The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Someone put a fake headline on one of my columns. Trump supporters bought it and blasted me.

An attendee at a rally for President Trump in Tampa on July 31 holds a sign referencing the QAnon conspiracy theory.
An attendee at a rally for President Trump in Tampa on July 31 holds a sign referencing the QAnon conspiracy theory. (The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting its shoes on.”

It tells you all you need to know about how easily falsehoods overwhelm the truth that the above quotation is still regularly attributed to Mark Twain. In fact, as notes, it’s a variation of a saying that goes back to Jonathan Swift. But if lies traveled at the speed of a steamship in the days of old, today they go at the speed of email. Social media has created a bonanza of bunkum. Nowadays, propagating a lie has become infinitely easier than correcting one.

I discovered that for myself in recent days as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and my own email filled up with variations of a meme accusing me of rank hypocrisy. I first became aware of this on Friday when a Twitter user named Chris Manning (@Manning4USCong) tweeted at me: “Which one is it? Trump should never have committed troops to Syria or Trump is wrong by withdrawing troops from Syria? So you were wrong in your initial rejection of the deployment of troops to Syria? And now your position is we need to stay in Syria?” I was puzzled. When had I rejected the deployment of troops to Syria?

During President Trump’s rally on July 31, several attendees held or wore signs with the letter “Q.” Here’s what the QAnon conspiracy theory is about. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

My befuddlement only grew as I examined the photograph attached to his tweet. At the top, it showed the headline of my Dec. 19 Post column: “Trump’s surprise Syria pullout is a giant Christmas gift to our enemies.” Below that appeared the gotcha words “. . . when previously” and then the supposed headline of a column I published on April 19: “Trump can’t do anything right - We don’t need troops in Syria.”

I definitely didn’t remember writing the April 19 column. A little googling showed that my intuition was right: I hadn’t written it. My actual April 19 column had been headlined: “Trump thinks we can replace U.S. forces in Syria with Arab troops. He’s wrong.” In other words, I was supporting the U.S. troop presence, not opposing it. I had written a column on Dec. 7 with the headline “Trump can’t do anything right — even his coverups are incompetent.”

Follow Max Boot's opinionsFollow

Someone had taken the first part of that headline and then Photoshopped some other words about Syria after what was now a hyphen rather than a dash. A capitalized phrase after a hyphen? No Post copy editor would ever have allowed that headline in the newspaper. But that detail escaped the legions of Trump fans online who instantly pounced on what they perceived as treachery from a Trump critic.

Gene Zabin emailed me: “You say one thing then you say another! Another full of shi### liberal!.” “D” wrote: “So in April you trash the president for sending troops to Syria and now you trash him for pulling them out. Then you wonder why the media is the enemy of this country. Scum like you.” “Islanddweller” wrote: “You Are a Typical Libtard. You liberal retards hate anything good.” And on and on. I’m quoting my emails, but Twitter, Facebook and Instagram were fully of equally venomous comments.

And it wasn’t just anonymous Twitter trolls spreading this forgery. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) posted it on his Facebook page. Roger Kimball, editor of the New Criterion, repeated it in the British magazine the Spectator. When I called out Kimball on Twitter, the magazine stealthily removed the entire paragraph about the forgery but kept in an attack on me — without noting the error or apologizing for it. After I noted what had happened, Kimball finally apologized.

Some ordinary Twitter users were, I was glad to see, more honorable: They immediately admitted they had been fooled and apologized. Thank you, @CarlHigbie! Others were unrepentant. When I pointed out to my emailer “D” that the meme was a forgery, he replied, “Let me guess the Russians forged it. It’s funny how non [sic] of you trump haters ever admit when you are caught in your one [sic] bull crap.”

So where did this crazy forgery originate? Apparently in the same place as so many Trump conspiracy theories these days: With an anonymous pro-Trump troll named “Q,” who claims to be a high-level government official sharing details of a vast plot — “QAnon” — that grows more demented by the day. Q posits that President Trump is fighting a worldwide ring of pedophiles whose ranks include most of his political enemies. Naturally, when his falsehoods are called out, his faithful followers are ready to explain them away. Thus @mikebaldwin2 tweeted: “Everyone is getting Q post 2639 wrong. The picture is a meme. Max Boot April 19th article caption is fake. Q’s point is that Anon’s can post fakes as well if we want to.”

It is entirely fitting that such a bizarre forgery results in such a weird and convoluted explanation. Yet even though some of QAnon’s own followers admit that I was the victim of “fake news,” the original image lingers on the Internet to lure in more gullible victims. In the Internet age, it seems, the truth never really gets out of bed. Isn’t that what Groucho Marx said?

Read more:

Max Boot: Trump’s surprise Syria pullout is a giant Christmas gift to our enemies

Max Boot: How can the United States remove Assad? There’s no good way.

Anne Applebaum: We have learned a lot about online disinformation — and we are doing nothing

Travis View: How conspiracy theories spread from the Internet’s darkest corners

Max Boot: Without the Russians, Trump wouldn’t have won