Roy Moore, Project Veritas and the Backfire Effect

Across the pond, the Washington Post has exposed an attempted sting on its investigative journalism team. A right-wing group named Project Veritas sought to hoax the paper into printing false allegations about the sexual predator and GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore. Here’s the Washington Post story (its behind a paywall) and the Guardian US rehash.
A few notes on this. First, it’s emblematic of how profoundly damaged American democracy has become. Newspapers were always supposed to be, if not entirely neutral, then at least reliable arbiters of truth. This attempt by Project Veritas seeks to undermine that reliability. Had they succeeded, power and influence would have accrued to Donald Trump and those who enable him.
Authoritarians always attempt to corrupt and co-opt the media. The First Amendment somewhat inoculates the United States to the malaise affecting, for example, Turkey, where the independent newspapers like Cumhurriyet are accused of supporting terrorism, and investigative journalists like Ahmet Sik are put on trial. Project Veritas may not be formally working with Donald Trump or his cronies, but they are aligned in their aims. This kind of attack on the credibility of a newspaper is a warning sign. It’s the sort of thing that happens upstream of fascism.
Second, I wonder how other news outlets would have fared. It occurs to me that a less well-resourced outlet might have fallen for the scam. But then again, bringing down a smaller organisation with lower fact-checking standards would have been less of a coup for Project Veritas. The influence of the ‘traditional’ media remains. And this importance rests on maintaining high standards of reporting.
I have also been thinking again about the (now much discussed) ‘backfire effect’ phenomenon, where people double-down in their beliefs, even when the facts have been debunked (see my post from July on the ‘Marketplace of Ideas’ for links to the research). Usually, we speak about this in terms of damaging far-right ideas polluting the discourse. But I wonder if this story, even though it was been debunked prior to publication, might nevertheless contribute to misinformation.
Just as someone saying ‘don’t think of an elephant’ makes you think of an elephant, reporting that politician Roy Moore did not impregnate a 15 year old girl or pressurise her into having an abortion, does conjure an image in the minds of the public that Republicans in Alabama and beyond would rather not be reinforced. It would not surprise me if this false allegation about Mr Moore finds its way into the ongoing discussion about his conduct and is repeated as fact alongside his actual misconduct.

Spotlight is a great film.

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