A Modest Proposal: #ProtectTheTruth

America’s tweeter-in-chief plans to attack the free press next week. He desperately needs your help to succeed.

You can help him by repeating his words and lies. You can help him by focusing outraged attention on his antics.

Or we can work together to redirect the energy, counteract rather than react, and reframe the conversation.

Here’s a way: rather than argue against him directly or waste time refuting his attacks, let’s ignore his antics and make a positive, proactive argument. While he assails the free press, let’s use our voices to honor the essential work reporters are doing in this dangerous era. Let’s have a conversation about why the free press is more crucial than ever.

Reporters are guardians of freedom. Their job is to pursue the truth. We may disagree with them sometimes. We may wish some of them would do a better job. But the press is a pillar of a free society. Democracy falls without it.

That’s why authoritarian leaders always attack the press. They seek to deny and distract from the truth, and this requires undermining those who tell it. Corrupt regimes always seek to replace truth with lies that increase and preserve their power. The Digital Age makes this easier than ever.

Information travels fast, but that’s a double-edged sword. It’s great when a true story travels the globe instantly and results in inspirational action. Yet we live in an age of weaponized information, where nefarious memes and false narratives of dubious origin can also travel far.

These can become dangerous when repeated millions of times. As I wrote in the 2004 book Don’t Think of An Elephant, repetition strengthens the synapses in the neural circuits that people use to think. First, repetition strengthens the synapses in the brain’s circuitry. Second, “framing first” provides an advantage. Third, negating a frame by saying it’s “not” true activates and strengthens the frame. That’s just how our brains work.

Unfortunately, many intelligent people — including Democrats and journalists — ignore the findings of the cognitive and brain sciences. They put their faith in the outdated idea of Enlightenment Reason, which dates back to the 1650s. As a result, they miss the often-implicit frames, metaphors and narratives that structure morally important truths. They wrongly believe that bare facts and logic alone win the moral debates.

The same cannot be said of the professional troll armies prowling on the other side of our computer screens. A recent study of the strategies used by Russian and terrorist trolls online found that they have a strong grasp of basic brain science.

According to cyberwarfare expert Haroon Ullah: “Recent research into both the Russians’ and the Islamic State’s models of propaganda, as well as interviews with defectors, unveil that: 1) people tend to believe something when it is repeated, 2) Russia and Islamic State fanboys gain the advantage when they get to make the first impression and 3) subsequent rebuttals may actually work to reinforce the original misinformation, rather than dissipate it.”

Sound familiar?

Yet there’s a way to beat the troll strategy: “the key is to direct a ‘stream’ of pro-active, accurate messaging at the targeted audience.”

In other words, reframe to undermine the opposition’s frame, and repeat. #ProtectTheTruth

So when the president attacks the press on Wednesday, don’t take the bait. Instead, focus on truth and its moral context. Truth is under attack. Let’s protect it, and express our appreciation for those brave journalists whose job is to spotlight it.

Some ground rules:

  • Don’t use any of his terms, images, or hashtags.
  • Ignore his antics — if you retweet it you can’t defeat it, and when you embed it you spread it. Deny him the virality he craves. Ignore his antics.
  • Shift the frame to focus on powerful, truthful reporting.

Excellent examples include Mother Jones’ heroic “The Russian Connection”series with its groundbreaking focus on the foreign ties that may bring down a presidency; Rachel Maddow’s steely-eyed focus on the Republican Party’s culpability in this mess and the need to hold them accountable; and Mark Hertsgaard’s fierce dedication to covering the climate crisis while exposing those who profit from it.

And let’s not forget the amazing newspaper competition currently unfolding between the New York Times and the Washington Post — a race to do the best job at telling the most truth.

Name the reporters, editors, and outlets — including state and local publications — doing important work that affects YOUR life. Link to their stories. Say why they matter. Say “thank you” to those who tell the truth for a living!

This is about more than Twitter. This is about ideas and language in our politics, and who controls them. This about more than just one president — it’s about the Republican Party and authoritarians everywhere who seek to destroy the truth and attack the public good.

It’s time to reclaim our power and frame the debate. To start, let’s disregard next week’s ceremonial attack on the press and #ProtectTheTruth instead.

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