I’m a part of the Oregon Trail Generation.
Oregon Trail was a computer game that my 6th grade math class used as its highest honor: whoever got the best grade on a test could spend an entire class period playing it, and was excused from homework that day.
My generation doesn’t fit into typical classifications. We’re not Millenials, and we’re not Gen-X’ers; we’re a self-contained unit that spans two distinct generational experiences.
We were born somewhere between 1975-1985. We know what a floppy disk is, and felt the rush of joy when we got our first 2, 3, or 486 computer, with America Online.
We remember what life was like before Google searches—we had to be driven to the library, use a card catalog, and look up information in books.
We remember when books were expensive. Printed material was to be cared for, lovingly handled, and page corners were never, ever to be turned down. If we were lucky, we had a World Book Encyclopedia at home, or even the cheap “volume of the week” version that our parents could buy at the grocery store.
(Am I the only kid who only had the set through “E” and then forgot about it?)
We lived without the internet, until it grew up around us, enfolded us, assimilated us, and became a part of our daily lives.
However, unlike generations before us, when the internet came into common use, we were actually given classes on how to use it, and on how to tell fake websites from real ones.
My school library had a mandatory class that everyone had to complete, in order to use their internet. It had a section on how easy it was to make a website look official. To pass, I had to choose between the real and falsified information.
I confess, I was fooled by it.
But only at first.
The class taught me to search strange claims in the little box, just below the tool bar. (Then it was called “Lycos” or “Yahoo”.)
It taught me to verify whether streets or buildings even existed, when pages were put up, who owned them, who wrote them, and whether or not they had an agenda.
I took that class over twenty years ago.
Does anyone even offer classes like that anymore?
Just the other day, someone in a Facebook group was despairing over his grandfather.
“He thinks that Obama is running a secret government, and that Trump is our last hope to defeat a communist takeover. He said he read it on his internet.”
It’s easy to facepalm over this.
It’s easy to laugh it off as the rantings of an easily deceived (and possibly demented) man, and consider him too foolish to even talk to.
However, this anonymous grandfather probably never thought he needed to learn how to filter fake websites from true ones.
Why should he? Did he find fake books like this in his library?
Did we, when we were in school?
What if we’d seen something that horrified us in a regular library book? Would we have doubted it? Would we have asked the librarian, “Is this real?” Would we have talked with our parents?
Did we ever have to ask ourselves this question?
Were we confronted with world-view altering events, by someone with an agenda, in the “reference” section?
I was confronted with “fake news” at a very young age, even in the world of printed material. My parents sang with a gospel group when I was in elementary school, and I once found one of these leaflets in the pews of a church we visited: (click to enlarge)
I confess, I was terrified.
I remember going home and checking my mom’s Secret brand deodorant for satanic symbols.
My hands were shaking. I didn’t find any, but I worried for months that some nefarious force may have taken hold in our lives.
Of course it isn’t true, but the myth of Proctor & Gamble being in league with satan is still so pervasive that Amway had to pay out nearly 20 million dollars to P&G in 2007. Their reps were spreading this rumor to increase their own profits.
We may think this is stupid, but there wasn’t a Snopes debunking site in 1986. There was no entry on “satanic agreements” in the World Book Encyclopedia. The “Reference” section of the library didn’t help at all.
Proctor and Gamble was almost brought to its knees by a leaflet.
The Evangelical and Fundamentalist subculture has had it’s own printing capabilities for decades, and until the internet arrived, I personally never heard anyone debunk a widely circulated Christian book as “fake.”
For example, thousands of other lives were damaged by this book:
You can even watch the accompanying video!
Adults who grew up under the teachings of this nonsense experienced their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, He-Man & She-Ra dolls, Care Bears, and Cabbage Patch Kids were taken to the back yard and burned. Parents were terrified for their children, and didn’t want them to be subjected to Satan’s influence.
Fake news is nothing new–what’s new is that we have the capability to defeat it.
I could talk for hours of other examples, just from my own evangelical/fundamentalist/1980’s childhood experience:
These scares lasted for A DECADE–sometimes more! They were reported on the evening news, made headlines in small towns and big cities, drove legislation, and led to people being falsely accused and arrested.
People who believe fake news should not be ridiculed–they need to be respectfully engaged.
Those of us who were educated, who know what a logical fallacy is, who know how to search for sources, who know that yes, people with an agenda can set up a fake website for nefarious purposes, are much less likely to be taken in.
But Robert J. Lifton taught us something invaluable: under the right circumstances, ANYONE can be deceived.
I believe that knowing how to discern fake internet information from fact is actually a very unique privilege—and one that the Oregon Trail Generation is uniquely equipped to distribute to others.
The #GeeksResist group, and the members of the Oregon Trail Generation, can do a lot of good in the age of Trump. Not only can we distribute the truth through social media, we have the resources to understand the nature of deception.
We can study Lifton’s techniques for mind control, linked above. We can learn about Russian propaganda methods. We can research personality types, learning styles, and explore how people process information.
Then, we can approach people who are deceived with compassion, questions, and facts.
Instead of saying, “You can’t get possessed by Satan from a Cabbage Patch doll, you lunatic. Blocked!”
We could ask, “What evidence does this person have that Satan uses Cabbage Patch dolls? How do we know he’s telling the truth?” And we could slowly build a relationship. We could look for information that contradicts their claims. We could provide links. We could be respectful and understanding, regardless of how respectful and understanding they are of us.
We don’t even have to convince THAT many people!
Remember: if Clinton had won Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, & Michigan, we would never have had a narcissistic, lying, treasonous President Trump. The difference in those state’s popular votes between Clinton & Trump:
Pennsylvania: 44, 292
That means 78,688 basically decided the election for us.
That means, helping 78,689 people understand how they were deceived by a raving lunatic (just like the author Turmoil in the Toybox, or of the P&G Satan scare) may be the key to ending the reign of Trump.