In the days following the election, Trump continued to refuse to concede the election that he was projected to lose by 7 million popular votes and 74 electoral votes, his baseless complaints of widespread voter fraud while he sought to overturn the results generated outrage among his supporters. Several of my conservative friends and relatives announced that they were leaving Twitter for Parler and leaving Facebook for MeWe. [1]

I had a few reactions to this mass announcement:

  1. We already have extreme political polarization in this country, but if Twitter becomes strictly for liberals and Parler is strictly for conservatives, then this will create dueling echo chambers.
  2. I’d rather be on the social media platform that has more people on it because then there’s going to be better content.
  3. I didn’t get why conservatives would be mad at Mark Zuckerberg since everyone I know on the left also hates him for doing too little to fight election fraud. I thought hating Mark Zuckerberg was the common ground both parties could agree on.
  4. Leaving a social media platform because it’s flagging obvious lies as “disputed” isn’t a great look, particularly when so many in our nation were seemingly willing to throw democracy into a dumpster the second their candidate lost.
  5. Twitter in particular has taken actions that are helpful to curb the spread of misinformation by cracking down on reported bots (if substantiated), and by asking if you’ve actually read an article before you retweet it. This is still very light moderation that to me doesn’t rise to the level of “censorship,” but for some it apparently does.
  6. Competition is generally good at keeping companies on their toes, so an alternative to Twitter and Facebook isn’t a bad thing (except if it is, in which case it will fail).

All of this made me curious as to why conservatives found Parler attractive, and it revolved around claims of censorship and anti-conservative bias. Unlike Twitter, which already seems very reluctant to do it, Parler doesn’t prevent the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories and doesn’t put warnings on “disputed” articles, claims or facts. It also doesn’t tee up articles based on an algorithm, and it doesn’t mine readers’ data to serve up ads designed based on their interests (mine are apparently weird history-related clickbait articles). What that means in practical terms, though, is that Parler (which only has 30 employees) also allows:

  • Hate speech
  • Inciting to violence
  • Conspiracy theories
  • Fake news and disinformation
  • Disinformation posted by Russian bots

This made me think back to two very different experiences I had with media. When I was a young missionary serving in the Canary Islands, I remember an investigator we would visit with her most evenings when she got home from the restaurant where she worked. While we ate, she’d talk about things that happened or news stories. One day she mentioned excitedly that there had been a news story about a spacecraft in Russia that had landed on a playground and aliens had come out and were seen by local townspeople. She took this story at face value, and I was very confused.

“Where did you read this?”

“It was in the paper. It’s all over the news. I guess there really is life from other planets.”

I remembered watching the “V” mini-series in the early 1980s, and it was a real sensation, particularly the big reveal (spoiler alert, but c’mon, you can see this coming a mile off) that the friendly and advanced human looking aliens aren’t what they seem at all. This was revealed in the mother of all cliff-hanging scenes in which their leader, Diana, throws back her head, unhinges her jaw, and consumes a live rat. Yes, the aliens are dun-dun-dun reptilian overlords.[2]

That miniseries had aired over 5 years earlier than this conversation, but it was still what came to my mind. Were there actual aliens in Russia? It just seemed too hard to believe. I remained skeptical, and it’s a good thing. What I learned was that what passed for “news” in some countries wasn’t the same as say, the New York Times. Some of it was more like the National Enquirer. There weren’t always the same standards of journalistic integrity in other countries as I was used to in the US.

A vastly different experience occurred much later, ten years ago, when I was living in Singapore which is a very conservative country that is ostensibly a democracy with some roots in the English system, but very controlled, more like a benevolent dictatorship [3]. Before moving there, I had read that the media in Singapore was censored by the government, and as an American, that raised concerns for me, but I wasn’t sure what the censorship would look like. Would it be obvious propaganda? Would the stories be laughably stilted toward a pro-government view?

What I found was that, generally speaking, the Straits Times was a fairly solid news source with integrity but a unique perspective on the world and Singaporean affairs. It slanted anti-China (often calling them out for human rights violations in ways I never saw in other news sources), pro-western democracies (particularly the US and Europe), and very pro-economics. It selectively aired Singapore’s own dirty laundry[4], but only in ways that would encourage citizens to do better, not in ways that would harm the economy. In fact, during the Covid pandemic, their reporting was significantly better, more researched, and more detailed than anything I read in the US.

As a business executive, I could see this agenda, and honestly, it made me wonder about some of the articles I had read in American newspapers. I had occasionally seen articles that were about topics I understood better than their authors, or that I saw differently, articles that sometimes sowed discontent with economic policies based on what I saw as a misreading of the situation, and that in turn created a widespread belief in benighted thinking. These types of mistakes have consequences and change the outcomes of elections and policies. Sense-making is probably the most important skill a writer has, taking complex information and rendering it more easily understood by readers, even if they lack the experience and skills of those who’ve spent decades hands-on in that field.

There are some narratives and tropes that are part of the vernacular and that go unquestioned in certain circles. Reading the news is often just the regurgitation of these same themes over and over. Only if we have more specialized experience or knowledge do we even know that we should question these familiar ideas. This is true in all cultures. When you encounter one in a culture that isn’t your own, it’s easy to spot because it’s a story that’s new to you but that others don’t question. It’s much harder to spot them in our own culture due to their familiarity and what seems like a lifetime of evidence to support them.

For a quick example, when my daughter was in elementary school, there was a homework assignment about pollution. The kids received a page with drawings of various types of pollution occurring, and the kids had to circle all the instances of pollution. One of the pictures on the page was a set of nuclear cooling towers. This pissed me off, because I knew that the narrative was that whatever is coming out of towers and stacks is polluting the air, but that is not true of nuclear reactors. Cooling towers are literally just releasing steam–water–into the air. They are not polluting. But the assignment did not make this distinction. I had to explain the accurate information to my kids so they didn’t grow up believing this false narrative. [5] I also wrote this explanation on the assignment for the teacher in hope that she would correct the spread of misinformation. I suspect she did not.

I’ve been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Talking to Strangers. He explains that as humans, our default is to believe other people. We are credulous, which is mostly a good thing because most people are telling the truth as they understand it, but it also makes us vulnerable to lies, deceit and unwitting misinformation. He talks about the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, and that there was a man who had raised this issue repeatedly for years before Madoff was finally caught. The reason nobody at the SEC took his complaints seriously is because they, like everyone, is set to assume others are telling the truth (even though it is literally their job to find frauds and cheats), and the man raising the complaint was skeptical of everything and everyone, and he also (perhaps relatedly) was paranoid and had poor social skills. When the SEC failed to act, he decided to go to the attorney general. Rather than taking his complaints directly to Eliot Spitzer, he tried to pass him information in an elaborate and indirect scheme to keep his own identity hidden, but as a result, the person he handed the information to had no idea what it was, why it mattered, and also was not someone with direct access to Spitzer. It went nowhere.

It’s been difficult for me to contemplate how credulous some Church members are about Trump and how neutral Church leaders have been about his ill-fated attempt to overturn the election. One of the things Trump did very effectively is to drive a wedge between the two parties by repeating time-worn tropes about liberals that conservatives find appealing and credible. Many conservatives who supported Trump believed in him because he supported their anti-liberal bias rather than supporting his actual policies or principles. This seems particularly true among Church members who support him. Some of these beliefs include:

  • Liberals are godless, hate religion, and seek an atheist nation.
  • Liberals create victim mentality instead of personal accountability.
  • Liberals want to control people’s choices and enforce unnecessary rules. They are coming to take away your guns.
  • Liberals want to redistribute wealth through taxes.

I don’t agree with these statements personally (and most of the people I know on the left don’t use the term “liberals” to describe themselves), but I know that they are common conservative narratives. There are versions of these statements that are even more extreme. There are similar ones about conservatives. All of these can be rephrased in ways that are more accurate if we take some of the hyperbole out:

  • Liberals seek to maintain a separation of Church & state, and don’t wish to preference any religion.
  • Liberals acknowledge systemic racism, inequality and injustice, and believe it should be addressed.
  • Liberals want to legislate things that protect people from being harmed by others, including gun control and mask mandates for public health.
  • Liberals want to decrease the wealth gap and boost the middle class by taxing the rich and using that money for public programs.

The trick to avoid being deceived isn’t to quit believing everything and everyone, to become so jaded and skeptical that we can’t function. It’s to see the narratives we assume are correct the way an outsider might see them. It’s to question whether something is a truism or propaganda. It’s to try to understand complex issues more deeply than the tropes would have us see.

In the Church, some of our most common tropes originate in apologetics, explanations we trot out to explain away unsavory aspects to our history such as polygamy, leadership failures, etc. Others tropes are common cultural beliefs members hold that they’ve heard repeated in Sunday School enough times that they assume they are required tenets for everyone, a shared worldview to be a Mormon. When you don’t agree, it can make you seem like a refreshingly wise person, a curmudgeon, or a heretic.

  • What are some of the tropes you’ve become aware of as you’ve grown older?
  • Are there some tropes you hear at Church that you’ve become skeptical about in time? How do you point these out?
  • Do you believe there is too much censorship in social media or too little? What are examples of getting it right?

Discuss.

[1] Other social media “equivalents” include.

[2] According to a podcast I listened to about conspiracy theories, 6% of Americans believe that there are actual reptilian overlords running society.

[3] When the ruling party only got 92% of the vote while I was there, the news was that the party would undergo serious “soul searching” on this devastatingly low win.

[4] My favorite story was about how the young men completing their compulsory military service were blaming their Filipino maids for not packing their duffels correctly when they failed inspections. It featured the photo of a 19 year old Singaporean man heading to basic training followed by his 4’11” Filipino maid carrying his military backpack that appeared to be at least as large as she was while he walked in front of her, oblivious and unencumbered.

[5] If you want to talk about the dangers of nuclear waste, that’s totally legit. Just don’t lump “steam” in with what coal plants are pouring out like this school assignment did.