Everywhere I look the phenomenon of using social media to spread disinformation seems to be growing. Not a day goes by when I don’t see some new picture or video with a sworn “fact” typed across the bottom. These will appear on any given subject but most likely it will be whatever the current cultural war that is brewing (ie racism, sexism or the most popular; politics). It doesn’t matter if it is a video of football riots in France that are supposedly showing examples of how out of control “Muslim” immigrants are or a meme showing Bernie Sanders in a sports car or an email asking you to boycott Starbucks because their holiday cups just aren’t Christmas-y enough. You can’t turn on the internet without constantly being slapped in the face with one or the other.
The most recent example of this type of disinformation has been a meme widely shared on social media with two pictures juxtaposed, one featuring former President Barrack Obama giving Ellen DeGeneres the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the other featuring President Trump awarding the Presidential Medal of Honor to James McCloughan. The caption on the meme says, “Notice the difference” and under DeGeneres’ picture it states “a talk show host” and under McCloughan’s picture it states “a Vietnam war hero.” Now on its face both of those statements are true. DeGeneres is in fact a talk show host and McCloughan is most certainly a war hero for his efforts as a medic during the Vietnam War.
The problem with this meme is that it is just disingenuous on so many levels. Unfortunately, the meme creator relies on the viewer to not look closely at the meme and realize that the medals being awarded are completely different. The creator also hopes the meme is read and shared so rapidly that it is seen by millions before it is deemed false. Most importantly, the medals being awarded in the meme are two different medals. The one awarded to DeGeneres is the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It is the highest civilian honor awarded in the United States and has been awarded since 1963 and established by President Kennedy. It is an oft awarded medal to individuals who have achieved the apex of their respective fields whether that be science, the arts, business, computing, economics or education. Individuals who have won have ranged from Ellen DeGeneres to Walt Disney and I.M. Pei to Rosa Parks and not to mention more recently our very own native West Virginian, Katherine Johnson.
The other award, the Presidential Medal of Honor is the highest military award. According to the Washington Post, “In 2016, Defense Secretary Ash Carter recommended McCloughan for the Medal of Honor. But since the medal must be awarded within five years of the recipient’s actions, Congress needed to pass a bill waiving the time limit. President Barack Obama signed the measure in late 2016, but he didn’t get the opportunity to recognize McCloughan with the medal before his term ended this year.” And then President Trump was able to award the medal during his first term. This is typically how things happen in the presidency, one president begins the process and his predecessors continue them. The government does not begin again once a new president takes office, most of its processes are ongoing.
Disinformation certainly works both ways. Republican candidates are just as victimized as Democrats. More recently a news item came about quoting President Trump from his book The Art of the Deal stating that “being an atheist gives Trump ‘an edge in every deal.’” With Trump winning a sizable amount of evangelical votes, you can see why this “fake news” article was perpetuated throughout social media. Beyond that, over the years, I think I can conjure up thousands that I have seen and heard. Some more famous ones being the “Obama Phone”(false), “Bill Clinton selling plots from Arlington Cemetery to the Chinese” (false again), “George Bush knowing about 9/11” (falsely false), and lastly the entire birther movement for that matter (utterly and completely false).
The problem that exists with the spread of “disinformation” is really just how pervasive it has become and how at a time when we have some much information at our finger tips we don’t take time to Google and follow up on the facts. Snopes.com is still a great nonpartisan website that does the heavy lifting for us. When we take these memes at face value and share them with our friends via text, email and social media we are basically becoming someone’s political pawn. As we are finding out more and more the person or company creating these memes might not even be from our country. They create these lies and everyone pressing send or share are the ones doing their job for them. It may for a second make us feel good or serve our political interests but it is laying waste to our friendships and civility. The damage being done to our communities is far from being measurable at this time.
When will enough be enough in the war of disinformation? When will we decide to put forward only the truth and not falsehoods that serve no actual purpose beyond polluting the minds of everyone who see it?