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The ‘Fake News’ Problem

Why the left is also responsible for the proliferation of inaccurate information—and why the big beneficiary is Donald Trump

James Kirchick
February 07, 2017
Illustration: Tablet Magazine; main photo: Wikipedia
Illustration: Tablet Magazine; main photo: Wikipedia
Illustration: Tablet Magazine; main photo: Wikipedia
Illustration: Tablet Magazine; main photo: Wikipedia

“Fake news”—the proliferation of which in the most recent American presidential election may have tipped the scales in favor of Donald Trump—has elicited alarm from institutions and individuals diverse as the Swedish Security Police, the European Commission, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel; poisons civic dialogue; and threatens the cohesion of liberal democracy itself. It is not, however, the sole province of Macedonian teenagers and “digital opportunists” living in Long Beach Airbnbs.

Since the phenomenon captured public imagination in the wake of Trump’s victory, the term “fake news” has evolved from describing the product of websites deliberately pushing false stories, hoaxes and conspiracy theories to now include pretty much any claim of dubious nature. Robbed of its original and specific meaning, “fake news” is now used, often sarcastically, to describe any piece of information that someone doesn’t like. For instance, perhaps the greatest-ever beneficiary of fake news—the 45th President of the United States—now regularly calls CNN “fake news.” So too did former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon label as “fake news” press reports damaging his hopes to become president of South Korea.

Knowingly telling a falsehood used to be called “lying.” Depending on your point of view, that’s most likely what Trita Parsi, the Iranian regime’s most suave dissembler in the West, did when he tweeted, in regard to the Trump administration’s executive order establishing restrictions on travel into the United States by citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries (which happen to be the same seven countries singled out as potential terror threats by President Barack Obama’s Department of Homeland Security), that green-card holders were being “asked their views on Trump” by customs officials at airports over the weekend. Like many Trump administration critics, Parsi falsely claimed that the executive order amounts to a “Muslim ban,” when the most populous Muslim countries, like Indonesia and Pakistan, are not affected by it at all. Parsi repeated his claim regarding political litmus interrogations on MSNBC, and it was picked up by The Guardian, neither of which bothered to confirm his claims independently.

When repeatedly asked on Twitter for confirmation or evidence of his claims, which were entirely unsourced and then retweeted over a 100,000 times, Parsi did not reply. Tablet’s own inquiries to Customs and border-patrol authorities failed to elicit any evidence that such a line of questioning was ever approved by anyone. Is it still conceivable that Parsi is telling the truth? Sure. But considering how, over the past decade, so many of Parsi’s lies and evasions about the Iranian regime have been reported upon uncritically by a lazy media eager to rationalize Obama’s Iran deal, for which Parsi was one of the chief propagandists, this eagerness to spread what was most likely a deliberate, incendiary falsehood as part of a larger messaging campaign should not come as much of a surprise. The fact that Parsi’s lobbying organization, NIAC, was in the midst of a $300,000 Kickstarter fundraising drive may also be relevant here.

Parsi’s cynical histrionics, like the incessant cries over a nonexistent “Muslim ban,” are symptoms of a larger problem with the left’s reaction to Donald Trump, who indeed poses a genuine menace to both this country and the world. Consider: In the months following his upset presidential victory late last year, three white men screaming Trump’s name assaulted a young Muslim woman on the Manhattan 6 train and tried to rip off her hijab, a black church in Mississippi was firebombed with “Vote Trump” spray-painted on its brick wall, a Jewish family fled Lancaster County in Pennsylvania after receiving threats for exempting their child from an elementary school Christmas pageant, and just last week an elderly Iraqi woman died awaiting medical treatment because she was barred from entering the United States due to Trump’s executive order.

Fortunately, none of these things actually happened.

Eighteen-year-old Yasmin Seweid was not the victim of a hate crime by right-wing white American men, as she originally alleged. On the contrary, she invented the incident due to pressure from her right-wing, Egyptian immigrant Muslim family. Seweid was dating a Christian, which her father disapproved of, and she needed an alibi for breaking curfew. (As punishment for the shame she brought upon her family, Seweid’s father shaved her head).

Hopewell Missionary Baptist church wasn’t torched by white supremacists but rather one of its own African-American parishioners.

As for the alleged pogrom in Pennsylvania, “News reports alleging that a Jewish family has ‘fled’ Lancaster County are untrue and damaging,” according to the Anti-Defamation League’s regional director. “We spoke with the family, who explained that they went on a previously planned vacation for the holidays.”

And the Iraqi senior citizen with kidney disease? She didn’t die because of Executive Order 13769, as her son claimed, but passed away five days before Trump even signed the document.

By the time these hoaxes were exposed as such, the damage had been done. News items correcting the factual record were all much shorter, less prominently placed, and not nearly as sensational as the original false reports. It can reasonably be assumed, then, that most people who read the initial accusations still believe them to be true—lending credibility to further “fake news” about a “Muslim ban” and green card holders being interrogated about their views of President Trump.

‘Fake news’ is now used, often ironically, to describe any piece of information that someone doesn’t like.

At a time when liberal opponents of Trump and his populist counterparts across Europe worry about the proliferation of “fake news” and a “post-fact world”—entirely legitimate concerns—it is important for them to get their own house in order and recognize that the penchant for incendiary distortions and outright lying is not exclusive to the right. For the real damage of these false accusations is ultimately visited upon not the imaginary Trump supporter but the anti-Trump cause itself—as well as the habits of critical thinking that are more necessary than ever for citizens of our republic.

The tendency to hyperbolize about Trump is partly influenced by an identity-politics-driven myopia which can’t see the unprecedentedly threatened societal forest because it’s so obsessed with each and every single one of the supposedly endangered trees. In the days after the presidential election, I came across countless social media posts in which the author recited some variation of the following lament: “Trump’s victory will most hurt women, African-Americans, undocumented immigrants, LGBT people, etc.” the list of potential victim groups extending sometimes for an entire paragraph or more. It was as if the authors of these posts were completely oblivious to the joke about the apocryphal New York Times headline, “WORLD ENDS: BLACKS AND WOMEN HARDEST HIT.” The bizarre inclusion of “LGBT” in this litany of victimhood notwithstanding (Trump ran as the most pro-gay Republican presidential candidate in history and made a point of addressing transgender concerns), there is indeed good reason for women, African-Americans, and illegal immigrants to be fearful of a president who boasted about sexual assault, spent years peddling a racist conspiracy theory about the country’s first black president, and promised to deport 11 million people.

But Donald Trump is not going to bring back Jim Crow, nor is his election going to result in the decriminalization of domestic violence, as just occurred in Russia. The predictions of impending doom for America’s minority populations sound a bit parochial in light of the negative consequences bound to be felt by vulnerable peoples in other parts of the world as a result of Trump’s ascension. Maybe the years I spent living and traveling throughout Central and Eastern Europe have warped my view of these things, but my list of the Trump administration’s likely casualties would be topped by Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles, Ukrainians and all the other peoples fated to live in what used to be called the “captive nations” who will likely be sacrificed upon the altar of Trump’s grand bargain with Vladimir Putin.

The aforementioned false accounts of actual and threatened violence against minorities are all examples of confirmation bias in which well-meaning, liberal anti-Trump journalists report on something that they want to be true or that is emotionally true for them but is factually false. This phenomenon is little different from when Trump and his supporters make false claims about things they want to be true or that are emotionally true for them, like the claim that “thousands” of Muslims celebrated the Sept. 11 attacks somewhere in the tristate area or that Mexican immigrants are raping and killing their way across America at an unprecedented clip. One unintended but important consequence of the anti-Trump opposition’s false stories is that they help legitimize the false stories on the other side, which is actually in power, thus making this tendency on the left particularly stupid and dangerous.

To be sure, Trump has given his critics plenty of reasons to assume the worst about him. But that’s all the more reason to be precise and discriminating in one’s critique. I cannot recall the number of times I’ve read or been told that Mike Pence supports “conversion therapy” for homosexuals, the inhumane, pseudoscientific practice whereby gay men and women are made to believe that their nature is unnatural and they, therefore, must work to “change” it through psychologically abusive tactics. Pence is by no means friendly to the cause of gay equality, but as the journalist Carl Cannon recently wrote, nowhere has he ever come out in favor of conversion therapy—not once, ever. The claim that he supports it rests upon a single sentence from his 2000 congressional campaign website stating that anti-HIV/AIDS “resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior,” which could just as much mean a safe-sex-promoting, sex-positive group like Gay Men’s Health Crisis as it could the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, the homophobic “fake news” equivalent of a professional psychiatric organization. Yet the accusation that Mike Pence supports such harmful practices has now become an accepted truth, particularly among liberal gays, most likely because they never read beyond the deceptive and sensationalistic headlines of articles slapdashedly shared by their outraged friends on Facebook. A New York Times piece last year that attempted to clear up the matter just obfuscated it even further by quoting a lesbian activist who claimed that the language on Pence’s 17-year-old campaign website was “a dog whistle.” If so, it must have been beyond ultrasonic, as not even the most perceptive of homophobes could have concluded that Pence was expressing support for conversion therapy. If the proliferation of “fake news” derives from declining trust in established news institutions, here is one prominent example of why that lack of trust is not entirely unwarranted.

Or take the case of Steve Bannon, now—in addition to being a cynical and skilled political arsonist—apparently America’s most prominent anti-Semite. When Trump announced that the former executive would become his senior counselor, for some reason the left decided to settle upon anti-Semitism as the prejudice with which they would tar him. Put aside the obvious cynical opportunism from quarters that have long ignored or excused anti-Semitism in their own ranks, the evidence for Bannon’s being a Jew-hater is not exactly strong, limited as it is almost exclusively to accusations made by his ex-wife in a contentious divorce proceeding that Bannon didn’t want their daughters to go to a private school whose students he allegedly characterized as spoiled rich Jews. The sloppiness here was inexcusable. For while we have scant evidence to suggest that Bannon is an anti-Semite—even if the claim in the divorce proceeding is literally true, it is easy to imagine the same sentence being uttered by a Jewish parent—we do know that, in, Bannon presided over one of the country’s most influential xenophobic, race-baiting, conspiracist websites. (Indeed, one could argue that Breitbart was “fake news” avant le lettre.) All this is more than sufficient reason to oppose Bannon’s pernicious influence over our politics. Yet the case is that much harder to press when irresponsible leftists level wild and unsubstantiated accusations in which they themselves don’t even believe.

Now that Trump is in the White House, much of the media feels uninhibited in their campaign to destroy him, seeing the unprecedented nature of his presidency as license to get away with anything. Take Jonathan Weisman, deputy Washington editor of The New York Times. Since he was targeted by pro-Trump, anti-Semitic Twitter trolls last summer, Weisman—a man who is supposed to at least feign objectivity—has completely dropped any pretense of political independence. His own Twitter feed—like the feeds of a growing number of Times reporters—is a constant stream of anti-Trump invective indistinguishable from committed anti-Trump pundits like myself.

Why do I hold myself and Jonathan Weisman to such wildly differing standards? Because my job is to opine and provoke. His job is to accurately report on events, so that I know that the things I am reacting to are real, rather than the products of angry mass hallucinations or partisan messaging campaigns. By publicly refusing to do his job, he makes my job (and all our jobs as engaged citizens) much harder because I can’t reasonably trust that what I read in The New York Times is factual or based on good sourcing. Who in their right mind inside the Trump administration would talk to The New York Times, except to mislead the paper’s reporters and editors, by spinning them up or sending them off on wild goose chases that serve the administration’s own aims? How can I trust that what I read in the paper’s news columns isn’t hopelessly distorted by the angry bias evident in the social-media feeds of the paper’s editors and reporters? Much of the reporting on the Trump administration thus far seems to be so poorly sourced, riddled with caricature and negative wishful thinking as to be actively misleading, for all intents and purposes “fake news.” The beneficiary of the resulting confusion and hysteria is not The New York Times or its readers. It’s Donald Trump.

Another negative consequence of the left’s sloppiness in attacking Trump is that it unwittingly encourages an obnoxious tendency on the right to abandon criticism of the president’s glaring deficiencies for the more comfortable and familiar terrain of bashing leftists. For instance, using the word “hacking” to describe Russia’s role in the election lazily amalgamates the proven theft of Democratic party emails and their dissemination through Wikileaks with the totally unproven claim that Moscow somehow fiddled with the vote tabulations. And so rather than conduct some much-needed soul searching as to why the Russians preferred their candidate to his Democratic opponent, many Republicans choose to refute a false charge instead of confronting the correct one. Likewise, promoting the salacious dossier on Trump compiled by a former MI6 officer as if it were gospel truth allows the president to conflate its extraordinary—and entirely unproven—claims with the likely more accurate conclusions, reached by American intelligence agency heads “with high confidence,” that Russian President Vladimir Putin himself “ordered an influence campaign” in the election to help Trump.

The erroneousness of many allegations against Donald Trump, and the reckless abandon with which people make them, are symptomatic of the left’s broader failure to acknowledge that their actions and behavior are in any way responsible for his rise. Their obliviousness is of a piece with their shock that a president who studiously avoided uttering the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” for eight years would be succeeded by a president who can’t say anything but. This country is entering a dark period, which makes it all the more important to engage in serious intellectual combat. The truth about Trump is awful enough that it needs no embellishment.


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James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.