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Why Staying Informed is Critical During This Contentious Political Season

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By Jeremiah D. McCloud:

You’ve seen it, haven’t you? The anger, the hate, the vilification of political rivals. Political extremism is ever before us. We can’t escape it. There is no place for us to go, in our modern world, to escape this conflict of ideologies.

What do I mean? Look down at your hands to see the smart device you are most likely clutching. Take inventory of the web browser tabs you have open. If experience is any teacher, you most likely have some sort of social media application running on your mobile device. And you most likely have Facebook, LinkedIn, or some other social information sharing platform open on your computer. Oh, and is that a television in the background? It’s likely tuned to Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC.

You and I, and all our connected friends, are bombarded by programmed information. 24/7. We hear it over the radio: Trump this, and Clinton that. We see it on the television: Putin yesterday, Wikileaks today. And we gorge ourselves on it through our social media profiles.

If you take it all in, things may seem out of control; apocalyptic. The end of our society, of our freedoms, of our way of life is just around the corner! If so-and-so is elected, World War III will happen, forests will disappear, and children the world over will not be visited by Santa.

But wait. The end isn’t really here, yet. Although myriad claims exist about who has already been selected to be president, the votes have not all been cast. The perception many of us have is that the world is falling apart, those with views different from our own are to blame, and only our way of thinking can save us. But take heart: perception is NOT reality.

Perception is the limited vision of those who are not curious enough to dig deeper for reality.

Television, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Our political perceptions are heavily influenced by these and other media. Consider Facebook. A friend ‘likes’ a political news article. In my newsfeed I see that the friend liked the article; then I read the article title, the description, and the name of the outlet that posted it. I’m interested, so I click through and read some or all of the article. Then I ‘like’ my friend’s ‘like.’ All of this takes place in the span of sixty to ninety seconds. Not very much time, but during that period my political opinions were reinforced multiple times. First by the fact that my friend gave implicit support to the article; next by the fact that I looked at the original post, meaning I looked at the icon picture and read the title; next by the fact that I clicked on the original post; then by the content of the article itself; then by the name of the outlet; and finally, by the fact that I gave my support to the article by clicking ‘like.’ That’s at least six distinct impressions. If you’re like me, this happens multiple times throughout the day across multiple media platforms.

I might learn valuable facts or read an interesting opinion through all this activity. But all I really accomplish is to provide a digital map of my behavior to the social media platforms I use, and to the content sites I access through them. After I ‘like’ my friend’s ‘like’ won’t I see other similar articles and pages appear as suggestions in my newsfeed?

If we aren’t careful, we create for ourselves a digital rabbit hole down which we fall towards more uninformed and extreme views and behaviors. Can this be avoided? We’re all on Facebook, and Twitter, and LinkedIn, etc. How can we remain connected and well-informed?

Check this out. I recently celebrated my birthday by attending the TEDx Mid-Atlantic conference. All the speakers were interesting, but two of them stood out. Their ideas echoed the concepts I applied as a Marine Corps intelligence officer:

  1. Perception is not reality;
  2. Recognize and mitigate bias;
  3. Be intellectually skeptical.

John Noonan, former national security advisor to Governors Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney, believes that we currently ingest news to be validated, not to be informed. He offered three suggestions for developing better opinions:

  1. Passion and knowledge are inversely related, so learn more facts;
  2. Have more questions than answers;
  3. Be smart about how you ingest media.

Sheryl Winarick, a prominent immigration lawyer, said, “Challenge the sources that shape your reality.” She offered that stories are only newsworthy when they are abnormal. She recommended keeping the big picture in mind, and avoiding polarized positions because they breed fear.

Moral: as you engage content through digital media, and as you absorb content from radio and television…stay frosty. Pay attention to your emotional responses to a news source. Ask yourself: ‘What is missing?’ ‘Where can I find what’s missing?’ ‘What is fact?’ ‘What is opinion?’ ‘Is this reasonable or merely ‘shock value’?’ Exercise your skeptic muscles, and burn through perceptions to find a better picture of reality.

Jeremiah D. McCloud is an OpsLens Contributor and former U.S. Marine Corps intelligence officer.  McCloud spent nearly four years as an enlisted Marine, then attended the U.S. Naval Academy where he earned a BS in International Relations.  McCloud deployed to Afghanistan, and has since acquired an MBA from the University of Virginia in International Business and Communications.

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