Then came the twist: Buttigieg had not criticized the “failures of the Obama era.” The reporter had misheard Buttigieg say the “failures of the old normal.” He issued a correction and an apology, and the L.A. Times appended a correction to the story, but the write-ups, hot takes and notions of Buttigieg as an Obama critic had already gone into the world. Interestingly — and worryingly — to some journalism and communications experts, the correction did not necessarily sway everyone who had reacted to a now-debunked premise.
“It does reinforce the velocity of social media and Twitter and taking comments — true or not, in context or not — and magnifying them exponentially,” Bill Grueskin, who teaches about trends in journalism and digital media at Columbia Journalism School, told The Washington Post. “It shows what happens when you go too fast. The results can be catastrophic.”
The virality of the Buttigieg misquote comes amid the ramp-up to a high-stakes election cycle that is increasingly driven by social media; it also indicates how the intensifying speed and reach of inaccurate information threatens to further erode public trust in the news at the same time audiences retreat further into ideological bubbles.
To illustrate the reach of just one tentacle of the misinformation, Clemson University communications professor Darren Linvill used a data tool to scrape Twitter for every mention of the specific misquoted phrase — “failures of the Obama era” — from when the L.A. Times article went live Sunday afternoon to 5 p.m. Eastern on Monday. The results showed nearly 20,000 tweets discussing the quote that were a mix of reactions to the misquote and the later correction. Linvill notes the 20,000 tweets are not representative of the entirety of the discussion about the Buttigieg story on Twitter and only capture a slice of the conversation, based on the search term (it also does not include tweets that were deleted before the search query).
Linvill, who spent the past year and a half studying how Russian “trolls” used social media to negatively influence political discourse during the 2016 presidential election, saw the barest of silver linings after a quick perusal of the data: There did not appear to be any targeted efforts by trolls or foreign agents to weaponize the story.
The downside: That means the story and its offshoots that perpetuated further misinformed tweets spread organically. That, Linvill said, is a particularly hard kind of disinformation to neutralize.
“Spin is very hard to counter because people want to believe what they’re already inclined to believe … it’s really difficult to stop and properly assess the information. That’s fundamentally how good disinformation works,” Linvill said. “And it’s even more difficult because [the Buttigieg quote] wasn’t a lie, it was a mistake."
Getting incorrect information from a credible source is especially hard to combat, he said. Journalism ethicists have long warned that corrections never reach the full audience of an initial mistake. Linvill said he noticed, however, some people who saw the Buttigieg correction were unmoved by the facts.
“[What’s] scary is that if you look at the replies to Evan Halper’s retraction, [it’s] the number of people who say, ‘I don’t believe you’ — in reference to his retraction,” Linvill said.
Journalism experts agreed mistakes are serious but also inevitable. They said Halper, the L.A. Times reporter, did the right thing by owning his mistake and explaining why it happened (“the result of transcribing a noisy recording at a loud rally,” he tweeted in his correction). Halper went on to share Buttigieg’s full quote in context:
“I think because I come from a part of the country where normal has been a real problem for a very long time, and I think the failures of the old normal help explain how we got to Trump, I am much more interested in building a future that is going to have a lot of differences.”
“My biggest concern isn’t this particular error — my concern is that it’s one more matchstick thrown on the bonfire of people distrusting the media across the political divide,” said Vivian Schiller, CEO of the Civil Foundation, a media nonprofit focused on sustainability and transparency in journalism.
“Now we live in an era [where] you unleash a story and you lose control of it immediately,” she added.
By the time the correction was issued, the misquote had already taken on a life of its own: Various news outlets published stories about the statement (many later issued corrections on their report of the quote); Buttigieg competitors like former HUD Secretary Julián Castro tweeted (then later deleted) rebukes of Buttigieg; former vice president Joe Biden fired off a conspicuously timed tweet praising Obama.
“The minute the reporter retracted the quote, it went from misinformation to disinformation,” Schiller said, drawing a distinction between inaccurate information borne of honest mistakes and intentional efforts to deceive. “Anyone still propagating and ginning up conspiracy theories about it now knows full well that the correction has been issued. They’re taking misinformation [and weaponizing] it into disinformation.”
It is unknown whether the mistake will have a lingering impact on Buttigieg’s campaign. On Twitter, he was gracious about the mistake and took the opportunity to reaffirm his appreciation of Obama.