Updated: May 8
Here’s a little tale of our times:
On July 5 in East Hartford, Conn., the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team took the field for a match against Mexico. Before the game started, Pete DuPré, a WWII veteran, played the national anthem on a harmonica.
Some members of the U.S. squad turned their backs on DuPré while he played. The outrage meter cranked up to 11 almost immediately, with videos posted to YouTube and various sites condemning the action, led by a Facebook page called Hold the Line, which captioned the scene as “A DISGRACE TO AMERICA! … Who agrees we need to keep the woke OUT of the Olympics??? #HoldTheLine.”
Cable TV picked it up, and it was soon a story almost impossible to avoid across social media. Until it turned out to not be true.
What actually happened is the soccer squad already had a deep and warm relationship with DuPré. Some had met him on a trip to Normandy beaches in 2019; he’d played the anthem for them that year before the final World Cup game, and after the incident in July of this year, they signed a game ball for him and individually thanked him.
The reason some turned their backs on him was so they could face the flag, which is what one is supposed to do during the anthem.
There was a tidal wave of outrage for a day, a few fact-checkers weighed in with the real story, and a few of the places pushing the wrong story backed off, sort of. The prize-winning comment on cable was the sentiment that it was sad people would believe the tale to be true but understandable since such tales were so widespread.
Wonder who’s spreading such misinformation in the first place? where you’d get such a presumption in the first place? It’s a real head-scratcher. There’s a tale like this Every. Single. Day.
Some are annoying, some are downright dangerous, such as the deluge of COVID misinformation we’ve seen since we first heard that word. Some narratives say it’s a hoax, some dwell on where it started, some say the pandemic really isn’t that severe, a lot of those folks would’ve died anyway, some dismiss the death rate as really not very high. Four or five million dead worldwide doesn’t look that serious when you realize there are 7 billion people on the planet. Heck, there were 97 people on the Hindenburg and only 35 died, so what’s all the fuss?
Well, here’s part of the deal: Somebody has to clean up after all that manure, and it’s usually a reporter. Reporters are busy people. Checking this stuff out is time-consuming, and every minute spent figuring out Bat Boy doesn’t really exist is a minute spent not covering city hall or Congress or the next war we appear to be blundering into. Further, the correction isn’t what most people hear. It’s the initial accusation that burrows into the mind.
Some of this misinformation is innocent. Some is plain old mean-spiritedness. And some is sinister, sown by actors intent on turning us against one another and destabilizing our very democracy.
We don’t appear to have any good solutions here in the U.S.
It might not hurt to turn to Finland for a helpful strategy.
While we’re mud-wrestling over what to teach in public schools, there’s a lesson we could learn from that Nordic country, which has been teaching children for more than a decade how to spot misinformation and propaganda from kindergarten on up.
There’s a reason Finland did this. Its people were overwhelmed with online trolls raising hysteria about the real Finland being destroyed by immigrants, its heritage in peril, that it should exit the EU, etc. etc. Divisive stuff, that did its job of dividing.
As with our social media, a lot of the trolling online originated in Russia, as does a lot of the trolling in the United States.
Unlike the United States, Finland shares 832 miles of border with Russia, and Russia has a habit of destabilizing neighbors and driving tanks across those borders.
Thus, the response to educate its citizens, which seems to be working well. It’s an example we should at least study.
The amount of effort debunking malicious nonsense is wildly disproportional to the effort needed to spread the lies in the first place.
Reporters can’t do it alone. They need help. And America can only work if it has an informed citizenry.
As the saying goes, “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.”
Incidentally, look that up and you’ll see it attributed to Mark Twain.
There’s no proof he ever said it.
Pays to do a little research.
Jim Buchanan is a longtime mountain journalist