“Alternate facts” are essentially opinions pretending to be truths, often spread by individuals or groups with specific agendas. These alternate narratives are typically based on hand-picked or manipulated data, emotional appeals, or a rejection of well-established evidence. This poses a significant threat to the integrity of public debates, as it undermines the shared foundation of objective reality upon which informed decisions and policy-making rely.
People often seek out information that aligns with their preexisting beliefs, leading to what is known as confirmation bias (something I have written about in the past). This bias causes individuals to focus on evidence that supports their opinions while disregarding or dismissing contradictory information. Consequently, this reinforces existing biases and impedes critical thinking.
People are especially susceptible to confirmation bias because of the social media and cable echo chambers where unchecked opinions often quickly gain traction, creating a false sense of consensus and distorting public perception.
The tragic bombing of the hospital on Tuesday is the latest example of this. No sooner did it happen than Hamas announced Israel bombed the hospital. The news traveled quickly through social media. Masses of people around the world were satisfied with that announcement with no time to investigate. In the end, most intelligence sources believe it was a misfire of a missile launched by another terrorist group. But the initial statement was enough to play into the hands of the Palestinian narrative, and the bias against Israel sealed that narrative. Now the actual facts will not matter, except for people who are willing to be curious and think critically.
Just as dangerous as baseless opinions and alternate facts, is the excuse of ignorance. The saying, “Ignorance is bliss,” implies that not knowing or understanding a situation can provide a certain level of comfort. However, when it comes to injustice, ignorance is not an excuse but rather complicity that causes harm. In our interconnected world, where information is more accessible than ever, individuals have a moral responsibility to educate themselves about injustices and take action against them.
At this moment there may be little we can do to change the minds of those who live in the world of alternate facts and confirmation bias. Their passions run deep. Just listen to the Palestinian protesters and their sympathizers and the narrative they believe without any fact-checking. They are not really interested in the facts and data around the history of the land and the Jewish people’s place on the land – data that can be confirmed through Muslim sources as well. They don’t consider all of the history around 1948 and before 1948. And those who want to side with them don’t bother to check. And for those who only blindly support the “Free Palestine” Movement, do these supporters realize that when Pro Palestinian supporters and organizations say “Free Palestine” they mean “from the river to the sea.” We are unlikely to change the minds of people like this. But, I was reminded this week that there are scores of people who have questions and simply don’t know enough to form an opinion. That lack of knowledge either results in their silence or at best a tepid response. But hope can come from that.
I learned, through an extended listserv conversation with colleagues in the independent school world, and the President of the National Association of Independent Schools, that many actually don’t understand the conflict, nor do they understand the connection between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Further, many found it difficult to send communications that would not inflame other people, and as a result, they inadvertently made their Jewish constituencies feel unheard and isolated. There was a lot of conversation and a desire to understand and support. Additionally, the President of the Association acknowledged that NAIS must do a much better job of addressing anti-Semitism and helping their member schools educate their communities. There was an increased understanding that just as they have needed to address racism and create spaces for learning, the same is needed for anti-Semitism. These are people open to understanding and supporting. They are open to learning more and doing more. I have to believe most people fall into that camp. And to be clear, many, many schools around the country sent communications to their families stating their unequivocal condemnation of Hamas and sympathy to the Jewish people.
In the immediate and long term, we need to prepare our children with the knowledge they will need to be able to speak to people willing to listen and learn. It must begin with us, but must extend well beyond us.