Sunday, June 24, 2018

Anatomy of a Fake News Story

Last week I got into a long-winded social media dispute with my good friend, the Trump supporter, something we do on a regular basis. Unlike our typical disputes which center around the merits of the current administration. this was over a truly pointless and irrelevant issue. It started when my friend posted this meme:

My friend took the point a step further claiming this as proof of the depths of Democratic chicanery, the tale of  a corrupt Democrat, Jimmy Carter, pardoning another corrupt Democrat, and a felon to boot, Bill Clinton

As I am wont to do, with or without any factual basis to back it up, I challenged my friend. The truth is, while I knew that Bill Clinton went to great lengths to not serve in the military during the Vietnam War, I did not know whether or not he was actually convicted of a felony for illegally dodging the draft. One would think I might have remembered it coming up during his first election in 1992, but I was going through the breakup of my marriage at the time so I had other things on my plate.

As you might guess, a few things tipped me off that the message of this meme might be bogus:
  • You can always tell where a meme is going by the image its creator choses to use. Here we have a particularly snarky image of Clinton, displaying a "face smackable smirk" as one commentor remarked, an image that portrays the Clinton described by one of his more colorful nicknames, "Slick Willy.". 
  • The creator chose to capitalize the words "Draft", Dodging", and "Felon", but not the words "bill" and "clinton." This either means the creator has a serious issue with the rules of English grammar, he is tipping off a bias, or perhaps a little of both.
  • Whenever a meme begins with the phrase, "Why do so few people know this fact", you can rest assured that nine times out of ten, it's because it really isn't a fact. 
  • Finally there is the use of the phrase, "look it up." People more often than not create memes to preach to the choir. Everyone knows it's considered bad form for the choir to question the word of the preacher. So no, the intended audience is not very likely to look it up, it's the heathens who question ideas and look things up. Being a heathen of the first magnitude, I looked it up and no, I couldn't find a 60 Minutes piece about Clinton the felon. But I did find several scurrilous anti-Clinton videos including one where during an actual 60 Minutes interview, a studio light fell off its stand and hit Hillary Clinton in the head. The creator of the video went on to praise the light for sacrificing its life in an attmpt to rid us of the evil Hillary.
So why this interest in a president who's been out of office for 18 years? As a Trump supporter, my friend  is deeply offended that his man is often criticized for having himself dodged the draft. From a post I wrote during the 2016 campaign, I said that I don't have a problem with (then candidate) Trump's lack of military service  as he did what tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of men did during that era, that is, everything in his power to avoid serving in a highly contentious war. As I said, I probably would have done the same had I been a little older.

What irks me about Trump is the way he potrays himself as a patriot, both figuratvely and literally wrapping himself around the American Flag, as if that symbolic gesture, and that gesture alone actually meant anything. Beyond that, he has gone out of his way to disrespect veterans whom he doesn't like, most notably questioning the heroism of John McCain, a navy pilot who endured years of captivity in the notorious "Hanoi Hilton" POW prison.

The late, great columnist Mike Royko, himself a veteran of the Korean War, had a term for bellicose, hawkish politicians who like Donald Trump, avoided the draft. He called them "war wimps."

My first line of questioning my friend's reasoning was that what he posted was only a meme. As anyone with the slightest bit of social-media acumen will attest, memes are as dependable a souce of information as grafitti inside a bathroom stall. In response God bless him, my friend  linked to a blog post. Now I happen to know a little about blog posts which you might have gathered as you are reading a blog post right now. While I try my hardest to write accurately and honestly, the truth is I have no publisher, no editor or fact checker to keep me honest. For what it's worth, all you have is my word that to the best of my knowledge, whatever I write in this space is accurate. If however I chose to be deceitful, no one could stop me. True you could point out my errors in the comments section but I have a dirty little secret, bloggers can delete comments at their discretion.

Despite that, blog posts are at the very least, one step above the credibility ladder from memes. The particular one he posted, lists a chronology of events involving Bill Clinton's actions regarding the draft, along with the Jimmy Carter pardon.. The post concludes with this:
Bill Clinton is the first pardoned federal felon ever to serve as President.
With that I did a little research. So is it true that Jimmy Carter pardoned the felonious Bill Clinton in 1977?

The answer is no.

Like most fake news stories, this one has some basis in fact. Bill Clinton did indeed dodge the draft, first through college deferments, then with a little help of a connection which got him into the ROTC at the University of Arkansas. which further enabled him to aviod the draft. He then dropped out of the UofA, choosing to complete his studies at Oxford and then at Yale. In doing so he skipped out of his committment to the ROTC. While in England, he wrote the draft board to request a re-classification. They gladly returned his message, giving him a 1-A classification, in other words, a prime candidate, eligible for serice. Luckily for Clinton, President Nixon signed into law a new policy that allowed students to finish their school year before reporting for service. This granted Slick Willy yet another college deferment. By the time the year ended, Nixon instituted a draft lottery which corresponded to days of the year. One's chances of being called depended upon the order in which your birthday was drawn, low numbers being most likely, high numbers the least. It turned out that Clinton's number, like Donald Trump's was in the 300's,, meaning his chances of being drafted by that time, were very low.

One could question the ethics of Clinton's actions, especially his skipping out of his ROTC committments. The blog my friend posted claims that by doing so, Clinton was declared AWOL, subject to arrest, and ineligible for the lottery. Other sources I found claim that no, Clinton's actions, while perhaps questionable, did not violate the law. What is not debatable is that Bill Clinton was never charged with a crime for skipping out of his committments.

As for the pardon, in January, 1977, Jimmy Carter gave a blanket pardon to all those "who were convicted of violating the Military Selective Service Act by draft-evasion acts or omissions committed between August 4, 1964 and March 28, 1973."

The bottom line is this: since Bill Clinton was never charged with a crime relating to his failure to show up for duty, by the very definition of the term, he cannot be a felon. By the same token, Carter's blanket pardon did not apply to Bill Clinton because Clinton was never charged with or needless to say, convicted of violating the Selective Service Act.

I got this information from the fact checking website, as well as from other sources. My findings were immediately rejected by my friend and other Trump supporter friends of his who insist that Snopes is a part of the biased left wing main stream media and thus, cannot be trusted.

Since there is no arguing with them about that bit of false information, I told them to use a little critical judgement and common sense. The website makes two curious bullet points before it mentions the Carter pardon:
  • Bill Clinton runs for Congress (1974), while a fugitive from justice under Public Law 90-40.
  • Bill Clinton runs for Arkansas Attorney General (1976), while a fugitive from justice.
The word "fugitive" comes from the Latin verb "fugit", literally meaning "to flee". Apparently the author of the blog and the people who buy into his premise never watched the TV show or the movie The Fugitive. The eponymous character of both, Richard Kimball, did a lot of things, but I don't ever recall him running for public office, at least not under his own name. Presumably, if you are fleeing from justice. chances are good that there are people involved with carrying out justice, who are looking for you. And one of the easiest ways to find someone, is if they are running for public office. William Jefferson Clinton, had he indeed been a fugitive from justice, would have been pretty stupid to expose himself that way. He wasn't called Slick Willy for nothing. And the people supposedly looking for this fugitive from justice must have been pretty dense to not have noticed their man was a candidate for Congress. Even worse, in 1976 Clinton won the election for Attorney General, making him effectively their boss. Pretty hard to not notice that. Maybe they thought, "nah that can't be him, nobody would be stupid enough to run for public office, especially for the top legal official in the state, when he's a fugitive from justice."

Anyway according to the blog, Clinton was no longer a fugitive from justice after Jimmy Carter allegedly pardoned him. Which begs the question, was Carter's blanket pardon of all those who violated selective service laws during Vietnam, merely a ruse by "an obviosly corrupt Democrat president to exonerate another obviously corrupt future Democrat president" as my friend insists? Well let's just say that's a bit of a stretch, I haven't found any evidence that Carter even knew the newly elected Attorney General of Arkansas when he allegedy, but didn't really pardon him in 1977.

Lest you think that I'm knocking the intelligence of Trump supporters, let me point out that it works both ways. Trump detractors are just as eager to promote ideas or post articles they like, without checking their validity. A couple weeks ago, Trump was excoriated by his detractors who accused him of calling illegal immigrants "animals."  Listening to his remarks, Trump was clearly referring to members of the notorious MS-13 gang, not to all undocumented immigrants. More recently a photograph has been widely distributed showing a crying young boy inside a cage. Captions claim the child is one of the thousands of children separated from their parents during the new "zero tolerance" sweep of people coming across our southern border. The photograph in fact was not of one of the separated children, but of a staged event in Dallas,  at a protest against the separations.

And finally there is the meme that has been widely circulated since the beginning of the 2016 election featuring a photograph of a young and handsome Donald Trump, taken back in the days when he was a liberal Democrat.. The meme includes the quote: "If I ever ran for president, I'd run as a Republican because Republican voters are so stupid, they'd believe anything you told them" There is certainly no tastier morsel that can be used to justify the resistance of the current president than that remark. The only problem is that he never said it.

How do I know those stories are not real? I listened to the immigrants being animals quote in its proper context, and I checked out the stories of Trump's Republican quote, and the photograph of the child in the cage where else, in

The truth is this, fake news is a mortal enemy to democracy, it serves no one, except people of ill will trying to use it to gain power.  Everytime we post something on social media, we are broadcasting an idea to virtually the entire world. We may not realize it, but that is a very powerful thing, the kind of power our ancestors could never have imagined. We must all do our utmost to avoid spreading baseless information, just because we happen to like or agree with it, even, no especially if we are employing it to counter fake news on the other side.

So how does one know what is real and what is fake these days? Frankly it's not all that hard, it just takes some work. I find fact-checking sites like Snopes to be credible because as we just saw, they point out factual errors on both sides of the political fence. But it is still important to never trust the word of one single news source, no matter how un-biased is may seem, double check everything.

"Main stream media" news outlets, whatever they may be, wouldn't be in business very long if they kept reporting factual errors. Their credibility is judged upon their ability to report facts. All news sources get it wrong sometimes. If a news source rigorously corrects factual errors in printed or stated retractions, that doesn't mean it makes a lot of errors, it means they are committed to getting it right, and should be trusted.

Some news outlets are pointedly biased, I needen't mention them by name. These exist on both sides of the political divide. I think it is important no matter what side of the divide you find yourself on, to check out sources on the other side, and if possible, give them the benefit of the doubt. You might even learn something.

The most important thing when reading or watching the news, no matter what the source, is to use your brain and its inherent capability to make critical judgements and employ common sense.

Ask yourself questions like: "is what they are saying even plausible", or "does it make sense?" Another worthwhile question is "how much is the source willing to give a voice to both sides of an issue?" If commentators keep praising one side and berating the other, chances are pretty good that sorce is not credible. These "news" sources earn their keep by telling their counsumers what they want to hear, rather than reporting the facts.

Independent news sources such as blogs (yes like this one), don't have to answer to anyone to stay afloat. That doesn't mean they are not credible sources of information, it just means you have to work a little harder to verify them.

Memes, while they may contain truthful information,  should be automatically suspect.

My point is this, in an ideal world, we should consider ourselves Americans first, then Democrats or Republicans a distant second. It seems like we've done exactly the opposite for too long. Sadly, the current administration and those who promote it, seem to thrive on such division. But truth be told, both sides are guilty of broadening the divide.  I have no doubt that there are people on both sides of the current political morass who are of good will and truly want what is best for the country.

One of my friend's friends, also a Trump supporter, put it very well. He said that as long as people relentlessly criticize the president, out of anger his supporers will only strengthen their resolve. Which can only mean that their resolve is fueled by emotion, rather than intelligence. For my part I can say that my own anger and resolve are fueled by what I see as the complete lack of regard for facts and reason coming from the other side. And on and on it goes, where it will stop, no one knows. There is a place for emotion in politics, but a very small place. Mea culpa, that is something I need to keep reminding myself.

People ask me why I continue these endless sparring matches when it is clear that neither of us will budge the other's opinion. Thinking about it I have two answers. First, I have no problem with people who have different political opinions from me and I enjoy spirited, well thought out debates, but the core of my being is rattled whenever I encounter an argument that is entirely illogical and catagorically denies substantialted facts. Deep down I feel that the battle for facts and reason is well worth fighting. But more importantly,  I think it is very important to keep an open, and (hopefully) respectful dialog between both sides.  It is important to tap into things we agree upon, rather then just the things that tear us apart. So many relationships have been severed over this divide that I see a spark of hope whenever we can remain friends while keeping our opinions out in the open. If at the end of the day (I hate that cliche but it seems appropriate at this moment), we can find things to agree upon despite our differences, then we all come out ahead by understanding that we're not enemies at all, we just have different opinions.

I may hate their politics but I love the people.
I just have to keep telling that to myself over and over and over again.

No comments: