McGrath: Informed voter needs healthy dose of skepticism
By David McGrath October 12, 2012 9:42PM
Columnist David McGrath says voters are constantly targeted with lies and manipulation, and it’s especially easy to be fooled by a story that appeals to political bias. | File photo
Updated: November 15, 2012 6:29AM
Many believe it’s wise to avoid writing political commentary in a local newspaper. Political affiliations, after all, have recently been found to be like brain dominance, according to a Harvard University study as reported in Science Daily — people are wired from birth to lean left or right, or Democratic and Republican. You probably cannot change minds and will only end up stirring bad feelings.
But when my friends and neighbors and relatives are lied to in one side’s attempt at manipulation, it becomes necessary to expose the deception.
My relative, for example, is an avid outdoorsman and gun owner. He became incensed when he read online that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had signed an international arms treaty that would usurp his Second Amendment right to possess arms.
He sent a mass email, outraging more people we both know, informing them not just that their gun-purchasing privileges would be curbed but that the U.S. government went behind the country’s back to accomplish this feat. That got many of my relatives, and an untold number of other people, poised to oppose President Barack Obama and the Democrats in the Nov. 6 election because of this perceived sabotage.
The only problem was that the “sabotage” was a lie, a rumor cooked up and circulated on the Internet. Fact-checking organizations, such as snopes.com, have labeled the claim false, calling it “erroneous in all its particulars.” Not only was no such treaty signed, but the one that was proposed in the United Nations and declined by the U.S. and other countries had nothing to do with gun control.
More recently, a friend contacted me to express his consternation at learning that a hidden clause in the Affordable Health Care law imposed a new sales tax on homes of 3.8 percent. This meant that families buying a $200,000 home would pay an extra $7,600 at closing, beginning Jan. 1.
Naturally, this would anger Realtors and prospective homebuyers, not to mention the average American citizen opposed to higher taxes. But what my friend thought most sinister was the Obama administration’s attempt to hide the home tax from the public.
Turns out it wasn’t hidden because it doesn’t exist. Just another Internet rumor designed to foment fear and panic as well as create a stampede to the polls to vote Republican.
You can’t blame either my relative or my friend. They were trying to be informed citizens and voters but were fed bad information through the subterfuge of slick professionals.
Some lies have not been secretive. When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced that Mitt Romney may not have paid income tax for years, he did so to an audience of many millions. His attempt to discredit Romney was debunked and condemned immediately by the media and leaders of both parties. (Romney’s camp eventually released a summary of his tax returns, showing that he averaged a 13 percent tax rate over the last decade.)
In the Reid case, because his claim was made so publicly, the American citizen was shown the truth within a 24-hour news cycle. But being a responsible citizen is not easy. As the above examples show, we are constantly targeted with lies and manipulation, and it’s especially easy to be fooled by a story that appeals to our political bias.
Therefore, this is the challenge to be a vigilant voter: If you hear or read something that is not also reported by a reputable media source, be skeptical. Ask questions. Type the claim into an independent Internet fact checker such as snopes.com or factcheck.org.
And be responsible by not further disseminating wrong and potentially harmful information. It’s the Internet Age’s version of shouting fire in a crowded theater.
David McGrath, a former resident of Evergreen Park and Oak Forest, is an emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage.