Word War I (A short story)

Word War I

10 days until the election

“Ok everyone, good story ideas. Have those in by noon tomorrow,” Colonel Sarah Maddux urgently ordered. “Get going, time’s a-wastin!”

I hurried from the conference room back to my desk to begin research for my assignment. I frantically looked for anything I could find regarding Nick Veronico’s medical history. Dozens of photos from his famous 2010 mid-marathon ankle injury immediately came up. The senator had been running in honor cancer research, a publicity stunt no doubt, and suffered a devastating sprain just 3 miles from the finish. Somehow, it added to his heroic image and photos of him riding through the finish in a golf cart, his ankle wrapped in ice packs, surrounded by cheering supporters covered front pages of newspapers and magazines. Not helpful. He was mentioned in a 1988 article from a small Tennessee newspaper as the 12-year-old survivor of an accident that killed the couple in the other car. Young Nick had a concussion and was unconscious for several days, but then made a full recovery.

A broken wrist from a high school football game and a missed vote due to a case of pneumonia were the only other ailments Veronico had suffered that had received any type of publicity. Damn. That made it even harder to weaken his image as a potential president. Trying to make the 44-year-old athlete seem physically weak enough so that a 63-year-old cancer survivor was a more viable candidate was turning out to be a fool’s errand.

Thirty minutes went by. An hour.

“Any luck?” a voice asked over my shoulder.

I was already on Maddux’s bad side for challenging her in a meeting last week. She was my boss at the D.C. Anthem. Over the course of the Web War that broke out three years ago, we had risen to prominence in the news sphere. We were one of the most effective companies in the force. I actually admired my young colonel’s impressive resume and was somewhat jealous of the breadth of her experience. She was only 4 years older than me, yet had at least a decade’s worth of valuable experience on me. She stood behind me, visibly concerned by sparse notes on my screen.

“I’m going to go crazy searching for a health scandal revolving around someone who has only had sports injuries during his adult life.”

“Take a break, walk around,” Sarah said. “I don’t want you to be so stressed.”

Confused and somewhat suspicious, I got up and walked to the break room to get a snack and a cup of coffee. I returned to my desk and browsed our site’s homepage, desperate for any inspiration for an angle to take on this story.

Meredith Simpson promises to push for spending on cancer research when elected

“Not surprising,” I thought to myself.

Furious 12 bombs at box office

“Yet another sign they should end the series.”

Is your coffee depressing? Connection discovered between caffeine and mental health

“Darn,” I said aloud before taking another sip.

Dowd’s secret past: Veronico’s VP reportedly had multiple affairs during term as Governor

“Ok, I know we are supposed to be exaggerating here, but that is a bit overkill.”

Still nothing was coming to me. Unsure if the anxiety I was starting to feel was the result of my coffee intake, or something I should see a doctor about. I scrolled through what little notes I had taken once more and suddenly, it hit me. I frantically began typing an attack on the enemy that would set their forces back for several days in this crucial week before the election.

One week until the election

I walked into work, and for the second day in a row, felt confident and proud of myself. As soon as Sarah saw me, she asked me if I was free for a meeting anytime that day.

“How about right now?”

I sat down across the desk from her. I noticed the diplomas and awards that decorated her wall.

“Lieutenant, the assault you executed this week was a powerful one. I had my doubts about you, but you set the enemy forces back at least a few days with that story.”

Her stern facial expression hadn’t changed.

“Thank you, Colonel.” I said, unsure of how much pride or excitement to show.

“You did good work, but now we must prepare for a counter attack. You claimed that Veronico’s concussion when he was 12 could be leading to dementia or Alzheimer’s. That is a good attack strategy.”

“I thought so too. See, it’s one of those cases where the fact that we can’t see it makes it even scarier. The public probably hasn’t considered the possibility that he is not healthy enough to be president since he seems so fit. Now that the idea is in their mind, they are growing suspicious.”

“I have the metrics on the story right here.”

She turned her computer screen around to face me.

“Your story has gotten millions of views and thousands of shares. We’re right where we need to be, but let’s start strategizing for when they retaliate.”

Maddux paged a team of strategists and within 30 minutes we were all sitting around the mahogany table in the conference room. Everyone had the story pulled up on his or her laptop and the Colonel briefed the group as they read over the piece.

“Well obviously, the first thing they will try to do is just say it’s false,” said a young, sweatshirt-clad strategist, who barely looked up from his computer as he spoke.

“This story is a good one though,” said the man who seemed to be the head of the group. “They can’t prove that it isn’t true. If he doesn’t say anything he will be not denying it. If he goes to a doctor for an assessment, he will look worried and we can make a story out of that. Or even better, he could go and they could actually diagnose him with a mental illness.”

“We need to get all the facts and numbers we can find. Is there anyone we can interview for a quote?”

“I put some statistics about traumatic brain injuries leading to depression. I saw something else about how they can lead to early-onset Alzheimer’s but didn’t add that to the story because I was almost at the word limit.”

“So let’s have someone do an article today about the traumatic brain injuries and anything and everything they can do in terms of psychiatric conditions,” Maddux said as she jotted down a note.

“What if we found some video footage of Veronico forgetting a word, during a speech? We could look for something about him looking tired too. Let’s look up symptoms of depression and try to find some clips of him showing those symptoms,” said the woman sitting on my right.

Sweatshirt guy, whose name I later learned was Zach, started searching for symptoms of depression, anxiety, Alzheimer’s schizophrenia, and every other mental illness we could find. The woman on my right, Catherine, started browsing through folders on her laptop and logged into the network where video footage was kept.

“What can I do?” I asked Maddux

Everyone in the room looked at her, waiting for a response.

“Find someone we can interview that can help our story. Someone who will say he isn’t competent. Maybe a defector from his campaign or someone whose feathers he has ruffled. Build on what you already wrote.”

She seemed disappointed to have to instruct me. I guess I should have figured out what needed to be done and jumped right to it.

As I was researching, I thought about my job before I enlisted. I was a journalist at a small newspaper in Ohio, writing about local taxes and public high schools. I had only been working there for about 6 months before the War. That year was an election year, and the wrong candidate won. After 3 months, the media had exposed so much about his secret connections to Russia, his under-the-table deals with law enforcement that kept him out of trouble for so many years, his plans to racially segregate public facilities, his prescription drug abuse, and the fact that he only won because his supporters rigged the election. Protests and riots escalated and there were even death threats to him and his family. The public reacted so strongly to all the stories that showed up on their Facebook feeds, they basically forced him and the people in his administration to go into hiding. Those who had voted for him were probably even more upset than the people who rioted against him. Since the country was in a state of such unrest, martial law was enacted and the sitting president continued to hold office. For the last half of 2017, one scandal after another broke out about the opposing side. Every day, social media sites were rampant with mudslinging, accusations, and stories that defamed the most prominent politicians.

Soon, citizens were given the option to mark stories as being fake. Stories were getting blocked and citizens were given lists of sources they were not to trust.  People who had passionately hated each other in terms of political views joined forces to protest the violation of their First Amendment right to free speech. There had been no shots fired but a war was waging. The battles of the Web War didn’t involve any physical conflict, but the troops on each side had been mobilized. We were fighting for freedom. If information, thoughts, and possibilities were being censored, flagged, reported, and removed from the Internet, how would people’s voices be heard? How would people be able to think outside of their own lived experiences? Informing citizens with as much information as possible only makes sense to help them make the best decisions. We were an army of the people, fighting with our words and information.

Our enemy was a military of elites. The United States government did not take sides, but the politicians and CEOs of the elite class were typically the targets of scandalous stories, so they were all for censorship. They claimed to be fighting for truth and accuracy, but really, they were only considering their own truths. They wanted to limit expression and subsequent thought so that no one would question them. Where our weapon was words, theirs was policy. They would draft bills and make rules to try and stop us. We were doing all we could to counter their attacks.

Around 2018, the landscape of media changed drastically. Big outlets like the New York Times or the Washington Post lost prominence when organizations like the Anthem started popping up. Our organization and others like it were funded by political action committees and non-government organizations. They turned their money from supporting politicians to supporting the news outlets that inform the citizens about the politicians. Of course, each news outlet was loyal to the PAC or NGO its money came from, so we were expected to attack Nick Veronico, a major player in the movement to censor media. We published positive content about Meredith Simpson, a former reporter who was running for office. Since this was the first election since the war, it was confusing for freedom fighters to endorse politicians who were typically advocates for limiting our rights, but that was why we wanted Simpson to win – she wasn’t a typical politician.

Reflecting on the big jump my career had taken inspired me to make this opportunity count. With less than two weeks until the election, this could seriously bring Nick Veronico down. I searched for reports of arguments and altercations, photo essays about him appearing angry at people, and stories where sources said he had disappointed them. After about an hour, I had found my quote.

Four days until the election

“Using Veronico’s own family’s words against him was good, but then taking it a step further and finding quotes from his own wife and children was genius. Also, the video compilation of him forgetting words has been viewed almost a million times in just one day.”

Kyle, the lead strategist, sat at the head of the table in the conference room. He was visibly pleased and the strategists, Maddux, and myself were excited about the progress we had made in slowing down Veronico’s momentum. The most recent article read:

Veronico showing signs of mental illness brought to light by recent investigation

Nick Veronico thought he was the lucky one when he survived a car crash as a 12 year old. The couple in the other vehicle died, but Nick walked away with a concussion and was fine after about a month. That luck is starting to wear off, as he is beginning to display signs of mental illness, presumably linked to that traumatic brain injury.

Veronico has recently exhibited signs of early-onset Alzheimer’s and his behavior is also consistent with symptoms of depression.

“My dad has been repeating himself for about a year now,” said Nick’s oldest son, Jack.

Forgetfulness, repeating oneself, asking a question multiple times, difficulty completing everyday tasks, and changes in mood and behavior are all signs of the degenerative disease.

“Nick is frustrated. He sees so many things he wants to do but just can’t,” said his wife, Jessica. “We all wish there was something we could do.”

Veronico is only 45, which is very young for Alzheimer’s. However, in recent years, doctors have found a link between traumatic brain injuries and the early onset of the disease.

Studies show that people who have had traumatic brain injuries, like the concussion Veronico had as a child, where they are unconscious for more than 24 hours, are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s or dementia. The medical research shows that with more frequent concussions, the likelihood of Alzheimer’s or dementia increases.

Even if one brain injury is less likely to cause a patient to develop Alzheimer’s consider this. Nick Veronico played football throughout college. This means that he also played in high school and in the years leading up to it as well. How is this relevant?

Another scientific, medical study has shown that over 30% of football players have had one or more undiagnosed concussions or other brain injuries. So, in the roughly 15 years he played the sport, Nick was most likely hit or tackled in some way that gave him a concussion or similar brain injury. Playing for so long and at such a high level in college means that it probably happened more than just once or twice.

Scientific evidence has also shown a link between traumatic brain injuries and depression. Some symptoms of depression include difficulty concentrating or remembering tasks, difficulty making decisions, constant fatigue, drastic weight loss or gain and even thoughts of suicide.

Over the last few months, we can easily see how fatigued Nick has been. He has even shown difficulty remembering names of cabinet members or years when certain policies were enacted or important events occurred. He is also visibly thinner.

“It has really taken a toll on him,” Jessica said. “We can tell that he is not himself.”

With less than two weeks until the election, we should all question if this man is healthy enough to lead our country for four long years. Will he be the same man in a year as he is today? Will he be able to remember deals he made or bills he signed? Will he be able to remember the important freedoms we are guaranteed by our constitution? Will he forget how to lead us?

This story was similar to the first one, but the quotes and medical studies made it seem more serious. The quotes from Veronico’s wife and son were from articles published years ago. His son was talking about his father repeating himself and constantly telling him to work hard in school. The quote about him being frustrated was from an almost 15 year old article about his frustration with the education system in the United States and his inability to do anything about it in his then position as a State Representative. In fact, that frustration with the then current policies was what he campaigned on to become a United States Senator. The quote about him not being himself was from an article written after his father, an important business owner, passed away three years before. The article was accompanied by clips of him stumbling over a name during a speech. He really had lost some weight while training for his marathon, so two photos showing a comparison of him before and after were also included with the story.

The medical research was actually true. Many credible studies showed a link between traumatic brain injuries and Alzheimer’s. Others really did show that at least one in three football players suffers a concussion that goes undiagnosed. That was what made our argument good; there were pieces of truth. It would be entirely possible for Veronico to have such a disease because of the injuries he sustained. Giving people slivers of truth was what made our stories believable.

Later that day I received an email from Maddux. It showed that the number of shares and views on my story were already off the charts. She attached tweets and Facebook posts where people had commented with things like

“Scary. My father suffered from dementia and it goes downhill fast. I would not want to vote for someone with such an awful disease.”

“I learned about the undiagnosed brain injuries in football players when I was in college. 100% true. I will be praying for Veronico’s family through this tough time.”

“See America. If that doesn’t do it for you, I don’t know what else will. We cannot have a president who is not mentally competent.”

Good reactions. I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty though. Veronico was a strong proponent of better public education. He grew up in a wealthy family, but did do a lot for charities. He was pretty bad on foreign policy but his tax plan wasn’t awful. He was relatively moderate on social issues. He tried not to lose support by taking sides. But, as a Senator, he did support the “Report Bad Reporting” project that encouraged citizens to report online content that seemed fake. Still, he had a lot of governing experience.

On the other hand, Meredith Simpson was an advocate for free speech to the extreme. A former writer herself, she rose to prominence as a leader for free speech and free press. Before announcing her intent to run for president, she worked in advertising. She had raised three kids, survived cancer, and established herself as a champion for those struggling to afford medical care. She had never held public office but was a decorated leader in her career and in many charitable organizations.

I started to doubt myself. I had worked with so many people fighting so hard for Simpson, our freedom candidate. Day after day we discussed strategies for attacking our enemy, cheered when other units in our army were victorious in battle, and focused our energy on the one goal we all seemed to have.

“Good news everyone,” Maddux said as she walked into the room of writer’s desks. “Veronico is plummeting in the polls. Television networks have picked up on the story and are adding to it. It is breaking records for shares and comments on social media.”

The room burst into applause. I hesitantly smiled and cheered too. That was what I wanted, right? My story was making a difference in this election. What if Simpson won? What if we could go back to being writers and editors instead of lieutenants and colonels? What if Veronico actually lost? That’s the goal right?

What if it was all because of a story I made up?


Originally, I wanted this story to be 1984-esque, set in a dystopian future and a government system reliant on censorship and propaganda. But, with the 2016 election still fresh in everyone’s minds, I decided to try and make it more tangible and relatable for people today.

The story is set in the future, but only 4 years from today. This helps make it relevant for readers because things like Facebook, reporting fake news, the 2016 election, and polarized sides are part of everyday life.

The war and military terminology are used to warn or foreshadow what we seem to be headed toward. Instead of actual militaries, our nation and others are using words and information to fight for one side or the other.

I hope that setting the story just a few short years away, with so many themes relevant to our current society made it more foreboding or realistic to readers who can see some of these things happening right now.

Of course, the battle over fake news, free speech, etc, is not so clearly defined today. It isn’t the politicians wanting one thing and the people wanting another. But, I thought about who would want to preserve truth in news versus who would want fake news and assigned the sides accordingly. It could honestly go either way, but with my story, about the news getting out of control and damaging a politician’s ability to get elected, it was fitting to make politicians want truth so that people couldn’t just make things up about them.

The story has several examples of propaganda use. First of all, the entire purpose of the D.C. Anthem was to make propaganda. In this futuristic America, propaganda outlets had usurped news outlets seeking to report truth. Both sides of the war used propaganda as weapons.

There were also many logical fallacies in the story the narrator wrote. First, the “Texas Sharpshooter,” fallacy was used when the reporter used the data about brain injuries and Alzheimer’s. Yes, there really is a correlation, but just because someone has had a brain injury does not mean he will get Alzheimer’s and vice versa. The reporter saw that Veronico had had a concussion and saw that concussions can lead to other illnesses, but had to make up or manipulate evidence to show that Veronico’s concussion led to Alzheimers

Another logical fallacy was the “Burden of Proof.” In the part of the story where the reporter is meeting with strategists, they talk about how difficult it will be to prove that the story is not true. So, the idea is that until something is proven untrue, it is accepted as truth.

There were also examples of “Appeals to Emotion.” After the first story was published, the reporter talks with the colonel about how the uncertainty of the candidate’s condition will scare people. The Facebook comments after the second story about “my dad suffered from this illness,” etc, are examples of how people’s fear led them to react because of their proximity to the disease.

The reporter starts to become more aware of the bandwagon nature of her colleagues and her own beliefs toward the end when she starts to question if what she did was wrong. She talks about how they were so focused and so excited about one goal that they all just went with it.

I ended the story with a cliffhanger, producing uncertainty to represent the uncertainty associated with propaganda and fake news. We know it is a problem. We know other countries can use it against us. We also know it is a slippery slope to try to limit what people can and cannot say online. Is that a violation of free speech? Is it essential to democracy? We are still uncertain about what we will do to alleviate the problems associated with it. That cliffhanger about the fictional election represents the real uncertainty in our future.