Remember the Marlboro Man riding across the screen? Slowing his galloping horse long enough to light up a smoke before riding off into the sunset? Ah, the good old days, when everyone’s clothing smelled like an ashtray!

Until the mid 1960’s, and well after that really, more than half the people in the US believed smoking was not a health hazard, but then that pesky old surgeon general guy used some made-up scientific evidence to make smoking look bad.

Considering the way things are today, with Facebook, Twitter and other social media, you might wonder how the surgeon general would compete with Big Tobacco and the social media attacking the scientific findings and statistics.

 

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An excerpt from a story “The Challenges Facing Libraries in the Area of Fake News,” by Donald A. Barclay, a deputy librarian at the University of California Merced, kind of puts things in perspective.

“Imagine, for a moment, the technology of 2017 had existed on Jan. 11, 1964 – the day Luther Terry, surgeon general of the United States, released “Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General of the United States.”

What would be some likely scenarios?

The social media noise machine explodes; conservative websites immediately paint the report as a nanny-government attack on personal freedom and masculinity; the report’s findings are hit with a flood of satirical memes, outraged Facebook posts, attack videos and click-bait fake news stories; Big Tobacco’s publicity machine begins pumping out disinformation via both popular social media and pseudo-scientific predatory journals willing to print anything for a price; Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater characterizes “Smoking and Health” as a “communist-inspired hoax.”

Eventually, the Johnson administration distances itself from the surgeon general’s controversial report.

Of course none of the above actually occurred. While Big Tobacco spent decades doing all that it could to muddy the waters on the health impacts of smoking, in the end scientific fact triumphed over corporate fiction.

Today, thanks to responsible science and the public policies it inspired, only 15 percent of adults in the United States smoke, down from 42.4 percent in 1965.

One might ask: Would it have been possible to achieve this remarkable public health victory had today’s social media environment of fake news and information echo chambers existed in 1964?”

 

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We see the scenarios playing out on many fronts today. The science behind global warming is being attacked, and the naysayers are winning out. Crime statistics, gun violence and women’s health issues are all being turned into debates over the social media, with meme posts citing incorrect information that people buy into because they want to believe it.

As difficult as it is to tell fact from fiction today, you can bet it’s only going to get worse. Apparently lying pays better than telling the truth and believing a lie is easier than searching for the truth.

 

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