I’ve always been interested in the human capacity to suspend disbelief, to watch or read a science fiction or fantasy story portraying impossible events, yet somehow managing to become invested in the safety of characters that exist only in the imagination and as pixels on a computer screen. We feel concern for beings as they endure challenges and setbacks that exist solely to sell books and movies.

The term “media literacy” concerns our perception of reality and how it gets shaped by the information curated for our consumption.

Young children perceive television as a sort of magic window showing an unvarnished truth of what’s happening in the real world. As they mature cognitively, they develop a skepticism about the literal reality of media messages, then form the ability to distinguish between fictional programs and news or documentaries. All of this is in flux as entertainment masquerades as news and misinformation spreads like wildfires on Facebook and other seeing-is-no-longer-believing manipulations.

The latest tool, “deep fake” videos, threaten to literally put words into the mouths of people who aren’t actually sitting there in front of cameras being photographed. Left unchecked, this sort of sophisticated tool allows someone unethical to make a prominent politician or business leader appear to say damaging things, possibly causing a temporary panic or affecting the value of a company’s stock. Furthermore, deep fake videos muddy the water, allowing someone caught in the act of doing something embarrassing or corrupt to cry victim and make an excuse equivalent to saying “I was hacked.”

The only defense against this deceptiveness is the same skepticism that the child learns to realize that Barney isn’t a real dinosaur. It becomes more challenging when Spielberg unleashes a Jurassic Park T-Rex. In the first movie theaters, audiences reportedly ran screaming for the exits, convinced that the grainy black and white locomotive projected on a screen would run them over. It’s ridiculous to imagine, yet that’s exactly where we are, reacting to illusion and perception.

Skepticism overflows today. What’s missing is faith, but that requires trust. How can we trust anything when reality is conveniently packaged like a gift basket in a storefront window? When someone ranting on our television spoon feeds us nightly arguments about who we should hate? When every day brings some new diabolical scam a crook will use to steal money from grandmothers?

Some public officials deflect from criticism by claiming that anything harming their public image must be “fake” while showering praise on articles that flatter them and rewarding journalists who act more like their publicists with enhanced access. I suspect this is what happened when NPR found its credentials lifted to impede their ability to travel with a government official after one of its reporters asked him a question he did not want to confront. There’s always a give-and-take between sources and reporters -- an establishing of trust that one will not burn the other. In the short term, playing favorites and leveraging access may work to one side’s favor, but access works both ways when he or she needs to reach a wide audience to expand public awareness about a cause or campaign. Besides, playing games does a disservice to taxpayers who rely on being kept aware of what’s happening.

This is serious stuff and goes way beyond sharing ridiculous stories online.

I recently interviewed an official at the DeKalb County Emergency Management Agency, and we discussed public trust in the authenticity of information. He stressed how critical it is for them to only publish details they’ve verified because rumors and speculation could result in resources being misallocated and citizens possibly harmed by over-reacting.

Recently a friend went into a panic worrying about the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus. The same folks casually dismiss getting a shot for the flu, which kills a lot more people.

At news organizations, there’s a process where editors serve as gatekeepers and journalists argue for their stories to survive the slaughter of critical scrutiny. Why? Because it is human nature to want to believe that which suits our biases.

There is no such filter by a skeptic for most of the stories shared online. Being reactionary in social media posts is part of the problem in our civic discourse, i.e., having an instant outlet that allows us to vent frustration without giving us the time to cool down and reflect on the wisdom of our choice of words.

Information is being weaponized to transform our screens into a battlefield to win over hearts and minds.

Too much information on social media incites a focused rage so that neighbors (who don’t talk to each other in person as much anymore) come to regard each other as a dire threat to the American way of life, judged based on whose sign is in their front yard or on a bumper sticker.

Convincing citizens that the sky is falling serves broadcast media channels that benefit from higher ratings that, in turn, allow them to charge higher prices for advertising. Misinformation also serves officials who want to distract us from real problems and political organizations that exist to drive voter turnout in a binary choice that’s usually between bad and worse.

If you need breadcrumbs to find your way back to reality, follow the money.

— Steven Stiefel is a staff writer at the Times-Journal. His column appears in Saturday editions. Email: steven.stiefel@times-journal.com.

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