I read it on the Internet. It must be true.
This morning I was flipping channels trying to find something interesting to watch and stumbled upon “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” which is one of my favorite old movies, staring a young Jimmy Stewart in his black and white best. It was a big coincidence since a couple of days earlier I had actually brought up this movie with my son when he asked a question about filibusters, as he was intrigued with the idea of a man standing and talking for hours during legislative hearings. Therefore, I grabbed my son and we proceeded to watch this great movie.
If you have not seen it, I highly recommend it. It is an entertaining portrayal of the constant battle between the founding ideals of our democracy pitted against the political corruption that is as relevant today as it was half a century ago when the movie was made.
What really struck me during this particular viewing was the scene at the end when Jefferson Smith is filibustering in front of the US Senate to clear his good name, and to shine light onto the corruption of the political powers in his home state. In order for this to work he has to rely on the press to report his actions and words through newspapers so that the people back home can read about what is going on. There is the portrayal of the villain, who completely controls the newspapers in the state, doing everything he can to spin the message and paint our hero as the villain; followed by scenes of reporters calling their peers to relay information, headlines being written, papers being printed, and telegraph responses from the people back to Washington. Overall, it showed how much work was involved back then in spreading information to the country.
Compare that vision with today’s high speed internet and social media, and you can’t help but be amazed with how far we have come. Back then newspapers were essential to daily life, as they educated the population on what was going on beyond one’s own fence and neighborhoods. By controlling the newspapers, the villain in the movie was able to control the message, and how people reacted. This still happens today of course. Political spin from all parties is still part of our daily lives. However, it does not quite work the same way as it was portrayed in this movie.
Today it would be impossible to completely stop all reports of what the hero was doing and saying on the Senate floor. The press would have it on Twitter, and their web sites within minutes of it happening. The villain would have to control the message by drowning it out with even more information. The problem is that there is too much information available for us all to adequately process. We rarely get beyond the tweets, headlines, or sound bites because we don’t have time to sit down and read a full article.
The success of Twitter, Facebook, Google and other sites is proof that people are reading. However, we are being overloaded with information, and it desensitizes us to the message. As it can be very difficult to distinguish between truth and spin, most of us end up paying attention to what is entertaining. The more sensational the better. For any controversial issue there is no shortage of opinions, information and misinformation out there. We all believe what we want to believe.
I saw a great example of this in action recently. I am an avid NFL and college football fan, and follow web sites devoted to my favorite teams, always looking for information on what is going on with those teams. One of these sites has been in the middle of covering a coaching change. Almost everything reported has been nothing more than mere rumor, and yet… fans have been soaking it up, congratulating the powers-that-be for conjecture & hypothetical actions, criticizing them for personal reasons or assumed decisions, or debating various scenarios that have not been confirmed.
We have gone way beyond staying informed of current affairs. Thanks to modern technology we have constant streams of information of all kinds flowing into our heads. The challenge today is trying to filter out what is true from all of the noise and misinformation that is out there. I am not going to give up trying, but I sure feel like I am drowning in information most of the time.