There is no such thing as “alternative facts.” Facts, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, have “the quality of being actual” or are “an actual occurrence.” Here’s a sample use of the word fact from the dictionary: “a question of fact hinges on evidence.”

In other words, facts describe what is real and proven. Alternative facts, then, are unreal and unproven and, therefore, untrue.

America is immersed in a ridiculous but dangerous debate about facts because President Donald Trump and his fragile ego can’t accept that there was not a record-setting crowd at his inauguration Friday.

So rather than accept reality, Trump and his staff are trying to convince America of an alternative reality.

At a supposed press briefing Saturday, Trump press secretary Sean Spicer blasted the news media for supposedly misreporting the size of the crowd at the inauguration. The problem with Spicer’s rant is that there are plenty of photographs that show there were far fewer people in the audience during the inauguration and along the parade route than in 2009, when Barack Obama was first sworn in as president.

“This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe,” Spicer said on a day when millions of people gathered around the world to support equality and women’s rights.

Politifact called this a “ pants on fire lie.”

Trump himself, in a speech at the Central Intelligence Agency on Saturday, said there were 1.5 million people at his inauguration. This was so absurd that the Dallas Stars hockey team spoofed the president by announcing that 1.5 million people attended its Saturday game in an arena that holds about 20,000 people.

The seriousness of the debate escalated Sunday when Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway said on Meet the Press that Spicer was simply giving “alternative facts.”

Host Chuck Todd quickly cut off Conway: “Alternative facts aren’t facts, they are falsehoods.”

Why would the Trump administration lie about something so easily proven untrue? An explanation, circulating on the internet, gives a reasonable — and chilling — explanation. An extensive search did not reveal the author of the post, but it remains worth sharing.

The post argues that Spicer’s press conference was meant to set a standard with the press and to separate Trump’s supporters from his detractors. But most importantly, it argues, it was meant to create uncertainty about what is knowable, which the unknown author notes, is a tactic used by the Kremlin. “A third of the population will say, ‘Clearly the White House is lying,’ a third will say, ‘If Trump says it, it must be true,’ and the remaining third will say, ‘Gosh, I guess this is unknowable.’ The idea isn’t to convince these people of untrue things, it’s to fatigue them, so that they will stay out of the political process entirely, regarding the truth as just too difficult to determine.”

This sowing of confusion may sound familiar to Mainers. Gov. Paul LePage, like Trump, often spouts things that are provably untrue. One example is his insistence that a binder he filled with pictures of people charged with drug crimes in Maine was filled with photos that were 90 percent black and Hispanic. When journalists obtained copies of the notebook, more than half the pictures were of people who appeared to be white.

Lies, especially if they are repeated often enough, become very hard to refute. All Americans, not just journalists, must be on guard against accepting a Trumpian version of reality while we can still separate facts from “alternatives facts.”

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Opinion Editor Susan Young, Deputy Opinion Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked for the BDN...