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It was an astonishing claim: President Obama unilaterally decided that the United States was going to let in 250,000 refugees from Syria and other war-torn regions. This was what Sean Hannity told Fox News viewers on October 19 and 20, saying Obama “has committed to nearly 250,000 coming to America.” Five days later, Donald Trump cited this figure in New Hampshire.
The claim, it turns out, is completely false.
The fact-checking outlet PolitiFact traced it back to what appears to be a hoax article on a rightwing website called RealNewsRightNow. The article attributed the figure to a “Cathy Pieper” at the State Department. “We could find no Cathy Pieper working for the State Department,” PolitiFact reported.
Hannity responded to this report, saying he got his figure by totaling the number of refugees the United States would accept over the next three years. PolitiFact debunked this too: Those figures represent refugees from all countries, not just Syria and its surrounding areas, and the numbers are similar to previous years.
There’s nothing new about false information spreading like wildfire, especially when news becomes a battle for the loudest soundbite. Following the Navy Yard shooting in 2013, far-right website Breitbart reported that guns are banned on military bases, suggesting that laxer laws may have saved lives. The claim was repeated on Twitter by NRA member Ted Nugent and multiple Fox News contributors following the shooting. In fact, the rule does not ban all guns; one of the first Navy Yard victims was an armed security guard. The claim may have stemmed from a 2009 report in The Washington Times. But it was not true.
Many politicians snatch snippets of misinformation from websites and launch them into the media universe. They also take cues from pundits, gleefully stealing alarming one-liners and figures. Rightwing groups, in particular, bond over attacking the mainstream media—or what Marco Rubio calls the Democrats’ “ultimate super PAC”—for missing the real stories.
The result is an eerie uniformity among rightwing media and candidates, even on matters where they’re objectively wrong. This dangerous duo implants phony memes into the national dialect and ricochets falsehoods around the world before the truth can get its shoes on. But where does it begin?
Strategic fibbing has always accompanied politics. When Thomas Jefferson ran for president, a Connecticut newspaper cautioned that his victory would mean that “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will openly be taught and practiced.” A Jefferson supporter shot back, saying John Adams was a “repulsive pedant” who had sent his vice president overseas to bring back mistresses.
But the modern era of super PACs has supercharged negative campaigning; their raison d’être is to do politicians’ dirty work. Partisan think tanks, which publish research and press releases, also play a big role.
Lucas Graves, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of the forthcoming book Deciding What’s True: The Fact-Checking Movement in American Journalism, has long tracked the spread of falsehoods in the political arena.
“Some politicians will continue to make a claim as long as they think it’s useful, no matter what the mainstream media or experts say,” Graves says. That’s why, for years, Donald Trump, Mike Huckabee, and Sarah Palin went on questioning the legitimacy of Obama’s birth certificate—a matter that was settled and then settled again.
Graves thinks this is especially true in the rightwing media. “There’s a separate informational universe that some conservatives occupy,” he says. “There’s a phenomenon where Republican politicians are addressing mainly conservative viewers through conservative media and drawing on conservative think tanks.”
False political claims often originate from media commentators. In September, Fox News host Megyn Kelly asked whether Obama “has an obligation to speak out against” anti-police rhetoric. Sean Hannity also demanded, “Why doesn’t he speak out publicly about that and take a strong stand?”
In fact, two days earlier, Obama had done just that. “Targeting police officers is completely unacceptable,” he said. “We must . . . continue to stand up for the safety of police officers wherever they serve.”
Rightwing media have targeted Black Lives Matter, insisting that the movement to protest violence against African Americans and police murders is, itself, a murderous organization that promotes violence. “This is a movement that promotes the execution of police officers,” one Fox News guest said.
“They hate police officers,” claimed Bill O’Reilly. “They want them dead.”
Talk radio hosts like Erick Erickson (also the editor-in-chief of the blog RedState.com), Laura Ingraham, and Sean Hannity serve as the chief brewmasters of Tea Party politics. An article in Politico suggested that conservative talk radio encourages hardline stances and, in some cases, causes Republican candidates to be more fearful of criticism from the right than from the left. Several well-known radio hosts are also regular contributors on Fox News, so these ideas make their way onto television, and the feedback loop ensures little is questioned.
When the Center for Medical Progress released doctored video of conversations between Planned Parenthood and undercover operatives posing as representatives of biomedical companies, Rush Limbaugh compared Planned Parenthood’s actions to those of Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, who performed deadly medical experiments on prisoners in concentration camps.
Glenn Beck followed suit on his website, The Blaze, equating the footage to “a documentary of Auschwitz” and each Planned Parenthood clinic to a “for-profit concentration camp.”
Erickson tweeted, “Resolved: [Planned Parenthood President] Cecile Richards is the closest we have come in America to Josef Mengele.” Breitbart News likened Richards to Hitler. Radio host Simon Conway said Planned Parenthood dehumanizes babies the way Nazis dehumanized Jews.
The Center, which has tax-exempt status, allowing donors to deduct contributions, bills itself as devoted to medical issues, not fighting abortion. Its founder, David Daleiden, has said he’s gotten a total of $120,000 in funding from individual donors, whom he would not name.
The video’s release came the same day Congress was to vote on funding for the Susan G. Komen foundation, which provides grant money to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer research. After the video was released, Republicans in Congress canceled the vote.
The late Andrew Breitbart was a conservative writer and the founder of Breitbart.com, a right-leaning news site. In his memoir, Righteous Indignation, Breitbart mentioned conservative talk radio over twenty times and idolized Newt Gingrich (calling him “Professor Gingrich”).
Breitbart didn’t hide the hasty nature of the news he and his idols reported. He took pride in it. “There is no greater high,” he wrote in his book, “than watching cable news or listening to talk radio and seeing stories that five minutes before were in Microsoft Word format now playing themselves out, sometimes with major consequence, on the world stage.”
Groups like PolitiFact, FactCheck.org, and The Washington Post’s The Fact Checker exist to challenge questionable claims. Media Matters for America does the same, albeit only to correct conservative misinformation.
But by the time an analysis is published, sometimes just a day later, the statement in question will already have been echoed across the country. Those who already heard it are unlikely to revise their initial impressions, which makes false information a serious threat.
“Even when presented with new information, people tend to stick to what they have heard,” Graves says. “In some experiments, after being shown corrective information from an authoritative source, they say they believe even more strongly the original claim.”
Occasionally, a claim will be so false as to warrant an in-house correction. Many media outlets challenged Donald Trump when he repeatedly claimed that he saw video of “thousands” of Muslims cheering in New Jersey as the World Trade Center collapsed on 9/11. Fox News’s own Stephen Hayes said, “He got the facts wrong....The reason Donald Trump is fact-checked as often as he is, is because he says things that are factually not true.”
But not every lie will be as glaring, and fact-checkers, including members of the press, will never keep up.
Cara Lombardo is editorial intern with The Progressive. Her article appears in the February issue of the magazine.