Facebook and Google are taking a lot of heat for allowing falsehoods, packaged as news, to viralize across the internet, but lawmakers, who legitimize this fake news by spreading it, clearly contribute to the problem.
Today, I’m calling on Colorado’s state legislators to be part of the solution, and join the fight against fake news, by signing the Fake News Pledge below.
As a longtime progressive journalist and former media critic at the Rocky Mountain News, I believe it’s critical for our democracy that citizens aren’t manipulated by bogus information.
By signing the pledge, lawmakers (and citizens) can help fight for facts and meaningful debate. There is no reason that all elected officials, from President-elect Donald Trump down, shouldn’t sign. But our focus now is members of the Colorado legislature.
The pledge reads:
Fake News Pledge for Elected Officials
As an elected official, I agree that the spread of fake news on Facebook and other social media platforms has a toxic effect on rational civic discourse. And I understand that when community leaders spread fake news, we legitimize it. By our example, we encourage people to play fast and loose with facts, and we blur the lines between real journalism and fabricated stories masquerading as news.
So, to promote informed and reasoned debate, I pledge not to knowingly spread fake news. If I accidentally do so, by sharing, “liking,” or posting inaccurate information, packaged to look somehow like news, I will remove the falsehood as soon as possible and post a correction as well as an explanation of why I posted it in the first place.
If it’s deemed unproven or false or inaccurate by Snopes, Politifact, Factcheck.org, or by a respected news outlet, information from my Facebook page will be removed as soon as possible–or detailed reasons for not deleting it will be provided.
(Legislators can sign the pledge here.)
It seems like a no-brainer that our legislators will sign our pledge posthaste.
But in doing so, some of them will have to change their ways.
I looked at the Facebook pages of all Colorado state legislators from Oct. 1 until the November election, and I found that three lawmakers spread fake news during that time.
State Rep. Polly Lawrence (R-Roxborough Park), who’s the Assistant State House Minority Leader, posted an item with the headline “WHOA! Hillary Caught On Hot Mic Trashing Beyonce’ with RACIAL SLURS! Looks like Hillary may have just lost one of her biggest endorsements.”
“If this is true,” wrote Lawrence on Facebook Oct. 6 when she posted the meme, “it fits in with the accusation that the Democrats only work with the African-American community when they need votes.”
But it’s not true, as Snopes determined on Nov. 5, the day before Lawrence posted her “if-it-is-true” comment.
But even if Snopes hadn’t already fact checked the linked article, Lawrence should have known the news was fake, because, as Snopes pointed out, the website, “The Resistance: The Last Line Of Defense,” which published the Beyonce’ fake news, has a disclaimer, which reads:
DISCLAIMER: The Resistance may include information from sources that may or may not be reliable and facts that don’t necessarily exist. All articles should be considered satirical and any and all quotes attributed to actual people complete and total baloney.
And even if there were no disclaimer on the website of the fake-news outlet, you don’t promote information that’s not from a trusted site, if you don’t know it’s true, especially if you are a legislator. That’s bad for representative democracy.
My review of October Facebook pages also revealed that on Oct. 15, State Sen. Laura Woods (R-Arvada) liked a fake-news story, posted by a known-to-be-dubious site called Americannews.com, titled, “BLM gets Louisiana Police Chief Fired After He Exposes Obama’s War on Cops.”
In fact, in September, about a month before Woods liked the item, the Washington Post and other news outlets reported that the police chief was fired by the town council two days after the police chief wrote on Facebook, “Hey Mr. Bulls— president, when are you going to grow a f—ing pair. And tell it like it is. These are terrorist. That have declared f—ing war on my brother. (White police officers) enough is enough.”
There’s no evidence the BLM had anything to do with the firing.
This wasn’t the first time Woods, whose November loss means she’ll leave the state senate in January, has spread fake news on Facebook.
On August 30, Woods shared a fake news item from TheFreePatriot.org stating, “Courts Quietly Confirm that ONE Children’s Vaccine Does Cause Autism.”
The Aug. 16, 2016, FreePatriot.org story, making the false claim about autism, is actually a reprint of a 2013 Whiteout Press article, the core facts of which were found to be false by Politifact back in February of 2015, over a year before Woods liked the fake-news item.
“The researchers we contacted said that as far as the science is concerned, certainty had been reached at least 10 years ago with the release of a major national study debunking the link between the measles mumps, rubella vaccine and autism.”
State Rep. Gordon Klingenschmitt (R-Colorado Springs) also spread fake news during the time period studied. On Oct. 15 the Colorado Springs Republican posted a “Breaking News” item from EndingTheFed.com, with the headline, “IT’S OVER: Wikileaks Exposes The Assassination of Scalia… This Will Bring Down the Clintons and the Democratic Party!”
Klingenschmit’s comment on the post: “Anybody have a comment on this? Scalia dies same weekend after Podesta (for Hillary Clinton) sends this ‘wet works’ email? Hmmmm.”
Judging from his post, Klingenschmitt doesn’t appear to be fully convinced of the Scalia assassination “news.” But he posted it on Facebook anyway.
Does anyone think lawmakers should post “news” that’s dubious actually a rumor, especially from a site like EndingTheFed that’s known to produce fake news?
And, sure enough, the day after Klingenschmitt posted it, Snopes determined the item to be “false.” Snopes’ headline reads, “An e-mail published by WikiLeaks referenced not the literal assassination of Antonin Scalia, but what appeared to be a coordinated smear of Bernie Sanders.”
Yet, Klingenschmitt did not delete the fake news from his Facebook page, where it sits, rotting public discourse, to this day, like all the fake news I cite in this post.
More Fake News on Facebook from Colorado Lawmakers
More anecdotal evidence, outside of our pre-election analysis, shows Colorado legislators are spreading fake news.
On September 30, for example, Lawrence posted the following quote, from “Rockit News:”
“She will say anything and change nothing. Hillary can’t be trusted and isn’t qualified to be president.” Barack Obama, 2008.
“He was right then, and still is,” wrote Lawrence on her Facebook page.
One big problem. While the first sentence is Obama’s, the second was never uttered by him.
About a month before Lawrence posted the meme, Snopes reported:
“Barack Obama didn’t say that Hillary Clinton could not be trusted or that she was not qualified for president.”
State Rep. Kit Roupe (R-Colorado Springs), who will also be leaving the legislature in January, shared a “public service announcement” in May, stating:
“For all those who think it’s nice to walk around with your pants below your butt…read the following explanation: The trend was born in the United States’ jails, where prisoners who were willing to have sex with other prisoners needed to invent a signal that would go unnoticed by the guards so they wouldn’t suffer consequences. So, by partially showing their butts, they showed that they were available to be penetrated by other inmates. Click ‘share’ if you want to join the cause for a better dressed and more educated world.”
About a year before Roupe spread this, Snopes had dutifully researched this topic, concluding Roupe’s public service announcement to be false.
Snopes: “While sagging did gain its start in the U.S. prison system, it was not a clothes-wearing style authored by imprisoned homosexuals intent upon advertising their interest in casual flings. Sagging pants became the behind-the-bars thing thanks to ill-fitting prison-issue garb: some of those incarcerated were provided with clothing a few sizes too large. That oversizing, coupled with the lack of belts in the big house, led to a great number of jailbirds whose pants were falling off their arses. (Belts are not permitted in most correctional facilities because all too often the lifeless bodies of their inmate owners have been found hanging from them.)”
In August of last year State Sen. Tim Neville (R-Littleton) posted a fake-news item stating, “Obama Begins Push for New National Retirement System.”
The linked article, based on a hearing way back in 2010, claimed the Obama Administration had begun an effort “to nationalize the nation’s pension system and to eliminate private retirement accounts including IRA’s and 401k plans.”
Neville’s comment on the meme: “…the tyranny continues.”
But years ago, when the accusation was first hurled by the conservative National Seniors Council, Factcheck.org showed it to be false:
Factcheck.org: Is the Obama administration attempting to eliminate private 401(k)s and IRAs and create a “national retirement system?”
A: No. Obama endorses a proposal that would require businesses without retirement plans to establish private IRAs for their employees and deposit a percentage of wages into the accounts. Employees could opt out.
In July of 2015, Neville posted a fake-news meme, published by the Daily Caller, with the headline, “Satellites: Earth Is Nearly in Its 21st Year Without Global Warming.” The linked article allegedly cites satellite data showing a “prolonged hiatus” in global warming.
“Global warming alarmists have a real problem,” wrote Neville on Facebook. “Satellite data tells the real story.”
But about four months before Neville posted this comment, Factcheck.org showed it to be false, stating that the “world has now gone 30 consecutive years — 360 straight months — where every month has been above the 20th century average, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.” Factcheck.org and other news outlets specifically cited the satellite data as not proving a warming hiatus.
Lawmwkers who’ve Spread Fake News
So far, it appears that few elected state officials have been spotlighted for spreading fake news on social media. Two examples, compiled in a post on the Colorado Times Recorder yesterday, are State Rep. Tim Couch (R-Hyden) of Kentucky and California Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez.
A wider look at the role of lawmakers in spreading fake news is called for, particularly after officials connected to the Trump campaign, including his pick for national security advisor, Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, promoted Clinton falsehoods on Twitter or Facebook.
Step Up and Sign the Fake News Pledge
The issues around fake news are numerous and complex. But that doesn’t mean people in Colorado can’t do anything about it. This starts with our elected leaders who clearly add legitimacy to information they spread on Facebook.
So elected leaders everywhere should step up and sign pledge.
Lawmakers deserve to be held accountable for spreading fake news, but all of us–not just our elected leaders and regardless of where we fall on the political spectrum–can pledge not to spread fake news.
That’s why we’ve also created Fake News Pledge for Citizens. Everyone can sign it here.
In the coming months, we’ll be tracking how many of Colorado’s state legislators add their names to the pledge–along with everyday citizens. We’ll see if lawmakers from around the country sign.
And we’ll cast a wider net, looking at lower level office holders in Colorado, to find out if more of our elected leaders are spreading fake news. Stay tuned.
Michael Lund and Madeleine Schmidt provided research assistance for this post.