The “false-flag” lie

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.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

8 thoughts on “The “false-flag” lie”

  1. I don't think there's any evidence for the 1-2 million claim, and since those are extraordinary numbers, I think there would have to be strong evidence for me to believe them.

    But there's really no evidence for the 60,000 number that you spin heroically as "consensus reality." The Washington DC fire department hasn't typically been cited as a crowd size estimator for past protests, and there's no reason to think they've added a new capability. The reporting technique at work here seems to be the typical one of finding a supposed expert to say what the reporter wanted the story to say: nothing to see here.

  2. I've got no special crowd-counting skills, but, comparing the crowd yesterday to the ones at past events of more or less agreed size, I can attest that the estimates of 2.2 million or 1.5 million are wildly wrong. (To get an idea of the orders of magnitude, the DCFD estimate is about 3 percent of 2.2 million.) If someone told me that 50,00 people were there, I wouldn’t say she was definitely wrong; likewise if she said 100,000. But even the latter is less than 5 percent of 2.2 million.

    I accept a certain amount of normal haplessness & irrational exuberance among bloggers, but Matt Kibbe is an experienced operative, knows the city, has lived here long enough to have seen scores of rallies, presumably had access to relevant logistical information (number of buses, registrants, etc.), & had an unobstructed view of the crowd. When I heard him announce that "ABC News is reporting that 1.5 million people are here" (this was somewhere around 2:00 PM), my immediate thought was that this man can’t be relied on to tell the truth. Now knowing that ABC News reported no such thing, I’m not inclined to soften my first judgment.

    It was plain at the rally that the FreedomWorks people were preparing to contest press estimates of the crowd size. They repeatedly (including after Kibbe's announcement) exhorted the crowd to use its cell phones to call a number specially set up for head-counting purposes. (Everybody in my vicinity did as they were told.) I don't know whether FreedomWorks has released the results, but in any case they know what they are. (I leave the possible problems with this measurement method for others.)

  3. Forgive the serial posting, but the ABC News item you link to says: "Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, the group that organized the event, said on stage at the rally that ABC News was reporting that 1 million to 1.5 million people were in attendance." This paraphrase of Kibbe is itself inexact. What Kibbe said was more specific: "ABC News is reporting that one point five million people are here." This was how he began his remarks. Not "1 million to 1.5 million," but exactly 1.5 million. I checked the video on YouTube ("Tea Party (Taxpayer) March On Washington DC pt.8," at 4:49), & it's as I remembered it.

  4. Thanks for pointing out what a joke the Daily Mail is. A few weeks ago several liberal bloggers linked to a DM article that supported their cause, and I was shaking my head, afraid of a future issue in which we'd be forced to rebut that joke of a paper. I guess this is it.

  5. "Newspaper-shaped object". Viewed from this (Eastern) side of the pond, that's one of the loveliest and most apposite descriptions of the Daily Mail I've seen. There's a delicious irony in the thought of anyone – other than with malice aforethought – citing the Mail as a reliable source. I know it's Glenn Reynolds, but this – "Why is the British press more honest in its reporting on this stuff than the American press?" – is just hilarious, as seen by anyone in the UK who isn't a Mail drone.

    (For those unfamiliar with the organ in question, its primary reputation in its home market among non-readers is as a staggeringly well-resourced, highly-polished, ruthless propaganda engine for its editor's and owners' bugbears, which tend towards the kind of attitude which we only don't call Victorian because that would insult the Victorians. This, after all, is the paper whose snappers were – until relatively recently – rumoured to be under strict instructions to ensure women appearing in their photos were wearing skirts, not trousers…)

  6. Mark Kleiman: "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."

    Fortunately, those who do are often media people; if the G-D press would do it's supposed job, things would go so much better.

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