It was never true. The EPA isn’t using drone aircraft — in the Midwest or anywhere else.
The hubbub over nonexistent drones provides a look at something hard to capture in American politics: the vibrant, almost viral, life cycle of a falsehood. This one seems to have been born less than three weeks ago, in tweets and blog posts that twisted the details of a real news story about EPA inspectors flying in small planes.
Then the falsehood spread, via conservative Web sites, mentions on Fox News Channel and Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” and the endless replication of Twitter. In its mature stage, the idea was sustained by a digital echo chamber. Congressmen repeated false reports — and then new reports appeared, based on the congressmen.
“We’ve never thought that. We’ve never said that. I don’t know where it came from,” said Kristen Hassebrook, at the association of Nebraska Cattlemen, when asked about drones buzzing cattle farms. Her group seems to have started this hubbub, then watched as its actual complaint against the EPA was turned into something it wasn’t. “But obviously the word ‘drone’ is a very sexy word.”
This is the part that’s true: For more than a decade, EPA inspectors have flown over farmland in small private planes — the traditional kind of aircraft, with people inside them. The inspectors are looking for clean-water violations, such as dirty runoff or manure dumped into a stream.
The EPA says the flights are legal, under a 1986 Supreme Court decision. And they’re cheap: An on-the-ground inspection might cost $10,000, but it costs just $1,000 to $2,500 to survey the same farm by air. An agency spokesman said these flights are not happening more frequently now than in the past.
But in Nebraska, the cattlemen have raised new concerns about the effect of the flights.
“It is truly an invasion of privacy,” said Chuck Folken, who runs a farm and cattle feedlot in Leigh, Neb. Farmers worry about photos of private homes and back yards winding up in government files. “We don’t need our own government . . . flying over us, taking pictures of us, telling us what we’re doing wrong.”
On May 29, Nebraska’s congressional delegation — four Republicans and a Democrat — wrote a letter to the EPA, asking questions about the aerial surveillance. Because the concern was about airplanes, their letter didn’t say a word about drones.
But soon enough, somebody did.
First a couple of Twitter users got it wrong. Then, at 2:51 p.m. June 1, the Web site pjmedia.com posted a blog item with the title, “EPA Using Spy Drones to Fly Over Midwestern Farms.” It provided a link to a report on the Fox News Web site — which discussed the lawmakers’ letter but didn’t actually mention drones.