Around the Island

Jenifer’s Journal: Uncommon ground

In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.
— George Orwell

Truth has kind of gone the way of the steam iron, or phones with cords, or garter belts (Victoria’s Secret notwithstanding), or fondue pots, an irrelevant, vaguely amusing, yard-sale dust-catcher for which nobody has any real use anymore. 

I’m not talking about the philosophical, religious or cosmic varieties of truth. I’m referring to “simple truth,” the objective, concrete, fact-based, verifiable kind that, ironically, seems to be an endangered species in this digital “Age of Information,” which should’ve advanced the primacy of fact-based truth, but has come pretty close to assassinating it instead. 

The infinite internet “ocean ” — like our actual ones — has been polluted with diseased information for years, waves of which continually crash in from everywhere, far beyond our individual abilities to identify and guard against it.

Just 10 days ago a report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was made public on the disinformation campaign mounted by Russia and Iran to derail our 2020 Presidential election. Is the report true?  Not true? If true, it should be seen as an outrage but, with disinformation inundating us all the time, “outrage” is hard to sustain. 

We seniors are somewhat more at risk from disinformation, not just because many of us are still flummoxed by the technology itself, but perhaps also by a failure of our generational imagination to conceive of so much being published online today with the express purpose of deceiving us.

Help is on the way, however: The March, 2021 AARP Bulletin has cover-to-cover information on living in a post-COVID world as well as avoiding text, email scams and disinformation in general. Check it out.

Our local police hear from Islanders on a regular basis who’ve had attempted or successful scams aimed at them. If you have doubts about unsolicited messages coming your way, contact the police at 631-749-0600.

In terms of being able to consistently discern the difference between disinformation and the real, fact-based kind, however, even the smartest, most tech-savvy of the population is clueless on how to do so in any meaningful, comprehensive, permanent way.

As with COVID, until an effective disinformation “vaccine” is found, we’ll have to rely on taking analog, self-generated measures, such as becoming and remaining staunchly open-minded, vigilant and ready to at least attempt to check our sources. 

But it’s a battle. This iteration of disinformation is so diabolical because it’s targeted towards people who, having been polarized by disinformation already (and who hasn’t been?) might prefer to believe such tainted information if it agrees with our preconceptions.  Ergo: If nothing is true, then everything is true. Opinions and feelings have become the new facts.

So how can we, as citizens, ever hope to find common ground in this roiling cyber sea?  Some of us have scrambled up on rafts of flotsam we’ve cobbled together, but there’s only room for people who agree with us, and we can’t build a country on that. It seems that, for the moment, one of the only means of rescue available are those small lifeboats, our local newspapers, of which there are fewer and fewer every year.

Yes, local newspapers like this one, our intrepid Reporter, that’s somehow stayed afloat when, in the past 15 years, over 2,000 others nationwide haven’t. The University of North Carolina Center for Media Law and Policy released the findings of their 2020 study regarding the decline of local news and the spread of mis- and disinformation.

It says, in part: “The information vacuum left when communities lose dedicated news coverage can have wide-ranging effects. Local news outlets play an important role in informing community members about local government, elections, and other civic events. They also help to shape community views around common values and beliefs, creating a sense of shared purpose that can be a powerful uniting force within a town or county. Without a source for local news, community members get most of their news from social media, leaving them vulnerable to mis- and disinformation and exacerbating political polarization.”

In other words, over the past two decades, “common ground” has become uncommon indeed, and now its analog platform, the local newspaper, is being sluiced away by the flood of digital media.

The report continues: “Social scientists who study the impact of the Internet, social media, and other forms of digital-information-sharing point an alarming picture of the health of American democracy.”

If Americans can’t find that strip of crucial common ground that we can agree on, stand together on, whatever our individual opinions, predilections and preconceptions, then we are, well, “doomed” comes to mind, because there will be nothing for our communities, our nation and our world to build on.

The irony, I suspect, is that if a group of people of every political and cultural stripe listed the five areas of their lives which they consider most important, I’ll bet when they compared them, though the order might vary, those lists would be nearly identical.