Social Media Political Lies
by Eric Hall
February 23, 2013
I want to preface this post by stating I am not a fan of the two-party system that controls the politics in the United States. This post is not intended to be a defense of President Obama, nor a criticism of the Republican party. The content is a simple result of the fact we currently have a democratic president, thus social media posts about the President will of course be about the current president, and will usually be posted by those that agree with the party not in the presidency. The idea here is to show a few examples of how facts as well as context is very important if we are to be a more educated populace and thus can make more informed voting decisions.
(Update: I am finding the need to expand slightly on my original up-front disclosure. There are many policies of our current President on which I disagree. In fact, I am not necessarily defending a position on either side of the issues in this post. I understand there are more serious issues facing the nation than the posts mentioned below. I picked these as I thought they would be fairly benign and not controversial in their basis in deception. I am happy to discuss more serious political issues over on my Twitter feed.)
Ah Facebook... an endless source of material about which to point out factual errors and contextual errors. This week I came across a few political posts on Facebook that not only fail any reasonable test of logic, but many of them are false in context. The problem is when people believe these type of posts, the next time they go to the polls they think voting for the other party will somehow change things or make things better.The true record of the last couple of decades should tell us otherwise.
The first one is this one claiming to be Bill Cosby with a short speech of how he's tired after having worked for so many years and feels the same work ethic does not exist today. The original post came from a group on Facebook called "Living Right," which I assume is a reference to the conservative Republican party, generally considered the "right," a term with a long history in how people divided themselves in legislative assemblies. The post is a perfect example of why everyone should be forced to join the Facebook groups for "Skeptoid" and "checking snopes.com before forwarding dumb e-mails." It doesn't take much effort to find out this is factually incorrect.
First is Dr. Cosby's age. As of this writing, he is 75, not 83. That is one big clue that something isn't quite right with the post. More interesting is if one searches "I'm tired," the very first entry is one on snopes.com - which tracked down how this is incorrectly attributed. The last entry on the first page of search results leads one to the correct attribution which is a blog entry by Robert A. Hall, a retired marine and Massachusetts senator. This has been passed around via email and on Facebook using a couple of different ages for Dr. Cosby (all wrong). Dr. Cosby himself has stated these are not his beliefs, saying in part, "...I don't subscribe to the ugly views expressed in the email."
I contacted the "Living Right" group and although they did not reveal their source, they did admit the incorrect attribution to Dr. Cosby. They have not removed the post. I have a big problem in using a falsehood in order to both appeal to emotion and provide some weight to the statement via the argument from authority. Dr. Cosby is a comedian that is well known and loved by many for his stand-up comedy and his television role that deal with issues of family to which many can relate. If a statement requires the use of his image (falsely) to make the statement being made more palatable, perhaps the statement is not one worth sharing in the first place.
Best Layoff Letter Ever
This is a weird post. It is a picture of a printed letter hanging on a refrigerator (I think) with some commentary on the top and a copy of the letter below. To summarize, the letter says because President Obama is going to raise fees and taxes that to avoid price increases the company will need to layoff sixty employees. The CEO went to the parking lot and found the cars with Obama bumper stickers and chose to lay those people off since, "They voted for change..."
A couple of things should flag this as suspicious almost immediately. The first is how this was posted as a photo of a copy. Wouldn't a person either post a photo of the original letter, or if that wasn't available simply post the text of the letter rather than type it out, print it, hang it up, then post the photo again? That itself doesn't mean it is fake, but it raises suspicion. Second, Barack is spelled incorrectly. Because it appears this was retyped from the original, that again is possible, but does raise suspicion if copied from the original. Finally, as to a CEO of a fairly large "organization," I can't imagine admitting this to employees so openly, as it certainly has a possibility of hurting business. It also could possibly be a violation of employment law. (Update: Rankin v. McPherson is the case law that would cover this. My twitter friends are awesome!)
Here again, a quick search reveals this to be a fake. In fact, it started going around before Barack Obama was elected the first time, an amazing prognostication! It had slight format changes throughout the years as far as who was being address (other business owners or employees), having a specific number of employees working for the company, price increases of 8% to 10% , and the number of employees losing their job. Some have a real company and/or signature attached to them, but as far as I could tell, none are legitimate.
The letter did spawn an idea in a CEO of a real estate company. David Siegel stated in a letter before the 2012 election that if Barack Obama won a second term, he was going to layoff some or all of his 8,000 employees due to what he felt were going to be burdensome taxes and fees heaped on by the Obama administration. However, it turns out he instead gave his employees a raise after the election to help them through the burden he feels will be heaped on them. His company is doing well and Mr. Siegel stated he doesn't plan on layoffs at this point.
Blaming Obama for gas prices
It is fun to play with statistics. This one is a good one. With gas prices going back up, conservative news sites are quick to point out what the percent gain is over the lower prices when President Obama took office. I will just offer this opinion here to avoid a lengthy economics discussion: the President has very little control over short-term energy prices. Gasoline at $4/gallon is only slightly above the inflation adjusted average. This includes oil crises of the 1970s, the creation of the department of energy, new energy exploration in the US and Canada, and more fuel efficient cars. The market forces dominate the price of gas, much more than any policy of the federal government.
This tactic can be applied to Obama's predecessor, President Bush. If one looks at January 2001 when Bush took office, the price of a gallon of gas was about $1.60. In July of 2008, it was $4.40/gallon, a 275% increase. If one compares Bush's second term to Obama's first term, the price rises through their terms are nearly identical. It is a statistical trick to pick to points to calculate the largest increase, which doesn't reflect reality of either prices on average or the idea that the president has so little to do with it. It is a similar tactic recently used by global warming denialists of picking a particular section of years and showing a very small increase without accounting for all intervening factors or more recent data. Purposely giving incomplete data is very deceptive, and I am not buying it.
Who wants an Obama phone?
This one has many falsehoods connected with it. Critics refer to the program of helping low-income people receive a cell phone with a small allotment of monthly minutes as the "Obamaphone" program. The program is actually an extension of the lifeline program, a program started in 1984 under the Republican Ronald Reagan. The extension allowing cell phone companies to receive funding was signed into law by another Republican, George W. Bush, in 2008. None of this has been changed under the current administration.
Another falsehood carried with the program is its "cost" to the government. There is a significant cost to this, but the funds are controlled by a nonprofit called Universal Service Administrative Company. The funds come from fees most of us see on our phone bills every month. So far, the government has not had to supplement the funds coming in from these fees. Some may argue it is a fine point to argue since it is still a tax of sorts and is being given back out and thus is a cost. We can debate the merits of the program or the technicalities if you want, but let's do so being careful and deliberate with how we describe the flow of money and how the programs came to be.
Politics on Skeptoid?
My point here is my personal opinion that it is important that any subject being discussed should be done so in the most honest way, and with information that is accurate with reasonable assurance. We all have our own shade of political and social principles, and I don't mind if we disagree in those areas. I enjoy a good discussion on issues of a political nature, and I hope that when the discussion is over, both sides can better understand the other, and perhaps even change a mind or two. But let's do so with honest information.
Why am I putting this on the Skeptoid blog? Well, Brian said write whatever I want (chuckle). But more seriously, I think it serves an important lesson in some of the very things which can trip us all up. Confirmation bias - where a person will find anything against a politician they don't like, and not be careful to fact-check it because it sounds good and supports a certain side. Appeal to emotion - using images that invoke fear, anger, sadness, etc. in order to bolster support of a certain position. Argument from authority - assuming because a piece of information comes from someone that it is automatically true without taking at least a little time to consider the facts on their own. I do fall for these fallacies on occasion, for they are difficult to avoid.
I look forward to an honest discussion on these issues.
by Eric Hall
@Skeptoid Media, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit