Part 1—The science of disinformation: The science of misinformation and disinformation is grievously underexplored.
This weekend, some misinformation hardened. From the progressive perspective, we’d have to say that it represents the latest case of bad progressive politics.
Alas! This misinformation originated within our own liberal tribe. The misinformation turned to stone in Sunday’s Washington Post.
Candidate Clinton had gone to Alabama to deliver a speech. In her address, she had possibly pandered and fawned a bit to a key part of the base.
As a result, the Washington Post published its first news report about those satellite driver’s license offices which got closed in Alabama. Right in its second paragraph, our own tribe’s preferred piece of misinformation hardened and turned to stone.
Vanessa Williams’ news report ran a full 1100 words. Hard-copy headline included:
WILLIAMS (10/18/15): In Alabama, Clinton rebukes governor on voting rights for black AmericansWe haven’t found a transcript of Candidate Clinton’s speech. But right there in paragraph 2, Journalist Williams offered a flat misstatement of some basic facts.
Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton came to Alabama on Saturday and waded into the national debate over voter rights, criticizing Republican leaders in this state and others for ID laws that she said have made voting harder for people of color and young people, two groups critical to her chances of winning the presidency.
Clinton slammed Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) for closing 31 driver-licensing offices in rural, mostly black areas, eliminating a source for the government-issued photo ID that is now required to vote in Alabama.
“This is wrong,” Clinton said. “Fifty years after Rosa Parks sat and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marched and John Lewis bled, it is hard to believe that we are back having this same debate” about voting rights for black Americans.
Had Alabama actually “closed 31 driver-licensing offices in rural, mostly black areas?” Even allowing for the fuzziness of the word “areas,” no—it plainly had not.
By now, though, our tribe’s preferred misinformation had basically taken hold. This is the way Bill Barrow began his news report for the Associated Press, whose claims go all over the country:
BARROW (10/17/15): Near the heart of the civil rights movement, presidential hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton roused black Alabama Democrats on Saturday with a pledge to champion voting rights and accusations that Republicans are dismantling generations of racial progress.For whatever reason, Barrow obscured the facts by using a highly imprecise term—“many.” (He also slightly misstated the number of counties in which an office was closed.)
Clinton criticized Alabama's Republican governor, Robert Bentley, for closing drivers licenses offices in 31 counties, many of them majority African-American. Alabama requires photo identification to vote.
“This is a blast from the Jim Crow past,” she told about 700 people at a luncheon of the Alabama Democratic Conference, the largest caucus of the state Democratic Party.
This is what his report would have said had he chosen to be more precise:
“Clinton criticized Alabama's Republican governor, Robert Bentley, for closing drivers licenses offices in 30 counties, eight of them majority African-American.”
That would have been a substantially different statement. After fudging the facts in the way he did, Barrow linked his fuzzy claim to a statement about “Jim Crow.”
Were Williams and Barrow deliberately misleading or misinforming their readers? What roles did their editors play?
We can’t answer those questions. But in each of these cases, you’re looking at terrible journalism.
You’re also observing an under-explored branch of science—the science of misinformation. You’re observing the way misinformation can congeal, then harden and turns to stone.
The AP and the Washington Post have made several weeks of bogus statements official. At liberal and liberal-ish sites, the children are going to follow behind, pleasing the base with factual claims which are false or misleading.
It doesn’t take long for this to happen. Here is New York magazine’s Jonah Shepp, who offered a link to Williams’ news report:
SHEPP (10/18/15): When Alabama announced at the beginning of October that it was shutting down 31 driver’s license offices throughout the state, many Democrats and voting rights advocates suspected the state of engaging in voter suppression through other means. Many of the offices are in poor, rural, majority-black counties, and since Alabama began requiring ID to vote as of last year, opponents said the move would effectively disenfranchise many residents of these counties.Question: Why would a journalist use the word “many” when he could use the word “eight?” The answer is part of the science of misinformation.
Just this once, let’s be fair! In an earlier blog post, Williams included some information which didn’t appear in her longer, hard-copy news report in the Sunday paper:
“Although driver licenses and state photo IDs for non-drivers are the most popular forms of identification, Alabama officials argued that there were plenty of other alternatives for residents. Each county has a registrar’s office, which issues free photo voter IDs and the secretary of state's office also operates mobile voter ID vans that visit locations around the state, including street festivals and facilities such as nursing homes. Residents also can get their driver licenses renewed at other state offices, as well as online.”
That’s a basic part of this story. It didn’t appear in Sunday morning’s full-length, hard-copy report.
More significantly, neither Williams nor Barrow offered the simplest type of information about the racial breakdown of the twenty-eight counties which lost their only satellite offices. They never specified that eight of those counties are majority-black. They didn't say that the total population of those counties was roughly 28% black in the 2010 census, virtually matching the figure for Alabama as a whole.
Instead, Williams made a factual statement which was flatly false. Barrow made a needlessly imprecise statement which we’d call highly misleading.
Was it a good idea to close these satellite offices? We can’t tell you that. We’re here to examine the journalism, not the Bama state government.
The journalism about this matter has been very bad. Over the weekend, our own tribe’s preferred misinformation hardened and turned to stone.
Shouldn’t liberals and progressives be happy to see our con prevail? Shouldn’t we applaud ourselves for playing a winning game of realpolitik?
Shouldn’t we divest ourselves of our tired old bourgeois morality—of our tired old, outmoded scruples concerning the need for the truth? Shouldn’t we pat ourselves on the back for doing what The Others have always done?
In our view, this game constitutes bad politics for our own glorious side. All week long, we’ll be explaining our reasons for saying that.
That said, let’s be honest this once. No matter what tribe you may be in, some folk simply prefer to lie, distort or mislead.
Getting away with a glorious lie? The age-old practice has always made our lazier players feel good! How good it feels to make the rubes swallow a bogus claim!
Tomorrow: Uh-oh! As seen in comments!