For the past three years, our national media has been fired up by the urge to fact-check. They fact-checked Donald Trump daily (which should be a good thing) on everything from his Diet Coke habits to his ice cream. When even that became too much work for them, journalists bullied Twitter leadership into becoming fact-checkers for them. Jack Dorsey rolled out a slew of new platform measures against the ‘massive spread of misinformation’. His company bravely labeled the President of the United States’ tweets as ‘misinformation’. They took down memes shared by the President which featured copyrighted music and branded some of his more outlandish claims ‘conspiracies’.
The argument from the right has long been that Twitter will not enforce their misinformation policy evenly, and the media at large will stop caring once Trump leaves office. What if a media-driven conspiracy is picked up by Democrats and the Biden campaign? As if trying to prove those conservative critics correct, this weekend celebrities and journalists set about spreading tales of mailbox and being locked up or removed, mail trucks being towed and mail-sorting machines taken offline. Forget Russiagate: apparently the United States Postal Service is the hill Taylor Swift and CNN want to die on this time.
The theory goes something like this: President Trump doesn’t want to fund to the United States Post Service, to handle what the media is saying will be a heavy workload of mail-in ballots for the November presidential election. Trump’s reasoning hinges on concerns with mass voter fraud, or lost and wrongly counted ballots that could drag the election on for weeks past election night.
And so influencers took up arms. There were celebrities from Taylor Swift and Jamie Lee Curtis to Ice-T; meme accounts like Rex Chapman and the Lincoln Project; members of media like MSNBC pundit Claire McCaskill; members of Congress…even Barack Obama. All hollered that Post Office must be protected at all costs, and including photographs, some dating back to 2016, of locked mailboxes, unused mail trucks and mail sorting machines in yards with fences. It was hard not to be reminded of the 2014 photo of ‘kids in cages’ that started circulating in the Trump era: post office reforms which led to the reorganization of mailboxes and sorting machines were also enacted by the Obama administration. But they were largely ignored by the media, because Obama oversaw the Era of No Scandals™.
Did the Twitter misinformation team or the national media fact-checkers step up to challenge this spread of fake news and old images? Did they heck. Instead we had reporters like the Washington Post’s Felicia Somnez covering a Post Office protest outside the Postmaster General’s home over the weekend. That’s right: people gathered, en masse, to stand around and protest the ability not to show up and vote in person. Notably only Business Insider’s Grace Panetta bothered to clarify the Post Office’s budget shortfalls, a problem that extends far beyond the President and has for years.
It took a Medium blogger to separate fact from fiction. News outlets were utterly uninterested in finding the truth. When the Post Office released a statement saying that mail-sorting machines are routinely shifted around to handle different workloads, it was roundly ignored. Instead, during a Monday morning MSNBC appearance, Rep. Jim Cooper suggested arresting Louis DeJoy, the Postmaster general. DeJoy has now been called to testify before a House committee next week. Perhaps the Democrats needed something else to do besides blocking COVID relief?
Clearly Trump is electioneering for his Fox News base, but concerns with a universal mail-in election are not unfounded. Just look at the New York primaries: weeks later, ballots are still being counted and legal challenges are mounting. The New York Times even dubbed it a ‘botched’ election, with results still up in the air after six weeks. That’s in contrast to the Wisconsin primary, where the governor moved ahead with in-person voting with social distancing and CDC safety guidelines: there have been no surges in COVID cases as a result. The Daily Beast hysterically called it ‘Wisconsin’s Terrifying Election Day’.
The squawking over Trump singlehandedly ordering the removal mailboxes and trucks in New Jersey, California, Oregon and Washington (you know, election swing states!) comes on the heels of a week-long media hyperventilation about the dastardly QAnon conspiracy. Despite this, reporters went all in promoting rumors of a malevolent scheme to remove mail-trucks and boxes in broad daylight. Maybe we really don’t get irony here.
Is it really the spread of misinformation that matters — or is it who gets to be in control of it?