Crocheting on a Tightrope 🧶

The challenge of real-time reporting is that doing it well is really hard. But coming up with some made-up facts about the victim of a crime? That’s the easy part.

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Real-time reporting is often one of the most aggressive forms of multitasking out there. (Olliss/Unsplash)

Paul Pelosi was not the target, but he nonetheless suffered the brunt of a brutal attack intended for his wife. He had to undergo intensive surgery on his brain. He will likely be recovering for months, if not longer—a tough road for an 82-year-old man.

And for that, he has suffered the indignity of being the target of ugly, completely false rumors about his personal life, all because the rumor train got out in front of the truth train, as it so often does. Nancy Pelosi not only has to deal with the fact her husband has been deeply hurt, but that her husband’s reputation has been unjustly sullied.

Why did this happen? Simply put, it’s because truth is no longer a welcome detail in many online circles. Sharing the rumor wins out if it means winning the discourse.

I don’t necessarily know if I got ahead of it or anything, but on Friday, I already saw the rumors emerging and, in my efforts to maybe convince a small number of people to not focus on the emerging rumor mill, I shot off a tweet:

Of course, the immediate response came from people who read the comment as “the attacker’s politics don’t matter.” Of course they do. The thing is, they don’t matter as much as the precedent that was set by the attack itself, and they also matter to people who don’t actually care about the truth—because they want to find ways to discredit those politics and imply a completely different narrative before the cement dries on the actual story. And by insisting on talking about those politics, we make it easier for people with bad intentions to make a permanent imprint on the narrative.

And imprint they did—to the point where, as I mentioned yesterday, the guy who is sucking up the rest of the media attention right now is dropping the conspiracy theory.

In a social media-driven world, it is easy for this to happen, because of the way information spreads. But because the average person is more adept at how social media works, they are aware of the velocity at which misinformation can spread online, often without a link or sourcing, or even a low-quality source.

As my pal Philip Bump put it in a recent Washington Post column:

What made this particular narrative so potent—and what made it trend on Twitter—was that it was juicy chum for the right’s social media sphere. Media Matters’ Matt Gertz summarized the system well over the weekend: There’s an audience for extreme conspiracy theories and an infrastructure for vetting and promoting them. There’s also very little interest in self-correcting, as made most obvious in the response to Donald Trump’s false claims about the election. So once the attack became news, there was an entire attention economy ready to pounce and sell anti-left claims to right-wing consumers. Grotesque memes emerged and were shared by people including Donald Trump Jr.

Think about the effect here: Instead of there being a discussion about how an 82-year-old man was beaten with a hammer simply because his wife is a prominent Democrat, the discussion was instead about how Democrats are bad on crime or, worse, how the husband of that prominent Democrat is a deviant who brought it on himself. The currency of that latter frame was so robust that Elon Musk, new owner of Twitter and an expert in the business of appealing to the fringe right, shared a baseless conspiracy theory on his platform.

The thing is, real-time reporting is not something that the average person is trained in. It takes time and practice to do well, and too often, even those that are good at doing it don’t get every detail right.

It’s like trying to crochet a sweater on a tightrope. You’re going to do it as slowly and carefully as you can, because the risk of falling or messing up is unbelievably high.

But in a world where misinformation is both allowed but preferred, suddenly you aren’t in a position where getting the details is the important part—but what is going to break through and make the most noise. And this particular story had a lot of details that made it very attractive for that audience: Nancy Pelosi is an obvious target for critics of the left, it involved a home break-in, it took place in San Francisco of all places.

Of course the lie was going to get out of the station before the truth. It was just too tantalizing.

As consumers of news, I urge you to think hard about why you speculate and what you put to risk by doing so. People with motives unlike yours are doing the exact same thing. Sometimes, the best thing you can do is get out of the way and let the reporting process play out.

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Ernie Smith

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Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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