Political disinformation existed long before the rise of Donald Trump and social media. In the 1990s, for example, right-wing operatives pushed the conspiracy theory that Vince Foster, who worked in the Clinton White House, was murdered by the Clintons. Multiple investigations found that Foster, who suffered from depression, committed suicide in July 1993.
But the effort to push the Foster conspiracy theory was slow, complicated, and expensive. It gained prominence with the release of a film, The Clinton Chronicles, in June 1994. It featured the claims of Christopher Ruddy, who latched onto the Foster conspiracy and was hired to investigate it full time by the late Richard Mellon Scaife, a right-wing billionaire who owned the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. (Today, Ruddy is a friend and outside adviser to Trump.) The film was released on VHS tape, and 300,000 copies were distributed.
In 1995, Hugh Sprunt, an accountant, produced a report on alleged "errors, omissions, [and] inconsistencies" in the Foster investigation. The New York Times later called it "a classic of conspiracy literature." While it was available online, most Americans lacked reliable internet access. So it was distributed primarily through print shops in Texas and Maryland, where it could be purchased for $34.95.
A group called Citizens for Honest Government, linked to Jerry Falwell, reportedly paid various individuals $200,000 to provide information about Foster's death, most of it false, "to media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal editorial page and the American Spectator magazine." Publicists working for the group then booked the same individuals on right-wing talk radio. Still, for years, the conspiracy remained on the fringes of the political discourse.
Compare the process of spreading disinformation about Foster to what happened to Nancy Pelosi when, at the conclusion of Trump's State of the Union, she ripped her copy of the speech in two.
Before the night was over, Charlie Kirk, the president of Turning Point USA, tweeted that Pelosi "may have just committed a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2071, Section 2071(a)" which is "punishable by up to three years in prison." The claim has been retweeted over 28,000 times.
Kirk's claim is completely false. The statute cited by Kirk involves destroying government records "in official repositories like the National Archives or in courts." Pelosi's copy of the speech was not a government record; it was her copy. And it was not filed or deposited anywhere. Politifact talked to a number of legal experts, and they were unanimous in their view that Kirk's claim was wrong.
But that didn't stop Kirk's claim — and other disinformation about Pelosi's conduct — from being repeated by Trump, amplified by major media outlets, and weaponized by social media platforms.
It used to take months and large amounts of money to spread disinformation to thousands of people. Now, disinformation can be disseminated instantly to millions of people for free.
The president of disinformation and a compliant media
On February 7, Trump appeared on the White House lawn and repeated the claim that originated with Kirk:
I thought it was a terrible thing when she ripped up the speech. First of all, it's an official document. You're not allowed. It's illegal what she did. She broke the law.
It's not surprising that the president is saying something not true. But what is disturbing is that major media outlets, more than three years into Trump's presidency, have not made any adjustments.
The traditional view is that when the president says something, it's important and newsworthy, and it serves the public to report it without extraneous commentary. And that's what numerous media outlets did with Trump's claim about Pelosi.
Some of these same outlets would later "fact check" Trump's claims. But by then it's much too late. Many people will be exposed to the initial headline and nothing else. Correcting the record days later doesn't fix the problem.
The Fox effect
On Saturday night, Fox News took things to another level with the help of Congressman Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the top-ranking Republican in the House. McCarthy suggested Pelosi was now a felon and should be investigated by the Justice Department.
MCCARTHY: She's the custodian of the House official document. If you tear up a House document, that is a statute. You are creating a felony.
JEANINE PIRRO: OK, so you are saying a prosecutor can actually prosecute her for that statutory violation?
MCCARTHY: The AG [Attorney General] should actually give an opinion...you cannot destroy official documents of the House
The conduct itself here isn't new. Ultimately, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) said he didn't believe the official story of Vince Foster's death.
There's something that doesn't fit about this whole case and the way it's been handled...I'm not convinced he didn't [commit sucicide]. I'm just not convinced he did...I just don't accept [the official explaination]. I believe there are plausible grounds to wonder what happened and very real grounds to wonder why it was investigated so badly.
But Gingrich's comments came in 1995, two years after Foster's death. McCarthy's comments were broadcast instantaneously to a sympathetic audience of millions, but Fox News didn't exist in 1995. So most people found out about Gingrich's comments the next morning in newspapers — with appropriate context.
Kirk's tweet wasn't his only attempt to smear Pelosi for ripping a few pieces of paper. His organization also posted a deceptive video on Facebook that made it seem like Pelosi ripped the paper after Trump honored one of the Tuskegee airmen. Actually, Pelosi stood and applauded during that part of the speech.
The video was later posted to Twitter by Trump.
On February 4, Twitter announced it would prohibit the use of manipulated media. According to the policy, users "may not deceptively share synthetic or manipulated media that are likely to cause harm." The company defines manipulated media as "has been substantially edited in a manner that fundamentally alters its composition, sequence, timing, or framing."
But Twitter says its new policy doesn't go into effect until March 5, so the video would stay up. (It declined to say whether it would have been removed if the policy was in effect.)
In January, Facebook announced its own policy against manipulated media. But Facebook's policy is limited to "product of artificial intelligence or machine learning that merges, replaces or superimposes content onto a video." A Facebook spokesperson confirmed that the misleading Pelosi video, which was edited using conventional tools, did not violate its policies.
Trump campaign spokesperson Tim Murtaugh bragged that, in the first 24 hours, "the video has received 2.1 million views, has reached almost 5 million people and has been shared more than 23,000 times." The video's reach has since tripled.
Profiting from dishonesty
Facebook isn't just willing to tolerate most forms of manipulated media. It's happy to profit from it.
On Friday, the right-wing non-profit group Citizens United began running Facebook ads featuring a version of the deceptively edited Pelosi video.
This ad is theoretically subject to scrutiny by Facebook's independent fact-checkers. But, as a practical matter, Citizens United has nothing to worry about.
In the case of Foster, right-wing groups needed to pay people to seed disinformation with media organizations and hope that it would trickle down to voters. Now, for relatively little money, the same groups can instantly micro-target disinformation to persuadable voters.
It's not the 1990s anymore.
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