Ah, the Facebook comments section.  A place where well-informed discourse gives way to emotional rants intended to insult an author or entire site.  Honestly, I don’t mind it – we all need a way to blow off some steam, and not everyone shares my hobbies.  For me, my punching bag is… well, a punching bag.  For others, it’s websites, authors, or other commenters that had the audacity to present evidence that doesn’t support your position.  After all, there’s no way you could be wrong… and the world needs to know.

Despite not chiming in on random Facebook posts (or continuing to follow outlets I don’t like), I’m certainly not above it.  My Twitter account is primary used as a means by which to convey short messages to the hosts of my favorite podcasts.  Recently, while listening to the Cracked podcast, I was so baffled by Jack Obrien’s claims that there were no liberal media outlets beating up on reasonable Republicans “as they so often claim,” that I pulled my phone out of my pocket in the middle of a workout just to remind him that he’s devoted countless entire podcasts to doing just that.  In his defense, the Cracked Podcast often tries to present pretty reasonable discourse, and has never once claimed to be unbiased… and I love their work, even when I don’t agree with it.

I ended up deleting the Tweet (I cringe every time I type that word) not because I felt like I was wrong, but because I noticed the army of Righters that had already descended upon his Twitter feed.  I didn’t want to get caught up in the unreasonable attacks levied at him for doing the same thing I do every day: try to present my thoughts to a wide audience in a way that doesn’t devolve into nit-picking and complaining.  I have to assume Obrien, like so many other media personalities, eventually gives up on reading the responses to his work, throws his hands in the air with his eyes rolled as hard as he’s capable of and just says, “has the world gone mad?”

Well, allow me to answer the made up question I just put in his mouth: yup.  It sure as hell has.

I’ve been astonished to see the support Assad’s Syrian regime has received on social media since Tuesday’s chemical attack that produced (according to CNN’s most recent tally) 86 dead bodies… 26 of whom were just kids.  Now, before I go on, I know some of the folks on my side of this debate will point out that social media support for Syria is absolutely in line with Russia’s normal method of enforcing their agenda through digital dumb-ery, and you’re absolutely right – but I’ve clicked on some the accounts arguing so passionately that Assad is a peace-loving man – the Abraham Lincoln of his nation’s history, fighting to re-unify his war-torn home – and to my surprise, they seem to be real-life humans, complete with dogs, spouses, and faces decidedly free of the discoloration and the foam that pours out of the mouths of those who have witnessed Assad’s use of chemical weapons first hand.

See, the thing is, I’m a big believer in conflict being born not just out of the traditional philosophical “fear of the other,” but also out of a fear of discomfort.  If I made public my support of, say, Bill Cosby early into the accusations levied against him about rape, the subsequent allegations and evidence would stand to make me awfully uncomfortable with myself.  It’s easier, then, to just say, “fake news!” and stand by my position.

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In politics, we call anyone who absorbs new information and establishes a new position a “flip flopper,” because if there’s one thing we apparently don’t want in the person leading our nation, it’s the ability to change their mind in the face of new, irrefutable evidence.  If you said you didn’t support atomic energy when you were twenty-three, then God help you if you change your mind at fifty, no matter what technological advances have been made along the way.

This isn’t because we’re bad people – no, not even the crazies on Facebook that think the Syrian rebels somehow managed to establish secret supply lines, research facilities and laboratories, generate the elements to produce Sarin gas, choose not to ever use it in the fight their losing, but rather store the elements (traditionally maintained separately) in an above ground warehouse surrounded by children rather than in an underground bunker… Nor are the people who claim bombing the stored, separate elements (because Sarin itself has a fairly short shelf life) could somehow mix the two in the appropriate way to instantly release a cloud of the poison in a manner that looks awfully similar to the dispersal caused by an airstrike via satellite imagery… They’re not bad guys.  They’re people who don’t want to be uncomfortable.

Whew, I guess I am pretty capable of a Facebook comment style rant.  Sorry about that. For the record, I’m no expert on Sarin gas – but Dan Kaszeta, a chemical weapons specialist and managing director of Strongpoint Security is:

“All the nerve agents used in the Syrian conflict so far have been binary nerve agents,” he told CNN, “which are mixed from different components within a few days of use. This is done because of the difficulties of handling agents such as Sarin, which has a very short shelf life.”

“Nerve agents are the result of a very expensive, exotic, industrial chemical process — these are not something you just whip up,” he added.

Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the US-based Middle East Institute made the following statement.

“Are we seriously meant to believe that the opposition has a latent chemical weapons capability, and yet somehow, it has only ever suffered the effects of its own weapons and failed to use them itself?” he said.

“First of all, nobody in their right mind would ever store both components of a binary nerve agent in the same building. And secondly, even if they were stored together and then targeted, blowing them up would not result in any active nerve agent — it’s chemically impossible,” he added.

Listen, I realize that a couple of eggheads rejecting the Russian and Syrian story about Tuesday’s attack doesn’t mean my position couldn’t possibly be wrong.  Even one of those experts I so snidely cited referred to the Russian account as “highly improbable,” which is admittedly allowing for the small possibility that he (and I) are wrong.  Multiple investigations are ongoing, and just like the attack in 2013 most of the world is happy to lay on Assad’s feet, the outcomes of each of them will be ignored by those who don’t want to believe Assad is capable of ordering such a horrific attack, just like I would ignore any story about Dwayne Johnson being anything short of a giant charmer like I want to be when I grow up.

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The point is, our discourse online may seem trivial, but like pop-culture, it traverses the gap between the digital realm and the real one by infiltrating the way we think about things.  While pop-culture, like internet comments sections, is often dismissed as just the silly stuff we mentally ingest to decompress at the end of the day, the evidence shows again and again that it’s that silly stuff that shapes our perceptions of the world.

Popular culture teaches those that live in urban settings that rural Southerners are uneducated racists, and it teaches people who grew up on farms that the minorities they see on “The Wire” are representative of an entire ethnicity.  Pop culture taught me that the pyramids in Egypt were a beautiful and peaceful place to visit (false), that diamond engagement rings are a time-honored marital tradition (advertising campaign), and that halitosis was an actual ailment that needed to be treated (invented by a real-life Don Draper).  If our concept of reality is so easily shaped by the thirty-second spots between fart jokes on “Family Guy,” what do you suppose years of reading troll comments on your Facebook page will do?

It might even make you believe the Syrian rebels are gassing their own kids.

If it didn’t work, there wouldn’t be so much hubbub about Russian meddling in foreign elections.  They aren’t changing ballot counts, they’re changing perceptions – and if you get the ingredients just right, that can be just as good.  Get them wrong, and, well, you get Pepsi’s latest advertisement that suggest exchanging cans of sugar water could bring about a new era of racial harmony.

They can’t all be winners.

So yeah, I’m sure the folks that never bother to read the articles they complain about will chime in below this one, nit-picking whatever the title ends up being and congratulating themselves for their well thought out and thorough debunking of the first four lines they could read in the description… and I have no doubt that some others will disagree with me on SOFREP below using real information and their own experts – I’m not complaining, that’s awesome.  Discussing this sort of thing is important, and if I’m wrong, I promise I’ll try my best to flip-flop like a terrible politician.  All I ask in exchange is that you return the favor.

And remember that the only difference between what’s real and what’s not is that we have to agree on what’s real.  If you see a camel in the road and no one else does, the camel’s in your head.  If you see a war crime being committed and 90% of the world does too… maybe, just maybe, it’s real.

 

Image courtesy of Pepsi