Finland has a long and respected tradition of honesty. Finns prefer to tell it the way it is. They base what they say on facts with minimal spin. Telling the truth, of course, means that there is some knowable truth to tell. It can sometimes be difficult to define exactly what “the truth” is but usually it’s what reasonable people agree on after learning whatever objective facts are known at the time. Scientists are a good source of information, along with an orderly legal process to resolve disputes when information is unclear or conflicting. It’s often not perfect, but it’s the best way we have to sort out the truth as much as possible.
Such honesty based on facts is valued in Finland and admired by the rest of the world, including those Americans who know anything about Finland or Finnish culture. Americans, too, like to think that they respect the truth and want to know accurate facts. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.
In the USA, misinformation is increasingly more popular than the real thing
This isn’t new. Americans have long thought that they live in the best, brightest and most technologically advanced country on earth but, for many measures of success, they do not and never have. Finland and other nations fare much better in key comparisons (education, healthcare, happiness and freedom from corruption, to name just a few).
Countless popular and powerful Americans have recently been debunked as frauds, or at least shown to be terrible people in their private lives, but only decades later. And America’s military actions in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan have later been revealed to be based upon intelligence failures too massive to have been mere errors. So why is the truth so slow to come out, if it’s ever disclosed at all?
Something else is at work - misinformation
Unlike Finns, vast numbers of Americans prefer misinformation over truth. Americans hear what they want to hear, and they display an uncanny ability to avoid any pesky truths that may conflict with what they think they already know.
This is not a new phenomenon, but lately it’s expanded to a new level. Millions of American’s version of “truth” has moved far beyond any reality supported by science or law or anything else. It’s particularly evident in what many Americans hear and think about the coronavirus pandemic, vaccinations and masks. Several U.S. states’ governors are actively working to prevent children from wearing masks to school while elected members of the U.S. Congress tour the country to warn citizens that the U.S. government will soon deploy goon squads to break into people’s homes to forcibly vaccinate them and partisan news channels on TV report that vaccines contain Microsoft chips and 5G magnetism, whatever that is. You can’t make this stuff up…that’s what they say.
The farther this stuff gets from proven truth, the louder they insist that only they know the truth, until the assertion that “this is the truth” means it’s most likely…. not. Science and law have become the enemy of so-called truths held by tens of millions of Americans.
These people then vote, and make misinformed choices based upon the inaccurate information fed to them by news outlets and politicians who benefit in increasingly bizarre ways from the crap they’ve spread. The more off the wall their misinformation becomes, the more the purveyors of it benefit. It’s a vicious cycle and increasing numbers of Americans suffer the consequences of an increasing detachment from reality.
How did this come about?
In American politics, exaggeration and puffery have long been a part of life. So has yellow journalism, where reporters pursue an agenda with little regard for accuracy. But outright misinformation -- intentionally false statements -- weren’t a part of modern daily public discourse in America until the 2016 presidential campaign, when misinformation was adopted by Donald Trump as his routine political strategy and then expanded exponentially during his term as the U.S. President. This development was not ridiculed so much as it was welcomed as evidence of some twisted type of success over his adversaries who were mired in mere facts. It was a system that worked really well, in frightening ways.
It seems to be impossible to shove that demon back into the bottle now that it’s escaped. President Biden has tried. He has spoken bluntly about those who promulgate coronavirus misinformation: “They’re killing people.” (By the way, that’s a statement of fact based on medically proven deaths from the virus, resulting in American bodies that can be counted, the vast majority of them unvaccinated. So it’s true.) They chose not to accept the vaccines available to them because of widespread misinformation about vaccinations and they suffered the medically expected consequences.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t only them. As the devotees of vaccine misinformation ended up in America’s intensive care hospital beds, other innocent Americans were denied life-saving care. They have died too, as victims of pervasive misinformation and, more importantly, as victims of the choices made by the millions of American who actively continue to choose to listen to it, believe it and spread it.
Misinformation moves quickly
In the 1970s Yale psychologist Irving Janis demonstrated that people in groups tend to behave bizarrely to preserve their group’s identity by rejecting even self-evident truths. Any information contrary to the group’s pre-existing views is rejected almost immediately. He aptly called it groupthink.
More recently, a 2018 study at MIT showed that false news spreads faster on Twitter than true stories, because it’s 70 percent more likely to be retweeted. Real people, not bots, are doing the retweeting. They do it because sharing made-up information makes it seem like they know something that others don’t. Lies are portrayed as “secret truths” that were only recently discovered despite coverups at high levels. It shows they are privy to inside information that others don’t have, and they are special because they can access it through their secret channels. Accuracy is a secondary consideration or just irrelevant.
The result is that the Americans, who are trying to impress others with supposed secret information about some wild COVID-related conspiracy, are killing their fellow Americans, using the coronavirus as a weapon, at least recklessly if not knowingly. They are also killing American businesses, education and sports because the country cannot gain control over the pandemic, thanks to them and the misinformation they spread. And it’s all happening too fast to stop it.
It’s not even legal
Attempts to control COVID misinformation to stop the killing are also mischaracterized as an assault on free speech guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Finns and the rest of the world are left wondering how silly American law can be if outrageously inaccurate “free speech” about masks and vaccines means that America cannot do what’s necessary for public health based upon medical facts.
American law isn’t that dumb. Free speech does not include the right for anyone to knowingly spread lies without consequences (for example, yelling “fire” in a crowded theater is not legally protected free speech). But the real facts about how the law works have been drowned out by more misinformation, including misinformation about the law too. The current debate about free speech in America has almost nothing to do with the law. Misinformation is prevailing yet again.
Meanwhile, more Americans and their loved ones are going to get killed but somebody sure will get to look like they’re special by retweeting the latest medical misinformation to their group. That’s so American. That sounds harsh, but it’s true -- so it will probably be buried by more misinformation -- until maybe someday America will learn something about fact-based honesty from the Finns.
Tom A. Lippo is a Finnish-speaking American lawyer. Educated at Yale, the University of Jyväskylä and Stanford Law School, he is the founder of FACT LAW, an international law firm established in 1985. FACT is the first law firm with offices in both Finland and the United States. Tom has been a lawyer in Washington, DC based on Capitol Hill for nearly 40 years