In my column on the Voices page of today's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, I call out an obscure candidate for Congress in Arkansas' 1st District for helping spread the Big Lie that so many normally reasonable conservation groups and media figures fell for last year.
Playing the role of small-time demagogue, the candidate waded into the Buffalo River issue, helping spread disinformation that has been rampant in the Ozarks for months.
As I outlined in a series of Democrat-Gazette columns late last year, the Buffalo River debate was a textbook example of how disinformation can spread from social media into the mainstream. Many of the lies being spread came from a conspiracy-riddled online site known as the Newton County Chit Chat.
Even usually reliable Arkansas Business repeated the fiction in its end-of-the-year
issue, stating that a change in status from a national river to a national park and preserve could lead to state rather than federal control of the Buffalo National River.
That's false. That could only happen if it changed to RESERVE status, which no one has proposed. There's a big difference between a RESERVE and a PRESERVE, to the point that our own editorial page here at the Democrat-Gazette had to run a correction last year.
All of those aware of the situation agree that Buffalo National River desperately needs increased funding from the National Park Service. Whether a change in status from national river to national park and preserve is the way to achieve that additional support isn't a question I can answer right now.
What I do know is that we need to be able to have the discussion on how best to meet that goal. Unfortunately, those intent on spreading disinformation took over the Chit Chat. And they needlessly scared a lot of good people in the process.
As one civic leader in Searcy County told me: "There's so much misinformation being posted on social media from all political positions, both left and right. There are always some who see an opportunity to sell fear for personal gain. I feel sorry for those who are absolutely convinced they're on the verge of being forced off their land. They're scared to death. It's crazy."
It hasn't helped that pseudo-populist demagogues such as state Sen. Bryan King have spread the lies.
The disinformation campaign began after a telephone poll to see if people would favor changing the status of the Buffalo National River. You can't address funding problems while attacking well-intentioned people with social media lies.
Many of the lies being spread in Newton County had to do not with the river but with Tom and Steuart Walton's purchase of thousands of acres for outdoor recreational purposes. Fortunately, there are several environmentally sensitive entrepreneurs in the area who realize that Newton County could be the next big thing when it comes to outdoor recreation in the central third of the country.
These entrepreneurs are now seeking to overcome the Big Lie by explaining to longtime residents that this is a positive thing. Rather than depending on timber operations, hog farms, poultry farms and gravel mining to fuel the economy, county residents will see economic development that PROTECTS rather than DESTROYS natural attributes.
One need not worry about Newton County becoming the next Gatlinburg, Tenn., or Branson, Mo. It's too remote to attract those kinds of crowds. Instead, it will draw high-income visitors (and possibly residents) who are dedicated to protecting the natural beauty of the area.
"There are about 20 people who like spreading disinformation and getting everybody worked up on social media," one Newton County resident told me. "In time, our residents will learn that those people on the Chit Chat lied to them. There are a lot of good things ahead."
What happened in the Ozarks was a case study of the power of disinformation on social media. It showed how even well-educated people can be duped by a social media mob.
As one of my friends likes to say, social media "gives every idiot a megaphone and every person with ill intent an easy way to spread anger and hate."
I watched as people I know bought into the Big Lie without any effort to obtain the facts. The first people to believe the disinformation were those who support conservation organizations and view themselves as heirs of the environmentalists who fought half a century ago to have the Buffalo declared our first national river.
Next came journalists who failed to do their homework.
What these folks didn't understand is that they're actually on the same side as the Walton brothers and others they were bashing. Don't worry. Federal protection of the river isn't going away. That battle was won more than 50 years ago. But we need more rangers, restrooms and parking lots. All who study the issue should be able to agree on that.
No, a change in status wouldn't lead to eminent domain or additional fees. It wouldn't ban hunting or fishing. What it might do is bring more federal resources to properly handle the crowds that already are coming to this part of Arkansas.
And, no, the Walton brothers won't be cutting trees or mining gravel on land they've purchased. Think about it. They don't need the money. It's in their interest -- and in the interest of the cyclists and rock climbers who will come here -- to keep the land as environmentally pristine as possible.