Gordon Houser is editor of The Mennonite magazine.
Amid the plethora of messages we encounter in our mediaculture— via the Internet, television, radio or other media—are those that spread lies. Often these lies are presented as facts; other times they are hoaxes meant to persuade readers of a particular political or other perspective.
We’re in the midst of a presidential campaign, and the claims and innuendos are abundant. And the true believers— those loyal supporters of each candidate—are convinced the person they support would never lie or misrepresent the truth.
When some nonpartisan fact-checking organization points out the falseness of a statement, it’s too late. People have moved on.
Cara Lombardo, in her article “Deconstructing the Rightwing Spin Machine” (The Progressive, February) offers an example. On Oct. 19 and 20, 2015, Sean Hannity told Fox News viewers that President Obama unilaterally decided that the United States was going to let in 250,000 refugees from Syria and other war-torn regions. Five days later, Donald Trump cited this figure in New Hampshire.
The claim, however, was completely false, Lombardo writes.
The fact-checking outlet PolitiFact traced the claim back to what appears to be a hoax article on a website called RealNewsRightNow. The article attributed the figure to a “Cathy Pieper” at the State Department. “We could find no Cathy Pieper working for the State Department,” PolitiFact reported.
You can also check PolitiFact, which has won the Pulitzer Prize, for a list of 20 false statements by Hillary Clinton. Here are a few: “We now have more jobs in solar than we do in oil.” “Every piece of legislation, just about, that I ever introduced (in the U.S. Senate) had a Republican co-sponsor.” “We now have driven (health-care) costs down to the lowest they’ve been in 50 years.”
False information can spread quickly. Following the Navy Yard shooting in 2013, writes Lombardo, “the far-right website Breitbart reported that guns are banned on military bases, suggesting that laxer laws may have saved lives.” NRA member Ted Nugent repeated the claim on Twitter, and multiple Fox News contributors followed suit. The fact is that the rule does not ban all guns; one of the first Navy Yard victims was an armed security guard.
Politics has always drawn what Lombardo calls “strategic fibbing.” For example, when Thomas Jefferson ran for president, a Connecticut newspaper cautioned that his victory would mean that “murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will openly be taught and practiced.” A Jefferson supporter then said John Adams was a “repulsive pedant” who had sent his vice president overseas to bring back mistresses.
Lombardo quotes Lucas Graves, journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of the forthcoming book Deciding What’s True: The Fact-Checking Movement in American Journalism: “Some politicians will continue to make a claim as long as they think it’s useful, no matter what the mainstream media or experts say.”
Thus for years, certain politicians have questioned the legitimacy of President Obama’s birth certificate, a matter that was settled, and then settled again.
The truth is usually complex and nuanced—partly true or true sometimes. But most people want simple answers or statements, and those who offer the nuanced truth are often not elected. Usually corrections to false claims come after the claims have been disseminated. And, Graves says, “Even when presented with new information, people tend to stick to what they have heard.” TM