@FiIibuster -- that's lowercase i-capital i-lowercase i -- is the luckiest 16-year-old in California. On Monday night, he took a break from tweeting about professional sports to piggyback on the president-elect's critiques of CNN reporter Jeff Zeleny. "CNN is terrible folks," he wrote. "Jeff has no evidence that Donald Trump didn't suffer from voter fraud!"
Lo and behold, Trump retweeted him, adding at the end, "Bad reporter." To which @FiIibuster could only reply, "OMG."
I tell this story not to walk through Trump's longstanding feud with CNN, which my colleague Cal Borchers does here. I tell it instead to marvel at how fully Donald Trump, political neophyte, has embraced a web of conspiracy theories and illogical statements to advance his political interests.
My original intent was to pick out that argument, made by @FiIibuster and retweeted by Trump, suggesting that Zeleny is a "bad reporter" because he can't prove Trump didn't "suffer from voter fraud." Those who've taken an introductory logic class -- which @FiIibuster probably hasn't -- will recognize the fallacy here: You can't prove a negative.
In another context, it's easy to see why this is the case. If I tell you that Santa Claus exists, you are justified in rejecting that idea. But it's not up to you to prove my claim is false, which is to say that it's not up to you to prove the negative assertion "Santa Claus does not exist." It's up to me to prove that he does, since I'm the one making the positive assertion. We can come up with increasingly bizarre examples for effect: "It's up to you to prove that aliens haven't eaten my legs and replaced them with those of another person!" If the standard becomes that the unexpected claim must be disproven, not proven, the floodgates swing wide open.
Zeleny, like other reporters including myself, had pointed out that there's simply no solid evidence for Trump's tweeted claims that rampant voter fraud -- particularly in California, Virginia and New Hampshire -- cost him the popular vote. In defense of his claims, Trump's communications director Jason Miller sent The Fix a 24-page document that contained purported evidence to demonstrate voter fraud. The document begins by hinting at the possibility of fraud since a Pew study discovered that dead people are still on the voter rolls -- which, as we pointed out when Trump raised it in October, isn't any evidence at all that those "voters" then voted. The other 23 pages are similar: Isolated incidents, some merely allegations, from past elections of possible illegal votes or voter registration fraud, which is another step removed from the allegation at hand. (Our fact-checkers walked through this.) No demonstrated voter fraud this year. Just wisps.
Zeleny, also like other reporters, would no doubt jump at the chance to prove that an American election was thrown by voter fraud. That would be a bombshell story! But the evidence simply isn't there, and it's not Zeleny's role to cobble together some sort of evidence that would satisfy @FiIibuster -- or Trump.
That's the larger issue that we can't avoid. Donald Trump's embrace of conspiracy theories gives him a distinct political advantage that most traditional politicians have shied away from. There's no amount of evidence that can dissuade Trump's most fervent believers from agreeing with his inaccurate claims, to the point that it often seems frustratingly useless in trying to do so.
I got an email on Monday from a woman taking issue with my assertion that Hillary Clinton was leading in the popular vote count. I replied to note that the tallies from the 50 boards of elections in each state suggested that Clinton was indeed leading; she responded with a link to a video from InfoWars, the conspiracy-theory-hawking site that's been instrumental to powering Trump's nebula of nonsense over the past year. (Trump himself gave an interview to the site's proprietor, Alex Jones, during the primary. Jones has asserted, among other things, that the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax and has raised questions about the 9/11 attacks -- an effort to which he tried to recruit Trump in a tweet on Monday evening.)
The InfoWars video was a pastiche of nonsense, starting with the site's own story lifting up a tweet from one individual who claimed that 3 million non-citizens had voted in the most recent election. There's no proof of this, either, but for Jones it was just one thread in his tapestry of other rumors and misrepresentations. That's the marvel of this process, working the same way that Miller's voter-fraud document does: Cobble together enough hints and suggestions and you give the appearance of proof where none exists. At the same time, those seeking to clarify the issue are left having to rebut dozens of claims, making it look like it is they who are struggling with reality. It's brilliant, really.
It's not entirely new to politics. Joseph McCarthy's effort to root out Communists was similarly based in hints and rumors. But McCarthy wasn't powered by a social media ecosystem that was home to thousands of people seeking to root out individual threads for conspiratorial tapestries. (Like the guy who tweeted about a group of buses that he assumed were used to bring in protestors to oppose Trump. They weren't, but the rumor became part of the "paid protestors" argument leveraged by Trump and others.) McCarthy also didn't have the assistance of internationally available publications that presented themselves as media outlets while willfully straddling the line between fact and fiction.
Trump's embraced that process gleefully. It's far more effective to undercut the media by spreading falsehoods and demanding they be disproven than it is to complain about biased coverage. Most politicians would avoid walking down this path (or walking it very carefully) because the arguments being made are simply untrue and their integrity demands that they not humor these theories. Trump clearly suffers from no such constraints.
We end up with @FiIibuster, a 16-year-old kid who accepts at face value that Trump should be believed and Zeleny shouldn't. We end up with a president-elect who cultivates that idea, seeing it as a political asset. We end up with an ecosystem of social media and websites that feeds into it, getting traffic and attention by encouraging the misinformation.
We end up here.