Fact or fiction? Let's think about it

It's interesting how willing we are to believe something outlandish if it lines up with what we already believe.

On the other hand, we'll resist anything that challenges that belief system -- no matter how reasonable it might sound in another context.

Have we reached the point where facts don't count for anything? Is scoring points against your opponent is all that matters?

A recent example of the phenomenon is the cost of Obama's trip to India. To people who are already convinced Obama is a spendthrift, it's an easy jump to believe an unsubstantiated price tag of $200 million per day.

No wonder people are upset. That's an outrageous tab. At least, it would be if it were an accurate number.

In the days of analog, before the digital era, there was a story that likened gossip to releasing a bag of feathers on a windy day, then trying to gather them all. The moral was that once you start a lie about someone, you can't go back and completely repair the damage, even if you wanted to.

And that was before the advent of the Internet.

With technology, we can update this little parable.

Rather than a bag of feathers, let's use an anonymous tip, someone's blog or even Wikipedia. Instead of a windy day we'll just toss the rumor onto the information superhighway.

True or false, verified or not -- there is no way anybody is getting that genie back in the bottle.

It's not necessary to be the president or even a public figure to fall victim.

Now that many people have a video camera on their cell phones, what would have been an embarrassing moment soon forgotten or perhaps never even noticed can go viral on the Internet.

Whether it's the cost of Obama's trip to India or the "Don't taze me, bro" video, the script's the same. 1) Shock. 2) Outrage. 3) Apology or correction. 4) Continued outrage at initial shock.

First, come up with an attention grabbing idea, the more preposterous the better. Next, get some wheels on the thing to get the rumor moving. At this point, the job is really completed.

If you get called out on it, go to an apology or retraction but only if absolutely necessary, and keep it toned down as much as possible.

Step four will take care of itself.

We suspect that some of the bad information out there is the product of good intentions gone awry, people passing along what they believe to be true. It's not always a deliberate lie to mislead and manipulate the public, although there is a fair share of that, too.

But intentional or not, once the word is out, it's out for good. And much like post traumatic stress disorder, if the emotional shock is great enough, the feelings persist long after the danger is gone.

Did Obama's trip to India really cost the American public $2 billion? No. Are there plenty of people out there who believe that it did? Yes. And boy are they mad!

We are astounded at how easily otherwise clear-thinking people are duped.

As zeal and desperation escalates, we expect to see continued indignation at any "fact" -- true or otherwise -- that supports some existing belief.

The only solution is for people to think. Thoughtful reasoning counts. Facts matter.

If we can't distinguish fact from falsehood, then what we believe cannot stand for much.