Our Best Stuff From Another Week of Fact-Check Whack-a-Mole
Plus vaccine delays, endless wars, and the greatest hits from our What's Next event.
One of my favorite things about doing this newsletter is hearing from readers in the comments each week. I can tell some of you have gotten to know each other (virtually), and it is a treat to see people sharing book recommendations and trading recipes and inquiring about one another’s well-being. Please, keep it up as we enter what is sure to be a long, dark, lonely winter.
But you aren’t the only readers we hear from. And the people who reach out via our fact-checking email address have been on my mind a lot this week, as conspiracy theories related to the election keep cropping up like the world’s most annoying game of whack-a-mole. It’s heartening when someone emails and says something to the effect of “My [husband/neighbor/cousin/friend/aunt] keeps sharing this claim about [Dominion Voting Systems/Michigan vote totals/vote manipulation] and I can’t change their mind. Can you report on this?”
First off, it gives me the warm fuzzies when someone writes with a message like that, because it means people see the The Dispatch Fact Check as a trusted source. (It’s less heartening when people write in and call us names, but I digress.) And it’s great when a reader sends us a question and it sends our fact-checkers down a rabbit hole or two. (I hope I’m not giving away state secrets when I tell you that we did this fact check partly in response to a reader query.)
I’ll be honest, though. We have two great writers doing fact checks for us—Alec Dent and Khaya Himmelman—but they are on the receiving end of a firehose of misinformation. We can’t shoot down every crazy claim that’s out there. At least not until we figure out how to clone the two of them.
So sometimes we get an email asking us whether something is true, and I don’t know if we’ll be able to get to it promptly, and it’s soooo tempting to say, “We haven’t looked into that yet, but it’s DEFINITELY not true.”
That’s not how fact checking works, obviously. But over the last month I’ve noticed some trends in false claims, trends that provide clues that something is probably off. Some of these trends are no doubt tied to the strategy of the president’s legal team as Facebook and Twitter users ape claims about Hugo Chavez and China and votes being counted overseas.
When you start noticing these trends and clues, it should get your Spidey sense tingling. Consider how in the days leading up to Election Day and on the day itself, false claims were designed to preemptively cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election: ballots thrown away by postal workers or poll workers, and the infamous claims about Sharpies rendering ballots invalid in Arizona. (That one was so pervasive that protesters cited it when they gathered outside a vote counting center in Maricopa County.)
Immediately after the election, we saw lots of claims about problems with individual precincts, or small amounts of votes being flipped from Trump to Biden. But as it became clearer that Biden had an insurmountable lead, the claims got more sweeping. Enter Dominion Voting Systems, and Hammer and Scorecard. Those claims, baseless they may be, allowed people to question millions of votes around the country.
One fact check we did this week is particularly illuminating: Does Attorney General Bill Barr have ties to Dominion Voting Services? He doesn’t. It’s important to ask: Why are those claims starting now?
Dominion has, quite unfairly, become one of the primary scapegoats of this election for Trump supporters. (I’d like to think that the folks at Diebold have sent a fruit basket.) The company has been in the news for a month now, and so many of these conspiracy theorists tell us they’ve been looking at “original sources.” So, I dunno, it seems kind of funny that it was only AFTER Barr shot down claims of widespread voter fraud that his alleged ties to Dominion surfaced.
It’s obviously difficult to change the minds of people who believe these false claims. And I know I’m largely preaching to the choir here. We look forward to when we can go back to fact-checking whether the president spent a whole weekend golfing or tackling important topics like whether people are avoiding Corona beer because of coronavirus. For now, we’re still in the trenches debunking these election-related falsehoods. To borrow from the “Let Us Know” feature in The Morning Dispatch, let us know in the comments what kind of false claims you’ve seen and what kind of conversations you’ve had with people who are peddling them.
It’s likely that we’ll one day look back at the speed with which multiple companies brought COVID-19 vaccines to market as some kind of miracle. It’s a process that normally takes years, and as we’ve pointed out previously in The Dispatch, the messenger RNA technology behind the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines holds great promise for treating other diseases. But in a period during which more than 2,000 Americans are dying each day, it’s a travesty that bureaucratic delays mean the vaccine hasn’t been approved yet. Dr. Marty Makary, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, walks readers through how the FDA could have reviewed the documentation Pfizer included in its application more quickly—even, for example, by working through the Thanksgiving weekend.
As Donald Trump’s legal challenges are rebuffed and it becomes apparent to most people that there is not even the narrowest path to victory for him, his legal team and loudest supporters have doubled and tripled down on conspiracy theories and other falsehoods. In yesterday’s French Press (🔒), David worries that some Trump supporters may take these unbelievable claims to heart and actually commit violence. “This is the ninth presidential election of my adult life, and I have never seen the kind of rage and despair at a presidential loss that I’ve witnessed in my community in 2020. It’s not universal. I know that. But it’s prevalent enough that we should be concerned about threats far more concrete than the ‘continued loss of faith in institutions’ that most pundits lament today.” He calls on Republicans to come forward and “confront the agents of chaos.”
He doesn’t have much time left in office, but that doesn’t mean Donald Trump can’t get anything done before he departs. The problem is precisely what he wants to do, at least in terms of our troop levels in Afghanistan and Iraq. Joscelyn takes apart the arguments put forth by the administration—that we “won that war” against ISIS, that al-Qaeda is severely weakened, that the Taliban (per our “peace deal” with the terrorist organization) is our counterterrorism partner. He highlights that the administration has abandoned its ISIS task force and claimed that there will be no need to fund any counter-terror programs against ISIS by 2022. “Trump has repeatedly inveighed against the ‘endless wars,’ claiming he would ‘end’ them. As I’ve written previously, there are many problems with this talking point. And it may be the case that Trump simply wants to take credit for ‘ending’ America’s role in the post-9/11 conflicts, or at least coming close to it—regardless of what is actually transpiring on the ground.”
When we started The Dispatch, our plans included hosting live events with prominent speakers and spirited discussions about conservatism. Well … 2020. Thanks to Zoom, though, we were able to pull off a pretty special event after the election. Speaking of spirited discussions, Steve interviewed former RNC chair Reince Priebus about the future of the party and Rep. Liz Cheney, the third-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, about conservatism and this moment. Jonah talked to Ben Sasse, David talked to Tim Scott, and much, much more. The event was for members only, but we’ve put together a highlight video.
And the best of the rest:
What happens when racists or extremists co-opt your brand and involuntarily make you a “official” symbol of their movement? Christian Schneider looks at examples from Pepe the Frog to New Balance to, most recently, Black Rifle Coffee.
In the Friday G-File, Jonah takes a mental journey to Georgia, where Republicans are at war with themselves over Donald Trump losing the state and calling for people to not vote for Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue in their runoff elections unless they are more vocal about the “stolen election.” Pass the popcorn, he says.
James P. Sutton interviewed Republican San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who served two successful terms and is now considering a run for governor. He talks about the importance of working in a bipartisan fashion and shares some of his experiences.
On the pods: First off, please check out this important interview Steve and Sarah did with Georgia election official Gabriel Sterling on The Dispatch Podcast. Sterling has been outspoken about the threats of violence that election workers in his state have experienced. On Advisory Opinions, David and Sarah talk about a few religious liberty cases, an alleged pay-for-pardon scheme, and the census case before the Supreme Court. And also Georgia. On The Remnant, Jonah talks to Virginia Postrel about her new book on textiles. They discuss how technological changes have prompted “giant, revolutionary, consciousness-shifting ripple effects regarding how civilizations viewed their relationship to markets and the economy.”