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No time to give up fighting the falsehoods

Sometimes things aren’t what they seem. Magicians don’t really snatch coins from thin air, make rabbits disappear or cut their assistants in half on stage.

Nor is crime at historically high levels in our cities; nor has the Biden administration refused to expel people who cross the border illegally, nor reduced American oil production; nor did Donald Trump cut taxes more than any president before him. Those are illusions served up by politicians – and while they’re not as entertaining as those sleights-of-hand that magicians perform, they’re certainly more consequential.

In fact, even laying aside the relentless unreliability of our ex-president, we need to be more dubious than ever before of information coming our way that might sway our opinions. That’s because technology and a loosening of political norms have given unscrupulous players new power to wildly mislead us. And we are poorly armed for this fight.

Deepfake videos can deceive us into thinking that recognizable people are saying things that they didn’t in fact say. Hundreds of partisan websites now exist that masquerade as reliable media outlets, and they’re churning out make-believe news, sometimes generated by artificial intelligence. In fact, there are now more partisan sites mimicking news outlets – so-called “pink slime media” – than there are real newspapers.

Meanwhile, social media is awash in misinformation. Since Elon Musk took over Twitter and renamed it X, the site has welcomed the wacky and the shady. Meta, the owner of Facebook and Instagram, gave up its effort to rein in Trump last year, and now it has altered its algorithms to downplay legitimate political content, and to welcome ads that push false claims.

And, of course, there’s Fox News and its imitators, which eagerly mislead people. So most Fox viewers surely don’t realize that crime actually is declining in U.S. cities, and that the Biden administration has expelled five times more migrants who crossed the border illegally than the Trump administration did, and that America is pumping more oil out of the ground now than it did during Trump’s term.

Meanwhile, Russia is using fake online accounts and bots in an effort to undermine the Biden campaign, NBC News reported a few weeks ago, knowing that a second Trump presidency would undercut Ukraine’s defense and further weaken NATO.

And China, too, is using fake online accounts, some impersonating fervent Trump fans, in an effort to stoke partisan divisions and weaken Biden’s political standing. The New York Times recently found that sort of an account on X: It purported to be “a father, husband and son” who is “MAGA all the way!!” — that’s what it said – but it was in fact a product of a Chinese government effort known in intelligence circles as Spamouflage.

All of these are challenges to the values that Americans have long shared. We have valued truth and integrity in our politicians and we have honored the reliability of our own democracy to project democratic values worldwide. It’s not that we have ever laid aside partisan differences -- but we’ve been able to work through those divides for the shared goal of improving Americans’ lives.

All that seems too difficult these days because we have been disabled by a virus of deceit. This isn’t caused by innocent chicanery, like the optical illusions that inspire our wonder; these are lies aimed at advancing a partisan end, and they work by triggering fear. That means that we can best counter them by building hope — by meeting political illusions with factual solutions. We need to be armed with thoughts and plans that offer a narrative contrary to the distortions that tend to grip us. Scolding people for believing lies is less effective than putting forward a more hopeful alternative view.

That is, we have to work constantly to assert what’s true and to expose the fabulists. You know, we’re worn out by political combat; many of us are astounded at being forced, yet again, to fight the unprecedented threat presented by Donald Trump’s flagrant falsehoods and their embrace by virtually half the country. That’s the task demanded if we honor truth, though — and it’s hardly time to give up.

It's not necessarily a popular pursuit, of course. George Orwell wrote, “The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those who speak it.” But there’s no room anymore for magic tricks and illusion. In fact, it’s our time and task to insist on truth-telling, whether we find it challenged by digital sleight of hand or by the outright deceit of politicians.

Rex Smith, the co-host of The Media Project on WAMC, is the former editor of the Times Union of Albany and The Record in Troy. His weekly digital report, The Upstate American, is published by Substack.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

Rex Smith, the co-host of The Media Project on WAMC, is the former editor of the Times Union of Albany and The Record in Troy. His weekly digital report, The Upstate American, is published by Substack."
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