“No, they’re not,” said fellow panelist Dana Perino, who served as White House press secretary under President George W. Bush. “They’re taking pictures.”
“No, no, no. They’re drones,” Beckel said.
Over the next three days, the story appeared on blogs, was tweeted and re-tweeted. It had all the makings of a great rumor. It combined two ideas that many people already believed to be true: that domestic use of drone aircraft was soon to increase, and that President Obama has used environmentalism as a cover for government overreach.
On June 5, the falsehood hit a growth spurt.
“Republican lawmakers are demanding answers today after learning the Environmental Protection Agency has been using aerial spy drones for years to spy on cattle ranchers,” Fox News Channel’s Megyn Kelly told viewers. “These are the same drones we use to track down al-Qaeda terrorists, flying over Nebraska and Iowa.” Asked about the source of Kelly’s report, a Fox News Channel spokeswoman declined to comment for the record.
Two days later, “The Daily Show” made fun of Kelly but repeated the falsehood: “Those aren’t the same drones!” Comedy Central’s host Jon Stewart said.
On June 6, the fast-moving rumor made it to Capitol Hill.
“The Obama Administration has, once again, stepped way over the line,” Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) said in a news release. He was sending a letter to the EPA, responding to “reports” about drone use. “First they wanted to expand their authority to regulate water, and now they want to use air drones to spy on American citizens.”
On the same day, an editorial in Investors Business Daily described “drone” flights. At EPA headquarters, a spokesman said, the first inquiries about EPA drones began coming in. Representatives said they weren’t true.
Too late. The day after that, three more congressmen complained. Reps. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) and Tom Latham (R-Iowa) wrote their own letters about the reports of drones. And Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) described his worries about drones in the “AgMinute” radio address released weekly by the House Agriculture Committee. Fortenberry cited “press reports” that the EPA “has been using military-style drone planes to secretly observe livestock operations.”
Here was the echo chamber at its peak. Fortenberry himself had signed the original, drone-free letter from the Nebraska delegation, whose misinterpretation had begun the drone rumors in the first place.
At this point, nine days later, the false reports about his own statement had reverberated around the country, and found their way back to Fortenberry. And the lawmaker appeared to treat them as something new — and alarming.
In the days since, the truth has begun, slowly, to rouse itself and stagger after the lie.
A spokeswoman for Fortenberry said he now accepts the EPA’s account that no drones exist. Fox News said on June 10 and 14 that the flights were done by planes, not drones. On Monday, a day after this story appeared in The Washington Post, Fox’s Megyn Kelly read a “clarification” on air:
“We identified and discussed the aircraft as being unmanned drones,” Kelly said. “In fact, the EPA is flying these missions and taking pictures from manned aircraft. We apologize for the confusion.”
On Friday, after a Post inquiry, PJMedia told its readers the same thing: “We’re happy to report that the EPA denies this.”
But the falsehood was far ahead, still replicating itself. By week’s end, the second Daily Caller report — which said the drones did not exist — had been posted just 14 times on Twitter, and recommended by 30 people on Facebook.
The first article, which said the drones were real, was still going: It had 233 Twitter mentions, and 661 recommendations on Facebook. No, wait, 662.
Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman and staff researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.