I am sick of fake news about Donald Trump. This popped up in my Twitter feed this morning. It’s made up, by the way.
“How does a balloon stay in the air? Nobody knows. That’s what makes them so wonderful at parades – the mystery of their flight, Maggie.”
It’s not just fake. It’s maliciously fake. It’s edited to look like a screenshot from the New York Times website. The NYT did just run the transcript of an interview between Trump and Haberman, and part of this quote is from it. Everything is real up to “that was very much more than normal.” Everything after that is entirely fabricated. It is not designed as a joke; it is designed to pass as a real screenshot.
Haberman confirmed on Twitter that Trump did not talk about balloons during the interview:
— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) July 21, 2017
Dammit people, will you stop making this crap! We are trying to wage a war on fake news here. Trump’s supporters already think all the criticisms of him are false, and that’s made even harder when a load of caca is actually flying (and not all of it is from Trump himself).
Donald Trump is as articulate as a colostomy bag. In years to come, we will insult bad speakers by comparing them to Trump, and people will laugh at the hyperbole. This is the man so colossally insecure about his vocabulary that he said “I know words. I have the best words” in a CAMPAIGN SPEECH. Look at what came immediately before the fake quote:
“But the Bastille Day parade was — now that was a super-duper — O.K. I mean, that was very much more than normal.”
This is a man who thinks a thesaurus is a dinosaur*. I spent quite a lot of 2016 transcribing recorded interviews, so I know how verbatim transcripts can make well-spoken people look like stumbling goofs. Even by those standards, Trump’s language butchery is still quite special. There is no need to make stuff up.
* In the spirit of this post, I had better point out that this is a joke, before someone tweets that Trump actually said it was a mistake to include thesauruses in Jurassic Park.Whoever made the image at the top of the post could have been looking to discredit Trump, or they could have been looking to discredit the New York Times. Someone recently made a fake image of what appeared to be a CNN screenshot claiming Trump had assaulted a soldier. CNN, of course, never reported any such thing. It didn’t do the rounds in my social media circles, but some Trump supporters went wild for it, seizing on it as proof that CNN is fake news. Thus Facebook posts like this are born:
This also reminds me of the report that Russia hired people to create fake news during the US election campaign to spread disinformation. There are credible claims that anti-Clinton fake news was generated to discredit the Sanders campaign. The above memes could be made by someone in favour of Trump who wants to discredit the left by making it appear that their criticisms of Trump are all based on lies.
But I’m wary of over-reliance on such explanations. They have a whiff of Alex Jones-style “FALSE FLAG!” cries. Doubtless cyberattacks on US democracy are a real threat. Let’s not kid ourselves, though: there are also some people on the left who want to bash Trump and don’t give a fig about the truth. The left has a fake news problem as well.
There are also people who want to see democracy fail. They want the populace to throw up its hands and say “We have no way of knowing what’s true!” If trusted news organisations like the NYT lose their credibility, we have lost a vital way to hold power to account. Without it, there is potential chaos. Authoritarian leaders, wherever they may be, don’t need to make us believe false things to get their way. They could just make us give up on the possibility of knowing anything1.
It’s so easy to fall for this stuff. It appeared in my timeline because a prominent skeptic had retweeted it. I was about to do the same when it occurred to me to factcheck it. I’m not sure why my skeptic senses tingled this time; they let me down just as often. I’m not going to name the skeptic, partly to spare his blushes, and partly because he has already tweeted a correction and is planning to write something about it. The only problem is that the retweeted fake image had about 100 times the likes of the correction. The fake image showed up in my Twitter “in case you missed it” update; the correction did not. It is far easier to spread nonsense than it is to correct.
I know you know all this, but please, please factcheck all the images you share online. Even when they look like they’re from a reputable source, even when they are not visibly doctored, even when they’ve been shared by someone smart. Even when they’re about Donald Trump.
1 This is not an original point, but I cannot now remember where I read some excellent analyses arguing the same idea. If readers could share any in the comments, that’d be great.