George Boardman: New normal: Candidates can’t wish away false information anymore
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It has long been a basic rule of political public relations that you ignore conspiracies, misinformation or base insinuations because acknowledging them gives them life.
But the new normal of American politics, when even the president of the United States will traffic in baseless claims and wild rumors, requires political operatives to reacquaint themselves with an old mantra: Sunlight is the best disinfectant.
The communications team for Sen. Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign has taken that approach, moving aggressively to call out material that is baseless. The campaign is early, but they have already had to deal with misinformation that ranges from the silly to seedy.
One of the first lies came from well known internet troll Jacob Wohl, who tweeted Harris was ineligible to become president because her immigrant parents weren’t in the country five years before she was born. The campaign retweeted in five minutes that the claim was “garbage” — there is no such residential requirement.
“I don’t think there’s any option to ignore anything anymore,” said Brian Fallon, who was Hillary Clinton’s campaign press secretary. “Any 2020 campaign’s press operation is wise to be constantly monitoring what gets picked up on Twitter, essentially, and to immediately speak to debunk and contain rather than wish it would go away.”
Clinton’s campaign was constantly plagued by rumors of bad health, which her campaign ignored, and Barack Obama ignored birther rumors for years before finally giving in and producing the long form of his birth certificate. There are still people in this country who don’t believe him.
Ben LaBolt, Obama’s former campaign press secretary, said you can’t ignore conspiracy theories in the era of the internet and social media where bogus claims can rapidly grow and fester.
“We live in a world where you can’t even necessarily trust what’s coming out of the president of the United States’ mouth, and he’s not going to check his sources before he tweets something out,” LaBolt said. “Once things are in the ecosystem, they’re in an environment with no editors, and it’s the campaign’s responsibility to serve as those editors.”
Even people not running for president, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, see the utility in quickly shooting down lies. She has replaced Clinton as the favorite punching bag of conservatives, but she’s not going to take it lying down.
“I grew up seeing these false attacks on Nancy Pelosi,” she said recently. “I grew up with these attacks on Barack Obama. I grew up with these bad-faith attacks, even on Hillary Clinton.
“It feels like an extra job (responding to false claims),” she said. “I’ve got a full-time job in Congress and then I moonlight as America’s greatest villain, or as the new hope. And it’s pretty tiring.”
Facebook and other social media companies became conduits in the 2016 presidential campaign for these falsehoods, helping to spread fake news, allowing the creation of fake groups, and running misleading advertisements to try to sway voters. Nobody knows how much impact these efforts had on the election, but they can’t be dismissed in an election where less than 100,000 votes in three states decided the outcome in the Electoral College.
A new study suggests that a small segment of the population — about one in 12 — were eager to share false information during the 2016 campaign. Research published in the journal Science Advances found that people over 65 who call themselves ultra-conservatives share about seven times more fake information masquerading as news on social media than other Americans.
“For something to be viral you’ve got to know who shares it,” said study co-author Jonathan Nagler, a politics professor at New York University. “Wow, old people are much more likely than younger people to do this.”
Researchers from NYU and Princeton interviewed 2,711 people who used Facebook in 2016. Nearly half agreed to share all of their postings with the professors, who used three different lists of false information sites and counted how often they shared from those sites. To double check, they looked at 897 specific articles that have been found false by fact checkers and tracked how often they were spread.
Researchers believe a lack of “digital literacy” may help explain the research results. Senior citizens may not tell truth from lies on social media as easily as others, researchers said. Whatever the reason, this trend has been noticed by political operatives from both parties.
“Mostly 60 plus who when they read on Real/Eagle/Patriot/News/Buzzfeed/3000.ru and they see a story about Hillary being a robot lesbian they go wow,” said Rick Wilson, a veteran GOP campaign strategist. “They love this stuff and they become addicted to it.” Seniors also vote in large numbers.
Facebook has become every critic’s favorite bad boy for the dissemination of lies and misleading information, but it is hardly the only outlet that is spreading this stuff. And conservatives aren’t the only people who want to believe nonsense.
I experienced firsthand during the 2016 campaign how eagerly people latch onto this stuff. When Clinton fainted at a 9/11 memorial ceremony, armchair physicians without access to her medical records and laymen pontificated on her health. Trump released sketchy physical exam results about that time, so I decided to turn the tables and write an article for my blog headlined, “Does Trump have syphilis? That would explain a lot.”
The article questioned his physical exam, noted his Playboy lifestyle and philandering ways, and suggested his behavior on the campaign trail could be indicative of somebody with venereal disease. I concluded that I would remain skeptical of his mental health until he underwent a rigorous neurological exam and produced evidence he is free of venereal disease.
Everything in the article was factual, but I never claimed he had VD. The article received more hits than anything else I’ve written on my blog, and is still getting hits today. Those people, probably liberals, wanted to believe what I wrote.
So expect a continuous stream of denials of “facts” that will be circulating on the internet between now and November 2020. If there’s one thing we’ve learned in our sharply divided country, it is that people will embrace almost anything that validates what they believe.
George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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