“This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period,” said press secretary Sean Spicer during his first time in the White House briefing room. That claim: totally false.
According to the D.C. Metro, “subway entries Friday, during President Trump’s inauguration, totaled about 570,557 in a 20-hour period,” which is lower than the totals of the previous three presidential inaugurations. The Women’s March, held the day after the inauguration, saw more than 1 million entries.
“You’re saying it’s a falsehood and Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that,” said counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway in a heated interview with “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd.
Even Merriam-Webster issued a brilliantly worded rebuttal to Conway’s creation of “alternative facts.”
“Alternative facts” aren’t a new political tool. They’ve been used throughout history by people in power to maintain control and status. But each time we’ve been able to debunk these myths in the name of progress.
Here are seven times throughout history alternative facts were used — and later proven false:
1. Alternative fact: The world is flat.
Oftentimes alternative facts are accepted as truth until real facts and information can be sought out and proven, much like with the first global explorers who took to the seas in search of new lands.
What you see below was considered common knowledge during the Middle Ages. The Earth was “flat.”
The Greeks discovered the Earth was round. Everyone outside of Europe believed it. It wasn’t until the late Middle Ages that everyone inside of Europe finally caught up.
Washington Irving wrote “The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus” in 1828. From the title, you’d think it’s a biography but in reality, it was mostly fiction and said that “Europeans learned from Columbus’s trips to the New World that the planet was round.”
Because of this storyline and others like it, children were taught that up until Columbus, everyone thought the world was flat.
Actual fact: The world is round.
Ancient Greek astronomer Eratosthenes is credited with discovering the spherical nature of the Earth in 240 B.C., 700 years before the Middle Ages and 2,000 years before Washington Irving picked up his first pen.
2. Alternative fact: Jesus was white.
The world’s most famous refugee is often historically depicted as a blue-eyed, pale-skinned messiah:
Actual fact: Jesus would not have been white.
Assuming Jesus existed, the BBC documentary “Son of God” used modern technology to show us what he would have actually looked like, based on ancient skulls of Semite people from the same era and geographical location.
3. Alternative fact: Slavery is a good thing.
In the 1820-30s, politicians in southern states defended slavery by professing the “positive good” of it and how important it was for the American economy. They claimed it allowed Africans to be civilized because white masters were letting them learn from them. (I did not make this up.)
Actual fact: Slavery is awful, inhumane, and wrong.
It took a bit longer in the U.S., but the British began the process of outlawing slavery and the slave trade in 1807. The moral ineptitude of treating humans like property and even valuing them as 3/5 of a person is a dark side of American history. It all finally came to a head with Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863. This eventually helped end the Civil War but claimed up to 750,000 lives, including Lincoln’s.
4. Alternative fact: Jews are the reason for Germany’s problems.
Jospeh Goebbels was Hitler’s minister of propaganda. Goebbels was a master of illusion and he used the murder of a German diplomat by a young Polish-Jew to launch the massive campaign to end Judaism. He did this by convincing the masses that the Jews were responsible for all of Germany’s problems.
Actual fact: Germany needed an excuse to go to war in order to fix their economy that hadn’t recovered from the last war.
The incarceration and murder of over 6 million Jews was the result of the German people looking the other way and believing in the above mentioned alternative facts. They had lost a lot of land in the previous global battle and were more than happy to launch into the worst war the world has ever seen. But we learned that lesson and hopefully will never let something like that happen again.
5. Alternative fact: AIDS is a gay problem.
White House press secretaries shouldn’t make fun of minority groups … but in the ’80s, Larry Speakes was caught on tape espousing crude homophobic jokes when asked about the AIDS crisis. This sentiment carried over to mainstream thinking, with people assuming only gay people got AIDS.
Actual fact: AIDS can be transmitted in many ways.
About half the people who have died from AIDS in the U.S. since the epidemic began were gay men. Is that a large percentage? Sure. But the alternative fact created the perception that HIV/AIDS was not only a disease solely among gay men, but also one that it was only sexually transmitted.
6. Alternative fact: Iraq had WMDs.
Actual fact: Nope. They didn’t.
“The Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction reports that the intelligence community was ‘dead wrong’ in its assessments of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities before the U.S. invasion,” according to CNN.
7. Alternative fact: Trump’s inauguration had the largest, hugest, most “bigly” crowds ever.
Actual Fact: Photographic evidence.
Each of these examples was a heavily pushed alternative fact created by the ruling religion, class, race, military, or administration. But each was debunked.
Sometimes with technology. Sometimes with pure math. Sometimes with common sense, and sometimes with compassion. We are better off as a (round) planet because of it.
It’s important to be critical of the media you consume and not listen to the loudest frequency on your social media feed (even if it is behind the seal of the president). With many unbiased, impartial news sources available at our fingertips through a free press, it’s important to take advantage of them.
So next time the White House press secretary tells you something hilariously untrue, just know that in less than four years you can cast an alternative vote.