better way to form political opinions is to read, extensively, and by read I mean read books. Of course that is not the quick and easy way to form political views. Just watch a newscast, read a tweet and the matter is decided, once and for all. Books, lots of them, provide depth and nuance to important ideas, ideas that might be either good or bad ones.

    Both of you want to “fight back” against the results of this election. I already knew that for sure as soon as the results were announced. It is “Why” you want to fight back and “How” you will do so that interests me. I also assure you both I will not just write “Liberal whiners strike again”. Instead I will do my best to explain why I believe you are either wrong or far too presumptive to know what Trump is really going to do, yet.

    In this instance I side with Jim, his disregard for Tweets. Go ahead and “tweet” your thoughts, Duane, with titles to your blogs. But continue please, to back up the central idea with substance in the blog itself.

    Anson

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    Reply
    • Anson,

      Of course reading books, long essays, etc., is preferable to tweeting. But Twitter is full of links to books and essays and so on. And we must not overlook the fact that how the masses choose to communicate is up to the masses. If we want to be a part of their conversation, we sometimes have to go where they are. Evangelists don’t convert many people inside their churches.

      I have lately begun to engage, often randomly, people who appear to be die-hard Trump supporters. They can’t be allowed to think they have the entire field. They need to know there is another, determined, team out there ready to take them on. If more of us (I speak as a liberal) do that, we can begin to reshape the opinion landscape.

      And I also use Twitter to encourage the good contributors, journalists, academics, and others who are trying their best to keep our social sanity.

      As for substance, I just finished a 5500-word essay that took too many hours to research, write, and edit, and that few people will ever read. Substance is, well, exhausting. Twitter is much easier!

      Duane

      Like

      Reply
  4. Joe Boyle

     /  December 5, 2016

    Mr. Wheeler, if they aren’t stubborn, they aren’t facts.

    Like

    Reply

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