Sorry, I Still Think I Am Right About The Media Very Rarely Lying
Answers to your proposed counterexamples
Last week I wrote The Media Very Rarely Lies. I argued that, although the media is often deceptive and misleading, it very rarely makes up facts. Instead, it focuses on the (true) facts it wants you to think about, and ignores other true facts that contradict them or add context. This is true of establishment media like the New York Times, but also of fringe media like Infowars. All of the “misinformation” out there about COVID, voter fraud, conspiracies, whatever - is mostly people saying true facts in out-of-context misleading ways.
Some commenters weren’t on board with this thesis, and proposed many counterexamples - articles where they thought the media really was just making things up. I was surprised to see that all their counterexamples seemed, to me, like the media signal-boosting true facts in a misleading way without making anything up at all. Clearly there’s some kind of disconnect here!
I want to go over commenters’ proposed counterexamples, explain why I find them more true-but-misleading than totally-made-up, and then go into more detail about implications.
1: 2020 Stolen Election
Tony Saunders writes:
Did you miss out on the past couple years, when there was a ton of straight up lying? Lying about fraudulent votes? Straight up lies about the vaccine killing people? Straight up lies about covid being less dangerous than the flu?
Sure there are examples of misinformation lacking context. But there are also examples of straight up lies. And way too many examples of them over the past few years.
Edit: on reflection as to why I am so adamant about this, I remember all of the straight up lies that have been shared with me by friends over the past several years. They didn't get them from nowhere. They got them from right wing media. Sure, they also shared half truths with me, as have left wing friends of mine based on mainstream media. But there were a large number of straight up lies that have been shared with me over the past couple of years. Maybe you are lucky enough not to have friends who have been sucked in to that nonsense.
Tony didn’t give specific examples, so I’m going to pick what I think of as some of the most deceptive stories in each category.
I Googled “Trump fraudulent election”, and the first story that came up supporting the idea that the Democrats stole the 2020 election was Fox News’ Senator Rand Paul Claims Statistical Fraud In States Where Trump Lost.
One very basic point: the headline, and in fact every other point made in the story, is technically true, in the sense that Senator Rand Paul did claim this. Fox chose to report Senator Paul’s claim, without pushing back against it or giving equal prominence to people who said there wasn’t any fraud. I agree this is deceptive and irresponsible. But that’s my point! Fox didn’t make anything up, they just signal-boosted true facts in a deceptive way.
But also: Rand Paul based his accusations on a post by the Vote Pattern Analysis blog. VPA does some statistics and concludes that:
. . . a few key vote updates in competitive states were unusually large in size and had an unusually high Biden-to-Trump ratio. We demonstrate the results differ enough from expected results to be cause for concern.
For example, here’s the voting count record in Wisconsin, where Biden eventually won by a smidgen:
You notice a sudden and suspicious spike in Biden votes around 11-04 04; Vote Pattern Analysis suggests this demonstrates fraud.
If I’m understanding this site right, the likely explanation is that the spike represents Milwaukee reporting its absentee ballots. Milwaukee usually reports precinct by precinct, but it reported all its absentee ballots at once, and this was during COVID when lots of people voted absentee. Milwaukee is a dense city full of black people, so its votes were overwhelmingly Democrat. So Vote Pattern Analysis is right that there was a weird sudden spike in Biden votes in the middle of the night much bigger than any plausible precinct size. It just has an innocent explanation.
I’ll be honest - Vote Pattern Analysis makes many, many more arguments than this. Some of them are beyond my level of statistical sophistication, and I can’t debunk them. When I say I don’t believe the 2020 election was stolen, I’m not going off of ability to debunk every statistical argument in favor, just general priors and assumptions about what kind of conspiracies people can vs. can’t pull off.
(if a statistics expert wants to write a really comprehensive analysis of their results, I would be interested and maybe willing to publish it)
In any case, it definitely doesn’t look like anyone is making anything up or outright lying. Fox is honestly reporting what Rand Paul said. Rand Paul is honestly reporting what the Vote Pattern Analysis blog said. Vote Pattern Analysis discovered a suspicious-looking true fact, and leapt from there to “fraud!” without considering innocent explanations. If you look at other media claiming the 2020 election was stolen, you’ll find very similar stories.
2: The COVID Vaccine Killing People
Moving on to Tony’s second example, I Googled “COVID vaccine killing people”. The first article I found supporting the statement was from “The Daily Sceptic”: Twice As Many Vaccine Deaths As COVID Deaths In US Households, Poll Finds. It reports that 3.5% of people polled say that someone in their household died of COVID, but 7.9% said someone in their family died from getting the COVID vaccine.
I was able to find the poll they cited. It’s here, and it says exactly what they claim it says. It was commissioned by Steve Kirsch, an eccentric anti-vaccine billionaire - but he used a real polling company not under his control, so I’m not sure how his own views would affect the results.
My guess - which I admit is awkward and unsatisfying - is that the people taking the poll must have misunderstood the question. Maybe 7% of people misheard it as “Do you have anyone in your household who got the COVID vaccine?”, not “Do you have anyone in your household who died from the COVID vaccine?” Commenters also bring up the possibility that people interpreted any death after ever having gotten the vaccine as a vaccine-caused death, at least for purposes of this question.
I realize this is an incredibly flimsy and weak explanation. But if 7% of people really had someone in their household die from the vaccine, that would imply several million vaccine deaths. It would be impossible to hide. I have lots of patients, and none of them died of vaccines; I know a bunch of other doctors, and none of their patients died of vaccines either. The morgues haven’t reported several million extra deaths, and the various government agencies charged with monitoring deaths haven’t reported that either. So either there is a giant conspiracy, or this one poll is wrong. I choose to believe the poll is wrong, even though I can’t really explain why.
Still, The Daily Skeptic isn’t making anything up. Kirsch’s poll really says that! Their only mistake was believing the poll, instead of doing sanity checks against every other source of information about deaths.
3: COVID Is Less Deadly Than The Flu
Tony’s third point was “lies about COVID being less deadly than the flu”.
When Googling this one, I got a lot of articles like NPR: Scientists Debate How Deadly COVID Is; Some Say It’s Now Less Risky Than Flu. I think this is potentially (though not definitely) accurate for vaccinated people.
In order to find people who were saying this when it wasn’t true, I restricted my Google search to articles from before June 1 2020. Most of the articles I found were from establishment media sources, for example Los Angeles Times’ The Flu Has Killed Far More People Than Coronavirus. So Why All The Frenzy About COVID-19? or Kaiser Health Network’s Something Much Deadlier Than The Wuhan Virus Lurks Near You. These articles were written before COVID had spread very far in the United States, and were right that it had (thus far) killed far fewer people than the flu that year. This was obviously an idiotic way to think about it, and I yelled at them at the time. Still, they weren’t making anything up, just thinking about the (true) relative death counts in a really dumb way.
I assume there was some right-wing misinformation about this at some point in between the establishment misinformation and the point where it became true-ish, but I can’t find it on a quick search.
4: Alex Jones’ Sandy Hook Conspiracy Theory
Your analysis of InfoWars is itself lacking a key piece of context: you are reading its web site after it has declared bankruptcy following a $965 million verdict for defamation for claiming that the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax and the bereaved parents were all professional actors. (Alex Jones, who runs InfoWars, also recently declared bankruptcy after a separate $473M verdict against himself personally.)
It's entirely reasonable that InfoWars completely revamped its approach to lying after those chickens came home to roost. I suspect that repeating the experiment with archived versions of the InfoWars front page on randomly selected dates in 2016-2021 would yield more examples of outright lies (not just about Sandy Hook), from before the site was deterred by defamation law.
Vermillion agrees, and provides the link:
Something like this was the first thing that came to mind:
If you look on the infowars website now ("sandy hook"), they don't have this story any more. Probably cuz of the giant lawsuit and all.
Many other people also brought up Alex Jones’ Sandy Hook theory as an example of a media source literally making something up.
But they’re wrong! Read the articles! The one Vermillion linked is FBI Says No One Killed At Sandy Hook. It’s discussing an FBI crime statistics report for the year the Sandy Hook shooting happened. The report lists zero murders in the town of Sandy Hook that year; Infowars thinks this means the shooting was fake.
According to Wikipedia, the FBI report is real and does in fact list zero deaths for Sandy Hook. They say the shooting was investigated by Connecticut state police instead of Sandy Hook local police, and since the FBI crime statistics are based on local police reports, it didn’t include the shooting.
Infowars then goes on to cite the work of a conspiracy theorist named Wolfgang Halbig:
Among 16 questions which Halbig says are key to unlocking the Sandy Hook mystery, Halbig asks, “Why and for what reason would the FBI classify the SHES shooting when they did not classify the Columbine shooting which also was an Active Shooter Mass Casualty Incidents (AS/MCI)?”
Additionally, Halbig questioned why no trauma helicopters were ever summoned to the school, and why paramedics and EMTs weren’t allowed to enter the building to try to save lives.
Halbig is a real conspiracy theorist (Infowars describes him as a “school safety consultant”, which I guess is a thing you can just decide to call yourself) and does in fact raise all these points. I have no idea what the answers to his questions are, but I assume they’re boring things like “they had some other trauma response besides helicopters” and “the same reason nobody was allowed into that shooting in Texas where the police held parents back from trying to save their children, government bureaucracy is terrible”.
I don’t worry about these questions too much because I’m not a conspiracy theorist. It seems much more likely that the FBI does its crime reports in a weird way, or that there’s some good explanation for the lack of trauma helicopters, than that the government faked an entire school shooting for some bizarre reason.
But this is a judgment call on my part (an obviously correct judgment call, but a judgment call nevertheless). A crazy person could see those same facts and decide it was more likely that the government faked a school shooting than that there would be a real school shooting that no trauma helicopters came to. I don’t know why they would think that, but empirically sometimes they do.
Infowars reported various true facts about the Sandy Hook shooting, then encouraged people to connect them in a conspiratorial way. This was deceptive and repugnant. But they didn’t make up facts!
5: Obama Birth Certificate
You need to go to archives.infowars.com.
Here's an example: https://archives.infowars.com/new-obama-birth-certificate-is-a-forgery/
Another one from the “Even though modern Infowars doesn’t lie directly, surely the old Infowars articles in the archives will” class of objections.
The linked article discusses an investigation by “Infowars computer specialists” into an image of Obama’s birth certificate. They start:
Upon first inspection, the document appears to be a photocopy taken from state records and printed on official green paper. However, when the government released PDF is taken into the image editing program Adobe Illustrator, we discover a number of separate elements that reveal the document is not a single scan on paper, as one might surmise. Elements are placed in layers or editing boxes over the scan and green textured paper, which is to say the least unusual.
Snopes investigates and contacts an Adobe Illustrator expert who says that this is true. Illustrator does show the PDF as containing several different layers and elements, but that’s because Illustrator tries to “guess” at what items in a document should be grouped together to make it easier for users to edit, and sometimes it gets it wrong.
Moreover, the document contains text, numbers, and lines with suspicious white borders indicating these items were pasted from the original scan and dropped over a background image of green paper.
This is definitely true, I’ve downloaded the original and zoomed in and it looks like this:
I don’t know why there’s the white border around stuff, I would guess “some kind of image processing something something”, because I’m not a conspiracy theorist, and it takes more than a white border to make me think a President of the United States is lying about his birth.
The Infowars people are conspiracy theorists, so they think Adobe Illustrator artifacts and weird white borders are enough evidence to point to a plot. I think they’re dumb and paranoid. But they’re not lying! They’re noticing weird things that are really there - things so minor that no non-paranoid person would care about them - and writing articles highlighting these true things instead of the many other true things that would help you understand that this is a boring non-story.
6: Scalia And Secret Societies
No expert hedging here. Just straight up conspiracist bullshit.
This story claims that former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died while in the lodge of a secret society with links to Bohemian Grove and (through them) the Bavarian Illuminati.
In fact, they’re (mostly) right!
Scalia died while on a hunting trip, staying at the lodge of the International Order Of St. Hubertus. They were founded in 1605, their members wear green robes, and their current leader is “Grand Master Imperial Highness Archduke Istvan von Habsburg-Lothringen.” The Washington Post has an article about it here.
The US branch of St. Hubertus was founded at Bohemian Grove, a secret society of elites (past members include Nixon, Reagan, Kissinger, and Hearst) who meet in a private redwood forest near San Francisco and do undisclosed things there.
Although many details of the meeting are secret, we do know that in the opening ceremony each year, a group of torch-bearing hooded figures bring a human effigy to a forty-foot tall owl statue, then set the effigy on fire, while the owl statue (voiced by a recording of Walter Cronkite) promises that with this sacrifice, the attendees have purchased freedom from worldly cares. I swear this is true.
For some reason, conspiracy theorists find this concerning, and have been fretting over it for the past hundred years or so. Anyway, this is where some people decided to found a US branch of the Order of St Hubertus. All of this is attested to by the Washington Post article linked above, Wikipedia, and a bunch of other sources; as far as I know nobody seriously denies it.
Infowars does err (as far as I know) in linking this to the Illuminati, an 18th century German society that wanted to rebuild the order of the world upon a foundation of Reason but dissolved before ever doing very much. The article includes a fake history of the Illuminati, so in that sense it is wrong. But Infowars didn’t invent this fake history. For example, the claim that the Illuminati caused the French Revolution didn’t originate with Jones - it was one of the most popular explanations of the Revolution in the late 1700s, before the Revolution was even over! Jones is just citing the authorities of the time! Likewise, here’s a 2011 movie linking Bohemian Grove to the Illuminati - Jones didn’t invent any of this.
I was expecting to find a similar explanation for a third Illuminati factoid in the article - a claim that just before his death, George Washington wrote a letter fretting about the Illuminati - but actually this one is completely true. Weird!
7: Iraqi Chemical Weapons
The NYT's lies led to a war that killed 650,000 people:
The article begins:
An Iraqi defector who described himself as a civil engineer said he personally worked on renovations of secret facilities for biological, chemical and nuclear weapons in underground wells, private villas and under the Saddam Hussein Hospital in Baghdad as recently as a year ago.
The defector, Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, gave details of the projects he said he worked on for President Saddam Hussein's government in an extensive interview last week in Bangkok.
Government experts said yesterday that he had also been interviewed twice by American intelligence officials, who were trying to verify his claims. One of the officials said he thought Mr. Saeed had been taken to a secure location. The experts said his information seemed reliable and significant.
All of this is completely true. This article picks up the story five years later and suggests that al-Haideri was lying, either because he wanted a US visa, or because he had been put up to it by anti-Saddam leader Ahmed Chalabi, who was hoping the US would invade Iraq so that he could get put in charge (he was). The later article suggests that US intelligence knew or at least suspected he was lying, but pretended to buy it because they wanted to invade Iraq too.
This is yet another good example of how the media deceives people without making anything up. It’s true that there was an Iraq defector who said this stuff! It’s even true that government experts said they believed him! I’m not sure if it’s realistic to expect the Times to do better here, but I can at least dream of a world where they look into whether the government has an incentive to lie about this, see if other defectors tell the same story, etc. I don’t know whether this would have been enough to catch the lie - or whether the Times’ failure here was honest vs. motivated.
Still, they didn’t make up any facts!
8: Russians Running Out Of Missiles
What about the Russians running out of missiles and/or ammo - 4 different times now by my count?
Clearly at least 3 of these following links are lies... or are they out of context?
The first article is titled Russia Running Out Of Precision Munitions In Ukraine War - Pentagon Official. It states that Undersecretary of Defense Policy Colin Kahl claimed Russia was running out of precision munitions. I have no doubt that Undersecretary of Defense Policy Colin Kahl did in fact claim that, so the media isn’t lying.
The second article isn’t even saying they’re running out! It’s called Is Russia Running Out Of Missiles? US, Russia Send Mixed Messages. It says that the US says Russia is running out of missiles, but Russia says they’re not.
The third article says that “Ukrainian intelligence claimed on August 27 that Russia has used approximately 55 percent of its missile stockpile since its Febuary 24 invasion of the country. If accurate, this could signal that sanctions are biting. However, it may not all be good news.” So once again, they’re citing a source. Also, they’re saying the missiles are 55% out, which is compatible with there still being some missiles.
I can’t fully read the fourth article, but it starts with a claim that Ukraine’s top defense official said Russia only has enough missiles for three or four more large barrages.
Here’s a Ukrainian blog calculating how many missiles they think Russia has left. They say that Russia has used up about 51% of its total missile stockpile, including 87% of its Iskander missiles and 37% of its Kalibr missiles. I think this is consistent with Russia using up a lot of their best missiles in a starting barrage early on, then toning things down and conserving missiles better, and they still have some. Various intelligence analysts make different estimates of how many they still have, but it doesn’t seem like anyone is lying or making things up, least of all the newspapers which are just faithfully reporting what the analysts say and even adding in appropriate nuance.
9: …And So On
Again, my goal here isn’t to defend the media, or to deny it can be extremely deceptive and misleading at times, or to say NYT is exactly as bad as Infowars, or anything like that. My goal is to make the very specific point that a wide variety of media sources, from NYT to Infowars, follow a similar pattern of very rarely lying explicitly or making things up, regardless of whether or not their articles are deceptive.
I originally said this mattered because it means “ban misinformation” isn’t a primitive action. Censorship proponents imagine a world where “good sources” are doing something fundamentally different from “bad sources”; the good sources are going out in the world and reporting true facts, the bad sources are just making things up. In this world, you can censor mechanically, without needing to consult your own opinions. But this is a false hope. You will always need to make judgment calls about which sources’ true facts are important vs. irrelevant, which sources’ studies are valid versus flawed, and which sources’ points that you don’t have good responses to are too annoying or conspiratorial to take seriously anyway. These judgment calls will be as subjective as any other attempt to have an opinion on the news. I reject the idea that Obama’s birth certificate is fake not because Infowars made up the claim that weird artifacts showed up on Adobe Illustrator, nor because I personally know and trust the Adobe Illustrator expert who said that was fine and normal, but because my priors are that the birth certificate probably wasn’t fake, and that Adobe Illustrator experts probably aren’t part of a conspiracy. Censorship - like all other decisions - has to bottom out in these kinds of judgments, which are much dicier and more corruptible than “lol, just ban false things”.
But aside from censorship, I find it really interesting that so many commenters were so resistant to the idea that the worst and dumbest conspiracy theories of our time don’t involve outright lies. I think all of us - not just censors - want to maintain the comforting illusion that the bad people are doing something fundamentally different than the good people, something that marks them as Obviously Bad in bright neon paint. If conspiracy theories only happen when someone literally makes up a total lie, then we - who avoid doing this, and always double-check our sources - know we are of the Elect, who never have to worry about this. But if wrong people (even the most wrong people) are just trying to reason under uncertainty and evaluate the relative strength of different sources of evidence - well, that’s the same thing we’re doing! Seems bad!
I think a lot of people will interrupt at this point and say “No, those people are biased and using motivated reasoning, not just failing honestly!” But Confirmation Bias Is Just A Misfire Of Normal Bayesian Reasoning, and Motivated Reasoning Is Just Mis-Applied Reinforcement Learning. It’s all just gears turning in the brain, sometimes smoothly, sometimes getting jammed up, but gears nonetheless. People want so much for one of the gears to be clearly labeled BE DUMB AND EVIL, and if they just avoid that gear they’re always fine. They want this so, so hard, and it will never happen.
Sometimes the proposed BE DUMB AND EVIL gear is supposed to be some bright-line category of “bias and motivated reasoning”. Other times it’s supposed to be “grifting”. But when we’re talking about the media, it’s very often “literally making up facts”. All of these happen, but I think they’re much rarer than generally believed. Most people are just trying to reason under uncertainty. And failing, terribly.