Yesterday, liberals found themselves aghast at a CNN segment that served as a tidy, outrageous case study in the perniciousness of conservative fake news. In the segment, host Alisyn Camerota discovers that a pair of Trump supporters she is interviewing, part of a small panel, are quite convinced President Obama effectively invited undocumented immigrants to vote, contributing to voter fraud that could have tilted the election results.
The segment kicks off with a Trump supporter named Paula righteously stating that “voting is a privilege in this country, and you need to be” — here she enunciates to emphasize her outrage — “legal, not like California where three million illegals voted” — a claim that echoes unfounded statements made by the president-elect himself on Twitter a few days ago.
“Let’s talk about that,” says Camerota, and it makes for an interesting segment that’s worth transcribing almost in full:
Camerota: So where are you getting your information?
Paula: From the media! Where else would we get —
Camerota: Which media?
Paula: Some of it was CNN, I believe.
Camerota [skeptical]: CNN said that three million illegal people voted in California … ?
Paula: Well, it was coming all across the media — all across. If CNN didn’t do it, they were being smart this time.
Camerota [despairing internally]: Do you think that three million illegal people voted?
Paula: I believe in California that there were illegals that voted. || Camerota: How many?
Paula: I don’t — to tell you the truth, nobody really knows that number.
Camerota [wondering if law school is still an option since journalism is dead]: But, but, do you think three dozen, or do you think three million?
Camerota: I think there was a good amount, because the president told people that they could vote, and it happened in Nashua, we caught some people. That they went into Nashua and they said, “The president said I could vote — I’m here illegally.”
Camerota: Did you hear President Obama say that illegal people could vote?
At this point, both Paula and a woman sitting behind her say yes, they did. Paula asks where. “Google it, you can find it on Facebook,” says the woman in back. Camerota pulls out her phone, looks it up, and immediately finds out the claim was misleading, which she explains to the panel.
Then, the segment concludes:
Camerota: You, as you sit here today, think that millions of illegal people voted in this country. You believe that there was widespread voting abuse.
Paula: I think there was in some states.
Camerota: Millions of people?
Paula: California allows it.
Camerota [sputtering, her voice like that of a character in a Sartre novel]: They do not allow illegal … you mean illeg … — you mean voter fraud, California allows?
Paula: I believe there is voter fraud in this country.
The segment reinforces several emerging points — confirmation bias! — about the hows and whys of our fake-news catastrophe:
1. Many low-information news consumers have an impressionistic view of news, don’t know how to gauge the relative trustworthiness of different sources, and don’t get too worked up about the specifics of claims. Paula jumps around to a remarkable extent. At first she is positive three million “illegals” voted in California. Then, she isn’t quite sure that was the number, but she is sure it was a lot. She thinks she saw that on CNN, and when pressed says “it was coming all across the media.” What does she mean by “the media”? Her counterpart in the back makes that clear: “Google it, you can find it on Facebook.” The implication is clear: If a claim pops up on social media or a Google result, that’s reason enough to take it seriously.
These women, like millions of Americans, lack basic media literacy. They likely don’t understand that different media outlets have different politics, different editorial standards, and different agendas. CNN would be very unlikely to push a rumor as wild as the notion that three million undocumented immigrants voted last month. Eh, whatever: CNN, Google, Facebook — same difference. And maybe there weren’t three million of them, and maybe most of them weren’t in California. Nashua! Yeah, I think I heard something about that. (A quick Google search on “nashua illegal immigrants voting” turns up nothing but incredulous coverage of Paula’s claim, though maybe if you dig deeper there are results somewhere.) Also, in California they basically let just anyone vote.
The point here isn’t to judge these women for not being media savvy — plenty of people are just trying to get by in life, and might not have the opportunity to fully understand how media works. But if we’re going to fight fake news, we need to understand the extent to which some very basic, Communication Studies 101 norms simply aren’t held by a huge chunk of the population, leaving them extremely susceptible to misinformation at the hands of opportunists and radicals.
2. Hilariously low-quality, easily debunked content can go viral if it is connected to an outrage-inducing rumor. Googling reveals that one of the primary vectors of the Obama-said-illegals-can-vote rumors is this YouTube video of a segment on Fox Business:
Yes, that is someone recording their TV while breathing heavily, perhaps because they are so outraged by what they are seeing. As a comprehensive Hot Air rundown by Larry O’Connor points out, Fox host Neil Cavuto’s editing of the source interview, in which Obama is speaking with actress and rapper Gina Rodriguez of the Latino/millennial Mitu network, leaves out a lot of context.
Here’s O’Connor’s transcript of their exchange, with a note from me in brackets:
RODRIGUEZ: Many of the millennials, Dreamers, undocumented citizens — and I call them citizens because they contribute to this country — are fearful of voting. So if I vote, will immigration know where I live? Will they come for my family and deport us?
OBAMA: Not true. And the reason is, first of all, when you vote, you are a citizen yourself. And there is not a situation where the voting rolls somehow are transferred over and people start investigating, et cetera. The sanctity of the vote is strictly confidential [note: Cavuto’s show cuts things right here] in terms of who you voted for. If you have a family member who maybe is undocumented, then you have an even greater reason to vote.
RODRIGUEZ: This has been a huge fear presented especially during this election.
OBAMA: And the reason that fear is promoted is because they don’t want people voting. People are discouraged from voting and part of what is important for Latino citizens is to make your voice heard, because you’re not just speaking for yourself. You’re speaking for family members, friends, classmates of yours in school …
RODRIGUEZ: Your entire community.
OBAMA: … who may not have a voice. Who can’t legally vote. But they’re counting on you to make sure that you have the courage to make your voice heard.
Cavuto’s show snips things so viewers don’t see that Obama specifically referred to the importance of Latino citizens making their voices heard, and specifically said that their friends and families “may not have a voice” because they “can’t legally vote.”
Now, it’s still an awkward exchange in which the usually eloquent Obama comes across as a bit muddled (partly because, as O’Connor points out, Rodriguez’s phrasing of the question that kicks off the exchange is so vague), and if you interpret his words a certain way it does almost sound like he’s encouraging illegal voting. But when you listen or read carefully, it can’t logically be the case that Obama is both telling undocumented immigrants to vote and saying those same immigrants are “counting on [citizens who can vote] to make sure that you have the courage to make your voice heard.” When you hear the full exchange, rather than Cavuto’s selective cropping, you’d have to, in effect, squint really hard to interpret this as Obama encouraging undocumented immigrants to vote.
No matter! It was snipped dishonestly, and the resulting video — Obama seeming to throw open the gates to those millions of illegals, followed by Cavuto reacting in disbelief and disgust — made for a clip so outrage-inducing to paranoid conservatives that many wing-nut honeypots, including Drudge, World Net Daily, Gateway Pundit, and others, disseminated that video with headlines screaming about Obama’s insanely irresponsible behavior.
3. There’s an important snowball effect to fake news; people’s defenses seem to get beaten down over time by the broader rumor ecosystem. By the time the two women found themselves on camera for a CNN segment, they had apparently been exposed to a cavalcade of different iterations of the illegal-voters claim. For years, the GOP has been using the idea of voter fraud as a means of justifying voter suppression, despite a lack of any evidence of widespread voter fraud, and that has paved the way for an endless parade of misleading anecdotes, rumors, and viral content perpetuating this idea.
For example, to believe Obama would, during a recorded interview, call for undocumented immigrants to vote, you’d have to believe pretty radical things about a guy who is, in fact, about as staid a center-left politician as they come. You’d have to, say, have been exposed to years and years of false news about him being an evil radical, about him maybe not even being American, about him wanting to undermine the entire American project.
The point is that fake news requires a whole ecosystem to work. If you just dropped that claim about Obama into an ecosystem in which Obama is viewed as a generic, normal president, it’d be laughed off (the same goes, of course, for the idea of Hillary Clinton helping run a child-trafficking ring). But by the time voters immersed in these sorts of information ecosystems encounter a specific claim — Trump making his wild accusation about three million voters, for example — some cognitive trailblazing has already occurred. Each subsequent encounter with an iteration of the rumor seeps in a bit easier and will be likely harder to dislodge.