My daughter was at a sleepover. By the time she got through to me on my iPad, she and her friend Molly were already hiding under the sheets, having freaked themselves out watching conspiracy videos on YouTube. Turns out they’d been texting me, but my phone was charging in another room.
“We can’t sleep!” they wailed as quietly as they could, probably too embarrassed to give Molly’s mom their sob story. “We watched this conspiracy video saying the world is going to end and now we’re too scared to go to sleep.”
“I needed a hug,” my daughter added, “and then you didn’t answer my texts.” A jab of guilt.
They did look really freaked out, though. “I’m going to use a swear word, okay?” I told them, acknowledging the gravity of the situation. They nodded solemnly. “Those videos are bullshit. They’re just made up.”
“No!” they protested. “But there was all this evidence! There was a Facebook post, and all the dates made sense, and…”
“It’s ALL bullshit,” I told them. “None of it is true.”
“No, but they had proof. There were posts! And the other people who agreed with it. And—”
It was time to pull out the big guns. “You want proof that you can put anything on the internet and get people to believe it? Proof that you can just make stuff up? Just look at our President on Twitter. Best example in the world.”
They fell briefly silent.
“You know how Trump tweets all the time and everybody talks about it?” They nodded, still not sure where I was going—they’re both too young to be on Twitter. “He tweets lies, and then all these people believe him because he’s the President and they spread the word. But the whole time, it’s a lie.”
“Like what?” They demanded. So much to choose from! I started with this gem:
“He tweeted a photo to show that they were finally building his wall,” I began. “You know, the one he wants at the border? And he was bragging about how they were starting work on it and used the photo as proof. But you know what? He still doesn’t have approval to start the wall he wants, and this picture is from a project that was approved years ago and has nothing to do with him. But his supporters were all like, ‘Yeah, I TOLD you he’d build a wall!’”
“It wasn’t the new wall?” they asked. “Nope,” I said. “Want another one?” They did.
“Trump keeps complaining that Amazon is bankrupting the post office. And no matter how many people on his staff explain to him that he’s wrong, he just keeps tweeting that Amazon is ripping them off.”
“The President of the United States says whatever he wants on Twitter, whether it’s true or not,” I told them, “and a bunch of people believe him.”
“Remember when had his press secretary post about his inauguration? He had him tell everyone he had the biggest crowd of any president. Truth was, he had one of the smallest in recent history. Obama had way more people. But Trump told his spokesperson to say it, so all the people who like him assumed it was true. And then when journalists challenged them and said it wasn’t true, Trump’s person called it ‘alternative facts,’ which isn’t even a real thing. And everybody started saying it. Alternative facts. Fake news. Just because he tweeted it. It’s like your video.”
“But we saw the Facebook post about the world ending!” they wailed. “We saw the real post. And what about all the pictures?”
“Anyone can post on Facebook, and pictures are very easy to fake.” I added. I didn’t bother to ask what the pictures were of. It didn’t matter.
“You guys know who Emma González is, right? One of the Parkland kids?” They did.
“Well someone posted a picture of her ripping up the Constitution, and it spread like crazy. All these people complained about what a bad person she must be, but you know what? She never did it. Someone changed it in Photoshop. What she was really ripping up was a shooting range target, but it was very easy for someone to make it look like she was doing something else. And all these people believed it and then said terrible things about her.”
At left is @tyler_mitchell’s photo of @Emma4Change for the cover of @TeenVogue. At right is what so-called “Gun Rights Activists” have photoshopped it into. #MarchForOurLives pic.twitter.com/jW6tTOv2Db
— pfpicardi (@pfpicardi) March 25, 2018
“But how about the video? We saw some—”
I cut them off. “Have you ever seen a movie or a TV show? Are all of those real?”
“No,” they replied in unison like they would to a teacher.
“So anyone can do anything on a video and make it look real, right? Like superhero movies, or A Wrinkle in Time.”
“And if the President of the United States can post lies on Twitter and insist they’re true and get people to believe him, do you think this conspiracy video guy can do the same? He’s just like the President—people believe him. He says whatever he wants just to make everybody react.”
“But he’s making it up.”
“He’s making it up.”
They took a moment.
“Okay, you guys good?”
“Yeah.” Juliet took the iPad on their end. “I love you, Mommy.”
“I love you too, Juliet. Go to sleep.”
And that was that. Finally, I’d found some use for Donald Trump.