Back during the 2008 campaign, one of the things that most infuriated me was the emails that went around with all sorts of claims about Obama that referred to outside authorities such as Snopes or Obama’s memoirs. (See here, here, here, here, and here.) People forwarded these items, but never took the time to check out these basic claims. As FactCheck.org observed at the time:
Such attacks usually can be disproved with less effort than it takes to forward them to others.
Now, of course political debate has always been about framing events and pushing one’s agenda – about creating stories and propaganda to demonize your enemy and rile up your supporters. And there have always been lies, and every other sort of assault on the truth. There have always been fringe movements that require their supporters to believe elaborate constructions of lies built into conspiracy theories. But beginning with the rise of Obama in the spring of 2008, the Republican Party itself has become such a fringe group – as it has mainly stopped engaging in more honest political dialogue such as ideological arguments and good-faith disputes over facts. America’s political debate has turned into lies and efforts to combat these lies. (For the prime example, see the primal scream of outrage that was the health care debate. Here, here, here.)
How a propaganda source lies or frames issues tells us a lot about how its creators view their audience. As Jason Zengerle has sagely noted, the fictional world that Republican media is selling of grand conspiracies and ominous music demonstrates that they see their audience primarily as consumers who want entertainment. Is this season of 24 over? Then check out Fox News for the same adrenaline rush. Or read a Vince Flynn novel. Either way, you’ll get stories of grand conspiracies by terrorists with weak liberals being saved by brave conservatives. Thus Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and much of the rest of the Republican media establishment started out as and still describe themselves as “entertainers” rather than journalists. Then, of course, as I’ve observed in the past, TownHall.com just presumes its readers are gullible, lazy idiots – sending them get-rich-quick-schemes (See here and here.) in addition to their political lies. (See here, here, and here.) The creators of the smear emails clearly similarly saw their audience as gullible and unlikely to check the sources they cited in support, even as they made the most outrageous claims. What all three of these propaganda sources have in common is that they don’t expect their audience to fact check their smears, but expect them to act on them and spread them to others. They do not expect their audience to be skeptical, but to simply accept and promote the smears.
I was reminded of this by another smear that got spread – this time via reddit. (Probably other sites too – but reddit is the only one I pay attention to.) I normally see reddit as made up of rather skeptical individuals. But a few times, as a whole, the reddit community seems to have bought whole various smears and propaganda efforts – usually when they were both (1) emotional and (2) fit into some preconceived bias, usually a bias against the establishment media. Thus, when Russia invaded Georgia almost two years ago, reddit promoted various Russian propaganda claims and demoted any support for Georgia – despite the fact that atrocities were being committed by both sides and Russia’s actions clearly violated international law. When I challenged people on this, the most common reaction was to say that they were just trying to balance the mainstream media which was very pro-Georgia.
Another example of this occurred on reddit last week – as headlines were voted up reaching the top of reddit claiming:
Anyone who followed up and read beyond the headline of the piece in the Guardian that most of these stories linked to would have found that an Israeli doctor had admitted that Israeli hospitals had harvested organs from patients “including Palestinians” who died in their hospitals, as they did not have a policy which required them to get permission.* Shortly thereafter, the Guardian followed up and said:
The Guardian has admitted it erred in using the headline “Israel admits harvesting Palestinian organs” . “That headline did not match the article, which made clear that the organs were not taken only from Palestinians.”
This headline got much less attention. Even more interesting than those too lazy to read the article were those who claimed vindication for the Swedish newspaper that had previously reported that Israel had been killing Palestinians in order to harvest their organs:
Yet the Guardian story by Ian Black specifically addressed the Swedish story:
Channel 2 TV reported that in the 1990s, specialists at Abu Kabir harvested skin, corneas, heart valves and bones from the bodies of Israeli soldiers, Israeli citizens, Palestinians and foreign workers, often without permission from relatives…
However, there was no evidence that Israel had killed Palestinians to take their organs, as the Swedish paper reported.
Reading through the comments on these posts, you will find quite a bit of blatant anti-Semitism, as well as people disputing and disparaging these anti-Semitic comments. But should it be called anti-Semitism when people were so willing to jump to the conclusion that in fact Israel had some program which sought to harvest Palestinian organs? I’m not sure. But it is disturbing – almost as disturbing as those many right wingers fooled into thinking Obama is a secret Muslim born in Kenya (and that Snopes confirmed it!)
I expect better from reddit. I expect people to be skeptical. When I read a story that says that Obama is a secret Muslim, that Israel is killing Palestinians to harvest their organs, that the health care legislation will create death panels and kill babies, I regard it with as much skepticism as when I am told that if I subscribe to this or that newsletter, I will make $1 million in less than a year. Before I vote up or forward an email or invest in a stock, I check the sources. This isn’t unreasonable – and redditors are usually decent about this – which is what made this story so bothersome.
* These headlines are as misleading as a headline on November 5, 2009 would be claiming that “McCain receives third largest vote total in American history!” without mentioning the guy who won.