GETTING A LITTLE SQUIRRELY ABOUT FAKE NEWS
by Todd Hartley
This week, I was so excited to write a column about one of the best things I’ve seen on Facebook in a while: “Woman arrested for training squirrels to attack her ex-boyfriend.” I’m not even sure what the crime would be for something like that, but it was accompanied by the greatest mug shot I’ve ever seen — just awesomely stupid. I couldn’t believe how easy my job was going to be.
I practically had the column written in my mind the minute I saw the headline. I was going to go out and trap a bunch of squirrels and train them to be special operations forces. Then I was going to set them loose to kill all the world’s religious extremists. It was going to be a win-win. Best-case scenario, I was going to end terrorism; worst-case scenario, you’d have a few more cuddly attack squirrels at the park where your children play.
The story itself couldn’t have been any better. The squirrels had ambushed the guy on a number of occasions and managed to bite off two fingers and a testicle, and he only figured out his ex-girlfriend was orchestrating everything when he caught her lurking behind a tree during one of the attacks.
As I read on, though, I realized it seemed a little too perfect. The article was on a website that was clearly some kind of tabloid, and when I looked deeper into the story, I learned that all of it — from the squirrels to the mug shot — was fake.
I was crushed. I wanted so badly for the story to be true. Those are the kind of stories that keep me going and on which I’ve survived for the past nine years. But I am a respectable journalist, dadgum it, and when I learn that a story is fake, there is no way that I will use it as the basis for a column.
And so it goes with the nonexistent lady with the imaginary trained attack squirrels. I couldn’t possibly use it as a flimsy premise for a column now. That would be beneath me.
But my experience does bring up an important point about why fake news is such a problem, and why everyone, on all sides of all issues, needs to keep themselves better informed and bring a healthy dose of skepticism to everything they read or hear from a friend.
We’re all insecure. We all want so badly to think that we’re right about things. It’s important to our fragile egos. Thus, when we want to catch up on the news, we seek out sources — whether it’s Brietbart or MSNBC — that reinforce the things we already believe and make us feel better about ourselves.
I’m sure researchers have done studies proving that people are much more likely to believe fake news when they already agree with it. That’s just human nature. If you like what something is telling you, you’re not going to challenge it because you wouldn’t want to know it wasn’t true.
In my case, with the nutty lady and her squirrels, there’s no drastic consequence. I was just bummed to learn it wasn’t real. But when it comes to things that matter, like stories about our government and elected leaders, it can be a little dangerous to have people believing fake things. At the very least, it contributes mightily to the pathetic level of discourse that passes for our national conversation these days.
If you’re a regular reader of Fox News’ website or the Wall Street Journal, go to CNN or the New York Times every now and then to read some opposing viewpoints, and vice versa. Before you believe everything you read online and share it with your friends, check to make sure it’s true. Your friends will appreciate it.
There was a quote that a friend reposted on social media recently that perfectly sums up the problem I’m talking about: “Ah, April 1st: The only day of the year that people critically evaluate things they find on the Internet before accepting them as true.”
Just treat every day like April Fool’s Day and never accept things at face value, particularly if you agree wholeheartedly with them. I know that sounds cynical and pessimistic, but in this day and age, with so much untrue crap flying all around the Internet, you really need to be wary, or next thing you know, you’ll be believing that mentally challenged women can actually train squirrels to attack.
Todd Hartley taught chipmunks how to stuff acorns in their cheeks. Seriously; he was the guy.