Truth, lies, and politics: how smart are voters? 

Do we have any responsibilities as American citizens?

Do we have a responsibility to be informed, for instance, and to know what we’re talking about? To look for truth?

One of the inconceivable stories in this inconceivable year was that Hillary Clinton has been operating a child-abuse ring in a Washington DC pizza place named Comet Ping Pong.

That little howler convinced a North Carolina man named Edgar Maddison Welch to drive to Washington to save the children. Fortunately Welch, didn’t hurt anybody when he opened fire in the restaurant, and he surrendered to police.

That’s only one example of the trash being spread on the internet right now. But people have been gobbling it up.

Conspiracy theories aren’t new, and no amount of evidence seems to matter. There are still people who believe zany stories about the 9/11 attacks, John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the US landing on the moon. Accusations still make the rounds that the murder of 20 little children and six adults at Newtown, Connecticut, was a hoax.

Fortunately, most of the people believing that stuff don’t do anything as dangerous as Edgar Maddison Welch did. But some of them are causing plenty of harm. The father of one child who died in Newtown has been repeatedly harassed by people insisting that he prove that his son is dead. Comet Ping Pong’s owners and employees have gotten death threats. Employees of another pizza place and a bookstore near Comet Ping Pong have been accused of being involved in the fictitious Clinton child-abuse ring.

The Comet Ping Pong story apparently originated on a white supremacist website and then spread like wildfire. Also spreading like wildfire: stories that Hillary Clinton is a murderer. One of the folks spreading those tales is syndicated talk-radio show host Alex Jones, who has insisted that Clinton “has personally murdered and chopped up and raped” children, and that dozens of close associates of both Clintons have died mysteriously.

Earlier this month, I was astonished to hear Marc Fisher – one of the Washington Post reporters covering the Comet Ping Pong story – maintain on the PBS NewsHour that the folks swallowing this claptrap are smart people.

“You know,” Fisher said, “I think there is a tendency to dismiss the people who spread these stories as uneducated or simply not understanding the technology they’re dealing with.”

“Anything but the case,” Fisher continued. “They tend to be quite educated people. They tend to be people who are very well-connected online.”

“Quite educated”? No well-educated person would believe this stuff. And I can’t imagine that things will get better after Donald Trump takes office. The president-elect lies with abandon. Some of his close advisers have insisted with a straight face that there’s no such thing as truth any more, that what’s true to one person isn’t necessarily true to another. Facts don’t matter.

Way too many Americans seem to feel they have no responsibility to think for themselves, no responsibility to seek the truth. It’s convenient to blame the bloggers, blame Fox News, blame Facebook for perpetuating this stuff. But that’s a cop-out. The primary responsibility lies with each American citizen.

It’s one thing to disagree with a candidate’s stand on things like abortion rights, school choice, what the US should be doing in Syria, and whether taxes are too high. It’s another to believe that a presidential candidate is operating a sex ring in a pizza place.

A lot of media folks and political leaders seem worried about whether Russia has been messing around with our democracy. I’m worried, too. But I’m far more worried, frankly, about the state of the American intellect, about our unwillingness to challenge what we read and hear unless it reinforces what we believe.

Truth does matter, our president-elect’s thoughts to the contrary. But it will matter in our democracy only if we want it to.

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