It’s got every element of the perfect 21st-century pop morality fable: a sympathetic band of marginalized heros; a sinister coalition of law enforcement and Big Oil colluding to oppress them; elements of racial and environmental activism topped off with a secret code that you — yes, you! — can use to confuse, confound and defeat the Powers That Be. It’s the classic tale of David and Goliath perfectly recast to align with the millennial-progressive gestalt.
The viral Facebook post that appeared on every Facebook-using undergrad in America’s newsfeed beginning Monday afternoon implores us all to take action. Just by using Facebook’s “check-in” feature to claim presence at a remote campsite in North Dakota, we can shield a group of Standing Rock Sioux protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline from the local police’s efforts to “target” them via social media.
Except it’s bogus. Not true. Purely fantastic. The Morton County Sheriff’s Department isn’t using check-ins to track protesters and the Sioux aren’t asking for help to defeat them. Within a few hours of the original posts, the myth-busting website Snopes had contacted both the protesters and the police department, who claimed no knowledge of the post’s origins and denied using check-ins to monitor protesters, respectively. Their article was the first hit on Google for the search term “Standing Rock” shortly thereafter.
But that doesn’t seem to be stopping many people — at least among my Facebook friends — from posting the message. As of the time of writing, the debunking claims and the bunk itself are showing up on Facebook in what seems, unscientifically, to be about a 1:4 ratio. There are enough debunks floating around that the falsehood of the claim is eminently knowable; yet enough “Standing Rock” posts to suggest that many just don’t care. At the very least, many aren’t trying to verify before posting.
Whatever one’s views on the pipeline, Native American land rights, environmentalism, et cetera, the post’s resilience among our peers suggests a casual relationship between truth and politics in the minds of highly educated young people that ought to be concerning. Within a group that has been quick to condemn, say, Donald Trump’s fast-and-loose relationship with the facts, the willingness to throw caution to the wind when a political meme props up its own preferred narrative is disheartening at least.
When the crime wave of civic vandalism that has been this election cycle is over, we’re going to have to put some elbow grease into buffing up a few old commitments if we ever want to escape this awful Twilight Zone. One of them is our resolution that the truth in politics matters, no matter how appealing comfortably affirming falsehoods might be. Sure, the consequences of posting a fabulist meme about an oil pipeline aren’t of the same order of magnitude as those of inventing nonexistent surge in illegal immigration, but they nevertheless corrode the already-distressed cable which anchors ideology to reality.
By perpetuating a self-gratifying untruth, we become complicit in the elevation of what feels good to what is actually correct. Even if you believe that “showing solidarity” is, independent of any other action, a moral good, doing so with a falsehood unnecessarily subordinates truth to politics and licenses others — including your opponents — to do the same.
We’ve seen the nastiness and stagnation this cavalierness leads to firsthand. This political season, I couldn’t help but notice the weaponization of fact-checking. It was certainly necessary in many cases, but it worries me for the same reasons as the willingness to repost an obvious myth. Nobody uses weapons on themself, and for good reason. But the truth is something we shouldn’t hesitate to hold ourselves accountable to as a matter of habit.
Because we live in a society in which we get to directly influence the wielding of political power, fact-checking can’t become something we do only to damage our enemies. It’s each of our civic duties to revere and uphold the truth in our own politics as well.
So even if some copy an pasted without knowledge of the message’s untruth, that’s hardly better. If we wouldn’t excuse a Trump supporter for repeating a false claim about an imaginary crime wave, we shouldn’t excuse ourselves for repeating lies that “feel true” to us.
Police surveillance, land management, environmental policy and Native American rights are all legitimate arenas of political discussion. What happens in each of them is of serious consequence. But we can’t know what’s just with regard to any of these issues if we prioritize what “feels true” over what is true.
Doing so does not come naturally; it is an ability that depends on the continued existence not just of the search bar, but of our care to use it, come what may.
ALEC WARD is a College senior from Washington, D.C., studying history. His email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TalkBackWard. “Fair Enough,” usually appears every Wednesday.