We all know that fake news is a big problem. And so is fake fake news: the Right Wing has pulled off yet another major semantic coup by co-opting the term fake news and misusing and abusing it until it has become almost meaningless. But there is another variety of disinformation that we should be wary of, which we could call half-fake news. These are stories that have a strong basis in fact, yet are not quite what they appear.
Here’s one example:
Now this really happened, to be sure. Russian state TV actually made this statement. And it has been established beyond a doubt that Russia really did help “install” Former Guy in the White House. So what’s fake about it? Well, it appears that the TV anchor made the remark in jest. Therefore, even though she was speaking truth, her comment was not, as it has been widely interpreted, a blunt confession. It was, on the contrary, poking fun at people who say that Russia interfered in the election — which is perfectly true. So, on the basis of misconstruing the intent of her comments, we must designate this story — for the purposes for which it has been circulated — half fake. Phew.
A more common variety of “half-fake”, however, consists of presenting an exaggerated or distorted version of true events. Here’s a story published at Salon in June 2021, which caused a flap a full year later, prompting Salon to change the headline:
Now let’s emphasize here that everything in the story itself is perfectly true. But the headline is an exaggeration; or perhaps more accurately, it’s a logical progression about where this line of legislation is headed. DeSantis is beyond a doubt a very dangerous fascist — perhaps even more so than Former Guy. (Unlike Former Guy, he seems to be in command of his twisted faculties.) He’s already made it quite clear that he wants to impose fascist values in every nook and cranny of his state — including academia.
But the bill in question does not “require students and professors to register their political views with the state”. At least not exactly. What it does is conduct surveys of such views — which very well could lead to some such registry being compiled. But not to worry, these “surveys” have been both voluntary and anonymous. Though, um, the law itself doesn’t require that they be either. It doesn’t specify that professors will be booted for their political stances — and it also doesn’t say that they won’t. In fact, the law doesn’t exactly specify how the data will be used at all, except to help, somehow or other, engineer some sort of cloud cuckoo ideological balance on campuses.
In short, DeSantis is pandering to and profiting from the popular right-wing myth that college campuses routinely suppress conservatives and censor “conservative ideas” (one of my favorite oxymorons). And there’s only one reason someone would promote the myth of the suppression of right-wing voices on campus: as a justification for their efforts to suppress left-wing voices. So while the original headline didn’t literally summarize either the article it accompanied or the events the article discussed, it did almost certainly provide a true account of the bill’s purpose and intended results. As bad headlines go, it was very, very far from being among the worst. And yet Salon changed it. A year after the fact.
The interesting thing is that right-wingers don’t seem to have raised too much of a howl of protest when the original headline was published. Perhaps even they realized how perceptive and prescient it was. The real stinkeroo came a year later when the headline was altered. And it was altered in part because of a fact check by CNN. Apparently right-wingers recognized a golden opportunity there: if even an allegedly left-wing (it isn’t) network like CNN considers the headline misleading, and even a progressive site like Salon agrees and makes a correction, then by golly it really must have been deliberately dishonest (it wasn’t) and gen-you-wine fake news (it wasn’t).
What they overlooked is that Salon did change the headline of its own volition. And CNN called them out. Any reputable media outlet is willing to correct its own errors — or questionable statements. And neither CNN nor Salon has been known to habitually make false statements willfully and knowingly.
The same can not be said for the right-wing media outlets that have criticized them. They routinely publish stories that are wholly or partially fabricated intentionally, and very rarely issue a correction or apology — indeed, when denounced for spreading disinformation, they almost invariably double down on it.
When Secretary Of Transportation Pete Buttigieg sat for an interview on Fox “News”, he was confronted with a ridiculous comparison between the Jan. 6 coup attempt and the protest against Brett Kavanaugh at a steak house. He gave a superb response, stating in part:
Remember, the justice [Kavanaugh] never even came in contact with these protesters. They reportedly didn’t see or hear them, and these protesters are upset because a right — an important right, that the majority of Americans support — was taken away. Not only the right to choose, by the way, but this justice was part of the process of stripping away the right to privacy.
Kavanaugh destroyed the right to privacy for other people, but still believes he’s entitled to his own — standard maneuver from the right-wing playbook. Anyway, this is how Fox later spun Buttigieg’s comments.
And there is absolutely nothing unusual about this. It’s just what Fox does. Every. Single. Day. And it’s not at all unique in that regard.
At one time President Biden established a Disinformation Governance Board, aimed at monitoring, as the name suggested, disinformation — particularly disinformation from Russia that attempts to influence U.S elections and affairs. But the GOP, never unwilling to accept a helping hand from Russia or anyone else that will serve their interests, immediately and loudly cried foul. Right-wing media, in one voice, denounced the board as a “Ministry Of Truth”. (Just try Googling “Biden Ministry Of Truth” to see how much in lockstep these people were — and are.) The supposedly respectable Wall Street Journal , in joining this chorus, breathlessly noted, with a perfectly straight face, that the agency’s initials, DGB, were only “one letter off from KGB”.
The DGB was intended to serve in a purely advisory capacity, with no regulatory authority at all. And there is zero reason to suspect Joe Biden of any authoritarian intentions. During his lengthy political career, he’s been just about the least authoritarian politician imaginable. (And it’s worth noting that whenever right-wingers try to brand a Democrat as tyrannical, they invariably try, at the same to time, to brand him a spineless wimp.) Indeed, Biden caved to the Orwellian campaign to characterize him as Orwellian, and disbanded the agency.
Right-wing media has the habit of saying exactly the opposite of the truth. Constantly. But if non-right-wing media steps out of line one time, one inch, even unintentionally, they’re all over it.
That’s another very good reason for journalists to cross their t’s and dot their i’s. If you screw up, they will never let you forget it. And they will weaponize the screw-up in perpetuity to distract from their own persistent malfeasance. It’s one hundred percent guaranteed.