There are a lot of forces in this world and it is left to each of us to sort things out to the best of our ability and knowledge.

As a journalist, there is one thing I’ve learned about all that, and it is that when one doesn’t have the facts, it is best to keep one’s mouth shut – or one’s fingers away from the keyboard. As a writer I had to learn this the hard way (just try answering my phone for a week), but it doesn’t just apply to writing. It applies to every word that any person speaks.

The world is full of people who are expressing their opinions and repeating so-called “facts” that perhaps, they believe to be true, but that are, nevertheless, untrue. When a person tells you something, he or she is probably telling you for a reason. People might actually want to impart true knowledge but often they are merely trying to further their own agenda. And a lot of people believe in their hearts that they are actually imparting true knowledge, but in reality they are merely repeating hearsay in order to convince others to believe what they believe or to act in a way that will further their own goals.

You can’t call it insincerity, precisely. But just because someone sincerely believes what he or she tells you, doesn’t mean it’s true.

Misinformation and disinformation are apparently just business as usual for a lot of people. And that is why it is imperative that people think for themselves. I am not talking about the sort of thinking for yourself that leads to misinformation and lies – the sort of thinking that says, “I am right because I am me and I think so.” I am talking about developing discernment and checking the facts before you form an opinion.

Just taking somebody else’s word for it is a dangerous prospect. Consider Christianity, for instance. If you proclaim that you’re a Christian but you never study the scripture, how do you know you’re really a Christian? You don’t. In fact, you might be following the advice of some inherently fallible and imperfect person with a wealth of sincerity and an absolute lack of real knowledge. And just where will such a person lead you? Remember what Jesus said about the blind leading the blind? Does a ditch seem like a good place to end up? (Luke 6:39) Why do you supposed Jesus would say such a thing?

Here is an example:  A few days ago I received an email that I know has been circulating for sometime. It concerns Barack Obama, his “Muslim” heritage, and his supposed refusal to salute the flag.

Let me just preface this by saying that I did not vote for Obama in the primary, and I am not telling anyone to vote for him now. All I ask is that people get their facts straight. If you don’t want the man to be president, don’t vote for him, but attempting to vilify and destroy someone with misinformation is beneath contempt. I am not going to repeat the contents of the email because I am certain that it has circulated to almost every person on the planet, and if you have not read it, well, you’re not missing anything.

The email contains false information generated by people with an obvious agenda. Anyone who would like to check the veracity of the statements made in this email may do so with a few clicks of a button. Simply go to www.snopes.com or www.urbanlegends.about.com and type in some key words from the email (or anything else you receive that is suspect). The actual email says that it may be verified by snopes.com, which is interesting, considering that snopes.com actually verifies that it’s a hoax. But please don’t take my word for it. Find out for yourself.

So how can you always know whether what you are told is right or wrong? The truth is, you can’t. But you can pay attention to any clues that might be offered and be on the lookout for false information. Don’t take anything secondhand, try to find the source.

One thing that I find helpful is this simple test:  Is the person who is giving me this information trying to frighten me? If the answer is yes, that is an indication that I better start checking the facts with some other source.

Fear is one of the key factors of manipulation. Consider how people react when they’re afraid. They immediately stop thinking straight. When you are in crisis mode, you are far more likely to make an error in judgment.

Think about it. Say you’re in New York City, a visitor from Grove, Oklahoma who is unaccustomed to the traffic and the grime and the noise, and you’re lost. Is it better to take a deep breath and get your bearings, take note of the street signs and calmly consult a map or find a friendly person to give your directions? Or, is it better to panic and run blindly down the street, desperately turning corners and dashing in front of speeding cabs?

Fear is not a tool that is used by people who mean well and are trying to make a positive difference in the world. It is a tool used by people whose intentions are, at best, suspect. And at the moment, this sort of manipulation seems rampant. It is on the internet. It is in the press. It is on the television set.

The best way to combat such things is simply to take a deep breath and a step back. Find your own bearings, then try to discern what is actually true. If you do this, lies and ill intentions have much less power over your life and you are much less likely to find yourself in a ditch.