Online, lies and truth look the same. This has been a boon for professional liars, who take advantage of the fact that two-thirds of Americans get their news from social media, and use these platforms to market falsehoods—as moneymaking ventures (paranoid fantasies make excellent clickbait); as vehicles of personal fame; or, for foreign powers like China and Russia, as a way to spread propaganda in hopes of influencing voters and thereby our elections.
For the unwitting consumer of fraudulent news, the avoidance of hard truths is surely part of the draw. How much better it would be if the Sandy Hook massacre really were a hoax, rather than an actual slaughter of 20 kindergartners and six school staff members. What a relief to conclude that hundreds of international climatologists are lying rather than face the perilous state of our planet—and the tiny window of time we have to preserve life as we know it. Scary visions of Hillary Clinton or George Soros at the center of a web of evil offer rewards of simplicity and a scapegoat. The opioid effect of these fabrications provides short-term solace at the cost of the sobriety we need to solve intractable problems like gun violence and climate change. It’s a vicious cycle: the more dire the reality, the more welcome the escape.
Cannily, President Trump has co-opted the term fake news and now lobs it freely at stories that point out his own misdeeds. In the minds of those who believe in him, he is able to neutralize facts. This is a basic tool of the autocrats he admires, like Viktor Orban, who recently won re-election in Hungary by claiming that the country—whose population has among the lowest proportions of foreign-born or immigrant members in Europe—is being invaded by migrants. Or Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, who maintains his ignorance of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in the face of strong evidence of his connection to it. Authoritative lying debases the truth. The resulting confusion of fantasy and reality is the definition of psychosis, a perilously vulnerable mental state. The hazards of fraudulent news go even deeper than spurring violent or crazy action or opening us to foreign control. If reasonable debate devolves into my truth vs. yours, the winner is the one yelling loudest—or holding the gun. Beneath the false bottom of fraudulent news is the danger of tyranny.
It is imperative that journalists continue to call out falsehoods. But we must also understand that these exposés can help keep lies alive. “An image … becomes all the more interesting with our every effort to debunk it,” the historian Daniel Boorstin wrote presciently in 1961 of America’s burgeoning media culture. Our President’s enthrallment of the media is the source of his power; the very qualities that appall his detractors keep us riveted to the spectacle of his presidency.
A mediasphere designed for spectacle can’t be expected to fix the oversimplification it creates. We need writers for that, and we need them badly. Literature, like democracy, is built of a plurality of ideas. Poems, plays, essays, biographies, short stories and every other form of literary practice partake of the complex range of perception and thought specific to human beings. By writing and reading, we remind ourselves of the value of empathy, subtlety and contradiction. Literature is an antidote to the blunt distortions—good vs. evil, us vs. them—that are so easily exploited by those who would manipulate us. Writers have been instrumental in the overthrow of repressive regimes from the French Revolution to the Velvet Revolution, which made playwright Vaclav Havel the President of then Czechoslovakia.
Writers tend to fare badly under autocrats. Dictators understand very well that the strength of thought and analysis that literature embodies is a threat to the mind control that is an essential feature of tyranny. In countries like China, Russia, Turkey, Myanmar and Bangladesh, writers are routinely jailed or killed for creating work their governments find threatening. For American writers, the reality of such scrutiny and peril can be hard to fathom. We need to write now, write well—tell the truth in all its messy complexity. It’s our best shot at helping to preserve a democracy in which facts still exist and all of us can speak freely.
This story is part of TIME’s Person of the Year 2018 issue. Discover more stories here.