It seems harmless enough. A reporter writes a story about a school program and a reader comments online that teachers do nothing all summer, and suddenly, the majority of comments revolve around that comment.
Or, a reader sends in a speakout submittal and moans about firefighters sitting around doing nothing.
Neither comment is remotely true, yet enough members of the public believe them, so the false statements spread and before you know it they have become reality for some.
To make matters worse, it’s budget time and many taxpayers now plan to vote no on the school budget, while the fire department suddenly looks like a good place for the city to cut.
Whether it’s misinformation or disinformation, these exaggerations and untruths often become the reality for a very large number of people.
Media organizations could institute stricter rules for reader submissions, but it is much more widespread than that.
Public meetings with public comment portions are notorious for inviting individuals who make exaggerated and false claims. Someone could come out and say that the union president is stealing taxpayers’ funds, the media could report the next day that the statement was false, and still, a large portion of the population, either because they were there or heard the comment through the rumor chain, believes the information to be true.
Again, that may not seem important, but it is, especially when budgets pass or fail by a couple hundred votes.
The municipality cannot suddenly become totalitarian and restrict free speech, but at the same time, it is pathetic when free speech used maliciously negatively impacts people, the budget process, an important decision, positions and more.
There are some steps that can be taken, though.
As Plattsburgh Mayor Donald Kasprzak suggested, public officials should maintain an open-door policy to ensure they are available to quell such rumors and provide constituents with the factual information.
Public officials also have a responsibility to speak up and speak out. If and when they know something exaggerated or false is being put out there, vigorously stand up to that untruth and shout the truth for all to hear.
The public itself also has a responsibility to receive information critically and not just believe it is true because it was heard or read somewhere. Verify the information and seek out sources that can verify the information.
This is especially important when the information coincides with one’s beliefs, politics and morality. Democrats, for example, have a tendency to take it on face value when a member of their party issues information, even if that information seems outrageous. Then, those same individuals will demand a ridiculous amount of sources if a Republican makes a statement as simple as the sky is blue.
The same can be said by so many groups. Frustrated taxpayers often need only hear one individual, even if it is public knowledge this person was just released from jail, say that the school district is spending money frivolously, and suddenly that information becomes fact without it being verified by anyone.
Finally, all of us, not just public officials, but all of us have a responsibility to speak out when false and exaggerated information is delivered to the public as truth. And while we cannot restrict free speech, there is nothing wrong with shaming someone who intentionally uses that right recklessly and maliciously.
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