In a video posted on YouTube on February 3, House Representative Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts) explains how the right wing media machine creates and spreads disinformation in an effort to smear the left. "Disinformation" should not be confused with "misinformation," the unintentional form of wrong information. Disinformation is produced by people who intend to mislead their audience.
Step 1: Fabricate the Lie
Frank tells how John Fund, an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal, told a lie about him in November of last year: In a speech at a conservative function in Florida called "Restoration Weekend," Fund claimed that, after losing the special election in Massachusetts, Democrats Chuck Schumer and Barney Frank were going to propose a bill to create universal voter registration. Fund further stated that Democrats were going to add all welfare recipients and unemployed people to the voter rolls, and he called it "felon re-enfranchisement." In reality, Frank explains, there was no such bill.
Step 2: Activate the Right Wing Media Echo Chamber
Despite that there was no such bill, the Washington Times ran an article proclaiming "Schumer and Frank have plans to ram through legislation that will produce universal voter registration," and saying, "It'll be on the floor of the house in two weeks." Next, conservative TV host Glenn Beck picked up the lie and repeated it on his show, and then Rush Limbaugh did the same. Soon after, the Situation Room, a CNN political program, contacted Frank to ask him why he was bringing the universal voter registration bill. Frank told them there was no such bill, and inquired about the source of their information. He discovered the source was Mr. Fund's statement in his November speech at the "Restoration Weekend." Thus Fund's disinformation provided fuel for the right-wing media's echo chamber, wherein more and more media outlets pick up the disinformation and repeat it across the country, with the intent of generating anger and outrage against Democrats.
Step 3: Zero Fact Checking
Not one of these broadcast figures or entities took the time to check the facts of what they were talking about, Frank said. After discovering the source of the quickly-spreading disinformation, Frank wrote to Mr. Fund to tell him that his assertion about the bill was factually incorrect. Rep. Frank asked Fund to publicly acknowledge that there was, in fact, no bill. Fund did not comply. Fund later admitted privately to one of Rep. Frank's staffers that he had made a mistake, and when the staffer asked whether Fund had issued a retraction, Fund said, "Oh, yeah." But when the staffer asked for a copy, Fund said, "Oh, I, uh, told a couple of people." Fund he never issued a formal retraction of his misstatement.
Voila': A Disinformed Public, in the Dark About Policy
Creating and disseminating lies through the media this way creates a disinformed, confused public. It breeds mistrust and contempt for the press and media, and complicates the lives of Americans immeasurably, as they try to figure out what their government is doing. No wonder politics in recent years has given rise to a fearful, angry cadre of teabaggers who believe in "death panels" and that the President is a socialist Bolshevik from Kenya.
Sad State of the Mass Media
This is far from an isolated incident. I have experienced something similar myself. One night several years ago while watching the local evening news, the anchor reported that groups in Colorado were going to pursue a tax on cigarettes. This pronouncement caught my attention. I had been involved in this issue in Colorado, and hadn't heard anything about it before, so I called the station and asked for the source of their information. They didn't know the source, they said, because it was a pre-packaged news segment they received from a sister station in North Carolina. All they did was broadcast it, without asking any questions. I got the name and number of the TV station who sent it to them, called and asked that station for the source of the information. They didn't know, they said, they got it from somewhere else, and they didn't know where. There was no accountability anywhere, up or down the chain, for the information. It was astonishing. It is clear that the current, unaccountable media climate breeds the easy dissemination of both misinformation and disinformation. I am unaware of any laws prohibiting the intentional fabrication and dissemination of lies through the media. It is clear that hard-core conservatives are taking advantage of this problem with our media to warp the public's understanding of current political issues. As long as this strategy keeps serving the right wing, they will keep applying the technique. Barney Frank's dismal story is a lesson -- and a warning -- about the sad state of American media, and a red flag that people need to be keenly aware of the prevalence of fake information and demand accountability from reporters, newspapers and television stations for every bit of news they report.