The #FakeNews about Iraqi WMD Got Hundreds of Thousands Killed

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This morning, Dana Milbank — who used to have a podcast with Chris Cillizza on which he once suggested Hillary would choose to drink Mad Bitch beer —  wrote a piece warning of the dangers of fake news.

After writing about a threatening email he received, Milbank considered whether episodes like the attack on Comet Ping Pong — which he described as “the family pizza place in Northwest Washington I’ve been frequenting with my daughter ever since she was a toddler a decade ago” — were the new normal. Milbank described the role of Alex Jones in making a “bogus and bizarre accusation” against Hillary. Then he turned the attack on Comet Ping Pong, in part, into an attack on the media.

This would appear to be the new normal: Not only disagreeing with your opponent but accusing her of running a pedophilia ring, provoking such fury that somebody takes it upon himself to start shooting. Not only chafing when criticized in the press but stoking anti-media hysteria that leads some supporters to threaten to kill journalists.

The man whose “Mad Bitch beer” comment targeted Hillary ended his piece by scolding Trump for fueling rage against Hillary and those who support her.

If Trump were a different leader, he would declare that political violence is unacceptable in a free society. Perhaps he’d say it after eating a “Steel Wills” pie at Comet.

But instead he continues to fuel rage against his opponents and his critics.

On Twitter, Peter Singer — who wrote a very worthwhile book that uses fiction to lay out near term threats to the US  — RTed Milbank’s story with the comment, “stop winking and nodding” at fake news because it can get people killed.

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Singer works at New America Foundation, but he used to work at Brookings Institution, which employs people like Michael O’Hanlon and Charles Lister to write propaganda, funded in part by Qatar, designed to generate support for endless wars in the Middle East.

In response to Singer’s tweet, I RTed it and pointed out that “The #fakenews about Iraqi WMD DID get hundreds of thousands killed.” That in turn led to some interesting discussions, most notably with Zeynep Tufekci, who claimed that by “conflating two very, very different types of failure” I was being unhelpful because those different kinds of fake news operated via different mechanisms.

Tufekci is right. The means by which an uncritical press — enthusiastically joined by the WaPo’s editorial page and many, but not all, of its reporters — parroted Dick Cheney’s lies about Iraqi WMD are different than the means by which millions of people sought out the most outrageous claims about Hillary. The means by which the financial press claimed the housing market would never collapse are different than the means by which millions of people sought out conspiracy theories about the people who didn’t prosecute the banksters. The means by which Dana Milbank got to insinuate the Secretary of State might choose Mad Bitch beer are even different than the means by which millions of people sought out news that called the former Secretary of State #CrookedHillary. The means by which the traditional press focused more attention on Hillary’s email server than on Trump’s fraudulent business practices are different than the means by which millions of people sought out claims that Hillary’s email server was going to get her indicted. All of those traditional news examples of fake news included an editorial process designed to prevent the retelling of fake news.

The means by which traditional news media shares fake news are different than social media’s algorithm driven means of sharing fake news.

Until you remember that a week before the election, Fox’s Bret Baier, who eight months earlier had moderated a GOP primary debate, reported that the investigations into Hillary “will continue to likely an indictment.” While Baier retracted the claim just over a day later, the claim was among the most damaging pieces of fake news from the campaign, not least because it confirmed some of what the most inflammatory social media claims were saying and magnified the damage of Jim Comey’s irresponsible announcement about finding new emails.

Baier got manipulated by his sources who knew how to game the means the press uses to avoid fake news. Baier got manipulated into sharing fake news that served the goals of his sources. It turns out Baier was not any more immune from the manipulation of his biases than your average news consumer is.

Now, the NYT (though not, I think, the WaPo) apologized for their WMD coverage and Milbank apologized for his Mad Bitch podcast and Baier apologized for his indictment scoop. No one has yet apologized for focusing more attention on Hillary’s email server than Trump’s own corruption, but I’m sure that’s coming. I’m not aware that the financial press apologized for the cheerleading that ultimately led to millions of Americans losing their homes to foreclosure, but then it also hasn’t stopped the same kind of fake news cheerleading that led to the crash.

Indeed, while it shows remorse after some of the worst cases, the traditional news media still lapses into the habit of reporting fake news, often in a tone of authority and using an elite discourse. Such lapses usually happen when a kind of herd instinct or a rush to get the news first sets in, leading news professionals to tell fake news stories.

And, now that social media has given average news consumers the ability (and after financialization has led to the disappearance of reliable local news), average news consumers increasingly bypass news professionals, listening instead to the stories they want to hear, told in a way that leads them to feel they are assuming a kind of self-control, told in a language and tone they might use themselves. At its worst — as in the case of PizzaGate — a kind of herd instinct sets in, with news consumers reinforcing each others’ biases. On Sunday, that almost got a lot of innocent people — families like Milbank’s own — killed.

Elite commentators may view the herd instincts of average news consumers to be more crude than the herd instincts of professional news tellers. Perhaps they are. Across history, both types of herd instincts have led to horrible outcomes, including to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, even millions of people.

But as we try to deal with our herd instincts and the mistakes we all make (myself very much included), we might do well to exhibit a little less arrogance about it. That certainly won’t eliminate the mistakes; we are, ultimately, herd animals. But it might provide a basis to rebuild some trust, without which leads all of us — the professionals and the average news consumers — further into our own bubbles.

Update: This Current Affairs piece treats WaPo’s peddling of fake news — including the PropOrNot story — well.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

16 replies
  1. bloopie2 says:

     
    In some areas (Glenn Greenwald area, e.g.) there has been a “debate” lately about whether journalists should be “unbiased” or “biased”.  A cub reporter covering high school football should likely tend toward the “unbiased” end of the spectrum.  But this new emphasis on “fake news” (not the new news, but the new emphasis) makes it even more important that all journalists who consider themselves more than just reporters or stenographers exhibit the “gatekeeping” function of someone in the know; someone who can sniff out the truth; someone who can “speak truth to power”; someone who can hold government accountable; and, importantly, someone who can tell us readers the difference between investigated truth and PR fluff—since many news consumers these days are not able (or willing) to do that for themselves.  (Damn, that sentence came out too long.)  So, whether they apologize or not, these “journalists” must accept and honor, once and for all, the notion that they are more than just conduits for something that someone has to say—and if that involves hard questioning of the veracity and motives of their sources, and if some then call that “bias”, so be it.  If they aren’t willing to put in that effort, then they should pack it in and go home.  Don’t f**k with us.

  2. bevin says:

    Don’t hold your breath, Bloopie. Today’s reporters know exactly what they are there for. And it ain’t to speak truth to power or record ‘the facts.’
    The only thing likely to compel news organisations to, for example, report Bernie Sanders’s rallies or tell the truth about Palestine is the sense that they have lost credibility to the extent that the lies that they tell have no more influence than anyone’s else’s lies.
    Many reporters know this-but their bosses aren’t interested in their opinions, and their pay cheques depend on anticipating the boss’s wishes, shaping his opinions for him and making the best of what are often indefensible positions.
    The good thing about Fake News is that it is teaching people to judge for themselves, drawing on their own experience, knowledge of the world and the basic tools of logic that all employ in everyday life. And to stop believing what people in authority-who generally have the most reason to lie and falsify- tell them to believe.
    Yes, the pundits and the government told lies about Iraq’s WMDs leading to the deaths so far-and these are early days- of hundreds of thousands of people. But they were lies anyone with any sense of self worth could see through-insults to the intelligence- clearly false and widely contradicted.
    The fact that those who contradicted the lies or questioned them were quickly thrown out of politics, fired from Universities or framed and jailed ought to have led, after the truth had been established, to their reinstatement in office, their recall to Academe or their innocence being established.
    But it didn’t- nobody believes the lies that led to the War on terror. But the war goes on, gets bigger and those promoting it are now trying to make sure that, in future, even to question their lies or publish the views of those who, for example, doubt the existence of seven year olds in Aleppo with an encyclopediac knowledge of geo-politics and an ad mans way with snappy slogans, as purveyors of Fake News.

  3. jerryy says:

    Wildly OT;

    I saw this in the page’s Twitter feed:

     

    @emptywheel

    Trump has made 4 econ moves: 1) Helping keep jobs in McConnell’s KY 2) Not helping keep jobs in Snyder’s MI 3) Jobs in Pence’s IN 4) Boeing

    Beyond giving Sen. McConnell’s wife Elaine Chao a job in his administration, what jobs?

  4. jerryy says:

    “Ford automotive jobs, as the story goes.”

    That one came as a surprise to all the folks in that area that work at Ford. The two factories were not going anywhere. But as EW noted, the MI jobs were and still are going to Mexico.

  5. Kathleen says:

    :”no one has yet apologized” for the hundreds of thousands dead, injured and now millions of refugees that are a direct consequence of foreign policy decisions that HRC was deeply involved in, Ok she has said she made a mistake, So what? She continued her war hawk ways with Libya and Syria, The msm allowed her to skate easily around that bloody record,

    • Larry says:

      Kathleen, are you a paid shill still doing ‘both sides do it’.  Give it a rest, whatever.  And she was one vote among a huge majority, NOT “deeply involved in”.  Your exaggerated hysteria based in the past still contaminates what passes for your thinking.

  6. lefty665 says:

    The Times had Judy Miller and the public humiliation that came with her. They had crow they could not avoid eating.  Fred Hiatt is still running the Editorial Page of the Post so they have been able to avoid eating theirs. Their flood of neocon propaganda keeps on flowing.

    It’s not that there was too much coverage of Hillary’s server. It’s that there was too much blather and too little witting coverage, along with too much swooning over Trump’s Twittering. Too few reporters have been willing to do the hard work and risk attack for covering Trump’s bizarre practices and pathological narcissism.  Trump learned it at Roy Cohn’s knee, “attack, attack, attack”.

    After 911 the MSM rolled over in a fit of “patriotism”, waving the flag and unquestioningly repeating every damn fool thing that the administration was peddling. 15 years later that has not changed. The conventional, elite, inside the beltway, wisdom and spin has blended politics and press into a seamless patina that only rarely allows reality to peek through.

    So yes EW, you’ve got it with ‘elite herding’, although I’d put it less charitably. It is a corrupt herd of fat cats, government, press, contractors and financiers who have shaped policy and public perceptions and wielded power to assure themselves a never ending stream of riches.  They have accomplished this by picking the pockets of the rest of the country while destroying much of the world for profit, all the while telling the rest of us what to think.

    I certainly make my mistakes, more than my share likely if we’re counting. But, I am not inclined to write them off to “herd instincts”.  I come here, and several places listed by the Post last week as Russian tools, and others, for information and opinion that is independent, thoughtful and fact driven, not herd regurgitation.  It is not arrogant for you and others here to get down into the weeds, analyze and do knowledge based reporting.  I’m looking for information and insight, not dittohead reinforcement of my (mis)perceptions.  I bang that up against different takes from different sources to learn more and to figure stuff out.  I make my mistakes the old fashioned way, I work for them, and try not to make the same ones twice.

    Arrogance is what beat Hillary. That is a perfect lesson that less arrogance is good medicine for us all. Less arrogance may also pave the road back to a better and more common understanding that builds trust. But remember to verify, there are lots of sleazy scenarios out there vying to become perceptions, and perceptions are what herds feed on.

  7. Larry says:

    it’s not that there was too much coverage of Hillary’s server. It’s that there was too much blather — THOSE TWO THINGS ARE THE SAME THING, SERVER COVERAGE AND BLATHER. Otherwise a really good comment.

    • lefty665 says:

      Thank you, mostly. I suppose so, unless you happen to understand that TS/SCI information was on that server and transited whatever insecure device (Blackberry likely) Hillary was using at the moment. Under section 793(f) of the espionage act that is felony mishandling of highly classified information. Intent is immaterial,  Jim Comey notwithstanding. Failure to report it is a separate offense. Anyone else would have been in the slammer.

      There was some informed coverage at places like this and others where people understood the law regarding classified information.  Most MSM coverage was blather due to willful elite herd ignorance blindly following an administration that was backing Hillary.

  8. Trevanion says:

    If what comes from the stenographic pens of the NYT’s Sanger and WaPo’s Ignatius ain’t fake news, and often dangerously consequential at that, I don’t know what is.

  9. Peterr says:

    Two quick notes on common media practices that contribute mightily to the problems here:

    1) The Use of Anonymous Sources — Every time the professional media refers to “senior administration sources” and “unnamed sources close to . . .” the reporter is implicitly saying “trust me.” This frees fake news sources and the more insidious creators of fake political spin to do the same, making it more difficult for the casual readers/hearers to distinguish between the two. By its overreliance on anonymous sources (especially when there is no legitimate reason to grant anonymity – see “Russert, Tim, testimony at the trial of Scooter Libby”!), the media has created and polished the tool being used against it.

    2) The Rise of He Said/She Said Reporting — When one of the presidential debate hosts said that his job was not to fact check, because that’s the job of the candidates, I was not surprised. Among so much of the media, this has been their default setting for ages. Now, though, these same folks are whining about not checking sources and not holding news sites accountable. The professional media needs to choose between being stenographers and reporters. To the extent that they have prided themselves on being stenographers of fictional claims made by politicians, the fakenews folks are happy to join in writing their own fictional pieces, that are just as helpful to an informed citizenry.

     

  10. Bitter Angry Drunk says:

    People seem to forget (at least I have until I thought about it) that we’ve had “fake news” for a long time — National Enquirer, et al. I guess the difference is it’s a lot tougher to filter this stuff online. And it’s so easy to BS online, whatever your motivation. Most of us understand what the Enquirer is about (they make things up; unless it’s a celebrity sex scandal, then they know their shite). But online there’s so much flying everywhere — even smart people can get bamboozled by, say, fake tweeter accounts.

    I think we’re losing our bearings. Like I’d say for the most part, I’m very well-informed about the news. But until yesterday I had no fricking idea what pizzagate was, and until today I didn’t realize that story about the FBI agent dying mysteriously in the midst of the investigation of Hillary’s emails was bogus. It honestly bothers and scares me a little when I miss some things, because I don’t feel like that was happening previously..

  11. lefty665 says:

    The fake news hysteria seems to be really intended to suppress views that do not support the MSM take and conventional wisdom.  It uses things like the recent bizarre incident at the pizza place in D.C. as an excuse to drum up hysteria and to suppress alternate views, research and perspective.

    The Dems continue to demonize the Russians rather than to look at themselves for the reasons they got their clocks cleaned by Trump. The Repubs, especially McCain and Graham, are all too ready to jump on the witch hunt bandwagon. We are left to the tender mercies of Trump to protect us. Good luck with that.

    It’s a new round of McCarthyism, as Consortium News, one of the sites named as a Putin toady, details. They also remind us how the Dems fueled it the first time.

    https://consortiumnews.com/2016/12/08/democrats-launch-new-mccarthyism/

    You don’t need my encouragement to maintain your senses and not to fall for media criticism and attempts to intimidate with accusations of “arrogance”, but I offer it anyway. Thanks for all you do.

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