It was Breitbart.com's Ben Shaprio who spread the far-from-confirmed rumor that Chuck Hagel's nomination as secretary of Defense was being held up because of his "foreign funding" from a shadowy group called "Friends of Hamas." He wasn't sure, so he used a question mark in his headline. That was enough: The item caught fire on right-wing websites until Slate's Dave Weigel wondered if Friends of Hamas is "as fake as Manti Te'o's girlfriend." It is indeed.
In the New York Daily News today, Dan Friedman explains:
On Feb. 6, I called a Republican aide on Capitol Hill with a question: Did Hagel’s Senate critics know of controversial groups that he had addressed?
Hagel was in hot water for alleged hostility to Israel. So, I asked my source, had Hagel given a speech to, say, the “Junior League of Hezbollah, in France”? And: What about “Friends of Hamas”?
The names were so over-the-top, so linked to terrorism in the Middle East, that it was clear I was talking hypothetically and hyperbolically. No one could take seriously the idea that organizations with those names existed — let alone that a former senator would speak to them.
He underestimated how easily the Internet will pass along information that confirms already-held biases — in this case, that Hagel hates Israel. Take, for instance, Shapiro's reaction when told that the whole thing was an exaggerated ruse: "The story as reported is correct," he told Friedman, who again admitted he made the whole thing up. "Whether the information I was given by the source is correct I am not sure." On Twitter, Shapiro added, "Tons of questions to be asked about Hagel. State-associated media more interested in pillorying anyone who asks those questions."
But Shapiro didn't do this on his own. Weigel attempted to map the contagion, from Red State ("Well now … That is quite the accusation") to the Right Scoop to IsraelNational.com to Fox Business, all of which cited Breitbart citing nothing, and did not attempt to add more. Hugh Hewitt even asked Rand Paul about "Friends" on the radio. "You know, I saw that information today, also, and that is more and more concerning," Paul responded. "With each day, there are new things coming out." It trickled down to smaller sites, as well, like the Lonely Conservative, PJ Media, and the Tea Party Command Center.
At the Washington Times, Frank Gaffney Jr. admitted "it cannot be determined whether Mr. Hagel is literally associated with the 'friends,'" but used the possibility as a launch pad to declare, "The mere fact, though, that it seems entirely plausible … should be the last straw for Senate Republicans and Democrats alike." Charisma Magazine, on its Standing With Israel blog, failed to cite a source at all.
Beyond the failure to confirm flimsy facts, the episode demonstrates how a story can be stripped of its dubious origins and lent an air of legitimacy when it makes its way back up to powerful people, like the GOP Senate aide quoted by the National Review, which does not mention Breitbart at all:
Rumors abound on Capitol Hill that a full disclosure of Hagel’s professional ties would reveal financial relationships with a number of “unsavory” groups, including one purportedly called “Friends of Hamas.” The GOP aide said it was “noteworthy” that the White House has yet to deny the association. “Maybe it’s not true, but why not provide a list of groups he spoke to and remove all doubt?” the aide said.
As of this writing, Friends of Hamas even has a Wikipedia page. That one, at least, "is being considered for deletion."
Update: Shapiro defends himself, unconvincingly, by stating that Breitbart's Senate source "denies that Friedman is the source of this information. 'I have received this information from three separate sources, none of whom was Friedman,' the source said. ... Dan Friedman was not the source of the information given to Breitbart News." (He gets no closer to proving the group exists.)
In his Daily News column, Friedman explains, "On Monday, I reached my source. The person denied sharing my query with Breitbart but admitted the chance of having mentioned it to others." That's how rumors work.