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