National News

Here Is One Way Trump Spreads False Information Online

Posted June 26, 2018 11:38 p.m. EDT
Updated June 26, 2018 11:40 p.m. EDT

On Monday, President Donald Trump tweeted that Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., had encouraged liberals to “harm” supporters of “the Make America Great Again movement” and warned her to “be careful what you wish for.”

By Tuesday, the tweet was shared more than 40,000 times, and many users included comments critical of the president. Both critics and supporters of Trump said the tweet contained a veiled threat against the congresswoman, who called on people to confront Trump officials in public as a form of registering their disapproval.

This kind of Twitter outrage cycle has repeated itself countless times since Trump began his presidential campaign in 2015, and it is one of his tried and true methods for injecting disinformation into public discourse, experts said.

“What we’re seeing here is the standard process of Trump launching a series of lies into our media ecosystem and then watching it bounce around and amplify through the system,” said Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia. “So to respond with anything reasonable to the fact that the president basically made stuff up is to extend the message and to throw a bomb” into the political debate.

The president’s tweet about Waters contained a false statement, an insult and what sounds like a threat. But each time it was shared — even, and perhaps especially, by critics who wanted to vent their anger — the message was amplified and spread.

What Waters Said

Here is how this particular episode began: Some of Trump’s advisers have recently been hassled at restaurants or at a movie theater by protesters opposed to his administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the border.

At a rally on Saturday in Los Angeles, Waters praised those protesters and encouraged them to do more, using physical terms like “push back.”.

“Let’s make sure we show up wherever we have to show up. And if you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd. And you push back on them. And you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.”

Separately, in an MSNBC interview, she also called on people to confront Trump officials in public spaces and condoned efforts to “harass them.”

What Happened Afterward

Both liberals and conservatives criticized Waters for escalating an already tense political situation, although few, if any, liberals believe she called for targeted attacks on White House officials or Trump supporters.

At a news conference Monday, Waters said, “I believe in peaceful protest.”

But Trump and conservatives have embraced a more sinister interpretation.

The conservative group Judicial Watch called for an ethics investigation into Waters, saying she had “incited violence and assault against members of President Trump’s Cabinet.” Its president, Tom Fitton, repeated that argument in an opinion piece for Fox News, which shared it online.

And then there was Trump, who told his 53 million Twitter followers that Waters had called for physical violence against many of his supporters. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, repeated a version of that claim during a White House press briefing, implying that she had advocated action against “any Trump supporter.”

Online, Trump’s critics largely denounced what they saw as a veiled threat (“Be careful what you wish for Max!”).

By retweeting Trump, many of his critics in turn spread false statements and an insult (“an extraordinarily low IQ person”) rather than correcting them. But even when they do correct the president, Vaidhyanathan said it does not make much difference.

“He can make a statement about a member of Congress and her IQ and completely lie about what that member of Congress said,” Vaidhyanathan said of Trump. “And what will occur is consistent repetition of that message. And most of the repetition of that message will be in the form of criticism, not correction.”