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Fighting back against alt-facts

On Tuesday afternoon, the official Badlands National Park Twitter account sent out a series of tweets related to climate change and environmental science. The account’s action was hardly attention-grabbing (nor unprecedented) considering that its “owner” is one of many federally-recognized ecological preservation parks. However, these specific tweets were sent in the aftermath of the newly-inaugurated President Trump’s ban on Environmental Protection Agency employees speaking to reporters or distributing information about research. The ban may have been interpreted as a symbolic gag order: the Badlands tweets were quickly deleted. If it seems odd that a person would make and delete tweets about climate change from a public parks Twitter account, that is because it is. The urgency and fear that motivated a National Parks employee to desperately tweet out simple, dry facts that would bring attention to basic scientific concepts can only be understood in a context where certain facts are being institutionally pushed out of government discourse—in this case, by Donald Trump. Within his first week in office, Trump has targeted free speech, common factual archiving and clear boundaries of truth. Through various proxies, he has attempted to drag people into a world of “truthiness” and gray facts.

That was on public display last Saturday when Sean Spicer, the newly-appointed White House Press Secretary, held a press conference the day after Trump’s inauguration to address the side-by-side comparisons floating around the internet between the size of the crowd that showed up for Trump’s swearing-in and size of that for President Barack Obama’s ceremony in 2013. The aerial comparisons had shown a stark difference—Trump’s crowd was significantly smaller. But despite photographs and eyewitness accounts of the comparatively slim turnout, Spicer insisted that Trump had gathered “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration—period—both in person and around the globe.” This blatantly disproved misrepresentation of the crowd was later defended by Trump’s Senior Advisor Kellyanne Conway on CNN. Trying to square hard evidence with Spicer’s lie, she dubbed his characterization of the event as a set of “alternative facts.” As comically dystopian as her neologism was, it matched the mien of an administration that has strived to make truth more malleable.

The issues we run into when “malleable”-truths, falsehoods and obscured realities become the norm from the White House are clear and dangerous. Trump stretching the truth was commonplace on the campaign trail, but the same words, when voiced by the President of the United States carry a whole new power: a single careless statement can tilt markets and corrupt trust. It is one thing for a new source like Breitbart to write a misleading story—Americans can look to other sources to find more balanced news. But there is no alternative source people can turn to when the same material is coming directly from the official liaison of the White House.

There is no guarantee that the White House will continue its trend of truth-bending, but the precedent it has set so far is unsettling. The time is nigh to hold our newly-elected president accountable, whether through public declarations, supporting institutions being threatened with defunding or demanding accountability through activism. If America is to be great, it must not lose its basic respect for truth.

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