Recently the Internet has been flooded with rumors and conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic. Facebook called the statements “false information.” The United Nations said there was an “infodemic” going on. While facts are facts, “truth” can be more elusive, and our language has evolved to reflect that.

For instance, use of the term “alternative facts” is usually proof someone doesn’t agree with a more commonly held view of things. While discussing the turnout for the president’s inauguration while on the television news show “Meet the Press,” one of President Trump’s advisers told program moderator Chuck Todd that contrary to the press’s figures, the White House had provided “alternative facts” purportedly indicating greater attendance.

“Look,” Todd responded sharply, “alternative facts are not facts, they’re falsehoods.”

Seems that since the dawn of humanity, reality has been a very personal thing. It is perhaps best summed up by that wise man Homer Simpson, who once said, “Well, just because I imagined it doesn’t make it any less true.”

Homer’s affliction has a name: “truthiness.” In 2006, Merriam-Webster recognized this emerging trend when it made the Stephen Colbert-coined term its word of the year. Truthiness is the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.

Truthiness is powerful. “Conspiracy theories, rumor, and outright lies now drive the news cycle,” wrote University of Massachusetts assistant professor Paul Musgrave in a recent piece for the Washington Post website.

Similar is the term “fake news,” which gained widespread popularity in 2017 and is still frequently used when people hear a news report that they don’t agree with. (By the way, if you think that the overused term is only a few years old, you should know that “fake news” was first used decades ago by Saturday Night Live “Weekend Update” anchor Norm McDonald.)

A 2018 study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that fake news — misinformation — often travels faster than real news because it grabs people’s attention by connecting with their emotions. While “fake news” may be a relatively new term, it’s common synonym, the lie, has been speeding around for a long time.

“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes,” remarked Mark Twain back in the day.

More recently, the Oxford English Dictionary made “post-truth” — the notion that facts matter less in shaping public opinion than do personal beliefs — its word of the year.

As Oscar Wilde once said, “The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.”


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