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Deceit, the dark art, is growing more ominous in public life. Get ready.

Deceit, the dark art, is growing more ominous in public life. Get ready. November 14, 2020

fake news misinformation donald trump atheism politics world
Soon to be former U.S. President Donald Trump has falsely branded himself as the tough avatar of good over evil when in fact his record of racism, cruelty and governmental malpractice reveals him to be the opposite. (Flikr, CC BY 2.0)

You ain’t seen nothin’ yet in the seamy netherworld of misinformation, disinformation and malinformation, the realm of bad-faith politics and faithful religion alike.

I’m serious. The future of these kinds of subliminal, destructive balderdash is as dark as a black hole, and doesn’t even include the obvious, bald-faced lying that President Donald Trump gleefully traffics in while completely debunking evidence lies in plain sight. Like saying he didn’t lose the 2020 presidential election — or, as he admitted in a tweet today, he only lost because the vote was “rigged.”

Don’t take my word for the global dangers a tsunami of misinformation has spawned; I recommend reading at least the final sections labeled “Future Trends,” “Conclusions” and “Recommendations” in the 2017 Council of Europe report titled “Information Disorder: Toward an interdisciplinary framework for research and policymaking.”

Although I’m disappointed that the report, compiled by dozens of international experts in relevant fields, while proposing more robust public education only recommends passive controls on dissemination of false information. Nonetheless, the report contains a wealth of disturbing information and acute warnings instead of more vigorous regulation of willful falsity.

The problem with these harmful and disorienting species of fabrication now wafting largely unobstructed throughout the world, a lot of it on social media, is that they are becoming increasingly difficult to identify as fake or ill-intentioned, while their purveyors continue to deftly sidestep public accountability.

So, the damage continues unabated. Like the president’s refusal to accept the election reality that he is defeated, and then ordering all federal agencies to not cooperate in any way with President-elect Joe Biden’s what-should-be-routine assumption of power.

In the meantime, more than 1,000 Americans are dying each day from the coronavirus a least partly because the incoming Biden administration team (and its coronavirus task force), for example, cannot get necessary clearances and funding to begin the arduous task of planning to ramp-up the federal government’s heretofore largely flaccid public-health response to the virus under President Trump. Other potential catastrophes stemming from this delayed transfer of power are far too numerous and onerous (e.g., national security threats) to fairly mention here.

This is how such official mendacity, which is to say bald-faced untruthfulness, is not only damaging but also potentially lethal to thousands upon thousands of Americans.

In truth, every reasonable person in America now knows that Biden will be the new president, and that the “widespread election fraud” Trump keeps whining about doesn’t actually exist. Even Republican election officials in battleground states (and every other state) say so. If that GOP senators would.

So, because the president has the power to deny reality and thus put the country at grievous risk, he does. And we see how dismayingly difficult it is to make him accept what’s actually happening in his and the real world, no matter who or how many suffer.

The laws just aren’t there. Consequences are absent.

That’s my beef, that self-serving politicians, for instance, will far too often not be honest and not do the honorable thing for country over party unless forced to by some unpleasant enforcement mechanism, like jail time or punitively hefty fines. The president at present certainly doesn’t seem worried about any formal consequences for his blatant subterfuge.

But figuring out how to embed appropriate consequences for official mis-acts is a question to be wrestled with another day.

For now, we need to get this presidential poseur out of the White House by Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20, and force him or shame him into officially certifying Biden’s victory so his administration can hit the ground running immediately for the American people and Trump can begin to pencil-in his upcoming golfing schedule.

And we should begin to focus on the continuing threat from misinformation in its now-myriad forms and figure out how to (1) teach people to know it when they read, view or hear it, and (2) put laws, regulations and norms in place police it, remove bad actors and their communications when legally necessary, and learn how better to protect American communications infrastructure from political and other kinds of corruption and abuse.

Keep in mind that the technology now exists to create doctored videos of real people saying things they never said, and audio snippets doing the same insidious thing. Don’t take my word for it. Check out this really disturbing “deep fake” video of former President Obama saying things he never said. In it, he appears to, among other things, endorse the vengeful nihilistic violence of villain Killmonger in the movie Black Panther, and (perhaps fairly) to dismissively characterize our current American president (not Biden) as a “complete dipshit.”

Whereas religious charlatans don’t necessarily use “deep fake” video technology to spin their webs of deceit, they do have the ever-handy faith-healing conceit, which a lot of people seem to eat up. And, speaking of disinformation, it’s the coin of the realm in religion, whose entire doctrinaire core is invented. I strongly suspect it won’t be long before evangelicals find a useful ally in the disingenuous benefits of technology.

In the meantime, citizens and governments worldwide who value transparency, truth and objective verification of ideas and assumptions will need to become ever more fluent in the tools of the disinformation trade, because they threaten existential damage to societies.

Yes, we need better education in critical thinking, especially for children, because it is woefully lacking in schools, particularly in the U.S. And we need to protect free-speech rights, but not to the point that bad actors with ill intent have virtual carte blanche to corrupt the public square.

We can’t rely on the so-called “natural intelligence” of the American people, for instance, to interpret disinformation correctly and beware. If they had, Donald Trump would never have been elected president — and he certainly wouldn’t have gotten more than 72 million votes for re-election, which blessedly went south for him because challenger Joe Biden got more than 77 million votes, an all-time record haul.

So, when new President Biden takes office on Jan. 21, 2021, his administration and the Congress should consider what free-speech-protecting laws with consequences might be passed to hold gratuitous lying liars in public life accountable — as a deterrent to future torrents of mendacity like the Trump presidency has unleased, but also to the erosion of honesty in the broader political sphere as well as in national discourse.

Because political villains’ capacities to widely spread disinformation is likely only going to get worse in the future, the rest of us need to get better at identifying it and shutting it down.

We need better understanding, of course, but also stronger laws against purposeful political subterfuge.

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