I'd be powerless against the force of Kellyann Conway, the Trump spokesperson who turns provable falsehoods into "alternative facts."
I'll believe anything someone tells me, as long as it is said with enough audacity. I think it is where my effectiveness as a journalist came from. I would go to one person and accept what she said. It would make total sense. Then I'd go to someone else and he'd say the opposite. That would make sense, too. So I'd have to go to a third. And then I'd be so confused I'd have to find facts to back up one side and refute the other. Facts are facts, right?
But what do you do when people dismiss provable facts? You ask someone why the sky is blue and they correct you and tell you it's green. You look up to make sure you didn't get it wrong. Sure enough, it's blue. But she insists the sky is green.
This isn't new. It is just a problem we haven't seen in this blatant a fashion in a while. Propaganda is the art of shaping truth into a customized message and then working to blot out all contradictory messages.
As a Jew, alternative facts are part of my history. As late as the 20th century, the concept of the blood libel-fueled pogroms. That's the idea that Jews kill Christian children for blood for holy wine and Passover matzo. When I first heard that as a kid I thought: Yuck! Who would believe that?
You see the spread of alternative facts throughout history. Galileo had to accept the fact that the sun revolved around the earth to keep himself off the rack. Napoleon said history is fiction agreed upon, then took over all the newspapers so he could force them to agree with his version.
In the 19th century, supporters of slavery insisted that black people were better off enslaved than free and that their physiology made them intellectually inferior. In the 1990s, the CEOs of tobacco companies insisted to Congress that research proved nicotine wasn't addictive.
It scares me when I talk to people who insist that the sky is green even though I can look up and see it is blue. How do you have a dialogue with someone when you disagree on basic facts?
For propaganda to work, you need to be able to spread an idea and blot out contradictory messages. So if the press presents photos and videos and tapes that question the message you want to advance, then you need to invalidate the press. If the school system presents facts that contradict your message, you need to create and subsidize an alternate school system.
The Internet makes that easy to do. All because of Al Gore, I mean, algorithms. Those are the coding formulas that determine what you get when you search for stuff on the Internet.
Many are geared to give you what it seems you want based on past search patterns. That means that your preferences help determine what you will find. So if you like reading stuff and watching videos that insist that the earth is only 10,000 years old, you will keep getting stuff in that vein. When we read or watch something that agrees with something we think, it reinforces that idea. If we see it in enough different places, without any contradiction, it becomes an incontrovertible truth. Once something becomes a truth, we will dismiss contradictions. That's how most people's brains work. And when that happens, we simply cannot understand someone who accepts a different truth.
This also isn't really new, although Al Gore, I mean, algorithms make the process creepier and more effective. In big cities in the first half of the 19th century, there were so many newspapers, you could choose the one that spouted the ideas you found most acceptable and not buy news that disagreed with your truth.
The civil rights movement became effective, in part, because news media were consolidating — people across the country watched the same news networks. Newspapers across the country ran the same wire stories and photos. White middle class people could no longer avoid consuming news that contradicted their image of wholesome America.
There are a couple of things that could bridge our current truth divide. Because a very few companies control the algorithms, if Google isn't evil, brilliant engineers might figure out how to boost provable, basic facts above disprovable assertions so that more people get their information from more diverse and reputable sources.
We already see this happening on Facebook, where founder Mark Zuckerberg has said he wants to boost reputable media and filter out fake news.
Another bridge is direct experience. Back in the 1970s in California, an anti-gay group tried to pass the Briggs initiative, which would have mandated the firing of gay teachers. San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk said that to counter it gay people all had to come out. If they did, then millions of people would suddenly realize that someone they knew and liked and respected was gay and, therefore, gay could not equal perversion. Direct experience trumps mediated information.
Someone could tell you that a crowd is big or small. But if you are in that crowd you know how big or small it is. Someone could tell you that a health plan works or doesn't. But you know it works when you go to the doctor and get treated. You know it doesn't work if you get turned away because no one will pay for the treatment.
It is easy for someone online to convince you the sky is green if you are seated inside a windowless room. To combat un-facts, we have to do something radical.
We have to go outside and look up.
Marcy Burstiner is chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Humboldt State University. These days, you will find her shaking her head in disbelief.