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Donald Morrison: Antarctica and the war against truth

Breaking news: PolitiFact, the nonprofit Poynter Institute’s fact-checking arm, just declared that the earth is round.

Why PolitiFact felt it necessary to make that determination is interesting. A Facebook page for an outfit called Flat Earth Research had asserted a few days earlier that our planet is, in fact, a two-dimensional disk surrounded by Antarctica. Seriously.

The frozen continent allegedly acts as a kind of piecrust ridge to keep the oceans from, you know ... spilling out. Anyway, it didn’t take PolitiFact long to debunk that whopper, using information and logic from elementary school.

But the experience led me to a shocking discovery: The flat-earth movement is thriving. It has research groups, conferences, websites, social media pages and armies of followers (91,000 for Flat Earth Research alone.) And it’s not a joke.

The idea that our world is a rather large pancake has, of course, been around for ages, even though ancient Greek scholars and medieval mariners knew better. The notion made a brief comeback in the 19th century, largely as a disapproving reaction to Darwin’s theory of evolution. But the flat-earth movement was squashed flat as a tortilla with the rise of modern science and satellite launches.

Then came the Internet. As you know, the web has become a swamp of conspiracy theories, half-truths and outright falsehoods — some just plausible enough to get your attention, most simply bonkers. And all of them are keeping truth squads like PolitiFact, Snopes, FactCheck.org and the Washington Post’s Fact Checker extremely busy these days.

Flat-earthers say they’re just being skeptical, pushing back against scientific “elites.” In fact, such skepticism is the latest front in a new, intensely political war against truth.

Conspiracy mongers like the flat-earthers are undermining our faith not just in science, but also in history, democracy, the military, the justice system, the major news organizations, everything. And when people distrust everything, they can be convinced of almost anything.

Especially the need for a charismatic leader to save them from all those imaginary threats. As George Orwell of “1984” fame put it, totalitarianism “demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth.”

Attacking the concept of truth is a tactic that’s not exclusive to left or right, but rather an all-purpose tool of aspiring autocrats everywhere. The goals are to discredit conventional sources of information, weaken the existing political structure and stir up resentment toward the “elites” who maintain it.

Thus, the past week’s assertions on social media that the federal government is secretly adding COVID-19 vaccines to the food supply, that Israel is banning Christianity and that the United Nations is calling for the decriminalization of sex with minors. All were quickly refuted, but not before going viral.

A 2018 MIT study found that false news stories are 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than true ones. That disparity may explain why Steve Bannon, an aide to a recent president, once described his boss’ media strategy as “flood the zone with s___.” That prompted political analyst Jonathan Rausch to add: “This is not about persuasion. This is about disorientation.”

Disorientation has become automated. Robotic programs, or “bots,” for posting and amplifying disinformation are routinely deployed by foreign governments and domestic interest groups to swarm social media sites. The rise of artificial intelligence, or AI, could make that job easier.

Twitter’s Elon Musk last week announced that he is planning to launch a conservative-leaning AI “chat bot.”

Fans of truth are not without weapons themselves. The major fact-checking organizations mentioned above are usually truthful and nonpartisan. School systems across the U.S. have introduced media literacy courses, which teach students how to spot dicey information. Sadly, barely a dozen states (including Massachusetts, but not New York) require such instruction.

Truth is not the only casualty in this war. Thousands of people have died because they believed conspiracy theories denigrating the efficacy of Covid vaccines and masking.

Thousands more will perish, and millions suffer, because they reject research and expertise on other diseases, as well as on such challenges as guns, abortion, gender, smoking, immigration and, especially, climate change.

At least the flat earthers aren’t killing people. If we could somehow divert all those other conspiracy believers into the pancake-piecrust camp, the world might be a safer place. As long as we don’t stray too close to Antarctica.

Donald Morrison is an Eagle columnist and co-chairman of the advisory board. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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