We embrace fake news. But then, we always have! The snake oil salesmen of the Old West who peddled their wares from a covered wagon or on a stage outside a circus tent knew what they were doing. The crowd that gathered wanted a magical elixir to solve all their physical problems, and just maybe a few problems of the heart and mind, as well. Like Clark Stanley — aka “the rattlesnake king”— these itinerant salesmen could deliver a riveting monologue about their quick fix with drama and charisma, shouting their message above the performers and jugglers and dancers around them, promising a miraculous cure for whatever ailed a person. And just about everything they sold was resoundingly fake, health care fraud at its best! The secret properties of their cures were more likely to be opium, liquor, or cocaine.
The salesmen knew just how gullible their audience was and were happy to capitalize on it.
Gullible = “ easily persuaded to believe something; credulous.”
The tradition of miracle cures continued to thrive. One of the most famous was invented by John Pemberton, who put cocaine into his original Coca-Cola product when he first marketed it in 1886, selling it “as a patent medicine for five cents a glass at soda fountains which were popular in the United States at the time due to the belief that carbonated water was good for the health. Pemberton claimed Coca-Cola cured many diseases, including morphine addiction, indigestion, nerve disorders, headaches, and impotence.” He might have been right, insofar as anyone who consumed a lot of Coca-Cola would have been feeling too happy to care. (The recipe called for nine milligrams of cocaine but this substance was eventually terminated, leaving cane sugar in its place.)
The fact is (no pun intended), our gullibility has thrived ever since. We still read the nefarious tabloids, where if truth shows up it is a mere whisper, yet some of us believe what we read there. Yes, we do! We still get fascinated and sucked in by a charismatic speaker or advertiser who tells us what we want to hear. Such sources make billions upon billions of dollars from us as we seek to be healed, reverse our aging, overcome a pandemic, or find some substance to make our lives happier.
Probably no one is thriving more by delivering fake news as much as politicians are — of any ilk. It is their bread and butter. Promise anything you think the crowd wants — whether or not there is any likely or feasible way to do it. Tell them why your opponent is bad news (aka “fake news”) while declaring you have the truth. Sell them your fake persona. Exceptions like Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt are rare. There aren’t many politicians or political leaders in recorded history who, at their innermost being, have had the welfare of the people and society at heart. Their priority has been, by and large, to win above all, to clamber onto the ego-boosting ride of approval received from those who believe whatever it is the politician has to say.
And how can politicians do that? By relying on our still thriving gullibility for the drama of fake news and entertaining the modern version of snake-oil salesmen who appear to be as ubiquitous as they were in the Old West. Accepting fake news is a much easier way to go and no wonder — in the vast arena of information that floods the eyes, ears, and emails of the average citizen, there is no way that person can delve into and sort out what is real and what isn’t. Politicians — most of them — count on this.
Alas, that could make for a dysfunctional state of affairs — which, of course, it has, for a long, long time.
So what’s a poor, gullible citizen to do?
Here are two suggestions for starters:
When someone tells you something is fake news, ask this: What if it were true?
When someone tells you something is the truth, ask this: What if it were false?
Mark Twain had much to say on the subject of truth and deception:
“If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re mis-informed”
and he added:
“It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.”
What if all the fake drama just stopped? Where would we be then?
It would be interesting to find out…albeit, given the state of things, highly unlike to happen…