I remember when Richard Nixon resigned. Even though I was only 12 at the time, I had a general understanding that our country’s president had done something wrong, got caught, and needed to step aside.
“By taking this action,” Nixon said in his national address on August 8, 1974, “I hope that I will have hastened the start of the process of healing which is so desperately needed in America.”
Fast forward to 2023: A former president faces 91 felony charges for crimes ranging from falsifying business records to the “willful retention of national defense information,” from violating the Georgia RICO Act to conspiracy to defraud the United States.
The 91 indictments have not had the negative impact one might think, as this man is now the top choice as presidential nominee for 59% of GOP voters. Moreover, during the first GOP debate on Aug. 23 – an event this former president did not attend – six of the eight candidates pledged their support for him if chosen as nominee even if convicted as a felon.
This man, of course, is Donald Trump. Richard Nixon, who resigned for the good of the nation, he is not. Indeed, Trump made a social-media declaration to “Never Surrender” shortly after he had, in fact, surrendered to Georgia’s Fulton County Jail. While Nixon felt the need to step down after he was identified as an alleged “unindicted co-conspirator” in the Watergate scandal, Trump is a master at turning similar allegations into advantages.
Trump is particularly adept at grooming supporters via social media. An example I can share occurred after I wrote a social-media post noting how Trump, unlike Nixon, would never bring himself to resign. One respondent, in turn, asked why Joe Biden had not yet resigned for his involvement in the scandal surrounding his son Hunter. Aside from the fact that no verifiable proof has emerged to back Biden’s involvement (Appeal to Ignorance Fallacy), he has not been indicted (False Equivalence Fallacy). The respondent’s “whataboutism” was a perfect example of the “Tu Quoque” strategy Trump always uses by turning questions right back on interrogators.
I further explained on the social-media thread how these fallacious strategies were enabling my antagonists to evade the original point – again, very Trumpian. The ensuing responses were as predictable as they were emphatic: I was simply wrong (Gaslighting), and I was labeled a “hypocrite” (Ad Hominem Fallacy) because I wasn’t willing to accept the view that Biden was as deceitful than Trump.
I recount this episode because it highlights social media’s incredible influence, giving everyday citizens a bullhorn by which they can simultaneously air their grievances and shoot down opposing opinions. The problem is that sophisticated algorithms provide individuals exclusive information tailored to their political beliefs – whether true or not – resulting in polarized “tribes” backing their claims with an artillery of misinformation and logical fallacies.
“Artillery” is a fitting word, according to Boston University research fellow Lee McIntyre: “The disinformation crisis that is enabling the truth killers to do such violence to our society is not a mistake or even a crime. It is an act of war. And it is time we got on a war footing to fight it.”
McIntyre outlines his ideas for fighting this war in his new book “On Disinformation: How to Fight for Truth and Protect Democracy.” It’s clearly a difficult battle, he writes, but one still worth fighting: “Reach out to those who disagree with you, who have been misinformed and disinformed. If at all possible, try to do so with kindness. They do not need another person to hate or distrust.”
It’s a tactic I’ve employed for years now, and it’s getting increasingly difficult. Consider the recent advancements of artificial intelligence that now enable anyone with a laptop computer to create deepfake videos they can share on social media.
“The unchecked rise of deepfakes has led some experts to warn that the first ‘deepfake election’ will arrive next year, when a substantial number of voters will see political disinformation videos online and not be able to tell with certainty whether they’re real,” reported NBC News.
And don’t rely on your favorite social-media platform to fact-check those videos. According to an eye-opening report in the Washington Post, “Social media companies are receding from their role as watchdogs against political misinformation, abandoning their most aggressive efforts to police online falsehoods in a trend expected to profoundly affect the 2024 presidential election.”
Long gone are the days of Woodward & Bernstein, and MacNeil & Lehrer whose dogged Watergate reporting helped expose President Richard Nixon. Today, everyday citizens do their own, algorithm-curated searches for information that tell them exactly what they want to hear, which ultimately enables politicians like Donald Trump to avoid the same public accountability Nixon faced. Sadly, while a 12-year-old in 1974 could know intuitively when a president had done something wrong, a 12-year-old today lacks that same intuition regarding any disingenuous politician. Such is the current world shaped by the internet, social media, and a dying concept known as “truth.”