I’ve been enjoying the obvious struggles of Elon Musk, who looks more and more like the dog who caught the car as he tries to change Twitter into whatever it is he thinks it should be. (Some of you will remember “The Peter principle”…)
America is awash in misinformation, and Twitter–both before and after its overpriced acquisition–is a significant contributor. But it’s only fair to note that the pollution of the information environment isn’t simply a consequence of social media. A regular reader sent me a recent, unfortunately representative example of Republican contributions to the cesspool that has replaced so much of our public discourse.
A November 5th article from the New York Times was titled “How Republicans Fed a Misinformation Loop About the Pelosi Attack,” and I am reproducing much of it below.
Within hours of the brutal attack last month on Paul Pelosi, the husband of the speaker of the House, activists and media outlets on the right began circulating groundless claims — nearly all of them sinister, and many homophobic — casting doubt on what had happened.
Some Republican officials quickly joined in, rushing to suggest that the bludgeoning of an octogenarian by a suspect obsessed with right-wing conspiracy theories was something else altogether, dismissing it as an inside job, a lover’s quarrel or worse.
The misinformation came from all levels of Republican politics. A U.S. senator circulated the view that “none of us will ever know” what really happened at the Pelosis’ San Francisco home. A senior Republican congressman referred to the attacker as a “nudist hippie male prostitute,” baselessly asserting that the suspect had a personal relationship with Mr. Pelosi. Former President Donald J. Trump questioned whether the attack might have been staged.
The article provided a list of elected officials and pundits (“prominent figures”) who spread fabrications and really vile speculations about the attacks.
The flood of falsehoods showed how ingrained misinformation has become inside the G.O.P., where the reflexive response of the rank and file — and even a few prominent figures — to anything that might cast a negative light on the right is to deflect with more fictional claims, creating a vicious cycle that muddies facts, shifts blame and minimizes violence.
It happened after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, which was inspired by Mr. Trump’s lie of a stolen election, and in turn gave rise to more falsehoods, as Republicans and their right-wing allies tried to play down, deny or invent a different story for what happened, including groundlessly blaming the F.B.I. and antifa. Mr. Pelosi’s attacker is said to have believed some of those tales.
“This is the dynamic as it plays out,” said Brian Hughes, a professor at American University who studies radicalism and extremism. “The conspiracy theory prompts an act of violence; that act of violence needs to be disavowed, and it can only be disavowed by more conspiracy theories, which prompts more violence.”
The article reported on the parade of Republicans and right-wing media personalities (including, of course, Tucker Carlson and Elon Musk) who abetted the viral spread of lies about the attack, “distorting the account of what happened before facts could get in the way.”
The article proceeded to document the “dark web” source of scurrilous speculation, and the movement of that speculation from those sources to the mainstream.
Many Republican leaders did denounce the violence and a couple expressed sympathy for the Pelosis, but “none of them publicly condemned the falsehoods their colleagues were elevating or did anything to push back on the false narrative. That left others to fill the void.”
“Just produce the police body cam, — why is that so hard?” Mr. Carlson demanded on his show on Wednesday night. Addressing those criticizing the conspiracy theorizing, he added: “We’re not the crazy people; you’re the liars. There’s nothing wrong with asking questions, period.”
The disinformation surrounding the attack on Mr. Pelosi presented many of the standard elements of alt-right conspiracy theories, which relish a culture of “do your own research,” casting skepticism on official accounts, and tend to focus on lurid sexual activities or issues related to children, often driven by a fear of society becoming immoral.
The truly depressing bottom line:
Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation expert, said no amount of evidence — be it police body camera footage or anything else — could get in the way of such falsehoods in the eyes of those who do not want to believe facts.
“It doesn’t matter when there are documents or sworn testimony claiming something is, in fact, not the case,” Ms. Jankowicz said. “There will be an elaborate reframing effort. If the footage was released, people would claim it was fabricated. There’s no bottom.”
Welcome to life in the cesspool.