Americans Can No Longer Discern Fact From Fiction

Americans Can No Longer Discern Fact From Fiction

© David Burton 2022

Social Media

     With the advent and proliferation of social media, Americans are bombarded with all sorts of supposed news, facts and opinions. What is becoming increasing obvious is the unfortunate fact that too many of us cannot discern the truths from the falsehoods. Let me prove this statement with a real-life recent example

     Some weeks back, I was at a small gathering in my home town just outside Boston. There were about a dozen people present. I mentioned that I had recently experienced a problem in dealing with the government’s Treasury Department that resulted in a message from them notifying me that it would take the Treasury Department at least 13 weeks to respond. I then mentioned that while the Treasury Department was too busy to address my simple problem, the Biden administration was going to add some 87,000 Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agents to that agency. One of the people present at our gathering then jumped in to loudly exclaim, “And they are all going to come after us with guns!”

     The reason for the statement was the appearance in social media of claims to the effect that Biden was “creating an army” and that this army of armed IRS agents would be coming after the tax cheaters, as well as honest and innocent American tax payers.

     One example of the cause of my friend’s outrageous – and false - claim was the following (summarized by me):

     After President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act was approved, the IRS is prepared to launch a massive hiring drive to hire thousands of new officers using public funds.
     The agency received a funding increase from the Inflation Reduction Act of $80 billion. A $40 billion budget was set aside for “enforcement-related” activities, such as hiring special operatives who, according to their job description, will be armed and ready to use force when required.
     The detectives from the IRS Criminal Investigation section, who have long been used with carrying weapons and using specialized gear, will be furnished with all of the amenities found in a police station.
     The IRS seems to have been planning for this development for some time based on how quickly they took action, and the public is left skeptical about the implications of this dubious development.

     One message on social media: “Send this on if you will,” read the dire message. “Very important!
     The “URGENT” missive that followed concerned the deaths of seven women at Gleneagles Hospital after they had inhaled a free perfume sample that was mailed to them. The product was poisonous.
     “If you receive free samples in the mail such as lotions, perfumes, diapers, etc., throw them away. The terrorists’ new ideas.
     To give this authenticity, the warning was sent by the Office of the Chief of Police of Risk Management from Washington, D.C. With the situation in Iran heating up and threats of retaliation filling the news, my friend felt compelled to alert me and her other friends to the danger.
     Another social media message: “I understand that Lexington is now a sanctuary city,” an irate reader emailed a newspaper, wondering why they had not had an article on information that was freely making the rounds on social media.
     A sanctuary city is a name given to a city in the United States that follows certain police procedures that shelters illegal immigrants.
     A third social media message read: The Selective Service website crashed Friday hours after the announcement that the head of Iran's Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, was killed by a US airstrike ordered by President Donald Trump.
     Anticipating a war between the two countries and the possibility of another military draft in the US, social media exploded with “news” that young folks with government loans would be called upon to enlist. In turn, these young people accessed the Selective Service website in such numbers that the site crashed.
     What do all of these examples have in common?
     None of them are true and all of them were spread on social media.

     Facebook, especially, is fertile ground for examples such as the Gleneagles Hospital deaths. Why people pass them on is a mystery because 99.9999999 percent of the time they are urban myths. The official-sounding Risk Management Office does exist but its purpose is to promote best practices among police departments, not to investigate criminal cases.
     These cases should be a reminder to everyone to not believe everything that they see on Facebook or in social media. Unfortunately, too many people today are getting – and believing - their news this way.
     In this era of misinformation and disinformation — much of it deliberately circulated by partisans, conspiracy theorists, Russian trolls, unscrupulous politicians - pick your poison - it behooves all of us to maintain a healthy skepticism and verify independently what we read/hear from many sources.[2]

     The tendency of much of the American public to believe nearly everything that appears in the media – read that as appears in social media - has grown exponentially ever since Donald Trump took to the stage in American politics.

     The ex-President falsely maintained that Democrats rigged the 2020 November and stole the vote. After he whipped his supporters into such a frenzy that some of them stormed the Capitol, Twitter temporarily suspended the account of its most infamous user for an initial period of 12 hours. Shortly afterward, it shut down Trump's account permanently, thereby stripping the president of his primary platform of falsehoods, inuendoes and rantings.

     In the course of his 4 years in office, Trump shared his thoughts with some 90 million Twitter followers almost daily, sometimes even hourly. The permanent suspension of his account took the world by surprise. While some described the Twitter move as "problematic" and suggested that a private company should not be making decisions on curbs to freedom of expression, US legal experts, pointed out that the First Amendment only limits the governmental from curbing freedom of speech.
     "The First Amendment doesn't apply to private sector organizations. That's not how this works," Chris Krebs told reporters last Sunday. Krebs served as director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency at the Department of Homeland Security until he was fired by Trump days after the November election for contradicting the president's claims that the election was rigged.
     An assistant professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania said "I think the companies had to take action. [They couldn't] simply sit back and let the exchange of information that is potentially creating violence be exchanged on their platform."
     "For them this is between a rock and a tough place. This is a difficult, challenging decision to make because they had to make the decision to give individuals the ability to express themselves. At the same time, they need to make sure that the exchange of information on their platform is not creating violence on the streets, is not creating damage to individuals and property, is not creating harm to the democracy."
     And that's exactly what Trump was doing. "Social media is the most effective tool to inform them [your base], excite them, mobilize them. Trump has used Twitter very effectively in order to inform, sometimes to misinform, manipulate his base, to mobilize them, to make example of people he doesn't like."
     Once Twitter began flagging more and more of Trump's tweets and retweets to indicate they contained false, disputed or misleading info, the platform saw an exodus of users. Other social media giants also witnessed a backlash.
     Facebook and YouTube also banned Trump from their platforms for an indefinite period. Meanwhile, experts warned that niche social media platforms with fewer restrictions were on the rise and were likely to contribute to a culture of growing extremism. Unfortunately, their predictions seem to be coming true! In online spaces where everybody can watch and everybody can observe individuals exchanging information, we can anticipate what might be coming up. By creating such alternatives, it's going to be much harder to observe them. It's going to be much harder to identify the harm or violence created by these types of sites.
     "The problem is . . . if people believe there is a deep state out to get Trump, and that commercial elites, Hollywood elites and journalistic elites are adamantly against Trump, and you then forbid Trump — yeah, of course, that only fortifies people's beliefs about the deep state.”[3]

     Like all autocrats, Donald Trump knows that only by repeatedly saying the unsayable can he create the conditions for his loyalists to imagine doing the unimaginable.
     For the five years before and during his presidency, a complacent chorus of politicians and talking heads advised Americans to ignore Trump’s tweets. They were just words, after all. Twitter was not real life. Sticks and stones might break our bones, but Trump’s lies and insults and white-supremacist propaganda and snarling provocations would never hurt us. It was unthinkable that he could bluff and cajole his way into the Presidency. Once he did that, it was impossible to imagine that he would be able to maintain a loyal following, to implement any significant part of his sadistic agenda, to reshape the Republican Party in his image. In the run-up to the 2020 election, Trump repeatedly announced his intention to thwart the peaceful transfer of power. We were encouraged me to ignore Trump’s bluster. When it came time to leave, he would leave. What else could he do? Tweet about it? Whine on Fox News? Hold another rally? Issue outlandish orders to his generals, on the off chance that they would comply? He could do all of those things. The words of a President matter. Trump’s tweets were always consequential, not because they were always noble or wise or true but for the opposite reason. What we say, online and offline, affects what we believe and what we do - in other words, who we are. Like all autocrats and propagandists, Trump knew that rhetoric is a precursor of action: that only by repeatedly saying the unsayable could he create the conditions in which his loyalists could imagine doing the unimaginable.
     For decades, Trump used the media - conservative media, mainstream media, celebrity tabloids, social media and whoever else would give him a microphone - to burnish his brand, to hawk his wares, and to make the unimaginable, such as a Trump Presidency, start to seem imaginable. For years, he and other autocrats have used Facebook and Twitter to promote their agendas and solidify their power, breaking the platforms’ rules with impunity. “The idea that fake news on Facebook . . . influenced the election in any way, I think, is a pretty crazy idea,” Mark Zuckerberg said in November, 2016, two days after Trump was elected. Zuckerberg later rescinded the comment, but it wasn’t a fluke. He and other tech tycoons had long profited from a version of narrative determinism: the fallacious notion that the ever-increasing dominance of social networks could somehow change nearly everything about how we talk, how we shop, how we feel, what we pay attention to, and how we understand the world, all without changing Who We Are.
     Shortly after the Capitol riots, Trump’s accounts on Facebook and Twitter were suspended “for at least the next two weeks until the peaceful transition of power is complete,” reasoning that “the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great.” This was the right step taken far too late. If Trump’s disinformation and incitement posed a risk to democracy then, why did they not pose the same risk a day earlier, or during the previous year? Both Twitter and Facebook had long suggested that they had no choice but to give President Trump a platform, essentially no matter what he did. It was a matter of newsworthiness, they claimed: the public needed to know what the President was thinking. Following the insurrection at the Capitol, Trump’s Twitter account was locked, and the world didn’t seem the worse for it. It is unfathomably bizarre that one of the world’s most dangerous propagandists was allowed nearly unfettered access to the most powerful communication tools in human history, all out of some misbegotten allegiance to a warped notion of free speech, and that the only thing that could break the spell, in the end, was an attempted coup.[4]

  1. Biden’s New IRS To Come After You With Guns and Amor,, Accessed 19 September 2022.
  2. I read it on social media; it must be true, Annette Jordan, The Dispatch, 10 January 2020.
  3. Donald Trump supporters flock to niche social media sites,, 15 January 2021.
  4. How Social Media Made the Trump Insurrection a Reality, Andrew Marantz, The New Yorker, 7 January 2021.


  27 october 2022 {ARTICLE 551; UNDECIDED_72}    
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