FACT OR FICTION? A girl views the stark division between two groups, mainly guided by hate and false claims made by social media and political figures. Even though we are all witnessing the same events, it seems as if people refuse to open their eyes to the truth, promoting separation. (Ondine Cella)
FACT OR FICTION? A girl views the stark division between two groups, mainly guided by hate and false claims made by social media and political figures. Even though we are all witnessing the same events, it seems as if people refuse to open their eyes to the truth, promoting separation.

Ondine Cella

OPINION: One Nation, Two Realities

Disinformation leads to separate perceptions of state

February 5, 2021

One of the most disgusting things I have ever witnessed on TV was the scene of former President Donald Trump openly mocking a reporter with a disability by flailing his arms and using fragmented speech during in his 2015 campaign. I’m sure you remember the clip. At least I do; as a person who has a younger sister with a cognitive delay and has been placed in special education, this insensitive rhetoric shook me to my very core. 

This feeling was confirmed when I went to the park down the street from my home to teach her how to ride a bike and two little boys started teasing her for being much older than them and still having to use training wheels. 

My heart tightened as my sister looked at me with confusion and helplessness unfairly trapped on her face. But I was helpless, too. Even if I yelled at them, how could I undo that absolute hatred in them — something that I would have to assume exists in their parents, their family, their neighbors, their community, our community, our nation.

It tears apart my heart and stifles my breath even thinking about it now: that people so hurtful and unaware of others are people near my own home. Even though I am close geographically with that family, there could be no greater divide. The reality that I live in is that I am a straight, middle class student receiving a great education at my high school. I am surrounded by people with similar descriptions, but many of my peers do not see the same things that I do. 

The fact that I live in a different world couldn’t be more clear when I saw how Trump’s supporters lived in their own bubble completely separate from my own. But that’s just my problem. How can all of America look at the same situations with such different reactions? 

Another point in my life when I felt my world crumbling more was just that next year in 2016 amidst the heat of the upcoming election. I heard Trump brag about being able to sexually harass women, even saying, “[W]hen you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” In the wake of the #MeToo movement, and as a middle school student going through puberty, I felt for the first time, uncomfortable as a woman. 

To be taught that your body, no matter how you dress, or how you act, will be looked at like an opportunity or an object made me and many women disheartened and tortured. Trump went on to become the person sitting in the highest political office, and he not only perpetuated these disgusting beliefs, but he got away with it, too. Every day I tell myself that I am lucky. Lucky for only having been catcalled and not getting sexually assaulted especially when the number of rape cases increased dramatically from 2015 to 2018. 

During Trump’s first year in office, my Korean immigrant father explained his intense fears he had for our safety after seeing so many hate crimes on the news along with the Trump administration showing a distaste towards non-white people. These mixed feelings weren’t new to him as he grew up in Chicago, and later Des Plaines, in the 1970s and experienced acts of hate and violence under the proposition of his race. 

I, thankfully, have not experienced such violent instances; I’ve only received verbal attacks like being called “coronavirus” while walking down the stairs at Prospect. I wouldn’t say that I am worried for myself as much as I am for others of oftenly oft-persecuted groups like the Black, Latinx, Jewish, Muslim and other communities. Since when should anyone from a very young age step outside and fear for their lives?

These fears grew for more people amidst the death of George Floyd, awakening America to the injustices that are faced on a large scale. Not only was this an emotional movement, but the pandemic and mass unemployment brought their own disparities as well. This was a time of not only great heartache, but also great change — especially for 2017 Wheeling High School alum Joshua Stoken.

Growing up in a proudly conservative and Republican family, Stoken drew most of his information on politics from his parents, which they mostly received from Fox News, and he never questioned it. He voted for Trump in 2016 and considered himself to shadow his family’s political beliefs. It wasn’t until the spring of 2020 when his political views dramatically changed. 

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Stoken was working at a retirement home, where the virus hit hard. 

“I kid you not, for two weeks straight, everytime I went on lunch-break, there would be an ambulance pulling in and out of the retirement home, and they would be consistently pulling people out on stretchers,” Stoken said. 

Emotionally, working at that establishment became unbearable seeing that many deaths happen at once amidst vast fear and unknowns about the virus. However, his family showed a great contrast in their views of the pandemic early on. They claimed that COVID-19 was a hoax staged by the Democratic Party based on what Trump explicitly said, even though it was only an outrageous conspiracy theory with no evidence to back it up. 

Because Stoken had first hand experience with the virus and even goes as far as to think that there were more deaths due to the virus than reported early on based on what he saw at his job, he refused to believe that his family’s claims were valid. Even though Stoken tried to dispel their fraudulent beliefs, his family refused to understand him, or even listen.

“Most of the time, [my family] is not listening to the full story,” Stoken said. “They’re listening to a version that they want to hear.”

   While Stoken believes that his relatives are not bad people, he does think that they are misinformed and are unwilling to seek new or truthful information. Stoken was seeing a drastically different reality than what his conservative family was envisioning, a vision guided mainly by their consumption of right leaning media and social media-based conspiracy theories.

At this point in history, it is the unfortunate truth that what is reality cannot be agreed on or even reasoned with. In a way, the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6 was poetic. To think that maybe things would start to get better, they only got worse. 

“I think the bigger problem with [the Jan. 6 Captiol riots was that] for four years of his presidency, Donald Trump has labeled anything that would contradict his views, his beliefs, his ideas, his values, [as] just simply fake news,” AP World History teacher David Schnell said. “Everything got tagged as fake. So I think it became harder to disassociate the real from falsehood …”

I am a full believer in questioning things around you, whether it is people, systems, beliefs or ideas. To be cynical can sometimes mean to be critically thinking about problems to find accurate solutions;, however, just to question the validity of a pandemic, the Electoral College or facts themselves because someone of high political office told people to do so is not what it means to be analytical.

“We’re at this interesting time in history where you’ve got some of the population saying, ‘Oh, well, the president is not someone who we can trust on this …’” said Nicole Burke, 2011 Prospect alum and PhD Candidate in Developmental Psychology from the University of Chicago. “[There are also] these other people who are believing him at face value. This is a really important reason why the person who holds the highest office in the country shouldn’t be a liar.”

This pattern of people, notably Trump supporters, making the argument that evidence they don’t agree with is “fake” is the most utterly idiotic thing I have ever heard. It’s ridiculous to me that people will just eat up this fake news phenomenon because Trump said they should and they don’t look outside their environment. 

It’s especially important that people seek viable research and diverse sources in this digital age where it has been proven that social media feeds allow for Americans to become more divided. This phenomenon leads Americans to “live in their own information echo chambers,” according to CBS News. Burke states that social media is a huge contributor to polarization and the beliefs that we carry today — especially having examined research on how the spread of conspiracy theories on social media is so impactful in our beliefs. Burke also spoke to studies done concluding that those who have less analytical skills are more susceptible to these conspiracy theories. 

It was hard for Stoken to break from the world he lived in where he, like everyone else, is a product of their environment. Burke speculated that Stoken, like nearly all children, was more inclined to listen to his parents from a young age and believe them without much question because of that caregiver relationship. When you have grown up relying on your parents financially, emotionally and more, it’s easy to keep practicing that, Burke says. 

However, around adolescence, peer networks, the group of close friends that an individual interacts with, become more influential in one’s values and ideas than their parents, according to Burke. She stresses the importance of intervention and that using the positive contact theory could help dispel prejudices and practices of cognitive bias which would be helpful in raising future generations to be less divided and hateful. 

“The reason it’s important to intervene early on, is because we see these tightly held beliefs that people will hang on to and carry into their adulthood,” Burke said. 

Stoken calls people who often make baseless claims, “brainwashed.” He even admits that he would consider himself brainwashed before he began researching more and solely believed what his parents told him to. 

I refuse to believe that someone could just be hypnotized to think a certain way;, however, there is no easy explanation for why people would defend what those terrorists were doing at the Capitol. Why can’t people just face the truth and wake up?

Schnell notes that disinformation, whether spread through social media or through beliefs a community holds, will always be present in society and has been throughout history in cases like the Lost Cause after the end of the Civil War. 

“I think that we’re always going to deal with [that] disadvantage [of dealing with lies], because [they’re] always going to exist, there’s always going to be somebody who’s going to be able to try to twist information for their own political, personal [or] economic benefit,” Schnell said. “And that’s the problem; you need an educated populace to understand how it works.”

Not only was it excruciatingly painful to see people galavanting around with the Confederate flag and other white supremacy symbols at the Capitol, but the fact that they did so with such pride because Trump glorified those actions and beliefs hurt more. In addition, these people storming the Capitol were doing so based on a lie that was told to them by their falsely-acknowledged saviour Trump.

While unity is indisputably the end goal that America can simply not seem to reach, the tools to get there are complicated. Schnell feels that nationalism and globalization are always in a big tug-of-war with each other and that while nationalism has the power to bring us together, it also begs the question, “What does it mean to be an American?”

From my understanding, being an American means embracing people, not despite, but for their cultures, backgrounds, ethnicities, religions, etc. In elementary school, we were all assigned to present about a part of our family’s culture for a “salad bowl analogy” of the U.S. I was excited to bring a piece of my hanbok, a traditional Korean outfit, to the classroom. My presentation was well-received and so was everyone else’s. However, when self-described white supremacists intruded into the Capitol seeking to overturn our democracy in the name of protecting American rights, I was appalled. 

I have been taught to fight for America from my veteran and immigrant father, but when the clarity of what it means to be American is fading, sometimes, it’s hard for me to say what I am standing for. 

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