Winston Churchill once quipped that “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on."
One wonders what Churchill would have thought about the age of social media, when a falsehood can quite literally make laps around the world before the truth can even find pants.
A good illustration of this can be found in a pair of tweets made by BBC reporter James Landale.
On May 27, Landale tweeted a short video that featured Donald Trump and other world leaders at the G7 summit in Italy. In the video, Trump does not appear to be using an earpiece that would allow him to understand the Italian speaker.
Here is what Landale tweeted: “A short clip that sums up this G7 summit: look who has chosen not to hear a translation of his Italian host's speech #G6”
The presumption, of course, is that Trump had rudely opted to not bother listening to his host’s remarks.
Landale’s Twitter following is not that big – 57.6K – and a perusal of his page reveals that most of his tweets receive only a handful of likes and retweets. So perhaps he was not anticipating that his tweet would have much of an impact.
He was wrong.
Landale’s tweet was retweeted 20,000 times and received even more likes. Why?
Because it was a narrative that many (beginning with Landale) appeared eager to believe, including Andrea Mitchell of NBC and Sam Stein of the Huffington Post.
The problem is that the narrative was not true. Within a couple of hours, the White House had responded to Landale, explaining that Trump wears a smaller earpiece in his right ear.
Landale dutifully issued a correction:
This tweet was not nearly as popular. It was retweeted less than 200 times.
The anecdote reveals the power of confirmation bias in social media and the need people seem to have to disseminate information that confirms their biases. Tertiary to this is whether or not that information is actually true.
This problem is certainly not confined to people on one side of the ideological divide. I’m sure one could find ample examples of people of all political and ideological persuasions reacting in a similar manner to tweets and posts that are untrue.
Also, it's clear that people of all ideological and political stripes see the inherent problem in “fake news” that goes viral and leaves people misinformed. Brian Fallon, for example, a former press secretary for Hillary Clinton and a CNN political commentator, pointed out that Landale’s correction wasn't really cutting it.
Fallon is right, but the truth is there's no undoing the false narrative Landale created. The vast majority of the tens of thousands of people who saw Landale's tweet, I suspect, genuinely believe the president was not listening to the speaker at an important conference.
Indeed, the bogus retweet still exists on the Twitter accounts of journalists Mitchell and Stein, who for all we know have no idea they disseminated fake news. If seasoned reporters are so careless about the information they share, how can we expect diligence from regular folks, activists, and political hacks?
Now, in this instance, at least, the matter was trivial: Did Trump have his earpiece in?
But the same pattern can be found (on both sides of the aisle) in narratives on important topics, from Russian cyberattacks to climate change to criminal justice.
It’s been commonly observed—from T.S. Eliot to Col. Nathan R. Jessep—that humans can’t really handle the truth.
But I wonder if we’re getting it wrong: Maybe most humans just don't care very much about what's true.