One of the challenges of covering Texas politics is that during our state’s biennial legislative sessions, especially these frantic final two months, there’s so much happening at the Lege that it’s hard to keep track of anything in the outside world. But Tuesday, as I was heading into the Capitol, I paused to say hello to Brandon Darby and Ildefonso Ortiz of Breitbart Texas, and thereby heard a tidbit I had missed: Judicial Watch, a right-wing website, had posted a story asserting that ISIS has set up a training camp in Juarez.
This is an absurd claim, for reasons I’ll explain shortly. And Judicial Watch’s story was barely posted before it was flatly dismissed by the Mexican Embassy and the Texas Department of Public Safety. Nonetheless, some of Judicial Watch’s readers have taken the story at face value, undeterred by the total absence of evidence and the official denials. An absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as the saying goes, and an official statement is only as credible as the officials offering it.
Darby and Ortiz, I sensed, were exasperated about the situation, for reasons any journalist can easily understand. Many of you reading this are probably skeptical of Breitbart Texas, which is a right-wing news site with a reputation for erratic quality; I get that, but in general I put more stock in individual reporters than in the outlet they work for, or the ideological affiliation of either, and I have a high opinion of Darby and Ortiz as border reporters. Both have extensive experience and expertise, built up over time. Both have a lot of good sources, including in law enforcement, notably. Both are aggressive and have a record of breaking news—Darby was the guy who exposed last year’s border crisis, and triggered the national focus on it, when he published photos of immigrant children in detention facilities, which a law enforcement source had leaked to him—but have maintained a commitment to accuracy, even when their audience’s attention has been distracted by a lurid internet story about a shadowy menace lurking on America’s doorstep, like the one that Judicial Watch had just made up about the ISIS training camp. The resulting kerfuffle was bound to be a frustrating and thankless distraction. Like all honest journalists they seek to inform the public; that’s hard enough even when the public isn’t being actively misinformed by lies and propaganda.
You may not feel much empathy for the reporters’ plight. But widespread misinformation isn’t just a pet peeve for people like me and Darby and Ortiz. It causes all of us, including you and your loved ones, real harm. It can cause people to waste time and money. It can prevent us from allocating efforts and resources in ways that would actually advance our goals. In some cases it puts lives at risk. This may be one of those cases. There are extremely bad things happening along the US-Mexico border every day. And yet this week, at least, Texas’s law enforcement apparatus had to allocate some of its efforts to debunking a story that is either an error or (more likely) a blatant fabrication. If you care about border security, that should worry you.
Misinformation is not a new phenomenon. Neither is spin. But both are more prevalent today than they once were as a result of technology and politics and the interaction between the two. The decentralization of what we still call traditional media, in conjunction with the increasingly negligible barriers to entry in the information marketplace, means that anyone can disseminate information, anyone can find it, and the people and structures that once served as filters are increasingly irrelevant. That’s not necessarily bad; in many ways it’s great. It maximizes individual freedom and opportunity. But it means that the average reader has to work harder. You can curate your own news feed. In fact, you have to. And in the meantime, an array of third parties—politicians, partisans, advocates—are offering you unsolicited opinions about what to read or listen to. All of these people have their own incentives. Some want your vote. Some want your attention because they can monetize it via advertisers or subscriptions. Some are just sincerely trying to raise awareness of issues they sincerely care about.
Neither aspect of the situation is going to change. And neither is intrinsically sinister; I err on the side of skepticism myself. The problems only really arise when readers are misled, deliberately or not. So I thought I’d take the occasion to lay out the types of claims that are worth double-checking, and offer a three-part strategy for how you as the reader can check for yourself, using the Judicial Watch piece as an example.