Factually: Harris debate performance triggers birtherism smears

Happy Independence Day to our U.S. readers! And Happy Thursday to everyone else!

This newsletter has a global scope and reach because, as the IFCN’s sixth annual Global Fact-Checking Summit in Cape Town last month proved, fact-checkers around the world can learn from one another and build on and celebrate each other’s successes.

Here in America — Daniel writes from Florida, Susan from Washington, D.C. — the 2020 presidential campaign is in full swing, and we’re tracking all the falsehoods and hoaxes that come with every national election these days.

In fact (*personal news alert*), Daniel will now be doing just that for PolitiFact, covering a new beat that will look broadly at misinformation in the run-up to next year’s voting, with a special focus on the purveyors of falsehoods and their methods and agendas.

So we think it’s appropriate to start this week with an episode indicative of what American voters are likely to see more of in 2020: A misinformation campaign aimed at Kamala Harris, the candidate who had a breakout moment on the issue of race in last week’s Democratic debates.

During last Thursday’s debate, the California senator, noting that she was “the only black person on this stage,” challenged former Vice President Joe Biden on race and his positions on segregation and busing in the 1970s. The exchange was widely seen as a setback to Biden, the party’s frontrunner, and a boost for Harris, in more ways than one.

As is often the case, the surge for Harris also brought new energy to those seeking to undermine her.

Right-wing provocateur Ali Alexander tweeted afterward that Harris is “not an American Black” because her father was Jamaican and her mother was Indian. Harris, in fact, was born in Oakland, California, in 1964.

Alexander’s tweet got widely amplified when Donald Trump Jr. retweeted it to his 3.65 million followers. “Is this true? Wow,” the president’s son said in the tweet, which was later deleted.

Trump senior adviser Katrina Pierson joined in. Several stories also pointed out an observation from social media researcher Caroline Orr that a number of “suspect accounts” had pushed a similar narrative, suggesting “a coordinated/artificial operation.”

This isn’t the first attempt to sow doubt about Harris’ legitimacy and identity.

A campaign some are calling “birtherism 2.0” — a new version of the falsehoods that were spread in 2008 about Barack Obama’s citizenship — started in 2018 with a Reddit meme comparing Harris to Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who portrayed herself as black, CNN reported. The hoax gained new traction in January when conspiracy theorist Jacob Wohl tweeted, falsely, that Harris was not eligible to run for president because of the birthplaces of her parents. PolitiFactSnopes and others promptly did the appropriate debunking.

This time around, the smear was slightly different but racist all the same, questioning not her eligibility but whether she is African-American. It quickly prompted pushback from a number of quarters — including many of the other Democratic candidates, as well as Meghan McCain.

But even if Harris’ Democratic rivals condemned the tweet, and even if major news outlets called it racist and illegitimate, and even if Trump Jr.’s tweet was later deleted, the effort was successful in at least seeding the words “Not American Black” across Twitter.

That, of course, was the whole point.

As Alexander himself noted in his response to the tweet from Trump Jr., “one tweet can change everything.”

. . .   technology

  • In March we wrote that the U.S. Census Bureau has asked Big Tech to help it fend off fakery that would dissuade people from participating in the 2020 count. Politico this week has an update on Facebook’s efforts. The New York Times explained why we should be worried about the census.
  • Facebook is demoting miracle health claims, the company said in a new blog post. Reports in The Washington Post last week and The Wall Street Journal this week described how social media is rife with false claims about potential cures. The company’s move came after it announced in March that it would limit the reach of vaccine misinformation.
  • The distribution of deepfake revenge porn is now illegal in Virginia. In the U.S. Senate, lawmakers have proposed a bill that would require the Department of Homeland Security to annually assess the technologies used to create deepfakes and propose potential regulations. But Mathew Ingram of CJR wrote about why legislation aimed at curtailing the spread of deepfakes is a bad idea.

. . .  politics

  • Exposure to Russian propaganda “may have helped change American minds in favor of Republican candidate Trump,” a researcher from the University of Bristol wrote in The Conversation. Here’s another analysis from NBC News. But The Washington Post debunked the study, saying that “the correlation between the two sets of data isn’t really that robust.”
  • The website joebiden.info says (in very small print at the bottom) that it’s a parody. The New York Times calls it a “slick little piece of disinformation” created by a Republican political consultant in Austin. The Times says it’s more like the disinformation campaign spread by Russian trolls in 2016 than typical political messaging.
  • A survey from the Pew Research Center found that Americans generally think that fact-checking projects treat both sides of the political divide more fairly than mainstream news organizations. But Republicans were far more likely than Democrats to say that fact-checkers tend to favor one side.

. . .  the future of news

  • After the 2018 shooting at Santa Fe High School in Texas, national news organizations interviewed a man who said he witnessed the shooting and identified himself as David Briscoe. Turns out the school has no record of a teacher with that name, the Texas Tribune reportedCNN and The Wall Street Journal have updated and corrected their stories.
  • The Wall Street Journal has assigned 21 people to be on call to be on call to answer reporters’ queries about whether a piece of content has been manipulated. Digiday reported that “after each query from a reporter, members write up a report with details of what they learned.”
  • Collaborative fact-checking initiatives like Comprova, which united 24 newsrooms to cover the 2018 Brazilian election, can have a measurable effect on the spread of misinformation, according to new research from First Draft. So why won’t U.S. fact-checkers create a similar coalition? Cristina Tardáguila of the IFCN asked that question.

Daniel Dale has been busy churning out fact checks in his new job at CNN. We liked this one, where he checked a claim by President Trump in an interview with Fox News that he had taken some big action in 2017 to address homelessness in Washington, D.C.

In the exchange with Fox’s Tucker Carlson, Trump said also homelessness was a phenomenon “that started two years ago.” The New York Times said it was “a puzzling series of comments.” A piece in The Washington Post called it an it “an incoherent monologue.”

Dale himself, in tweeting out his piece, noted that he “tried” to fact-check the president’s claim, but “like everyone else, I still have no idea what he was talking about.” A journalist from Vox.com, Aaron Rupar, suggested in response that the president’s assertion was so absurd that a fact check wasn’t even warranted.

But Dale handled it with skill, and, as a fact-checker does, stuck to the available facts. He found “no evidence that Trump did anything early in his presidency that ‘ended’ any problem related to homelessness in the nation’s capital.”

What we liked: Sometimes a claim calls for a fact check precisely because it’s vague, to help readers sort out the truth amid the confusion. In cases like this, fact-checkers can do what Dale did: 1.) Go to the experts. 2.) Use data. 3.) Be transparent about what is known and not known.  Dale made clear that he could find no proof that Trump had taken some dramatic action on homelessness in D.C., but was also transparent about his inability to prove the opposite, noting “it’s hard to prove a negative.”

  1. Writing for The Atlantic, Taylor Lorenz examined how verification scams are rampant on social media — and what they show about the seemingly arbitrary system tech companies employ to verify users.
  2. In Tortoise media, Nicky Wolff profiled the creator of 8chan. The story, called “Destroyer of Worlds,” lives up to its ambitious headline.
  3. The deadline for the African Fact-Checking Awards, coordinated by Africa Check, has been extended. Submit entries by July 17.
  4. BuzzFeed News found that a network of conspiracy sites about Kamala Harris and Mark Zuckerberg is being run by a Montessori school director in Michigan.
  5. Mother Jones dove into the origins of the concrete milkshakes hoax and how it developed into a right-wing meme.
  6. Here are The Washington Post Fact Checker’s most-read stories of 2019 so far.
  7. As part of its coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, the New York Times explored how some conspiracy theorists are claiming it’s a hoax, “using irony and nonchalance to refurbish old conspiracies for new audiences.”
  8. Amnesty International has launched a network of researchers to verify video footage and data about potential human rights violations.
  9. Arguing with climate change deniers might seem futile, but a new study found that there are some strategies that may help people change their minds.
  10. Are you a fact-checker who wants to learn additional skills or strategies from another organization? Apply for this year’s IFCN fellowship program, which grants two fact-checkers $2,500 each to travel to embed with another outlet abroad. Applications are open until Aug. 9.

Feel free to send feedback and suggestions to factchecknet@poynter.org. And if this newsletter was forwarded to you or your reading it on our website, you can subscribe here.

Susan and Daniel

  1. Get your facts faster. Sign up for our weekly newsletter delivered to your inbox every Thursday morning.