One problem with telling a lie – especially a stupid, easy-refuted* lie such as “There were more than 1 million teabaggers in Washington on 9/12” – is that people might not believe you.
One way to deal with that is to attribute the lie to someone else, ideally a respected institution like a major news organization. That way you can borrow the credibility of whatever outfit you purport to quote. This is a familar tactic of viral emails, citing “page 136” of some (often entirely fictitious) document. A related tactic is to make up a quote for the other side: “So-and-so admitted on Meet the Press on May 27 that …”
Matt Kibbe, who as President of Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks is more or less the Teabagger-in-Chief, understands all this. So instead of telling the crowd “There are a million or a million and a half people here,” he told the crowd that ABC News was reporting that. By the time the figure had finished bouncing around the wingnutosphere, it had risen to 2 million.
I don’t know whether that was the origin of the “Up to 2 million” figure in the London Daily Mail, a newspaper-shaped object sometimes misaken for an actual newspaper on this side of the pond; the Mail story headlines the figure without explaining how it was derived. Then, of course, some careless bloggers started to link to the Daily Mail story, quoting “Up to 2 million” as if it were fact, or near-fact. Glenn Reynolds, for example, quotes the headline without giving its source, and adds, “cut it in half and it’s still a huge number. Why is the British press more honest in its reporting on this stuff than the American press?” (Note that by saying “cut it in half,” Reynolds anchors on the 2 million number as if it had some factual basis; the fact that the American press is reporting reality rather than fantasy makes it, in Reynolds’s view, less “honest” than “the British press,” where “the British press” seems to mean “the one tabloid that reported a number I’d like to believe.”)
However, when this sort of tactic works too well, there’s going to be a reaction. Once the false attribution to ABC started to make the rounds, ABC put out a story reporting that ABC’s actual estimate of the crowd was 60-70,000, attributed to the DC Fire Department.
Once the lie is out there, people who want it believed but understand that it’s false have an easy fallback: treat it as one of two opinions, putting the fantasy on an even playing field with consensus reality. Here’s James Joyner, often one of the more sensible voices from Right Blogistan:
Yesterday, somewhere between “tens of thousands” and “two million” people flooded the nation’s capital … The fact of the matter is that nobody ever has a very good idea how many people attended these things and, since the fiasco of the “Million Man March,” the Capitol Police have wisely stopped providing estimates. Suffice it to say: A whole lot of people showed up.
See, if someone says “60,000” and someone else says “2 million,” then the truth is certain to be somewhere in the middle, right? I wonder how Joyner would feel if his bank reported his checking-account balance as “a whole lot of money”?
The one completely checkable fact in all this is that the President of Freedom Works made a grossly false statement, and that Red Blogistan eagerly spread that false statement around.
Just remember: they’re no more careful, and therefore no more to be believed, when it comes to statements about, for example, the content of health care reform. And when they attribute some claim to, for example, the Congressional Budget Office, you might want to look it up.
* Footnote The Obama inauguration crowd was estimated at 1.2 million. Despite fairly elaborate crowd-control efforts, that crowd virtually paralyzed the city, with people waiting hours to get on the Metro. Nothing like that happened yesterday. Ergo, yesterday’s crowd couldn’t have been anything like the same size.