Welcome back to Can’t Handle the Truth, our Saturday column looking at the past seven days of fake news and hoaxes that have spread thanks to the internet.
On Wednesday, a gunman approached a baseball field in Alexandria, Virginia, and opened fire on a group practicing for a charity baseball game between Democratic and Republican congresspeople. Four victims were wounded, including Republican House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who is still in critical condition as of this writing. The shooter, James Hodgkinson, was killed when Scalise’s law enforcement detail returned fired. Hodgkinson left behind a long history of vitriol toward Republicans, and had actively supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary. Like many mass shooters, he also had a prior record of violence, including domestic violence.
That’s pretty much all we know for sure about this horrific act. But that hasn’t stopped Wednesday’s shooting from turning into a rorschach test of our current political moment—an abstract image that you can look at and derive whatever meaning you want.
If you support gun control, the point of the story is that we need to make it harder for someone like Hodgkinson to get a firearm. If, on the other hand, you dislike Bernie Sanders, the right reading is that #FeelingTheBern leads to homicidal mania. Meanwhile, if you’re a troll, well, you can use the shooting to troll.
Most of what went around this week in response to the shooting was just finger-pointing and punditry at its worst. But there were also plenty of untruths being spread.
Here’s how people got it wrong this week:
Sarah Palin Once Inspired a Similar Shooting
When you’re using a fresh tragedy as a cudgel to make a larger point, one really good idea is to make sure you have your facts straight. The New York Times issued an editorial just after the shooting called “America’s Lethal Politics,” in which the editorial board made the usual arguments you might expect about stricter gun policies and the need to chill out when it comes to political rhetoric.
But the article also contained a huge, consequential error: It wrongly claimed there was a link between politics and the lethal 2011 mass shooting that wounded Congresswoman Gabby Giffords—the shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, was deeply disturbed but not particularly political. The Times later issued a correction.
The line in the editorial clearly wasn’t meant maliciously. And it’s not the purest example of “fake news” you’ll ever see, since the editors corrected their error after a wave of online criticism. But the Times did inadvertently pass along a long-debunked falsehood.
This seems like it was probably an example of a phenomenon scientists have observed where people’s cognition can sometimes be flawed because of political bias.
Actually it was Rand Paul who inspired Hodgkinson
At some point, some really cool person doctored a photo of Hodgkinson to spread a rumor that he protested while holding a sign featuring a tweet by Republican Senator Rand Paul. That photo then got passed around online. The Paul tweet in question is from last year, and it features a quote by Fox News contributor Judge Andrew Napolitano: “Why do we have the Second Amendment? It’s not to shoot deer. It’s to shoot at the government when it becomes tyrannical.”
To be fair, the common gun rights talking point featured in the tweet does resonate pretty strongly with the popular reading of Hodgkinson’s motive for his crime. But there’s no evidence the shooter had any affection toward Paul.
The original photo was a real picture of Hodgkinson protesting, but he was holding a sign that said, “Tax the rich like congress did for 70 years till Reagan’s ‘Trickle Down.’ We need ’20 Brackets—$20 Million,'” a sentiment I assume he cobbled together himself.
Watch: These young radicals are fighting America’s alt-right in the streets
Vox endorses the killing of legislators
“AHCA Quick Facts” is an image that materialized online Thursday, which was, to be absolutely clear, not created by the folks at Vox Media even though the Vox logo is on it. I won’t post it here because it uses Vox-style imagery to outline a justification for murder, the the gist was that murdering three Republican senators would prevent the American Health Care Act from passing, thus the lives of thousands of people who would otherwise lose their health insurance.
This sentiment is obviously horrific and despicable, but it was also obviously a (very dark) joke made a weird Twitter guy named @TheDudeSlater, who also claimed that he worked for Vox in his bio. (Pretending you work for Vox is an in-joke among a few internet leftists I won’t bother to explain.) No one as far as I can tell really ever believed this was authentic Vox content.
Still, whoever runs Vox’s Twitter account showed up and used its most grown-up internet voice to demand that the post be taken down, an understandable reaction given how quickly jokes can be misinterpreted and become hoaxes.
This was a textbook case of the Streisand Effect, and it led to a brief spitball-and-paper-airplane party on weird Twitter, resulting in more attention for the graphic than it probably ever deserved. By the time the dust had settled, Snopes had decided the graphic was a big enough deal to debunk.
The original tweet is no longer up, and the Dude Slater doesn’t claim to be affiliated with Vox in his bio anymore.
Bernie Sanders Told His Followers to Get Violent
Some conservatives blamed Wednesday’s shooting on an “escalating pattern of violence” from the left, a very old rhetorical play—when an unhinged person who commits an act of violence is even vaguely associated with a party or movement, opponents of that movement will naturally depict every member of the movement as having violent tendencies.
Since Hodgkinson and one other shooter in the past both expressed support for the Southern Poverty Law Center, a group that monitors right-wing hate, the Washington Examiner insinuated that supporting the SPLC was evidence of radicalization. That led some internet randos to conclude that the SPLC is itself a hate group.
Then there was Jack Posobiec, a B-list alt-right conspiracy-monger who just decided to straight-up lie about it.
Posobiec is full of shit here. CNN paraphrased Sanders badly with the headline “Sanders to Faithful: Take down Trump, take over Democratic Party,” but Sanders said nothing of the sort in his rousing—and very normal—speech about his “political revolution.”
As the New York Times has noted in the past, the Posobiec modus operandi is to take a kernel of information derived from a news report and twist it into something Trump supporters will find soothing or shareable, despite being false. Once a Posobiec lie is posted on Twitter, the #MAGA community will elevate the falsehood by sharing it again and again, until it’s so popular it might wind up becoming a talking point in places for places like Breitbart, GotNews.com, and the Rush Limbaugh Show.
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