I got sucked into debunking a fake news story. I spent two days tracking its spread and responding to the lies. Here’s the story of what happened and what I learned.
Last week an acquaintance on Facebook posted a screenshot of a headline which read “CA Democrats Introduce LGBTQ Bill that would Protect Pedophiles who Rape Children.” He captioned his post “truth or fiction? #horrifying if true.”
This social media move was a paradigmatic example of lazy yet insidious partisan pot-stirring. By posting a screenshot of the headline rather than a link to the article itself, the poster put the burden on the audience to figure out what the hell was going on. He also increased the likelihood that others would believe the headline by failing to provide the most convenient method for additional assessment (clicking on the article). And by writing a banal question and hypothetical “if” claim, the poster likely sought to distance himself for any flak if the headline turned out to be false or misleading. (Spoiler alert: the headline was false and misleading.)
I generally choose not to unfriend those with opposing viewpoints, so I see a decent amount of garbage like this. Most often I don’t engage. But sometimes I just can’t help myself. I scrolled through the comments which included gems like “I wouldn’t be surprised” and that Californians “have lost their minds,” along with shade being tossed at liberals and “professors.” However, one poster challenged the validity of the post, but said he couldn’t find any info on it.
At that point my queer liberal law student self could no longer resist. I googled the headline to see if I could figure out what was up. Here’s what I learned.
Currently, California law gives judges discretion whether those 18 or older who have vaginal sexual intercourse with someone aged 15-17 must be registered as sex offenders if the offender is within 10 years of the age of the victim and the sex was consensual. However, California mandates sex offender registration for anyone 18 or older who has oral or anal sex with a minor, regardless of whether the sex was consensual or how far apart in age the victim and perpetrator are.
In the 2006 case, People v. Hofsheier, 37 Cal. 4th 1185 (2006), the California Supreme Court held that the practice of treating these oral sex and vaginal sex crimes differently for the purposes of mandatory sex offender registration violated equal protection. This remained precedent until 2015 when, after a change in the composition of the Court, Hofsheier was overturned in Johnson v. Department of Justice, 60 Cal. 4th 871 (2015), where the Court held that the possibility of pregnancy with vaginal intercourse, but not other types of sex, allowed for disparate treatment in terms of sex offender registration. (Wacky, I know.)
As of now, California continues to require mandatory sex offender registration for all cases of oral or anal sex with a minor but gives judges discretion with cases of vaginal sex with a minor when the minor is 15 or older, the sex was consensual, and the perpetrator was within 10 years the age of the victim. Given the unfairness of the disparate treatment (particularly for young people having sex where nobody involved has a vagina), some Democratic California State Senators sought to rectify the situation with legislation. They proposed a bill, SB 145, that would alter California state law so that other forms of consensual sex with minors age 15-17 where the perpetrator is less than 10 years older than the victim would be treated the way vaginal intercourse is already treated for purposes of sex offender registry in California. That’s all.
Notably, this bill does nothing to change what is considered a sex crime in California. It only implicates sex offender registration. And even then it only changes what types of registration are mandatory versus discretionary.
In short, some California Senators introduced a bill that would make minor modifications to California’s mandatory sex registration law, and a right-wing fake news mill popped out the headline “CA Democrats Introduce LGBTQ Bill that would Protect Pedophiles who Rape Children.”
With my new knowledge in hand, I decided to enter the fray. My goal was to communicate three things. First, I wanted to communicate what the relevant bill actually said. Second, given the recent attempts of fake news trolls to trick members of right-wing communities into thinking there is an LGBTQ movement to add “P” for pedophile to the LGBTQ community, I wanted to make clear this was not an “LGBTQ bill” in the sense that LGBTQ people where trying to normalize, celebrate, or decriminalize pedophilia. Third, I decided to include a quick jab about the laziness of the clickbait move. (I wrote that it “strikes me as irresponsible to post inflammatory headlines without taking minimal effort to verify them.”)
The poster responded that he too looked up some info and that he “agreed” that the LGBTQ label for the bill “could be considered a stretch.” I wouldn’t call that “agreement,” but close enough. I was ready to drop the issue.
The following day I got a Facebook notification that this same partisan pot-stirrer had tagged me in a comment on a public post. A Facebook page called Occupy Dims, which specializes in trolling from a rightwing perspective, had posted the full article that the pot-stirrer had referenced the day before. The pot-stirred had tagged me in the comment section writing “Mark Satta u really dont have an issue with this Bill?”
(For those with better reading comprehension skills better than our partisan pot-stirrer, it would have been apparent that I hadn’t previously stated a position on the bill. All I’d done was provide information about the bill. But attentiveness to detail isn’t a chief virtue in social media pot-stirring.)
At the time the post I’d been tagged in had 143 reactions (with the angry face leading the way), 43 comments, and 164 shares. I saw plenty of outraged partisan comments, but I didn’t see a single person who had stepped in to refute the false claims. Because I had already done the research, and a few incredulous people had posted statements questioning the validity of the post, I decided to respond. To those who had registered suspicion, I chimed in with the facts and got a few likes.
But for our partisan pot-stirrer, things weren’t so simple. I pointed out I hadn’t actually taken a position earlier, but then took a position and gave some reasons for my position. (The position I took was that the bill was reasonable, but that reasonable minds could disagree over whether it was the best legislative response to the current disparity in the law.) As part of my explanation, I gave some factual claims, including that the bill only applied to victims aged 15-17.
The pot-stirrer ignored the rest of what I had to say but followed up with a reasonable question. He wrote “Mark Satta where in the bill does it only effect 15-18 yr old individuals? I did not see that when i read the bill.”
The reason he didn’t see it was because the bill is a proposed amendment to the California penal code that references a bunch of other sections of the code. In order to determine the scope of actions that the bill is proposing to amend, you have to look up the sections referenced. But as those of us who have spent significant amounts of time researching statutes know, those referenced sections in statutes often in turn reference other sections of statutes and untangling what the statutes actually mean can be a long, nauseating process.
The reason I believe that the bill applied only to those minors 15 and older is because reliable sources, including a press release from the sponsoring senator’s office said so. And I generally trust those in high-profile positions under public scrutiny, like state senators, to tell the truth about the contents of verifiable things like the legislation they propose. It’s just too easy to fact-check the contents of a public bill like this for it to be worth lying or being mistaken, given the severity of the consequences of getting caught in such a circumstance where you’ll be branded a liar or incompetent or both. The fact that this particular senator is a Harvard Law School grad and someone I’d interviewed before also made me inclined to believe that what was contained in his press release was accurate.
Do I think those reasons give infallible justification for my belief? Of course not. Do I think those reasons are sufficient to put the burden of proof on the one denying the claim? Absolutely.
However, I know enough about this particular partisan pot-stirrer to know that he rejects an epistemological worldview in which those in positions of public authority are to be trusted in even their publicly verifiable claims, like their claims about the scope of the application of their proposed legislation. In the past when I’ve aimed to provide corrective information for lies the partisan pot-stirrer has posted from sources like InfoWars, I’ve used information from sources including Harvard, Oxford, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. The pot-stirred rejected each source without engaging in the substance of their claims because the sources were “biased” and/or “fake news.” So citing to a press release from a Democratic senator probably wasn’t going to do the trick.
I wanted to find a way to communicate the reason why the bill would only apply to 15-17 year-old victims without having to go down the full statutory rabbit hole. I figured the compromise would be to explain the general idea and then the pot-stirrer could look up the relevant legislation for himself if he wanted.
In response, I explained that the bill was an amendment and that the section to be amended referenced other portions of the California penal code. I also included a screenshot of the relevant section of the code. The pot-stirrer responded with: “Mark Satta nothing in that screenshot states or verifies ur claim … from what i can tell.”
Part of me got where he was coming from. I hadn’t provided him with a self-contained way of answering his question. Rather, I had merely provided an explanation for why the answer was hard to come by along with the means for finding the answer.
On the other hand, it’s a common move of partisan pot-stirrers to frame their issues in such a way that doing all the work of verifying claims becomes someone else’s problem. Such pot-stirrers are adept at finding ways to make it look like others are failing, where really the failure is their own refusal to objectively investigate the issues they’re prattling on about more thoroughly.
I didn’t feel like finding him the answer, and it wasn’t my responsibility to do so. So I sent the following response.
“That’s true, but at the end of the day it’s not my job to go take screenshots of all the portions of the CA code that relates to this law for you (which is a lot of code). If you care so much about the issue, I’d suggest you look it up yourself. I’ve given you the starting point to do so.”
Pot-stirrer’s response: “Mark Satta it doesnt… ur claims are far from proving anything. The law and the revised law are completely messed up. U can choose to realize that or deny it. Even if ur claim of 15-18 is accurate its garbage. I do not believe your claim is accurate and u have done nothing to prove that it is.”
Ah yes, it seems we’ve entered that portion of the conversation where the pot-stirred engages in the tactical maneuvers of moving the goal posts! I’ve just stated that it’s true that my post itself doesn’t prove anything, but that it gives him the tools to go look himself. So when he states that “ur claims are far from proving anything” he’s merely refusing to accept my comments for what they are. Rather, he’s insisting they are something they are not and is assessing them against that artificial standard.
He then pivots down an emotional tangent when he comments on the “law being messed up.” Remember that due to his own laziness, he doesn’t yet know what the law says. And having now muddied the waters, returns to make the claim that he doesn’t believe my claim is accurate. It’s one thing not to believe what I’ve said. It’s another to believe the negation. But normally, if you get a partisan pot-stirrer to goal-post-shift like this, it’s because they’re running out of ground to stand on.
I ran a google search to find more information on California sex offender registration law. I found a page on a law firm website that laid things out in clear, accessible detail with lots of links and even some videos explaining things. I posted a link to the page, re-summarized the relevant information and wrote that “If you continue to falsely believe this bill applies to those committing sex acts with those 14 and under, you have no one to blame but yourself for not looking into the matter more thoroughly.”
The pot-stirrer’s response: “Mark Satta u think u r stating ur case well. U arent…”
This response re-employs a framing effect tactic often used by pot-stirring partisans. The specific tactic is casting me as someone who is “stating a case” and then from that perspective providing information about how I’m failing in that task. But “stating a case” was not the task I was undergoing. Rather, I was conveying true information and giving him the tools to verify the information for himself. But I don’t think the pot-stirrer really wanted the information. I think he just wanted to be able to believe what he wanted to believe, and to poke fights with liberals in the process.
At this point, I had two options: 1) Let it be, knowing in good conscience that I had provided the resources for the truth to be discovered, or 2) actually go about presenting “the case.” I opted for the latter. I went to California’s Legislation Information Code Search page and started digging. Each time the section of the code referenced another section, I went and read that section too, taking notes about the process as I went.
The result of my hunt was first-person validation that everything contained in the sponsoring senator’s press release about the bill was accurate. But I now had a step-by-step process that others could use to verify the claims for themselves. I typed up the information in a Medium post, with a shorter section containing the key facts and a longer section that provided people with a guide for looking up the relevant law for themselves.
Having made this investment, I decided I was going to do all I could within reason to try and debunk the story and slow or counteract it’s spread on Facebook. I typed “CA Democrats Introduce LGBT Bill that would Protect Pedophiles who Rape Children” into Facebook. I found that at the time the story had been shared 11, 478 times on Facebook and that the two biggest hubs for the post’s shares were the Occupy Dims post I had been tagged in and shares from the “Trump for President 2020” Facebook page.
I had already been thoroughly peppering the Occupy Dims page with my content. Aside from a few likes by those who had registered suspicion about the article’s claims, I hadn’t made a dent in the discussion. The comments that were posted after the last of my attempts to provide corrective information were as follows.
“The ‘FRUITS and NUTS’ of California win again..”
It’s got to be a violation of federal law come on now…
California you’re turning rotten to the core”
“I said this was coming – once we overruled God’s Word and condoned homosexuality – the road to pedophilia was opened!”
“More and more disgusting behavior is being foisted on America – as satanic values are gaining strength. People are so corrupt and disgusting who encourage such filth.”
“Ha! Not surprised at all. I’d hate to see CA Democrats offering to give them a monthly living wage next. However, if it comes to that, nothing from them surprises me anymore.”
“Protecting their own kind.”
“Anyone have any idea when the San Andreas Fault will crack open ????”
These posts represent in microcosm many of the most frequent themes contained in responses to this fake news headline: asserting a need for judgment from God for sin or wrongdoing, morally laden name-calling, expressions of desire for destruction in places that skew left, references to Satan, conflation of promotion of LGBTQ civil rights and the protection or normalization of pedophilia, and making loose connections between this fake news headline and progressive issues (e.g. the reference to “a living wage”).
Having posted multiple times on the Occupy Dims page, I decided to turn my attention to the Trump for President 2020 page. The original poster of the “article” on the Trump for President 2020 page wrote that.
“I remember growing up there was talk that California was one day going to break off and would become a island….Can this please happen??!!!
I checked different sources on this but please if anyone can prove it to be fake news I would LOVVVE that.”
As a non-member of the Trump for President 2020 page, I couldn’t post a comment, but I could read comments.
I saw that this original poster was actively responding to others who were commenting. When someone questioned the validity of the post she would say things like “i checked it with different sources and it seems to be so” (without ever providing information on those sources).
She also was interacting a lot with posters who were expressing anger. For example, she wrote in response to one commenter that “i am a very mild manner grandma but i can promise you i would be granny rambo on these monsters and not think twice d about it.” And in response to a comment that “Can we just exterminate them now”, she wrote “pleaseeeeeeeeeeeeee like yesterday.”
Since granny rambo had posted that she would “LOVVVE” for someone to be able to prove that this was fake new and she was getting violent like yesterday, I figured I would provide her with her heart’s desire and inform her it was fake news. I sent her a quick Facebook message providing information and links and then requested to join the Trump for President 2020 page so I could comment on the post.
The “Trump for President 2020” is a bizarre virtual space. The cover photo is a depiction of Donald Trump, which provides a very inaccurate overly-favorable representation of his physique. Trump, in a suit and red tie, stands atop a tank labeled with the word “Trump” on the front and “You’re FIRED” on the canon. In the background is an explosion, an American flag, fireworks, and an eagle shooting an automatic weapon while in flight.
There are over 196,000 members in the group, but only 4 admins. I had to answer three questions as part of my request to join (What is July 4th? What is the Bible belt? And who is Commander and Chief of the U.S. military?).
The group has several ground rules, which include “Be courteous and kind,” “No Promotion or Spam,” “Respect Everyone’s Privacy,” and “No Hate Speech or Bullying.” The description for the page also opens by stating “NO POSTING FAKE NEWS or FAKE NEWS SITES- IT WILL BE DELETED.” I was surprised, but encouraged, that these were the public values being put forward by the page and was curious to see how the page’s content aligned with these values.
It took about twelve hours for the admins to approve my addition to the page, but once they did, I began my work of seeking to refute the claims in earnest. By the time I had been admitted into the group, a second person had posted the fake news headline as well and had also generated many responses.
So I decided to tackle both threads. I tagged granny rambo and the other poster by name in their respective threads with the good news that this article was in fact fake news. I provided some information, along with a link to the post I had written debunking the claims and providing a step-by-step guide for examining what the bill actually said. Neither granny rambo, the other original poster, nor anyone else responded to me. Yet vitriolic comments continued to pour into the thread.
While I was frustrated that people were continuing to lash out in anger against a fake news headline when I had just provided detailed disconfirming information, I realized that in part the structure of Facebook was to blame. This is because the default filtering option for those viewing comments on these pages isn’t “most recent” but “most relevant.”
If the Facebook algorithms determine that my posting isn’t as relevant as other comments like “Hang the fuckers,” “There’s a special place in Hell for these sick bastards!” and “Did anyone expect a smart thing from Democrats… ??? Fools run rampant…” then new posters won’t see what I’ve said. Instead they will only see seas of rage and partisanship.
I decided that the fix was to respond to individual commenters with the refuting information because those individual posters would be notified of my post. So, I started in. My goal was to present the information in a non-confrontational, unemotional, let’s stick-to-the-facts kind of way. No name calling. No shaming. Just the presentation of information.
My standard formats for the responses were things like “I could see why you would think the law would say X, but actually it doesn’t say that” before providing information, or “The good new is this headline is actually really misleading” and then provide the details of the bill.
I was surprised both by what did and what did not happen. Let’s start with what did no happen.
No one expressed any anger with me, escalated the conversation, or suggested I was an outsider or liar. In fact, no one even challenged my claims. A couple of posters asked follow up questions and engaged in change-the-goalpost behavior, but that was about it in terms of pushback.
So what did happen? A few people liked my post, but none of them did anything more than that. As far as I could tell, none of them then proactively engaged in trying to stop the spread of the fake news story. They simple left things as they were. A few people asked follow-up questions that reframed the issue in an attempt to cling to whatever they could still blame Democrats for. But those petered out after a response or two.
But the most common response? People simply deleted my responses. The most frequent response I observed to the presentation of contradictory information was making it go away as fast as possible, and then moving on as if it had never been there.
This response was particularly common among those whose comments expressed moral indignation or a desire for moral judgment. For example, one woman wrote “And may each and every one of you have a child get raped and then tell me you want to protect them. Idiots.” I responded with the relevant information three times. Each time, she deleted my response without engagement or with edit to her original call for the raping of children. (A tragic and ironic position on her part if ever there was one.) I also received multiple deletions from posters writing “God will not tolerate this sin” and “God almighty please have mercy on us all and save this country from this terrible evil in Jesus Holy Name Amen.”
Given that I wasn’t making headway by responding to individual commenters, I decided to pull rank and report the two posts. I reported one of the original posts to Trump for President 2020 and the other to Facebook.
In reporting to Trump for President 2020, I could only choose a category of violation for the post rather than adding my own explanation. There was no fake news category so I chose “Breaks Group Rules.” In reporting to Facebook, the category I chose was “false news.”
If you had told me that only one of the two organizations would respond by deleting the post, I would have put my money on Facebook. But I would have lost that money. It was the Admins for Trump for President 2020 that deleted the post I reported, while as I write granny rambo’s post, which I reported to Facebook, and her disingenuous claim that she would LOVVVE to receive information that the story is fake news remain on Facebook.
As of now, the fake news headline has been shared over 18,000 times on Facebook, with granny rambo’s post alone having generated 832 reactions, 350 comments, and 291 shares. The Snopes entry, which categorizes the claim as “mostly false” has been shared only 28 times.
So stepping back from this experience, what have I learned (or at least had reinforced)?
First, at the end of the day, if someone wants to ignore counter-evidence, they will ignore counter-evidence. And anecdotally, this response may be an especially common response for those who receive information contrary to the strong moral judgments they have made.
Second, when it comes to spreading fake news, power is unequally held. A single Trump for President 2020 admin was able to delete a post that had hundreds of comments and shares with relative ease, while I was barely able to make a dent in the flow of the conversation despite having invested a lot more time researching, writing, and sharing information.
Third, the life-cycles of fake news stories move fast and its difficult for the presentation of clear disconfirming evidence, which takes time to collect and present, to move quick enough to keep up.
Fourth, choices made by those running social media platforms are in part to blame for the spread of fake news. The “most relevant” sorting feature is great for pushing engaging content to the top of threads but makes it difficult for users to engage in a linear or organized conversation. Users can opt to change the default setting so that comments show up linearly, but the Facebook platform nudges users away from doing that by making the default “most relevant.”
Fifth, living in an era where large segments of the population distrust claims made by politicians, academics, scientists, etc. simply because they are members of the “liberal elite” creates for a highly inefficient system of sharing information. Had the partisan pot-stirrer been more trusting of such individuals and institutions, he could have just read the press release that accompanied the bill and been done with it. But in an era of partisan distrust, such efficiency is disrupted. Such a disruption is a good thing when those in power are not to be trusted, but harmful when they are trustworthy.
Finally, I was reminded of the privilege and power that comes with my study of law. I can understand why people would be confused or would come to inaccurate conclusions about the bill simply by reading it. With its references to other sections of the California Penal Code, it may not make much sense to a lay reader. I’m in my final semester of law school and it was still a pain parsing the law to figure out what the bill actually said.
On the flip side, now that I’ve acquired this skill of assessing the meaning of statutes, I can use it to help make information clearer to others. That’s part of what we’re being trained to do professionally, but it also creates an opportunity for us to use these skills in other civic contexts. The fight against fake news isn’t going anywhere, so I guess I’m glad I’ve acquired some legal researching armor for those days when I can’t help but going into the social media trenches.