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.
When To Check
In thinking about this over the past couple days, I would summarize my position as follows: Right or wrong, your beliefs are only dangerous to the extent that they’re controversial.
Some beliefs are clearly inconsequential because the subject itself is inconsequential. I spent my whole life thinking that “puce” is a color close to chartreuse, until last year, when a friend happened to refer to the skirt I was wearing, which was lilac, using that term. Googling it just now to corroborate—as a journalist, I fact-check my own memories–I see that “puce” is supposedly reddish brown. Whatever. The maximum theoretical harm that could result from being wrong about something like this is, well, minimal.
More controversially: some beliefs concern legitimately consequential subjects but are not known or especially likely to cause adverse consequences themselves. For example: anthropogenic climate change. I believe it’s real, as do a majority of Americans. But I don’t think it actually matters whether everyone shares that belief. Think about it. The international community hasn’t come up with a plan to stop climate change. Advocates can’t even agree on whether we should devote our theoretical resources to thwarting climate change or mitigating its harmful effects. If there was a plan, the fact that a minority of Americans don’t believe in climate science wouldn’t be an insuperable barrier to implementation. If an organized minority could reliably thwart a majority that opposes them, Texas would have banned capital punishment and first-trimester abortions and the House would be expected to pass constitutional carry today.
To be more blunt: The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that American climate skepticism is a red herring, a scapegoat, or a useful foil. Democrats blame Republican science denialism for the failure of cap-and-trade legislation, for example, and certainly Republicans didn’t support the idea. But Democrats have some culpability too. They folded on cap-and-trade in order to focus on Obamacare, of all things, and because some of them, climate aside, are too chicken to contemplate hitting business with a carbon tax. Ironically, the greatest climate-related achievement of the Obama era has been the growth of natural gas production, because natural gas competes successfully against coal, despite the fact that it happens be better from an emissions perspective as well as basically every other perspective. Democrats may consider it reprehensible that Texas Republicans don’t grandstand about healing the planet, and it may be true that many of them don’t believe in climate change. I’ve rarely inquired because I think the question itself is silly, because whatever they believe, it obviously hasn’t been the determining factor in their actions.
Misinformation does matter, however, when it encourages false beliefs that are causally connected with risky actions. For example: vaccines. When a parent doesn’t believe the scientific consensus that vaccines against childhood illness do more good than harm, it leads to a predicatable consequence: they don’t vaccinate their children. And the consequences of that decision carry a clear risk of serious harm, as one mother recently found out when all seven of her kids came down with whooping cough.
Judicial Watch’s story about the ISIS training camp has already had some adverse effects, as mentioned, in that it’s required DPS to allocate resources to reassuring the public by debunking the claim. And if the story is accepted at face value by a number of readers, then the misinformation will cause further harm, by creating some political pressure for state and federal law enforcement officers to focus on finding this fictional ISIS training camp in Juarez, rather than fighting the cartels, coyotes, traffickers, predators, and other criminals who actually exist all along the border and are obviously what border security efforts should focus on. So let’s walk through why I think this story is absurd.
How to Check
1.Check the content
In a well-reported story, quotes typically come from named sources, except when circumstances necessitate anonymity; sources of statistics are usually specified; and corroborating evidence is provided, to the extent that it’s possible given the format of the story itself. When Darby broke the aforementioned story about the children being warehoused in detention facilities, for example, he included the photos that had been leaked; that’s why the story was credible, and was taken seriously even by people who would otherwise have been skeptical of Breitbart Texas or of Darby personally.
The Judicial Watch story, by contrast, is based on nothing but “Judicial Watch sources that include a Mexican Army field grade officer and a Mexican Federal Police Inspector.” Nope. That’s not good enough, and when the story later refers to them as “knowledgeable sources,” that should make you even more skeptical: if these “sources” exist, and are knowledgeable, that would be clear from the content. The content instead suggests a lack of knowledge: “The exact location where the terrorist group has established its base is around eight miles from the U.S. border,” emphasis added. Uh-huh.
People working in Mexican law enforcement often have concerns about their personal security, and when being named in the press could put a source in danger, most reporters would agree to anonymity. But a conscientious reporter would accept that by doing so, they obviously limit the extent to which readers can blindly trust the unknown source; a conscientious reporter would typically make an extra effort then to show readers that the source is real and his or her information is correct. Judicial Watch’s story doesn’t do that; every claim in the story is attributed to these mysterious anonymous sources.
With that said, an ISIS training camp on the border would be legitimately big news; we may want to consider the possibility that Judicial Watch is onto something and just reported it sloppily. So let’s move on to step 2.
2. Check for corroboration.
Start with a simple Google search to see if any other outlets are reporting on the story you’re scrutinizing. If so, you can look for additional evidence in those reports, and triangulate from several accounts to get a fuller picture of the situation (triangulating is a good idea in any case, since reporters typically approach any story from various and slightly different perspectives).
In this case, no one has independently reported that ISIS has a training camp in Juarez; the only people agreeing with Judicial Watch’s claim are citing Judicial Watch. That’s not a good sign.
But to be thorough, as yourself the following question: if this story is true, should evidence for it be accessible? Depending on the subject, it may not be. This was one of the reasons that it took a little while for Rolling Stone’s catastrophically disastrous story about casual acceptance of sociopathic sexual assaults at the University of Virginia to be widely interrogated. The central narrative of the story is the account of a brutal gang rape supposedly endured by a student named “Jackie” and its aftermath. After investigation, pretty much everything that can be debunked about Jackie’s story has been. Even so, there are still some people who believe the young woman’s claim that she suffered a sexual assault, and ultimately, we’ll never know, since Jackie was the only person who spent the entire night with herself. No one else can offer counterevidence about everything that happened to her that night; they can only address her assertions about them specifically. Some uncertainty is ineradicable in such situations.
By contrast, Judicial Watch is talking about an ISIS training camp in Juarez, which would be a physical site in a specific location with specific people doing specific things in a bustling binational metroplex. Like most major cities, in other words, has newspapers and television stations and law enforcement and public officials and at least a million people walking around with recording devices in their pockets every day. Juarez-El Paso in particular happens to be within a stone’s throw of Fort Bliss and White Sands Missile Range, both of which are well equipped with the best surveillance and recon technology available in literally the entire world. The United States military has its foibles. It also has cameras, drone fleets, intelligence operatives, sonar, radar, various spy innovations that are still classified, and personnel who spend all day staging elaborate training scenarios for fighting groups like ISIS abroad.
Are we really supposed to believe that ISIS put a training camp there and no one’s noticed except some guy in D.C. who writes for Judicial Watch? If ISIS is stupid enough to do that, then they’re ultimately not as much of a threat as they’d like us to think. And actually, for reasons Graeme Wood explains in his (absolutely must-read story) about what ISIS actually wants, putting a training camp in Juarez would violate the caliphate’s own rules about how caliphates work, so any ISIS fighters who went off-script and set up such a training camp would likely have been beheaded by now anyway.
If this story were true it could easily be corroborated and it would be corroborated. But if you’re still not convinced—the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence—then let’s move to step three.
3. Consider the context and motives
It sometimes happens that a story is real but widely overlooked by most media outlets, deliberately or out of ignorance, or actively denied or downplayed by government officials. I won’t name any names Benghazi, but Operation Fast and Furious comes to mind: that was legitimately outrageous and should have been a huge scandal but never received much media coverage, partly because a lot of border stories are undercovered because the American press is disproportionately concentrated in New York and Washington, and partly because it was actively downplayed by the Obama administration, occasionally in concert with the president’s many apologists in left-leaning and mainstream news outlets. Their motives were not hard to understand: the White House wanted to protect Eric Holder; the mainstream press is more inclined to trust Obama than John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas.
In this case, however, it’s not the White House or the Department of Homeland Security dismissing Judicial Watch’s story; it’s the Texas Department of Public Safety, which has no history of colluding with Obama to cover up stories that would displease the federal government. Quite the opposite: Texas DPS has repeatedly warned about the potential for terrorists to enter the United States by crossing the southern border. If anything, they tend to overstate the risk. But in any case, if there was even a plausible rumor that ISIS had a training camp in Juarez, Steve McCraw would be all over it. So would Breitbart Texas. Shoot, even Texas Monthly would cover that story. What possible incentive would any of us have to ignore or lie about credible reports of ISIS activity on the border? As I also learned from Wood’s story, which made a profound impression on me and which everyone should read, ISIS people are terrifying, vicious, and deranged. I would prefer not to meet any of them. For selfish reasons alone I would help sound the alarm if I thought the alarm needed sounding.
And there you have it. That’s why I think the Judicial Watch story is absurd: it contains no convincing evidence, no one has corroborated it, and no one has a motive to cover up the evidence; many of the people denouncing it have the opposite motive. On the bright side, I’m glad it spurred me to lay out my own approach to assessing whether a story is credible; I hope some readers find it useful. But don’t take my word for it: give it a try for yourself.
Oh, and one last tip: good journalists don’t get defensive when people ask for evidence. Irritable, maybe, if someone’s asking you to ask as their personal information valet, but good journalists aren’t offended by sincere questions. Bad journalists, however? Erdely, the Rolling Stone reporter, didn’t like it when people asked questions about her reporting methods. Neither, it seems, does Judicial Watch.