How Activists Try To Use Factoids and Misreadings To Win The Publics Mind


factoids and misinformation

Before I start, let me just say that I am being more than a little big liberal in the use to the word factoid. While it may in some circles mean a made up fact (didn’t exist before it was printed in a newspaper, example) or a small tidbit of information, I use it here to represent small slivers of facts, slices of facts removed from their context and presented as the whole truth. It’s sort of a distant relative to Stephen Colbert’s truthiness, “We’re not talking about truth, we’re talking about something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist” was his explaination of the term.

Truthiness and factoids are like bastard cousins of each others, because while truthiness uses few if any real facts, factoids use SOME, which is often worse. In the age of internet searches and people becoming instant experts on a subject by looking at Wikipedia (which I do too… shameful!), these have become the tools of master debaters and slant merchants.

The Greg Bear book “Slant” has the tag line “tell the truth, but tell it slant”, and that is pretty much what I have seen. I have talked recently about Ann Coulter, who seems to work truthiness until it’s threadbare, and then uses a few factoids to try to make it appear more reasonable. She’s not very good at it, however, as her basic premise to many of her stories (can’t call them columns, they really are conservative bed time stories) is a little too obvious. She’s not even trying to reveal the truth, she is just trying to build up the truth as she sees it.

Another classic player in this game is a man born Dick Greger Augustsson, who so much wants to create a certain impression that he changed his name to Rick Falkvinge as a way to boost his image. The last name meaning falcon wing certainly sells more than being called a Dick, I guess. It’s an old show business tradition, and one that this guy has used to try to debate and argue that copyright is somehow horrible, immoral, or unjust. He’s quite good and carefully selecting a few facts and repeatedly hitting people over the head with them. His discussions of the dreaded “copyright monopoly” are classic examples of a few thinly sliced factoids stretched to cover a lot of territory. His favorite argument seems to be that the term copyright was first used in relation to printing in the 16th century or so, where a single printer had the right to make copies of certain things, thus a “copy right” as per the Statute of Anne. it was used in various ways, including to censor or limit what information that opposed the monarch of the day would get out. From this historical factoid, Dick has pretty much built up the concept that copyright is about censorship and keeping the people ignorant and uninformed – thus piracy is perfectly okay to avoid censorship. Yeah, I know, written out in plain terms it seems like a pretty large logical jump, but Dick knows how to spin the words and attach other factoids to the game to create his own version of truthiness about copyright.

The real point here is that the US conservatives, like guys like Rick Falkvinge, are using this technique to create converts and to advance their cause. Most often, the factoids that they pull up are verifiable on the internet. Typing in Statute of Anne in Google will lead you to a wonderful history of this law, and will leave you to beleive that all of copyright has to do with the Statute of Anne. In reality, American copyright laws have absolutely nothing to do with Statute of Anne, and all modern copyright laws have no relation at all to the Statute of Anne (which was about controlling printing, and not about ownership of works). Yet, that nice little factoid is used to hang the “copyright monopoly” claim.

Ann Coulter’s recent piece about the government shut down is pretty much the same. It’s a long list of factoids, including that the rates in North Carolina will be specifically very high. However, she leaves out the information in this interesting story, which points out that the obstructionist Republicans running North Carolina right now have blocked, declined, and barred any of the billions of federal aid that would come in to help people to get insurance at a lower price.

Another example is “Obamacare will allow insurers to charge 50 percent higher premiums for smokers, but prohibits insurers from increasing premiums for those with HIV/AIDS.”. It’s true, but it’s not an exact reading. The law does not allow for insurance companies to refuse coverage or raise rates for people with existing conditions. She could have replaced HIV/AIDS with “heart condition” or “cancer in remission” or “high blood pressure” and it would be the same thing. But using the “factoid” and tagging it with HIV/AIDS is a way to inflame the conservatives who think that AIDS is a disease from God himself to strike down gays and drug users, those horrible immoral people! She uses the most egregious example to try to paint the whole thing bad.

For that matter, calling it “Obamacare” is in itself a way an attempt to play against the law. It’s really the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act or the Affordable Care Act, but tagging it as Obamacare gives the Republican pundits a starting point that is already massively negative for their readers and listeners, and gives everyone from the racists to the birthers a way to latch on and hate the law. Obamacare wasn’t just a random thing, according to this article from CNN, it was created and then repeated 270+ times in a single month in congressional speeches, giving plenty of quotes and content for the conservative media to work from. It’s a sort of factoid, something created of whole cloth and repeated often enough, until it became the word of choice.

The skill here is that truth was created, the basis of the debate created and moved by those who oppose the law, by creating false impressions and repeating the same “factoids” over and over again. It doesn’t make them true, but in our fast check Google search read it on the interweb world, it’s these factoids that often sway people’s opinions. It creates the truthiness that misleads us all.