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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Misinformation overload

The flood of internet falsehoods is hurting America

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In the midst of a press conference last week, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz was asked by a reporter about a flood of false claims that have circulated on the internet in recent weeks, regarding the governor and his purported vast wealth. He had to take time out of a substantive press conference, that was supposed to be focused on the state’s coronavirus crisis, to address nonsense that has caught fire on social media.
We’ve received such claims in our office as well, from readers upset that we’re not republishing these internet falsehoods in our newspaper.
Let’s be clear. The job of a newspaper is to seek out the truth, even when that work is difficult and time consuming. It is not to spread falsehoods put out by lazy, dishonest people who wish to deceive others for some political objective. So, no, we haven’t reported that Gov. Walz, a former schoolteacher who served six terms in the U.S. House before becoming Minnesota’s governor, is worth $400 million. All members of Congress are required to file financial disclosure forms and in Walz’s case, the most recent filing shows his net worth as well under half a million dollars. And no, we aren’t going to report that the governor spent Thanksgiving on his supposed yacht in Florida, named “Liberty,” as the internet trolls would like you to believe.
We’re not reporting these things, because there is absolutely no evidence for any of it. And it completely defies common sense and what information is available publicly about the governor. The sad truth, however, is that anyone can make up anything about any public figure they wish to tarnish and there will be more than enough reckless people to spread it from here to Timbuktu by the afternoon.
It’s difficult to fight this misinformation. How do you prove you don’t have $400 million or a yacht docked in Florida? And even if you could, more lies would be bouncing around the internet before you could even get the proof out. It’s a hopeless task.
Unfortunately, as Gov. Walz noted, these false attacks undermine faith in our institutions at a critical time when we need everyone pulling in the same direction. It’s actually worse than that. The increasing tendency of Americans to seek out only that information which reaffirms what they already want to believe is tearing this country apart. It’s the same tendency that has large majorities of the GOP believing in election fraud, despite a total lack of credible evidence.
We’ve urged our readers in the past, and we’ll do it again: Use your head when it comes to claims you read on the internet. Just because some chain email claims something, doesn’t make it true. Just because someone posted something on Facebook, and scores of people commented favorably, doesn’t mean it has any connection to reality.
We recognize that we all want to believe some of the juicy tidbits that make their way around social media and email, especially when they confirm our own biases. But before you hit share or forward, show your actual patriotism by taking time to check sources. We mean credible sources, like well-recognized newspaper websites or mainstream broadcast news stations, or a well-established fact-checking website, like Politifact. By credible, we don’t mean those sources with clearly established biases, like Fox News or MSNBC, much less the “news” sources that are truly on the fringes.
Keep in mind, Google is not a credible news source. You can google almost any ridiculous claim and you’ll probably find it on any number of blogs or other dubious sources. The fact that a lie shows up in many places doesn’t make it any less false.
Just because these bogus reports don’t make their way into the newspaper, or onto the nightly news, isn’t evidence of a media conspiracy to keep everyone in the dark. It’s evidence that credible news sources wish to maintain their credibility by not publishing nonsense.
Here’s the reality. If any real reporters had evidence that Gov. Walz misreported his net worth on official documents, we wouldn’t be keeping it under wraps. We’d be trying to beat the other guy to the scoop. People who suggest that legitimate news organizations are trying to bury real stories simply have no concept of what actually motivates those of us who report the news. So, if any conspiracy theorists out there have any actual evidence (and, no, your chain email from your crazy uncle does not qualify) to provide us about Gov. Walz’s finances or any other hot tips, please send it along. Just be aware… we won’t be holding our breath.

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