On January 27, 1838, a 28-year-old Abraham Lincoln made his famous Lyceum Address before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, in which he stated, “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
It’s incredible how relevant the entire speech is to the present-day United States. I don’t want to gush too much about Lincoln’s wisdom, but it’s not an exaggeration to say I could write a hundred articles about the problems affecting our nation today and be able to quote the speech in every one of them. In it, he warns that the only real threat to the United States are the people within who disregard the values that define our nation and undermine the institutions put in place to defend those values. He warns that our decisions must be guided by reason, not emotion, or else we’ll allow demagogues and tyrants to take control of our government and destroy us, if not in a literal sense, then certainly an ideological one.
Emotions like anger and fear can cause us to make passionate decisions without considering the consequences they’ll have in the long run. When exploited properly, these emotions can even be used to make us willingly act against our own best interests. History is littered with stories of leaders who were able to gain immense power by convincing people there was a threat to their well-being that only a strong leader with unchecked power would be able to protect them from. It’s how men like Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini were able to transform democratic nations into fascist dictatorships; they were masters at using people’s emotions to control them.
While I highly doubt a leader like Hitler or Mussolini would ever rise to power in the United States, the methods they used to take power can still be used by our government to expand its authority. In fact, the government has been doing that very thing for decades, particularly when it comes to exploiting people’s emotions, and there’s no better example of this than the Patriot Act.
Americans were angry and terrified in the aftermath of 9/11. They wanted to make sure the people responsible for the attacks were brought to justice and, more importantly, that no attacks of that magnitude happened again. The government promised to do both of these things for us, the only requirement being that we allow it to expand its power at the expense of our own liberty and privacy. It seemed like a small price to pay at the time and many Americans were happy to make the trade, but it’s been nearly two decades and we’re still paying for it. Once the government got that nice, stable foothold in the form of the Patriot Act, it gradually but continuously expanded its power even further than was initially required.
The power was taken bit by bit, slowly enough that most people aren’t even aware just how much things have changed since 9/11. Hell, many adults aren’t even old enough to remember what America was like before 9/11. Each individual loss of freedom seems too small to be worth fighting against, but it all adds up. How many other concessions have we made to the government in exchange for assurances of safety, or even convenience? Americans continue to allow emotions like anger and fear to influence their decisions and we’ve become less free as a result.
Even when people don’t like a change, so long as the change is too small to warrant much of a fuss, everyone will eventually become accustomed to it and forget that it even happened. Once the change becomes the norm, another small change can be made, which will eventually also become the norm, and the cycle repeats. This is known as creeping normality, and it’s terrifying how effective it is. Entire societies can be make to accept things that, previously, they would have found unthinkable. They can have their mindsets completely altered so long as the alterations are made gradually over a long period of time.
That’s why it’s so important for us to let reason, not emotion, influence our decisions. The government will take a mile for every inch we give them and it’s incredibly difficult to get that mile back, so we need to be careful not to give it another foothold it can use to expand its power even further. We made a mistake with the Patriot Act, but mistakes can be some of the most effective lessons. Hopefully we learned from this one because I don’t think it’ll be long before we need to avoid making a similar mistake.
The growing epidemic of fake news has been stirring up a lot of emotion in the United States. As I described in a previous article, Russia is conducting a social engineering operation in the United States in an effort to destroy us from within, and it’s working. Not only are Americans angry that Russia is so brazenly manipulating us, they’re afraid of how effective that manipulation has proven to be. They’re becoming more and more desperate for solutions, and the most popular solution I’ve seen proposed is one that’s about as slippery as a slope can get.
The solution I’m referring to is to create a system that identifies and labels, or even removes, fake news on the Internet. This idea genuinely terrifies me, because who is going to create the system(s) we use to combat fake news? Will it be tech giants like Facebook and Google? I certainly hope not considering how the two of them effectively have a duopoly on web-based information already and have demonstrated numerous times that they’re willing to use that power to push their own agendas. Will it be a consortium of news outlets? Most major news outlets are owned by billionaires or huge media conglomerates that are even more willing to push their agendas than Facebook and Google. Will it be a government agency? That’s quite literally the worst-case scenario and if I need to explain why then you’re on the wrong website.
Plenty of individuals and organizations on every point of the political spectrum are already using the term “fake news” as a weapon to dismiss whatever news or opinions they don’t like. Imagine what kind of weight the term would have if it were an official label branded by an organization that had social influence or, God forbid, legal authority. How powerful do you think an organization that literally gets to define “truth” would be? That’s what I mean when I say this is a slippery slope. We need to avoid creating such a system at all costs. No matter how bad fake news is, a solution like that would be a million times worse.
So if autocratic and oligarchic systems of combating fake news are too risky, what does that leave? A democratic system? Perhaps we could create a platform that compiles links to as many articles and videos as possible and then relies on users to vote on their truthfulness. Maybe instead of voting on articles, users vote on the writers or news outlets themselves. The idea is certainly worth exploring, but I think a democratic system would be far too vulnerable to manipulation to be reliable. No, I don’t think any system, not even a democratic one, will provide us with a solution to the fake news epidemic without causing more problems than it solves. So, when organizations and systems are unable to help us, what do we do?
Well, we just need to learn to help ourselves. Americans need to learn how to find the truth themselves instead of having someone else’s version of the truth spoon-fed to them. They need to put in the research and thought required to actually become informed about important topics instead of regurgitating someone else’s biased, oversimplified take on those topics. They need to start conversing with people they don’t agree with instead of condemning them. They need to let their decisions be influenced by reason instead of emotion. Our democracy can only function properly when the people participating in it are informed and rational, guided by facts and logic. It’s our own responsibility to ensure we meet those requirements and we can’t rely on other people to do it for us. Relying on some system, especially a government one, to do the job for us just undermines the very democracy we’re trying to contribute to.