Real facts are statements about the world that we know are true based on overwhelming evidence, such as water molecules consist of one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms or the United States Declaration of Independence was agreed upon in 1776. “Alternative facts” on the other hand, are statements that are not at all true, but have been made up by ideologues that push it as if it was true. It is a form of targeted misinformation, but also the tacit claim that it is somehow possible to disagree with real facts and believe in a set of “alternative facts” that are just as valid as the real deal.
One of the most remarkable deployments of this tactic by political staff in modern times occurred during a Meet The Press segment in late January of 2017 where NBC journalist Chuck Todd interviewed Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway. The topic dealt with the audience size for the inauguration of President Trump and might not seem to be of much importance, but the very fact that the technique was deployed so openly and bizarrely had many people concerned that we might be seeing the rise of government-approved “alternative facts” in a similar fashion to the Orwell book 1984. Recent developments indicate that this was not a simple mishap, but part of a larger and continued media strategy.
The Bowling Green “massacre” that never happened
As the Trump executive order on immigration came under increasing pressure, Conway attempted to defend it in an MSNBC interview by citing an even that she called “The Bowling Green Massacre”:
These are nations very narrowly prescribed and also temporary. I bet it was very little coverage…I bet it’s brand new information to people that President Obama had a six-month ban on the Iraqi refugee program after two Iraqis came here to this country, were radicalized and they were the masterminds behind the Bowling Green massacre. Most people don’t know that because it didn’t get covered.
Notice how skillfully Conway deploys multiple methods of distraction and misinformation in just around 20 seconds without so much as breaking a sweat. She tries to minimize the impact of the immigration ban, she tries to establish a false moral equivalence between Trump and Obama (Obama never banned refugees from Iraq), insinuates that the media is biased against Trump), and even alleges a systematic effort by the mainstream media to hide terror attacks committed by immigrants to further their ideological goals.
However, the Bowling Green massacre that Conway describes never happened (LaCapria, 2017; Landers, 2017). She just made it up.
There were two people with an Iraqi background that were arrested for having carried out attacks in Iraqi, but there was no massacre in the U. S. No terror attack happened and no one died. In other words, Conway has just invented a terror attack and is scolding mainstream media for not covering this non-existent event. If the “alternative fact” about audience size was of no consequences, this “alternative massacre” shows a surge in the usage of “alternative facts” and the tactic being deployed on much severer levels. Now they have not falsely described audience size, but invented a massacre that we know with certainty did not actually happen. This is extremely disturbing.
How did the misinformation merchants spin the situation?
Mainstream media were quick to point out that Conway spewed a clear falsehood. They pointed out that the arrest and sentencing of the two people who committed acts of terror in Iraq was covered by a wide range of news media. It was thus impossible for her to defend the error. Instead, she claimed on Twitter that she just misspoke and meant to say “Bowling Green terrorists”. However, journalists managed to uncover previous interviews where she had used the exact same phrase. It is thus hard to buy her claim that she merely misspoke (Conway, 2017; LaCapria, 2017). Rather, it looks like an intentional strategy.
Around the same time, President Trump launched yet another attack against mainstream media, issuing a list of over 80 attacks that the White House claims were inadequately covered by the mainstream media. Yet mainstream journalists struck back, highlighting the easily verifiable fact that they had covered the attacks in much detail (Dewan and Sterling, 2017).
A third spin that could be found on the darkest places on the Internet. Genocide deniers pushed the false moral equivalence between Conway for inventing a massacre we know did not happen with scientists and historians who do research on actual genocides. The mainstream media, the narrative held, had no problem objecting to Conway but let real historians off the hook for researching real genocides that genocide deniers falsely claim never happened.
The future of facts in media and politics
Many journalists have gotten tired of Conway. Besides pushing “alternative facts” as if they were real, she appears to almost completely refuse to answer direct questions and almost always go off on some tangent that benefits her position and the actions of President Trump.
Some journalists have decided to simply not invite her to interviews because they cannot get any information from her about the questions they ask and because her credibility is suffering (Reed, 2017). Conway is also in trouble for promoting merchandise sold by President Trump’s daughter Ivanka after the company Nordstrom decided to stop selling them. The Office of Government Ethics suggested in a letter that Conway should be disciplined for this ethics violation (Chiacu, 2017).
Whatever happens to Conway in the Trump administration, it is clear that she is highly skilled at effectively altering interview situations in her favor. It is also clear that “alternative facts” approach is currently surging and might perhaps be a recurring theme in U. S. politics for some time.
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References and further reading:
Chiacu, D. (2017). Ethics office urges White House to weigh disciplining Conway (cache | cache). Reuters. Accessed: 2017-02-15.
Conway, M. (2017). Conway cited fake ‘Bowling Green massacre’ in previous interviews (cache | cache). Politico. Accessed: 2017-02-15.
Dewan, A and Sterling, J. (2017). Journalists call out White House claims on terror reporting (cache | cache). CNN. Accessed: 2017-02-15.
Landers, E. and Burnside, T. (2017). Trump adviser cites non-existent ‘massacre’ defending ban (cache | cache). CNN. Accessed: 2017-02-15.
LaCapria, K. (2017). Kellyanne Conway References Non-Existent ‘Bowling Green Massacre’ as Reason for Entry Restrictions (cache). Snopes. Accessed: 2017-02-15.
Reed, B. (2017). ‘We passed — those are the facts’: CNN publicly calls out Kellyanne Conway’s new lies about show invite (cache | cache). RawStory. Accessed: 2017-02-15.