Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” While that sounds all fine and dandy, the seeds of fear somehow seem to find themselves firmly rooted in the fabric of our society. In a day and age when information is not only everywhere, but constantly available, people rely on quick and easy “fast food” versions of current events and world opinions. It is in those moments that the average media consumer is most vulnerable to misinformation or a lack of information. Where this diet of “fast food” media becomes dangerous is when the message it contains is one based in fear and dissention.
In early August, two Alt-Right fliers were posted around the University of Utah campus. One flier was taped to the wall of the Student Life Center, the other was taped over an existing ad. While only two fliers were posted, they had a clear call to action, which was to “Stop the Blacks,” citing baseless facts and fictitious criminal statistics as reasons why African American males are dangers to society that must be “stopped” (one can only assume that the call to action implied is malicious), and referring any interested passerby to white nationalist websites with Nazi propaganda.
What’s scary about these fliers is not necessarily the overt racism. As a society, we are all too familiar with its ugly figure. No, what’s scary about these fliers is how terrifyingly little they reveal about the author’s agenda. The real danger of this type of propaganda lies not so much in what it says, but in what it doesn’t say. Misinformation, or the complete lack of information, always has been, and will continue to be, a threat to society.
Here in Utah County, for example, we were exposed to a veritable onslaught during the Provo 3rd District special election by defamatory and slanderous ads against Republican Candidates Tanner Ainge and John Curtis. Accused of only “playing conservative,” the ads insinuated that both men had violated the “long-held Republican values” of abhorring both taxes and any semblance of cooperation with their liberal-minded counterparts, the implication being that, because they violated said values, that they weren’t fit for office.
But what do these defamatory ads have in common with Neo-Nazi propaganda? It’s how pitifully little they actually reveal about what they seem to oppose. Groups like the Neo-Nazis that made the propaganda fliers on U of U campus, or the Club for Growth Action (the creators of the truly awful political ads) both bank on the lack of information, scare tactics, fear mongering, and causing general public unease as methods of accomplishing their agendas. This is frightening because of the effect it has on the average “fast-food” consumer.
Prattling off some statistics about a candidate raising taxes, or claiming some truly horrid “facts” about African American men both can be easily dismissed by the savvy, well-informed reader, but what about the average American? Men and women around the country fall prey to this misinformation all the time because, in an age of instant media, it pays big for people sharing a message to be vague and nondescript. These two examples prove that you don’t need to be clear, eloquent, or even totally correct to get people to buy into your message, so long as you get noticed.
So how do we fight this? We can start by choosing to be more media literate ourselves. Thinking critically about news and information we see online can lead to some interesting perspectives on the issue. Readers can combat this inaccuracy and agenda-setting by choosing to dive beyond the surface. I’ll share a personal anecdote as an example. In a fit of frustration about having to see YET ANOTHER ad smearing Mayor Curtis and Tanner Ainge, I decided to do my research into who paid for these ads and why. I found out that the group funding these ads was the Club for Growth, a 501c PAC based in D.C. that had a vetted interest in helping the “correct” Republican candidate. These special elections matter to the Club for Growth because they hope to enlist more far right members of Congress to pass their legislation and further their own agenda.
Suddenly the seemingly scary stats about John Curtis raising taxes seemed a whole lot less condemning. The legitimacy that the Club for Growth had purported to carry, (by implying that they are defending real Republican values) was diminished when their real agenda was brought into focus. Like a monster in the dark, it loses its terrorizing power when the light is turned on.
It is incumbent upon us to be savvy, informed consumers in a world that ever-increasingly depends on us to do quite the opposite. What I’m saying is that FDR was mostly right; the only thing we have to fear is fear mongering media, but I guess it didn’t have quite the same ring to it.
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