Concerning Alternative Facts

In the legal profession, the term “alternative facts” may refer to two or more competing sets of facts for the two sides of a case. It can also mean a set of inconsistent facts put forth by just the one side that show there’s sufficient evidence to support both alternatives. In the latter case, inconsistent facts may provide a basis for alternative pleading.

As of 2017, the term has become defined online and in political context to be another euphemism for falsehood, originating with US press secretary Sean Spicer and his statement about the turnout for last month’s presidential inauguration.

In his first official briefing as press secretary, Spicer delivered a statement accused the media of deliberately falsifying reports covering the size of the crowd attending the inauguration, using trick angles and framed shots to make it seem like few showed up (many other members of the new administration went on to make similar claims of the reports being “lies”). Spicer claimed that Trump’s inauguration had had the largest audience of any president in history, both in person and across the globe, period. He also claimed that the reports couldn’t be accurate because it wasn’t possible to count the crowd.

Spicer’s statement was rather inaccurate. While estimating crowd size is tricky business (ticket sales alone wouldn’t provide much insight), comparisons of aerial photographs and public transportation figures to at least Obama’s inauguration show that the numbers had gone down significantly this time around.

The fact that not that many people witnessed the inauguration should not be a major deal, as it is technically not a direct reflection of the candidate’s abilities as a leader. However, it appears that the now current president’s publicity team where banking on the ceremony being the greatest in american history.

Anyway, when White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway was question about Spicer’s falsehood-containing statement during an interview with Chuck Todd (moderator for NBC’s “Meet the Press), she defended Spicer by claiming that he had merely been stating “alternative facts”. Naturally, this resulted in the term, along with “spicerfacts”, becoming a trending hashtag on tweeter, always paired with a deliberately (and obviously) false statement. Incidentally, it was the trends on Facebook that got me curious about the term. 

Conway made another statement recently that quickly got tied in with alternative facts, when she referenced a nonexistent “Bowling Green Massacre” as one reason for Trump’s immigration ban. Said massacre was supposedly carried out by two Iraqi who came to America through the Iraqi refugee program, and it apparently resulted in Obama placing a six month ban on said program.

While two Iraqi men were arrested in Bowling Green, Kentucky on charges of federal terrorism, there had not been any massacre, nor evidence on a plan for one. Said men were indicted for attempting to provide Al-Qaeda in Iraq with weapons and money (a 2013 Justice Department release concerning them can be found in the links below).

After Conway’s statement was debunked, a clip of the interview went viral. Conway later apologized on twitter for gaffe, claiming she had meant to say “terrorists”. She also criticized the amount of media coverage she received, stating that “honest mistakes occur”, while pointing out mistakes the media had made concerning the Trump administration.

There are a couple different definitions of fact in the dictionary. The main one is basically information that has objective (provable) reality, and the others basically relate to provable existence as well. A reasonable explanation that cannot currently be proven is speculation or conjecture. Something that contradicts all available evidence can be called a falsehood or inaccuracy. Sometimes, the information provided in media is false, and even the accurate reports often have some bias to them. However, this can be fixed by providing  more coverage of actual events than just calling any and all reports wrong. To personally get a good idea on what the news is or isn’t saying, one can easily cross examine multiple reports from independent (as well as contradicting) sources of information.

As far as the current president is concerned, the information being provided is basically all falsehoods, and the various reports on the size of the audience for his inauguration were apparently particularly galling for him. Frankly, if he hadn’t made such a big deal over the news coverage, chances are less people would have noticed or cared about it.

When he went to give a speech at Langley back in January (to mend bridges with the CIA), quite a few minutes of it were devoted to attacking the media. According to him, any criticisms he had made about the intelligence agency made in previous weeks falsehoods made by the media (Spicer’s statement hours later probably derived from this, only his rhetoric obviously received more notice). The meandering speech makes no mention of his previous mockings of the CIA on Twitter, as well as the possibility of him not reading agency briefings. On the bright side, the appointment of Mike Pompeo was apparently well received.

In early February, President Trump basically declared the press to be the enemy of the people. Many presidents before have made some statement of their dislike for the news media, but declaring it an enemy of the people seems to be taking it a bit far, even in comparison to earlier comments by the president on the lack of credibility present in it. Considering that previous holders of the title “Enemy of the American People” included such entities as the USSR and Al-Qaeda, this statement has quite a lot of people worried.

Freedom of the press is a form of expressing the right to freedom of speech, which makes it a fundamental aspect of a democratic society. Censorship of the press by the government is a sign of a more fascist, authoritarian state, such as Nazi Germany or Italy under Mussolini’s rule. Of course, the presidency has not begun to literally go out and hunt down those that openly disagree with it’s version of reality, but there does appear to be a feud brewing.

According to Steve Bannon, the new administration is most certainly going to push against the “corporatist, globalist media” that has been working in opposition to the President’s agenda for political and social growth, and it is only going to get worse.

As of March, the President tweeted that he suspects Obama of having illegally wiretapped Trump tower before and during the 2016 election. He cited no evidence to back up his claim, but is urging Congress to investigate this along side their ongoing look into allegations of Russian hacking during the election.

Both the director of the FBI and and the national intelligence director of the time have denied that any such wiretapping took place. For such a thing to occur, the FBI would have had to have made a case to the Department of Justice, and a warrant would have to have been issued by a judge. In the case of surveillance on US citizens (which would apply to nearly everyone in Trump Tower), an order could not be made without first going through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and being approved by the eleven sitting judges (incidentally, a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant was issued to the FBI to monitor two Russian banks who’re suspected of facilitating donations to the Trump campaign; the current president’s accusations might have been based on a distorted second hand report). Without stepping way outside of his reach of authority, Obama would not have been able to establish covert surveillance on his eventual replacement.

Despite the lack of evidence or probability that the feds were running surveillance on Trump Tower during the election, the president’s people are standing by what their leader has said, and the vocal supporters are calling out Obama to be investigated. There might be some evidence of wiretapping found, but it could easily mean that some other agency was investigating something else unrelated to the candidacy (it’s a large business building with several different offices and departments; chances are at least one person there could have been suspected of something shady). For what it’s worth, Obama’s people have denied any such order from the man.

Reports can be–and often are–skewed in some way or another, especially when it comes to news sources in the US. However, it is not impossible to get an idea of what is actually going on if you cross-reference and fact check anything of substance that is included (speculation and opinion can just be ignored). As for when the people doing the reports get things wrong, you’re doing something right if you know right away that the information is not factual.

 

Resources:

https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/01/inauguration-crowd-size/514058/

http://www.cnn.com/2017/01/20/politics/donald-trump-barack-obama-inauguration-crowd-size/index.html

http://www.usnews.com/news/entertainment/articles/2017-01-23/alternative-facts-quip-from-trump-adviser-sparks-mockery

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/feb/03/kellyanne-conway-refugees-bowling-green-massacre-never-happened

https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/former-iraqi-terrorists-living-kentucky-sentenced-terrorist-activities

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fact

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/21/us/politics/trump-white-house-briefing-inauguration-crowd-size.html?_r=0

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/17/business/trump-calls-the-news-media-the-enemy-of-the-people.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/steve-bannon-media-cpac_us_58af38f3e4b0780bac2761e3

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/02/23/steve-bannons-not-so-subtle-threat-to-the-media/?utm_term=.c8455c6fd0a4

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-39172635

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