Big if true: Don’t be a gossip or a liar with a disclaimer
I remember sitting on Bill Primm’s concrete porch drinking a Coke as the sun set. After a hard day of hauling hay, I asked the American Airlines-mechanic-turned-farmer a question about cattle. I don’t recall the specifics, but his answer is etched into my memory because I’d heard it from him on many occasions: “Can’t say if I don’t know.”
Most philosophers don’t wear a 76 gas station hat, but Mr. Primm did. He understood the importance of truth. He also refused to undermine it by giving his opinion without knowledge. It’s a critical life lesson that seems to have largely been lost on our culture.
Too many people I care about aren’t merely speaking without knowledge; they’re screaming. With rage, venom, and excessive exclamation points, people I respect debase themselves, erode their influence, and undermine the truth itself.
Why do otherwise normal people do this?
Most of us don’t actually consider ourselves to be purveyors of misinformation. According to a September 2020 NBCLX/YouGov poll, “Ninety-three percent of Americans said the accuracy of information and stories they share online is either very important (82%) or somewhat important (11%), compared to just 4% who said it wasn’t important.”
We don’t intend to mislead; we simply redefine what it means to be accurate and truthful. We’re crowdsourcing the truth. If enough people share the same sentiment, we accept it as true. The practice is often either reckless disregard for the facts or willful ignorance.
No number of likes or shares increases the truthfulness of information. Absent new firsthand knowledge, a repost is the digital equivalent of hearsay.
But it feels more truthful. After all, why would so many people share it if it wasn’t?
We do it because we feel moral anonymity in the virtual world. We don’t need to author or publish content in order to post, share, and retweet it. Many of us have essentially adopted the “big, if true” disclaimer. If it’s true, it’s interesting. If it’s not true, we didn’t write it. Either way, we’re not morally responsible.
The approach is relatively innocuous when it comes to thoughts on whether cats are familiars of Satan or whether immodestly dressed women cause earthquakes in Iran. It becomes a real problem when we refuse to trust any political leadership or accept scientific realities.
For example, COVID-19 does not care if you believe it exists. It is, objectively, a highly contagious virus infecting people in the real world. We don’t need agreement on a specific response to the virus to accept its presence. But when we accept reality, we’re able to have an important policy discussion in good faith.
Once states resolve presidential election challenges, certify the results, and the electoral college votes, we’ll have the next president of the United States. That’s a fact. Simply believing the election was “rigged” does not make it so, no matter how many folks agree with that opinion. That was as true in 2016 as it is today.
In a world quickly eroding truth itself, I submit the Primm principle. If we don’t know about an issue, then we should educate ourselves or shut our mouths. It isn’t an easy lesson to follow. Whether it’s a casual family conversation or live media, nobody wants to admit what they don’t know.
But that’s where character comes in.
Issuing disclaimers or blaming authors for misinformation you excitedly share doesn’t exonerate you from being a gossip who furthers the reach of “fake news.” It simply shows tremendously low regard for the truth. If you aren’t willing to put your personal credibility on the line regarding the truthfulness of content you’re sharing or discussing, stop doing it.
In 1798, John Adams warned that America’s Constitution “was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” If we refuse to conduct ourselves with honesty and integrity, our nation will not survive. Our speech should lift up. It should push us to trust one another in spite of our differences. The words we use say so much about the kind of people we are.
Each of us exalts the truth when it’s music to our ears. The fate of our republic hinges on how we conduct ourselves when it isn’t.
Cameron Smith is CEO of the Triptych Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit. The Triptych Foundation promotes a virtuous society through investments in socially impactful media and business. He was recently executive director of the Republican Policy Committee in the United States House of Representatives. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.