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October 2020
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Staff Editorials

One small glimpse into misinformation and conspiracy theories

By Dan Pool

Editor

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About a decade ago, a man who ran a small business here, approached me about a story that was a matter of life and death. This man, who is no longer with us, had convinced himself based personal experiments that eating apple seeds cured cancer.

He was very serious and felt he had fully tested this theory -- on himself only; there was nothing approaching any bona fide medical tests. He had a sense of urgency that this story needed immediate release as the medical industry was trying to silence him he thought.

For a brief period, he called frequently (he ran ads for his regular business as well) and at one point I almost gave in.  I considered whether a short article might pacify him and not do any harm if we explained that the theory was completely untested.

We never did the story, as it simply wouldn’t have been accurate and second, it could have had real consequences.

First, the established medical community holds the opinion that apple seeds contain toxic substances and are harmful to anyone who ate too many and they back their view with real science. What would the effect be on a cancer patient with a compromised immune system who ate something toxic? What would the emotional impact be on someone who had lost a spouse to cancer to see an article claiming all they had needed to do was eat apple seeds? Or what if the parent of a child with cancer doing poorly suddenly quit the hospital-prescribed treatment to go home and eat apple seeds?

This in a microcosm is how conspiracy theories start: one person tosses out an untested, no-fact view and someone passes it along. This story would have been very compelling: local guy from small town cures horrible disease, everyone celebrates and spreads it around --except it’s not true. It’s simply not a fact.

What makes conspiracy theories so hard to disprove is believers can so easily claim the lies go deeper and deeper. Take the moon landing. If you try to argue that there are pictures, videos, interviews with men who have walked on the moon, the denialists retort those are all fake too.

Our example of not publishing something that has very little credence is not an isolated example. It’s what reputable newspaper publishers have done for at least two centuries and even at this small weekly, we have stranger stories brought to us that never made the printed page. Social media, and the internet has not developed any such standards.

But that may be forced to change with both liberals and conservatives saying this no-holds-barred atmosphere goes too far. Conservatives argue that it allows a widespread bias against their views; liberals say it allows hate speech to go unchallenged.

The political argument often refers back to “Section 230” which is part of the Communications Decency Act and in a very simplified version gives social media companies immunity from any harm that posts by others on their platform cause. One of the quietest members of the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas, indicated this month that it’s time to take a look at that.

From the position of this editor, I’d concur that it’s high time to impose on the social media giants, the same responsibilities that newspapers operate under.

With freedom of speech, people most certainly have the right to say whatever they think and opinions, even distasteful ones, should be protected. But that First Amendment right doesn’t offer an excuse for any medium (whether print, broadcast, or social media) to simply ignore any responsibility for what they have created and profit handsomely from. 

And part of that is recognizing the difference in opinion and political rhetoric versus malicious efforts to intentionally present misinformation.

And the bottom line is facts are facts; they are either right or wrong. 

 

Volunteer, for the community, and for yourself

Recently someone commented to us that there were only about 20 volunteers in the whole county – across all groups.

A little exaggeration but not wildly off-base. This explains why the same people you see passing out the Rotary boxes of food are also serving on a government commission. And the same people arranging signs for the Marble Festival are handing out bottles of water at the Flapjack run, or the same people parking cars at a political rally are cleaning at the Old Jail.

This perception of the same volunteers contrasts with a survey from  AmeriCorps (a national volunteer organization) in 2018 which found almost 30 percent of people volunteered at least some the prior year.

Regardless of whether it’s the same group manning the front lines repeatedly or someone grudgingly serving once a year, volunteers have made a massive impact in this county. Consider that the Good Samaritan Clinic, CARES food pantry, Boys & Girls Club, Community Thrift Store, and Talking Rock Nature Preserve trails all sprang to life because people  gave up their time to promote a larger good. 

The list of volunteer groups making a difference is long and varied, everything from JeepFest to knitting groups giving away blankets. The AmeriCorps study found that most people volunteer through their church (about one third). Behind this, about equal percentages (around 25 percent each) volunteer for youth/educational groups or  sports/arts groups.

Here are a very few examples of how our county has been served by some of the groups who may get overlooked and there are plenty more who don’t get enough credit.

  • A very small core of the Sassafras Literary Society has operated their youth writing contest for 39 years. To all the people who have won awards over decades and the parents who still have works by aspiring young authors, this contest has meant something. Perhaps no one has credited it as launching them on the bestseller list, but it certainly pushes a students to focus on putting words on paper.

• The Jasper Methodist Women’s group who put on the yearly Marble Festival 5K,  have created a true county tradition (barring COVID this year) for the many who come home to visit parents and take a brisk fall walk/run. This event brings Pickens County together.

• Keep Pickens Beautiful is often behind the scenes with direct work (recycling at events) and years and years of prodding us to take our area’s appearance seriously, they have set a tone and made us all look a little better.

• And hats off to all the parents who are asked/cajoled to work that fall festival, concession stand, coach a team or help with a Scout trip.  You hopefully made a difference in some kids’ lives. And though you may have sore feet from standing so long manning a booth, the time they spend is rewarding and can be enjoyable.

By nature, volunteers aren’t paid, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t rewarded and it’s not purely a feeling of doing good. Studies abound online noting that people who volunteer gain numerous social advantages from being included in a group working towards a common goal.

These personal benefits may include: forming new friendships and social connections; increasing self-esteem (those good feelings stick with you); and increased happiness in general.

If you are not already a volunteer with one of our great local groups and churches, try it for a month and see if you don’t come away feeling better about life. Rest assured from the Optimists to the Lions to the biggest churches to the smallest, everyone welcomes a enthusiastic new volunteer.

 

Jasper government should be limited by fiscal responsibility -- “imagination” not a proper budget

We want to immediately rail against the inept, incompetent, unconscionable tax hike that is being foisted on the citizens of Jasper.

Jasper’s mayor has encouraged others by saying the city’s future is only limited by their imagination -- to which must be added emphatically “and its bank account.”

But before we get to the jaw-dropping proposed 56 percent increase in property taxes, we must address some misunderstandings heard in public dialogue already:

• These are the city of Jasper taxes; they are not the county government. It’s the Jasper mayor and city council who will set the tax rate, not the county commissioners.

• This is not an election year in the city – the tax hike absolutely can not be blamed on election-year politics. The commission chair election has no bearing on this regardless of who wins. Mixing the city and county together in tax issues is like blaming the Braves’ coach because of the Falcons’ poor play.

• The tax increase will apply to all properties in the city limits of Jasper. It has no effect on anyone living outside the city limits. Unincorporated county residents do not pay city taxes. Residents in Jasper, Talking Rock and Nelson all pay city taxes in addition to county taxes. City residents are under both county and city governments and, in theory, receive services from both.

• Commercial and residential properties are taxed at the same rate.

• It’s only the city tax bill that may go up 56 percent. It is NOT the whole combined city, county and school bill that is going up – thank goodness.

• The county and school will send their combined bill at one time; the city will send their bill at a later time.

The most commonly misunderstood part of tax increases:

• Every year the county reassesses some property values through the county tax assessor’s office – this includes city properties. If your property value assessment went up, then your taxes will go up. (At its simplest, a tax bill equals the tax rate multiplied by the taxable value of your property). So, if your property value went up, even though the county is rolling back the millage rate, you may pay more. Each case is different depending on how much your property value rose versus how much the tax rate decreased.

We’ve had more than a few people object that our stories about the county/school cutting millage rates are wrong as their tax bills are going to be higher. We understand the confusion. When a government rolls back a millage rate, it sounds as though they are lowering taxes -- as in everybody’s taxes. What they really are doing is lowering the tax rate because values rose so much they’ll still wind up with more revenue. So to the people who say their taxes have gone up, that is correct. The government will get more money from you in taxes and will have more revenue at the end of the year – even though technically they lowered the tax rate.

• There are state rules, formulas and procedures that must be followed by counties in assessing values. And there are numerous different points of view of whether it’s a fair system and how it should be restructured. But that is a subject for another editorial.

 

Back to the Jasper tax hike. No matter how they try to spin it, the city failed to keep their spending in check and now are forcing the taxpayers in the city limits to bail them out – during a pandemic when businesses and property owners could be facing tough economic times ahead.

The new administration in city hall has gone to great length to issue positive statements about all their exciting plans - “Hurray, we have new picnic tables.” But apparently no one was watching the checkbook in this collaborative tax and spend approach to government.

Instead of the council constantly seeking to get others on board with their plans, maybe they should have sought some contrarians to apply the brakes. Their projected $550,000 deficit without the tax hike shows a serious failure in their ability to govern efficiently.

We haven’t seen a tax increase in 20 years in Jasper and this is not the year to start, especially not at 56 percent.

It’s time for Cinderella to head home from the spending ball because even the fairy godmother won’t abide this level of government taking.

 

We can’t all be drunk on social media

By Angela Reinhardt

Staff Writer

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I’m writing this at the risk of sounding trite, because how many times can we hear about overuse of screens and social media without zoning out? But I’m legitimately, and deeply, concerned about us - especially our children.

Last week I was on vacation and spent time with my kids while they were out of school. We hiked. We went to a movie. We went bowling. And thanks to a jolt from a Netflix documentary called The Social Dilemma, my smart phone was mostly tucked away and my usage down by 80 percent. It was a wonderful lo-tech week. In the documentary, former heavyweights at places like Facebook and Twitter discuss how the companies they helped create (and later left due to ethical concerns) are now tearing society apart. They discuss surveillance capitalism; pervasive technology and algorithms; mass manipulation; rising suicide/depression; and many other disturbing issues. For a while  I’ve questioned my own screen time and social media’s place in my life, but the documentary was validation for something I  think we all innately know, but something we can’t get a grip on because we’re profoundly addicted.

“Consumer internet businesses are about exploiting psychology,” said former Facebook VP Chamath Palihapitiya who, like most featured in the film, doesn’t use social media. “[They] want to psychologically figure out how to manipulate you as fast as possible and then give you back that dopamine hit.”

A few years ago I read a book about behavioral science called Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. It details how “choice architects,” as the authors call them, can impact people’s decisions by implementing strategies that encourage, or “nudge,” behavior. Want kids to eat more veggies at school? Put veggies at a certain spot on the lunch line. “Nudging” works because people do predictable things based on psychology. Social media (at least the way many of the platforms are structured) work using similar logic, by using our psychology to nudge us – but in these platforms’ case it’s in ways that aren’t beneficial to our wellbeing. 

Fortunately my teenage son doesn’t care about social media (don’t get me started on video games). My almost-teenage daughter loves TikTok, though. The spike in teen girl suicides that aligns with the rise of social media is a tragic by product of self-esteem issues these platforms create. Just look at teenage girls’ feeds these days. They go something like: 

•Girl posts selfie and gets a, “Wow! You look gorgeous!” (followed by three flame emojis and a few kissy faces.) 

•Original poster coyly responds, “Who me? You’re so sweet, but you’re the gorgeous one!” (also followed by a few flame emojis and probably some hearts.) 

This isn’t all teen girls, of course, but it’s a predominant discourse. They – and us adults – want likes and attention. Unfortunately, as Palihapitiya says (and which I’ve experienced myself), this attention is “short, brittle popularity that leaves you more…vacant and empty than before.”

A few days ago the normally tight-lipped Facebook released an “unprecedented” statement about The Social Dilemma. Forbes called their response “defensive” and said it fell “a bit flat,” probably because Facebook is terrified people like me are about to stop using their service nearly as much – or at all.  

It scares me to death to think about how technology is changing our relationships, and what the next generation will be like because of it. I’ll be trite again and use a Luddite reference - I’m not arguing we denounce all tech, as the reference has come to imply, but we need to muster some will power, control our social media time, and live our real, 3-D lives again, preferably with outside time.

Jaron Lanier, a virtual reality pioneer featured on the documentary, believes a portion of our society must exist outside these platforms. He provides a powerful metaphor about a world where everyone is addicted to social media: “If absolutely every person in the society is a drunk, it’s going to be impossible to have a conversation about the problems of alcoholism,” he said in a separate interview. “There has to be somebody who’s sober.”

 

Children are more a chip off the block than you realize

The old adage, children will do what you do and not what you say is, apparently, resoundingly true.

According to the latest research from the Pew Research Center, teenagers in the United States take after their parents in one key way: religious attitudes. Teens more often than not mimic their parents in terms of their religious views, and that includes how often they attend church.

The new study, released earlier this month, found that most U.S. teens (ages 13 to 17) share the religious affiliation of their parents. Just over 1,800 teenagers were surveyed with one of their parents and about half of those teens (48%) said they have “all the same” religious beliefs as their parents. Another 30 percent of the teen-parent pairs said they hold “some of the same” beliefs while nearly a quarter of parents and teens do not have the same religious beliefs.

The Proverb that says: “Train up a child in the way he should go; and when he is old, he will not depart from it” was born out in this study. 

Clearly, children not only take after their parents in terms of whether they reach for an apple or a candy bar, but also on the more important matter of religious belief. 

About a third of U.S. teens (32%) say they are religiously unaffiliated, according to Pew, including 6% who describe themselves as atheists, 4% who are agnostic and 23% who say their religion is “nothing in particular.”

Not surprisingly, Protestant parents are likely to have teens who identify as Protestants and Catholic parents have children who consider themselves Catholics. Parents who are “religiously unaffiliated,” according to the study, have teens who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular.” 

Teens attend religious services - at least in the pre-COVID-19 world - almost as often as their parents, with 44 percent of teens saying they go to religious services at least once a month. That figure mirrors their parents’ attendance.

For parents who say religion is “not too important” or “not at all important” in their life, their teens feel the same, the study found.

While most U.S. teens identify with a religion, they are modestly less likely than their parents to do so - particularly when it comes to Christianity. The new survey finds that 63% of U.S. teenagers ages 13 to 17 identify as Christian, compared with 72% of their parents. White teens, the study found, are more likely than their non-White counterparts to be religious “nones.” 

Among U.S. adults, women tend to be more religious than men. But among U.S. adolescents, there are virtually no differences in religious composition by gender. While church membership  in Pickens County may not be moving the needle like it did in our past, church plays an important role in the lives of so many here. Parents remember that while it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day living of working, grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning, if you found solace and peace in church  growing up, you should give your children that same opportunity. They follow in our footsteps in so many ways.

There is strength in community, especially as our society becomes more fragmented and individualistic. We need others to not only survive but to thrive and our churches can be that for us if we let them.