At this point, do we need examples? I’ll briefly cite just three.
Remember back in 2017, when Trump hectored his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, into opening yet another Justice Department investigation of Hillary Clinton? The president and his Republican allies muttered darkly about purported “corruption” involving the Clinton Foundation and a company called Uranium One. The Post reported last week that the investigation found no evidence of anything untoward. Nothing, nada, zilch. Yet Trump’s rally crowds still chant “Lock her up!”
Much more recently, Trump, the nation’s liar in chief, claimed last week that assassinated Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani had been planning imminent terrorist attacks against four U.S. embassies. Yet Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper admitted Sunday he never saw any intelligence reports about planned embassy attacks. No one has forthrightly backed up Trump’s assertion, much less named the embassies supposedly in peril. There is no evidence the claim was anything but a complete fabrication.
And Trump is far from the GOP’s only inveterate liar. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) claimed in a tweet Saturday that Democrats “have spent the last week trying to empower Iran.” In another tweet Sunday, McCarthy said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) delay in sending articles of impeachment to the Senate is somehow — absurdly — a plot to deny Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) the Democratic presidential nomination.
McCarthy has to know that neither of these allegations is supported by ascertainable facts. He certainly cites none to back up his charges. But here’s the thing: To call McCarthy out on his baseless statements, I had to repeat them.
That is the real conundrum. It’s not good enough simply to abandon ridiculous “both sides” constructions, such as “Democrats say that water is wet, but Republicans say there is no scientific consensus on water’s wetness.” If Trump, McCarthy and other Republican officials publicly and repeatedly take the position of wetness-denial, it is impossible to report that fact without giving exposure to the lie.
In a 2018 study, three Massachusetts Institute of Technology scholars found that lies spread more rapidly than truth on Twitter. The same may be the case with other social media platforms as well.
The researchers tracked more than 126,000 “cascades of news stories” that spread on Twitter between 2006 and 2017, measuring the content against the findings of fact-checking organizations such as FactCheck.org and PolitiFact.com. “We found that falsehood diffuses significantly farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth, in all categories of information, and in many cases by an order of magnitude,” co-author Sinan Aral said when the paper, titled “The Spread of True and False News Online,” was published in the journal Science.
The reason seemed to be that “false news,” which really shouldn’t be called news at all, is “more novel” and provokes a more intense emotional response. That makes sense if you think about it. Outrageous and improbable claims are memorable, and fantasy is more vivid than pedestrian reality. If I’m the first to “know” that water may actually be dry, I want to tell all my friends. And as soon as they hear it from me, they want to tell all their friends.
The Republican Party figured this out long before the scholars at MIT did, and the Democratic Party still doesn’t have a clue. The technology of lying and obfuscation has leaped far ahead of the technology of truth telling and accountability. Thanks to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other conduits, we in the media are no longer the primary arbiters of what’s true and what’s false. It’s a jungle out there.
In the Darwinian world of social media, will “survival of the fakest” be the rule? It cannot be. Democracy requires truth, and we had better take to the barricades to defend it.