Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.) offered a head-slapping defense of a conspiracy theory he touted on CNN: It was something that he’d seen on the Internet.
Farenthold was suggesting that questions about any link between Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russian actors was “deflecting away from some other things that we need to be investigating in.”
“There’s still some question,” he said, “as to whether the intrusion at the server was an insider job or whether or not it was the Russians.”
CNN’s John Berman interrupted. “I’m sorry,” he said. “The insider job — what are you referring to here? I hope it’s not this information that Fox News just refused to be reporting.”
“Again, there’s stuff circulating on the Internet,” Farenthold said.
Co-host Poppy Harlow asked if it was responsible to cite Internet rumors as a rationale to launch a congressional investigation. Farenthold replied that the media sometimes relied on anonymous sources for its reporting — so therefore it was.
Welcome to 2017.
First of all, it’s clear that Farenthold was referring to the debunked stories about former DNC staffer Seth Rich, whose murder last year has been the peg for any number of conspiracy theories meant to cast doubt on Russian involvement in the illegal access of DNC emails. There’s no evidence Rich was involved, and Fox News, after pushing the theory based on questionable reporting, retracted its claims. [Our Dave Weigel has a fuller look at the whole issue — including former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) also crediting “the various blog sites” for his promotion of the conspiracy theories.]
What’s particularly important about Farenthold’s comment, though, isn’t solely that he was trying to use a discredited conspiracy theory to deflect attention from reporting about President Trump. This is what Sean Hannity spent days doing earlier this week. What’s important instead is that Farenthold is only the latest example of elected officials citing nebulous Internet nonsense in defense of their political points.
There was Trump himself, who last year declared that a man who rushed the stage at an event in Ohio was linked to the Islamic State on the strength of a badly produced Internet video. Asked to defend his assertion, Trump told NBC’s Chuck Todd that “[a]ll I know is what’s on the Internet.”
Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) was caught in a similar situation earlier this month, when he declared on CNN that there was a grand jury empaneled in New York to investigate former national security adviser Michael Flynn. His source for that? A story from the repeatedly debunked Louise Mensch and a site called the Palmer Report.
There are probably at least three things happening here.
The first is that the Internet has blurred the line between truth and fiction in increasingly problematic ways. The emergence of the “fake news” trend during the 2016 election — intentionally false news stories meant to lure clicks to drive ad revenue — took advantage of people’s increasing trust in nontraditional outlets that have broken real stories in the past. It’s not just blog posts: Even tweets are now used to explain breaking news stories or add context to what’s happening in the world, granting tweets a level of public trust that allows abuse. In an online world where it’s easy to mimic the professional aesthetic of a major news outlet, it’s fairly trivial for misinformation to spread.
Those fake news sites piggybacked on another trend: the negative partisanship of American politics. It’s hard to put a hard number to this, but it’s very likely that more votes were cast in the presidential election of 2016 with the aim of opposing a candidate than supporting one. Trump and Hillary Clinton were both deeply unpopular, and negative stories about each powered the real and fake news ecosystems alike. Pew Research has found that partisan animosity is rampant, with more than half of Republicans and Democrats saying they view the opposing party very unfavorably — and only about 1 in 10 not viewing the opposition unfavorably to some extent. Partisans are looking for bad information about the opposition and, when they find it, their defenses against misinformation seem to falter.
For these elected officials, though, there’s a specific third trend: An impatience with or distrust of official information channels. These are members of Congress! They can access information that the public can’t but, pressed for information under the pressure of live television shots, succumb to talking about random nonsense they read online. Markey and Farenthold — and especially Trump — could research the details of the issues they’re concerned about leveraging the power of the United States government. Perhaps because those outlets aren’t offering the information they wish to hear or perhaps because they distrust what they’re hearing, they turn instead to random Internet nonsense.
There was a fascinating story from Politico earlier this month about how Trump’s deputy national security adviser slipped him a fake magazine cover seeming to rebut the idea of global warming. Trump “quickly got lathered up,” in the words of Politico’s Shane Goldmacher, until someone pointed out that it was simply Photoshopped. But Trump trusts information like that, as he trusted that video about how the guy in Ohio was linked to the Islamic State, and he trusts that information in part because it says what he wants to hear and in part because he distrusts the government professionals who are meant to give him unbiased information.
There’s a reward, particularly for Republicans, in being strongly partisan and openly hostile to the staid functions of governance. But no party has a monopoly on preferring easily digestible news-that-sounds-good to the hard work of uncovering and proving the truth.
All of us should do better in this regard. But those with access to the resources of the FBI, the intelligence agencies and cadres of scientists have absolutely no excuse at all.