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What is Happening To America's Relationship with Truth?

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t ru th in t ru th in t ru th in t ru th in t trru u tth h iinn America America America America America America

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35 million American adults have cut someone out of their life due to conflicting beliefs in the past 6 months Google Consumer Survey December 2020

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Are you one of them 3

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Being in our last year of grad school during this time has only made it harder We re tired However we are grateful for this assignment It has humbled us With the isolation it s been easier to physically and mentally distance ourselves from others especially those we disagree with This project has pushed us to dig beyond he said she said and really understand the why behind the truth and the lies We ve realized that we are more susceptible to misinformation than we thought It has taught us to deeply empathize with those we disagree with and understand why people lie to prove or protect their perceived truths We now know to be as cautious of the direct communication we consume as the indirect With Love Shannon Gerety Joey Koroma Allison Schneider Sheila Villalobos Strategy students at VCU Brandcenter This zine is our answer to the burning question What is happening to America s relationship with truth assigned by our Cultural Impact class and Non ction Research fi 4 This has been one helluva year We ve been through a pandemic countless protests and a historic election The ripples of change that those three events have caused weigh heavily on all of us

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table of contents pg 6 Intro pg 11 Methodology pg 12 Part 1 We hold which truths to be self evident An exploration of where our beliefs come from pg 20 Part 2 I m not a conspiracy theorist I m a truth seeker How these beliefs can get us into trouble pg 34 Part 3 What now A wake up call for all of us 5

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Charles Darwin probably didn t know when he set sail on The HMS Beagle that his theory of evolution would influence a nation s concept of truth But it did In On the Origin of Species Darwin paved the way for our understanding of natural selection The traits that best allow a species to thrive in its environment will carry on and those that don t will die off A few decades later an ocean away in New England a group of philosophers had a revolutionary idea in their field If survival of the fittest can apply to physical traits why shouldn t it apply to ideas Pragmatism America s philosophy was born And with it came a distinctly American set of beliefs about truth 6

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the marketplace of ideas 7

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ONE TRUTH FITS ALL KIND OF PLACE The pragmatists believed that truth is a tool True ideas are those which help us adapt to our environment Truth is what is useful and just like our physical traits must evolve to suit reality so must our beliefs The true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief William James founder of Pragmatism A belief is like a fork You don t use it on soup Dr Louis Menand Pulitzer Prize winning author Harvard professor 8 AMERICA HAS NEVER BEEN A

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As a result we don t have just one truth that we re tied to forever for better or worse Instead we have a marketplace of ideas in which different beliefs can compete the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market and that truth is the only ground upon which our wishes safely can be carried out Oliver Wendell Holmes U S Supreme Court Justice The best idea wins right Ideally but 9

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The marketplace of ideas has been hacked

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From misinformation to our own biases many problems plague the marketplace of ideas How did we get here And what can we do about it Here s what we did to nd out Interviews with a Psychologist Psychic QAnon supporter Pulitzer Prize winning author and pragmatism scholar Current drag queen and former member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints an ex Mormon for short Social listening in groups ranging from environmental activists to anti maskers National survey to understand how relationships have been affected in 2020 2 months of reading listening arguing and exhaustive discussion fi 11 methodology

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part one We hold which truths to be self evident 12

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Our beliefs are opinions explaining things left unsolved They are not outcomes of a lifetime of rational objective investigation and reasoning 13

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In order to understand how our marketplace is hacked we need to look at how ideas come to the market in the rst place Where do our beliefs come from Our beliefs may feel extremely personal like the building blocks of our very existence And they are personal but they re not strictly ours Beliefs originate from what we hear and keep on hearing from others ever since we were children The Biochemistry of Belief Where and how we re educated our religious practices or lack thereof the media we consume we lter all of these inputs to form our own versions of truth Dr Joseph Pierre Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA explains that our intuition what feels right and our subjective experience are the two most important reasons why we believe something to be true In other words our beliefs are highly dependent on the particular experiences and in uences that we have in our lives Is it any surprise then that there are so many different beliefs in the marketplace of ideas With countless inputs and experiences to draw from it s easy to see why so many different versions of truth compete with each other fi fi fl 14

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The human brain is the only organ to name itself and it has many functions and processes designed to keep ourselves in the best light We may think we rationalize our way to truth but we don t Truth is driven by stories not by facts And when those stories don t sit right with us our brains take it upon themselves to embellish details Multiple studies show that we unconsciously alter memories over time in an attempt to resolve con ict When it comes to a random memory like which uncle gave the drunk toast at our cousin s wedding in 2008 these processes are relatively harmless But what about situations where the stakes are much higher than that How far will the mind go to edit what we know in order to appease us How much trust should we put in our own subjective experiences if we know that our brains prioritize our preferred outcomes The Biased Brain We can t help but to look for things that af rm the beliefs we already have Con rmation bias is the psychological instinct to look for supporting evidence for what we already believe while ignoring contradictory information We all have voids Some people fill them with porn shopping or drugs others with information Our beliefs are opinions explaining things left unsolved They are not outcomes of a lifetime of rational objective investigation and reasoning As animals with incredible capacities for knowledge and understanding we have in nite questions We also live in a civilized society with expectations and rules Not a single person has every aspect of their life completely satis ed and as the human brain nds ways to embellish memories for the best outcome we nd beliefs to ll the holes and questions left unanswered fi fi fi fi fi fi fl fi 15

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mind The human is a story processor not a logic processor Jonathan Haidt The Righteous Mind Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

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Every good story has a winner and a loser The protagonist has the hero s journey to complete with challenges revelations and eventually triumph The antagonist doesn t see himself as evil but instead he has an adventure that is equally important and complex Between them there can only be one winner But unlike epic comic books the biggest battles in society are between large groups of people not lone titans It s human nature to nd groups to belong to They are important sources of identity pride and self esteem According to social identity theory we value the groups we belong to just as much as we value our individual identities Research shows that people can be more motivated by fear of losing than they are by the potential to win The topic of winner and loser effects has been analyzed across many disciplines including behavioral ecology cognitive psychology political science mathematics biological anthropology and economics The social systems we ve built exacerbate this winner loser divide For example since the founding days of America we have operated on a two party political system Americans choose what side to be on winners are celebrated and losers have to wait years for the next election There s not a whole lot of room for nuance when your options are success or failure with no in between When there s only an option to either win or fail who wouldn t want to nd truths that support their side I hate losing more than I even wanna win Billy Keane Moneyball fi fi 17 root root root for the home team

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value of objective truth value of subjective truth We choose what information to place value in because it supports our side our mission Truth be damned 19

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two I m not a conspiracy theorist I m a truth seeker 20

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In a marketplace of ideas healthy skepticism is inevitable and even encouraged Skepticism is the market s quality control system And it s understandable that we push for better answers when we feel doubt Because let s face it We ve been lied to before From the Watergate scandal to Edward Snowden s revelations some of the most important moments in our history have centered around uncovering truth obscured by lies So in 2020 a year characterized by a global pandemic the biggest social justice movement in 50 years and a very tense election there s a lot of debate about what to do And when authority gures are all telling us different things who should we believe Does the magnitude of the moment lead to even greater skepticism fi 21

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q anon believer A skeptic in his own words John doesn t consider himself a conspiracy theorist because he doesn t believe QAnon is a conspiracy theory Instead he s a free thinking truth seeker I got into QAnon the same way I got into politics by doing my own research After he left the Marines he felt like his Second Amendment rights were being infringed upon by the Virginia Democrats He had a friend that constantly posted crazy stuff on Facebook Determined to continue doing his own research and not be manipulated by Big Media he reached out to get his friend s perspective After multiple videos he was enlightened QAnon explains everything It s a battle of good versus evil rich versus poor According to John the evidence is everywhere if you just look Donald Trump speaks in codes intended for followers to decipher Movies like Dr Sleep Eyes Wide Shut and Ready or Not allude to QAnon Coronavirus is a piece of an elite conspiracy because it s not nearly as bad as it s made out to be by the media And he should know given that his whole family has had the virus including his high risk son who was born with a congenital heart defect 22

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I m not a conspiracy theorist I m a truth seeker John is an ex Marine with conservative values who does not identify with a political party Started as a Second Amendment defender He was introduced to The Plan to Save the World Drive to do his own research led him down a rabbit hole where he found other truths Now a fan of Ben Shapiro Steven Crowder and Dave Rubin 23

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What do QAnon and have in common To understand the appeal of QAnon we can look to its unlikely match the hit TV show The Masked Singer Both take advantage of a core mental drive apophenia apophenia po fi ni the tendency to perceive a connection or meaningful pattern between unrelated or random things such as objects or ideas fi We can t help but look for patterns seeing them has helped us survive as a species They have helped us nd food identify predators and stay safe Finding meaningful patterns is one of our greatest strengths so long as they lead us toward correct judgments Sometimes however we make the wrong connections

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How do QAnon and The Masked Singer put apophenia to work They have all the same ingredients clues dropped along the way and a community connecting them to nd truth Clues to identify the singer disguised as Popcorn New York 16 A Rubik s cube A deer Meatloaf A sewing box I survived QAnon drop Their need for symbolism will be their downfall Follow the Owl Y head around the world Identify and list They don t hide it They don t fear you You are sheep to them You are feeders Godfather III Except one is simply to figure out who the celebrity is underneath an elaborate costume and the other has been called a domestic terror threat by the FBI fi 25

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W e h av e a source issue One of the bene ts of the marketplace of ideas is that knowledge can be openly shared free of gatekeepers That s also one of its biggest risks For example out of 141 books written between 1972 and 2005 that sought to discredit climate change 130 were tied to corporate funded conservative think tanks These books have served as the foundation of debates against global warming regulation despite overwhelming evidence that this is the biggest existential threat of our time fi If we don t know where our information is coming from we re unable to question the motives of its authors And if we re unable to question their motives we may not know when we re being manipulated

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different realities And we re only getting deeper The common ground for truth is slowly fading leading us to dig deeper and deeper into opposing realities On one end we re hardwired to pick sides and con rm our own beliefs On the other side we re experiencing a media landscape unlike any other in history that rapidly reinforces our own beliefs The algorithmic pull is only one piece of the problem There are other subtle ways in which the media we consume implies perspective or bias Paywalls and subscription requirements prevent access to reputable content leaving readers a back button and a click away from misinformation on Google To start we re living in a 24 hour news cycle With so much content and so many sources vying for our attention stories have become more sensational Yes even your favorite news source The middle ground is not lucrative Furthermore every choice a source makes down to the smallest word shapes perspective For example the term legal ballots implies the existence of illegal ballots Radical Islam implies that a peaceful faith is actually rooted in extremism instilling fear in an entire country And semantic choices shape more than just politics For example Vice Sports senior writer Aaron Gordon compiled the words ESPN draft analysts used to describe athletes Only black players were described as gifted aggressive explosive raw and freak Only white players were described as intelligent cerebral fundamental overachiever technician workmanlike desire and brilliant Our brains crave story and novelty so that s what we get served even if it s not true MIT researchers found that fake stories travel much faster than true stories six times faster to be exact Add social algorithms to the mix and things get even worse When the algorithms we When the creators creatorsofofthe thesocial social algorithms useuse today sound the alarm on their we today sound the alarm onown their own creations we know knowwe wehave have a problem creations we a problem Documentaries like The Social Dilemma have highlighted that social algorithms are addictive by design They leverage our psychology to keep us hooked According to The Social Dilemma s website Algorithms promote content that sparks outrage hate and ampli es biases within the data that we feed them It s no wonder that Facebook reported that 64 of the people who joined extremist groups on Facebook did so because the algorithms steered them there Combine this media landscape with the Hero Paradox and we ve got a recipe for trouble We write off anything that doesn t ful ll our desire to self af rm as fake news And there s always a source readily available to tell us what we want to hear You ain t gonna learn what you don t wanna know The Grateful Dead fi fi fi fi 27 The Result We re in

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In the days after the 2020 election 52 of Republicans said that Trump rightfully won while only 29 said that Biden had rightfully won

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covid 19 in a country still deciding if the virus is real 29

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The Biggest Extremes Good vs Evil In 2020 our public discourse is often reduced to good versus evil This divide is at the heart of QAnon recruitment videos election focused Facebook groups even the nightly news Good versus evil may sound like a debate reserved for religion but it s a simple binary concept that pervades even secular life This is perhaps the most genius and dangerous part of it There is no room for gray space in a world of good versus evil and our moral instincts lead us to identify with the good guys You know you re not evil so that must put you on Team Good fi fi Peggy Hall the Orange County woman behind an anti mask YouTube page The Healthy American calls ghting mask mandates a matter of good versus evil I know that the battle between good and evil has never been uncertain Good prevails There is victory in the end And we re not at the end so we need to keep ghting

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In July 2020 data circulated online about child sex traf cking numbers in the U S Not only had the numbers been cherrypicked but some were just false Presented in true good versus evil fashion SaveTheChildren plays into the theory that Hollywood and Democratic elites are kidnapping children to torture them and harvest adrenochrome to stay healthy and young Savior complexes are activated people don t need to think twice about whether children should be saved leading them to share without knowing the root of the theory or checking with other sources Good versus evil brings tribalism to a whole new level It s no longer just us versus them Good versus evil gives people two options and everyone thinks they re on the right side of that choice Evil comes from a failure to think Hannah Arendt Eichmann in Jerusalem A Report on the Banality of Evil fi 31

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Being a superhero is tiring If we think of every belief as a high stakes battle between good and evil it s no wonder we re all so stressed out And all that stress comes at a price Allostatic load is the name for the wear and tear on our bodies after long term exposure to stress High allostatic load can cause anxiety depression and even shortened life expectancy Put simply the constant stress of saving the world from evil is slowly killing us Unfortunately many of the beliefs we viciously defend are red herrings distracting us from real progress 32

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And meanwhile in the midst of our squabbling As of November 2020 a quarter of a million Americans and counting have died of an uncontrolled virus that has also led to an increase in unemployment evictions and homelessness By contrast billionaires wealth rose to 10 2 trillion from April to July Jeff Bezos alone made 74 billion Red Herring fallacy something especially a clue that is or is intended to be misleading or distracting this year More than 5 500 children have been separated from their parents at the U S border due to a family separation policy determined to deter illegal immigration We re irreversibly damaging our planet As of October 2020 545 of those Despite making up only 4 of the world s children s parents cannot be found due population Americans generate 25 of to mismanagement its greenhouse gas emissions Approximately 35 million American adults have cut someone out of their life due to con icting beliefs in the past 6 months In the end we may bask in our righteousness but we do so sick alone turning a blind eye to orphans and on a dying planet Is it all worth it Is this the price we re willing to pay to be right fl 33

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What Whatnow now 34

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Is it possible to regulate the marketplace of ideas online It s complicated How do we effectively challenge misinformation online It turns out it s not very easy and doing so may only deepen our problems According to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey 300 000 tweets around the 2020 election were agged with additional context in order to make potentially misleading information more apparent Both Twitter and Facebook maintained bipartisan updated information on election results However millions saw these moves as restrictive and biased In the days following the election the selfdescribed free speech social media apps Parler Rumble and MeWe saw explosive growth Parler has quickly jumped to 8 million users and growing We re experiencing the Streisand effect a social phenomenon that occurs when an attempt to hide remove or censor information has the opposite effect The reviewer who mentioned the app being full of fake news is likely used to sites like Facebook and Twitter who censor half their users and still spread mountains of disinformation If you don t trust your own judgement stay on Facebook You re still gonna be misinformed but at least you won t have to think about it fl 36

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We can t wait for Mark Zuckerberg or ALEXANDRIA OCASIO CORTEZ to figure out how to unhack the marketplace of ideas for us It starts with us 37

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We re the ones We re it This war on truth has no victors in sight There is no magic solution that will instantly bring unity Mass consensus isn t possible and it shouldn t be the goal in our diverse society anyway However there is a model for healthy competition of beliefs Instead of waiting for government and tech leaders to eliminate the environments where misinformation thrives we need to start with our own beliefs on an individual level Ready to start examining your own biases and do your part to unhack the marketplace of ideas Here are 4 topics to explore 1 What is the real root of my insecurity What is the speci c problem that I m facing in my daily life What are the hardships that push me to want change Consider how these issues make you vulnerable to manipulation It s time to let go of scapegoats for placing blame does little to improve your situation Necessitous men are not free men People who are hungry people who are out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made Franklin Delano Roosevelt fi 38

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2 3 What is the source of the information I consume What might be their agenda Who is this information bene tting Understanding the sources of your information can help you identify potential bias What is in my control Remove yourself from your social identity to consider what change needs to happen to make your daily life better Chances are it has very little to do with the 24 hour news cycle or arguments on Facebook with people from your high school 4 How can I nd empathy for others Though our journeys may look very different many of us share the same roots of our insecurities Step away from divisive thinking such as good versus evil One human being is much more complex than their political beliefs and a binary analysis It is wrong to think that we can t learn something from someone who disagrees with us fi fi 39

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Examining our personal truths is essential and transformative Just ask Greg whose truth journey led him from being a fundamentalist Mormon to an out and proud drag queen Greg grew up in a very strict religious household My version of truth was informed by scripture study he said As he got older he began noticing inconsistencies and hypocrisies in the church teachings As he put it the cracks began to form When he went on his Mormon mission a volunteer proselytizing assignment most often by young men under age 25 for two years in Ukraine Greg didn t have the amazing spiritual experience he was expecting In fact it left him disillusioned about his religious beliefs I realized that my version of truth then was a lot smaller than can really encompass everyone s experiences Greg realized that for him truth and goodness aren t to be found in the sky they re rooted in humanity and our communities I think in a big way now the holiest things I ll ever interact with are the people around me and individuals are deserving of reverence and awe Greg s vulnerability sparked a positive domino effect throughout his family I m closer with them than I ever was When I came out and when I left the church it gave my whole family an out to air their stuff that they re dealing with It became this transformative experience for everyone to be able to share their aspects of otherness that they didn t feel like they could talk about before Vulnerability is not winning or losing it s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome Vulnerability is not weakness it s our greatest measure of courage Bren Brown Rising Strong fl Today Greg is a game developer living in Salt Lake City Utah He s currently working on his game Super Bearded Dragons a lightning fast brawler that explores identity and con ict through the tongue in cheek battles and cash grabbing antics of bearded drag queens

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let s unhack it As a society we have the authority to dictate our own destinies This country was founded on that belief and it must remain in our DNA We as the American people must restore a fair and honest marketplace of ideas The marketplace of ideas only works if we are committed not to one single conception of truth but to the process of letting truths be tested veri ed and even abandoned Only then can our truths evolve to meet the challenges we face As Charles Darwin would say our survival depends on our ability to change fi 41

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WORKS CITED P 2 Survey conducted November 17 21 2020 n 493 Thank you to Non ction Research for sponsoring P 8 William James Pragmatism A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking 910 Interview with Dr Louis Menand Conducted October 14 2020 P 9 Oliver Wendell Holmes Abrams v United States 1919 P 14 T S Sathyanarayana Rao et al The Biochemistry of Belief Indian Journal of Psychiatry 2009 P 16 Jonathan Haidt The Righteous Mind Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion 2012 P 17 Jonah Berger If You Want to Win Tell Your Team It s Losing A Little Harvard Business Review 2011 P 22 23 Interview with John a QAnon believer Conducted October 12 2020 P 24 Reed Berkowitz A Game Designer s Analysis of QAnon Medium 2020 P 26 Jean Daniel Collomb The Ideology of Climate Change Denial in the United States European Journal of American Studies 2014 P 27 Soroush Vosoughi Deb Roy Sinan Aral The spread of true and false news online Science Magazine 2018 The Social Dilemma 2020 Aaron Gordon Here s How Often ESPN Draft Analysts Use the Same Words Over and Over Vice 2015 P 28 Chris Kahn Half of Republicans say Biden won because of a rigged election Reuters Ipsos poll Reuters 2020 fi 42

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P 29 All screenshots sourced from Twitter on December 10 2020 P 30 Peggy Hall Prepare with Peggy Prepping for Uncertain Times The Healthy American YouTube 2020 Image https www midlifedivorcerecovery com good vs evil P 32 Bruce S McEwan Stressed or stressed out What s the difference Journal of Psychology and Neuroscience 2005 P 33 The Coronavirus Has Now Killed 250 000 People in the U S The New York Times 2020 Rupert Neate Billionaires wealth rises to 10 2 trillion amid Covid crisis The Guardian 2020 Caitlin Dickerson Parents of 545 Children at the Border Cannot be Found The New York Times 2020 Survey conducted November 17 21 2020 Thank you to Non ction for sponsoring the survey Global Warming Basics National Resources Defense Council 2015 P 35 Alexa Diaz Climate activist Greta Thunberg tells off U N 2019 P 36 Twitter 300 000 tweets agged over election The Associated Press 2020 Mike Isaac and Kellen Browning Fact Checked on Facebook and Twitter Conservatives Switch Their Apps 2020 Mario Cacciottolo The Streisand Effect When Censorship Back res 2012 P 38 Image https interactives dallasnews com 2020 whats at stake 2020 ideas and principlesto guide our politics P 40 Interview with Greg Bayles conducted October 30 2020 fi fi fl 43

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