While there’s still no evidence the fake news we’ve been warned about since 2016 swung a single vote or even had any meaningful effects (apart from excusing Hillary’s loss), the potentially massive impact of false reports from trusted media outlets became apparent again this week.
The New York Times reports President Trump nearly fired Robert Mueller in December over a report from Bloomberg News that the special counsel had subpoenaed his and his family’s bank records. Mueller had “zeroed in” on the Trump family, according to the single and anonymously sourced Bloomberg report, which was picked up by The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, and other trusted outlets. The next day all of them had to correct their stories when the president’s lawyer revealed no such subpoena had been received by anyone in the Trump family.
The false story was especially impactful, because Trump had previously told The New York Times Mueller would be crossing a red line if he expanded his investigation beyond Russia into the Trump family’s personal finances. He was so furious over the reports that he initially told his advisers “in no uncertain terms” the Mueller investigation must be shut down, according to The New York Times. But his lawyers and advisers quickly found out the reports weren’t true, so Trump backed down.
The New York Times zeroes in on how Trump’s reaction to the reports could damage him politically: “Mr. Trump’s quick conclusion that the erroneous news reports warranted firing Mr. Mueller is also an insight into Mr. Trump’s state of mind about the special counsel. Despite assurances from leading Republicans … that the president has not thought about firing Mr. Mueller, the December episode was the second time Mr. Trump is now known to have considered taking that step.”
That’s fine. But there’s a much bigger story here about the potentially devastating effects of false reports published by trusted media outlets. That includes their power to manipulate the public, and in this case even the president, into serving their political ends.
Let’s go back to Trump’s red line in the Mueller investigation. He didn’t make it on his own. He was prompted by a New York Times reporter. Here’s the relevant bit of the July interview:
Asked if Mr. Mueller’s investigation would cross a red line if it expanded to look at his family’s finances beyond any relationship to Russia, Mr. Trump said, ‘I would say yes.’ He would not say what he would do about it. ‘I think that’s a violation. Look, this is about Russia.’
Fast-forward to December, when someone close to Mueller talked to Bloomberg about the subpoena for Deutsche Bank records. It’s entirely possible this source intentionally twisted the facts with those red line comments in mind, to manipulate the press into reporting something that might make Trump do or say something foolish. Or maybe the source was just ill-informed. Either way, several major news outlets broke what used to be standard journalism protocol and chose to run a huge story about the president based on one anonymous source, who turned out to be unreliable. As a result, Trump nearly fired Mueller, which could get him impeached.
Trump is responsible for whatever foolishness or recklessness he displays, but that doesn’t negate the power of the press on display here. While false and erroneous reports have piled up at an astonishing rate in the past year or so, none have so clearly demonstrated as this tidbit on Trump and Mueller what can happen when trusted outlets get the facts wrong.
Regardless of whether this kind of mainstream “fake news” results from bias, recklessness, or even just an honest mistake, the public consequences can be astonishingly severe. By comparison, the fake news on Facebook that Democrats and their allies in the press have been warning about since the 2016 election looks completely harmless.
Okay, so a kid in Macedonia wrote a goofy post that your aunt liked on Facebook. Common sense is all we need to deduce that it almost certainly didn’t change her vote. It’s also fairly obvious that Facebook feeds tend to reinforce existing views and biases. Sure, it’s concerning that people spread false information, but there is simply no reason to believe this kind of fake news had any real effects on the 2016 election or even our national discourse.
In fact, more than common sense suggests the opposite. A Dartmouth College analysis covered in The New York Times found fake news had few real effects, because it was often consumed by already intense partisans unlikely to change their minds who were also “voracious” consumers of hard news.
“The reach of fake news was wide indeed, the study found, yet also shallow,” reported The New York Times. “One in four Americans saw at least one false story, but even the most eager fake-news readers — deeply conservative supporters of President Trump — consumed far more of the real kind, from newspaper and network websites and other digital sources.”
Here’s another study with similar findings, from Stanford University.
Dire warnings about the impact of Russian bots and operatives in the 2016 election have similarly proven overwrought. For example, much ado was made about Russian operatives buying Facebook ads designed to influence American voters. But as astute observers pointed out, the $47,000 they spent was minuscule compared to a combined $81 million from the Trump and Clinton campaigns for Facebook ads. Again, it’s concerning that Russia attempted to affect U.S. politics, but there’s no reason to believe it was successful — other than serving as fodder for the (false) narrative the Left drummed up that the election was not entirely legitimate.
Yet look at how the press responds to this Macedonia-style fake news, or to the largely harmless presence of Russian bots on Facebook. The first, we were told, is a threat to our democracy and swung the election for Trump. The second prompted CNN to dox an elderly woman and send a reporter to her front lawn, where she was berated on camera for her crime of unwittingly encountering a Russian bot online. In the Trump era, we’re supposed to fear propaganda from a teenager in Macedonia, and a regular citizen sharing a Facebook post warrants public humiliation, but when professional journalists are repeatedly caught publishing fake news with a proven real-world impact, crickets.
Story after story has been written on the alleged dangers of fake news on Facebook and the Russia threat, but aside from media critics on the Right, there’s been very little reflection on or acknowledgment of the damage mainstream fake news has done. It’s damaged the reputation of the subjects of false reports, the ability of voters to make well-informed judgments about their leaders, and the credibility of the press. All of this damage is legitimately concerning, not to mention that many in the press seem to see it as little more than necessary collateral in their just war against Trump.