The making of factually inaccurate public statements by political commentators or politicians is an interesting and much discussed phenomenon in the U.S. (See, e.g., K.H. Jamieson, Dirty Politics: Deception, Distraction, and Democracy 15-42 (1992); E. Yahr, Policing the Pols, American Journalism Review (December 2007/January 2008); B. Jackson and K.H. Jamieson, Finding Fact in Political Debate, 48 American Behavioral Scientist 229-237 (2004) (Issue No. 2); Ross Douthat and Matthew Yglesias’s recent discussion of this issue on Bloggingheads.tv.)
The prevalance of such inaccurate statements has given rise to specialized information services — such as PolitiFact and FactCheck.org — devoted to identifying inaccuracies in public political discourse, furnishing correct information, and encouraging the original speakers publicly to correct their inaccurate statements.
Corrections or retractions of factually inaccurate political statements are common in U.S. political discourse, because a number of incentives — and particularly legal and reputational incentives, discussed below — encourage them.
When factually inaccurate political statements are made in online social media, concerns about accuracy and correction are often combined with complex issues of context and interpretation.
This post addresses one narrow issue respecting the correction of factually inaccurate public political statements: When a communicator makes multiple factually incorrect public statements in a single political communication, and then issues a correction, one might expect the correction to extend to all of those statements. In some instances, however, a communicator will correct some, but not all, of a set of factually inaccurate statements. I call this phenomenon “selective retraction.” Why does selective retraction occur?
In the context of a case study of political communication on the online social network Twitter, this post proposes a cost-benefit-analysis-based explanation for selective retraction.
The post examines the context and interpretation of a political message published on Twitter, which message contained multiple factually inaccurate statements; describes the manner in which selective retraction of those statements took place; proposes a possible explanation for selective retraction in this instance; and suggests further avenues of research. The post concludes with a moral argument respecting the correction of the one factually inaccurate statement discussed in this post that remains uncorrected.
Description of the Message and Context
On 18 July 2010, in the flow of messages (commonly referred to among Twitter users as a “Twitter stream,” with the particular stream discussed in this post having been archived here on TwapperKeeper and here as a spreadsheet in OpenDocument Spreadsheet (.ods) format) on the online social network Twitter associated with a political commentator who uses the Twitter name @ConservativeGal, appeared the following message (archived here) (a “tweet,” in Twitter lingo, with this particular tweet referred to hereinafter as the “’674 Tweet,” after the last three digits of the tweet’s unique identifier in the Twitter database) (in this and all subsequent quotations in this post, the text is reproduced as it appears in the original):
FactCheck.org is a project of the Annenberg Policy Cntr. U know Annenberg, obama ws Chairman of the Board & Ayres a founding mbr. #tcot #p2
Although this tweet appeared in the Twitter stream identified above, the identity of the individual or entity that wrote the tweet is unknown. Therefore in this post the entity that wrote the ’674 Tweet will be referred to as the “’674 Author.”
[For those new to political discussion on Twitter, the pound sign “#” is used to designate metadata about a tweet — often metadata indicating the topic of the tweet or a group of individuals on Twitter who may be interested in the tweet. Such metadata in Twitter lingo is called a “hashtag.” In the ’674 Tweet, “#tcot” is the hashtag for the group “True Conservatives on Twitter” (of which @ConservativeGal appears to be a member). [Update on 8 August 2010: Thanks to Twitter account @velvethammer for pointing out that #tcot may also stand for “Top Conservatives on Twitter” per this Website and this tweet.] In addition, “#p2” is a hashtag for “Progressives 2.0,” a group of U.S. political liberals on Twitter. Because the #tcot and #p2 hashtags are widely understood among Twitter users, individuals who wish to bring a particular tweet to the attention of U.S. conservatives on Twitter will frequently add the #tcot hashtag to the tweet, while those wishing to bring a tweet to the attention of U.S. liberals on Twitter will commonly add the #p2 hashtag to the tweet. Further, those wishing to bring a tweet to the attention of both U.S. conservatives and U.S. liberals on Twitter will often add both #tcot and #p2 to the tweet. The ’674 Tweet seems to reflect the latter type of “bipartisan” labelling.]
I came across the ’674 Tweet by chance, after reading a Twitter exchange between the @ConservativeGal account and the account of a professor whom I follow on Twitter. I took an interest in the ’674 Tweet for several reasons:
- I study political communication — and particularly legal communication — and the role of journalism in such communication;
- I am interested in political communication in online social media, and how it may differ from such communication in other media;
- I am interested in the role of the new fact-checking efforts, such as Politifact, in political communication in the online media environment, and particularly whether such efforts succeed in encouraging political commentators to correct inaccurate public statements. Before reading the ’674 Tweet I had not heard of FactCheck.org, and so wanted to learn more about FactCheck, and to compare it to the fact-checking organizations with which I was familiar;
- I knew of the Annenberg schools for communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Southern California, both of which have strong programs in political communication, and I wondered whether the ’674 Tweet was referring to any organization affiliated with either of these programs;
- I had seen other U.S. political commentators and political candidates at times assert an association between particular individuals or entities and the name of Professor William Ayers of the University of Illinois at Chicago, in an attempt to discredit those individuals or entities. [Because Professor Ayers — according to his own account — formerly engaged in acts of political terrorism in the U.S., association with him is at times used in U.S. political discourse to characterize an entity or individual as espousing extreme, leftist political views.] I was curious whether the association asserted in the ’674 Tweet between Professor Ayers and the named entity was accurate.
Description of the Facts As They Appear
My interest piqued, I started to gather more data about the information mentioned in the ’674 Tweet. Here is what I learned:
- 1. FactCheck.org (FactCheck), also known as the Annenberg Political Fact Check — is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania (APPC). See FactCheck’s Website; the APPC Website; 2 Voting in America: What Influences the American Voter : Interest Groups, Issues, and the Media 159 (Morgan E. Felchner ed., 2008). This association was later confirmed by a July 19, 2010 email to me from FactCheck’s director, Brooks Jackson.
- 2. According to a statement by Professor Dr. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, APPC’s director, conveyed to me via a July 20, 2010 email from Mr. Jackson, the APPC does not have, and has never had, a board. Mr. Jackson told me via a July 20, 2010 email that FactCheck does not have, and has never had, a board. I have not found any evidence contradicting those statements.
- 3. According to a July 19, 2010 email to me from Mr. Jackson, neither President Obama nor Professor Ayers has ever had any involvement in the APPC. So far I have not found any information contradicting that statement.
- 4. President Obama, before becoming President, appears to have served as chair of the board of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge (CAC), which Professor Ayers seems to have helped to found. The CAC appears to have been in existence from 1995 through 2001. See 1 Mark Smylie et al., The Chicago Annenberg Challenge: Successes, Failures, and Lessons for the Future 6 (2003); the grant award information at the Website of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform; David Remnick, The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama 280 (2010); Official Congressional Directory, 109th Congress 83 (2005-2006).
- 5. The APPC appears to have been founded in 1993 or 1994, according to its Website (which says 1993), and some of the APPC’s publications, including Jamieson and Miller, Presidential Campaigns: Sins of Omission 9 (2000), which give the date as 1994.
- 6. FactCheck appears to have been founded in 2003, according to its Website, and a response to a fact-checking question published on its Website, though I’ve found one other source that seems to state that 2004 was the founding year. See 2 Voting in America: What Influences the American Voter: Interest Groups, Issues, and the Media 159 (Morgan E. Felchner ed., 2008). [Update: On August 6, 2010, Brooks Jackson, Director of FactCheck.org, sent me the following additional information:
To clear up the confusion regarding the date of FactCheck.org’s founding, I was first employed by the APPC in September of 2003. The website went live in December of 2003, and you can still find our initial posts in the archives, which confirm the late 2003 founding.
You may have seen references to us starting up during the 2004 presidential campaign, which is also true. The Democratic presidential nomination contest was in full swing in 2003. Several candidate debates were held that year.
- 7. Both APPC and CAC appear to have been funded by the Annenberg Foundation. See the APPC Website; 1 Mark Smylie et al., The Chicago Annenberg Challenge: Successes, Failures, and Lessons for the Future 8 (2003). Other than that common source of funds, I have not been able to find any evidence of any connection between APPC and CAC.
- 8. According to a statement published by FactCheck in October 2008, there has never been any connection between CAC and FactCheck. This seems unsurprising, because FactCheck appears to have been founded after CAC ceased its existence.
Those seem to be the relevant facts, as best as I can determine them. (If you know of valid and documented information that contradicts any of these facts, please note it, with references to sources, in the comments.) The next step is to interpret the ’674 Tweet, in order to determine its meaning. Once that is done, we can compare that meaning to the facts we’ve been able to establish.
Interpretation of the ’674 Tweet
The first step in interpreting the ’674 Tweet is to ascertain the context in which the tweet appeared.
Why should we consider the context of a message, as an initial step in interpreting the message? I agree with those — we might call them interpretive pragmatists — who argue that a reader of a written message determines the meaning of that message by interpreting the message in context, and that the meaning that a reader derives from a written message arises from the interaction between the material markers that make up the message, and the context in which those markers appear. I use “context” here to denote the situation in which the reader encounters the message. This situation has many aspects, including the language in which the message is written, the order in which the words of the message appear, the parts of a message preceding or following a particular part of a message being interpreted, the language and other media immediately surrounding and preceding the message that is being interpreted, the knowledge and experience that the reader brings to the message, the physical circumstances in which the reader reads the message, and additional related information that the reader can quickly and easily retrieve, such as explanatory resources readily available free of charge on the Internet. This final aspect of context is particularly important when interpreting messages published on online social networks, because most readers of such messages will be reading online and will have ready access to such online resources.
In ascertaining the context for the ’674 Tweet, I argue that we should determine whether the tweet was published as a “one-off” message, or was part of a conversation between the speaker and one or more interlocutors. Therefore, we should consider whether any other tweets in @ConservativeGal’s Twitter stream at or near the time that the quoted tweet was published, provide information relevant to the interpretation of the message in that tweet.
My examination of that Twitter stream for 18 July 2010 (archived here on TwapperKeeper and here as a spreadsheet in OpenDocument Spreadsheet (.ods) format) does not, in my view, disclose any other message containing information relevant to the interpretation of the ’674 Tweet. Therefore, we will consider the ’674 Tweet as a “one-off message,” and proceed to interpret it.
By “interpreting the meaning” of a written message, such as the ’674 Tweet, I mean determining — by considering the message in context — what a reasonable reader, having average skill in reading the language in which the message is written, is most likely to have understood as the denotations of the words, phrases, and sentences in the message. Note that this meaning may or may not coincide with what the author of the message intended the message to mean.
The key issue in interpreting the ’674 Tweet seems to be the meanings of the terms “the Annenberg Policy Cntr” (for simplicity, we’ll refer to this term hereinafter as “A1″) in the first sentence of the message, and “Annenberg” (“A2″) in the second sentence of the message. In context, there seem to be nine combinations of interpretations (we’ll call each of these an “Interpretive Option” or “IO”) of these two terms that seem plausible:
- 1. Both A1 and A2 mean the APPC.
- 2. Both A1 and A2 mean the CAC.
- 3. Both A1 and A2 mean a thing that is neither the APPC nor the CAC. (In this option, whether the thing denoted by A1 is the same as the thing denoted by A2 is immaterial for our purposes.)
- 4. A1 means the APPC, while A2 means the CAC.
- 5. A1 means the CAC, while A2 means the APPC.
- 6. A1 means the APPC, while A2 means something which is neither the APPC nor the CAC.
- 7. A1 means the CAC, while A2 means something which is neither the APPC nor the CAC.
- 8. A1 means something that is neither the APPC nor the CAC, while A2 means the APPC.
- 9. A1 means something that is neither the APPC nor the CAC, while A2 means the CAC.
Our task now is to determine which of these Interpretive Options (IOs) a reasonable reader of the ’674 Tweet is most likely to have adopted.
Let’s begin with the first sentence of the message. Beginning the process of interpretation with the first sentence of a message seems reasonable particularly when the message is very short, because one can expect a person to read a very short message — such as the two-sentence-long ’674 Tweet — from the beginning to the end. The first sentence of the ’674 Tweet reads:
FactCheck.org is a project of the Annenberg Policy Cntr.
How is a reasonable reader most likely to interpret this sentence? We proceed from the perspective that readers interpret language in context. What are the relevant aspects of context we should consider in interpreting this sentence? I contend that the two most important aspects of context in interpreting the first sentence of the ’674 Tweet are (i) the reader’s prior knowledge (if any) of the relationship between the APPC and FactCheck, and (ii) information about that relationship, which information is readily available, free-of-charge on the Internet.
I argue that a reader is most likely to have taken one of three approaches to interpreting this first sentence: (a) a reader already familiar with the relationship between the APPC and FactCheck would interpret A1 to mean the APPC; (b) a reader unfamiliar with the relationship between the APPC and FactCheck might have taken no steps to acquire more information, but simply moved on to the second sentence, and then interpreted the first sentence in the context of the meaning of the second sentence; (c) alternatively, a reader unfamiliar with the relationship between the APPC and FactCheck might have immediately sought out additional information on the Internet with which to interpret A1. When I enter the first sentence of the ’674 Tweet into Google, I retrieve a results list, the first item of which is a link to the FactCheck Website’s homepage, which list item reads as follows:
FactCheck.org – Annenberg Political Fact Check
FactCheck.org is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. UPenn is a 501(c)3 organization and your contribution is ..
In light of this contextual information, a reasonable reader who took approach (a) or (c) to the first sentence of the ’674 Tweet is most likely to interpret A1 to mean the APPC. For readers taking approach (a) or (c), then, we can safely eliminate from our list of Interpretive Options (IOs) those in which A1 means something other than the APPC. For those readers, the IOs are reduced to the following:
- 1. Both A1 and A2 mean the APPC.
- 4. A1 means the APPC, while A2 means the CAC.
- 6. A1 means the APPC, while A2 means something which is neither the APPC nor the CAC.
However, for a reader who takes approach (b) to interpreting the first sentence of the ’674 Tweet, we must consider the interpretation of the second sentence, before we can determine which IOs remain available.
Now, let’s turn to the text of the second sentence of the ’674 Tweet:
U know Annenberg, obama ws Chairman of the Board & Ayres a founding mbr.
I contend that — as with the first sentence — the two most important aspects of context in interpreting this second sentence of the ’674 Tweet are the reader’s prior knowledge, and readily available free Internet information, and specifically: (iii) the reader’s prior knowledge (if any) of the relationships between President Obama and Professor Ayers (on the one hand) and the CAC (on the other), and (iv) information about those relationships, which information is readily available, free-of-charge on the Internet.
In light of these contextual factors, several interpretive approaches seem possible here:
(d) A reader who understands A1 to mean the APPC might well assume that A2 refers to the same entity as A1, and therefore interpret A2 to mean the APPC. That would yield Interpretive Option (IO) 1.
(e) A reader who understands A1 to mean the APPC might have prior knowledge of the CAC, which would lead the reader to interpret A2 as meaning the CAC. That would yield IO 4.
(f) A reader who understands A1 to mean the APPC might not have prior knowledge of the CAC and might not assume that A2 refers to the same entity as A1, but might seek additional information as an aid in interpreting A2. Such a reader might enter the words of the second sentence into an Internet search engine. When I entered the principal words of the second sentence into Google, with the abbreviated words spelled out in full, like so:
Annenberg, obama was Chairman of the Board and Ayres a founding member
I retrieved a results list, the first item of which was the Wikipedia article for the CAC, which list item read as follows:
Chicago Annenberg Challenge – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
In Chicago, Ayers, Hallett and Chapman gathered a 73-member Chicago School …. Barack Obama, elected by the Board of Directors as founding chairman and …
Therefore, a reader taking approach (f) is likely to interpret A2 to mean the CAC. That would yield IO 4.
(g) A reader who took approach (b) respecting the first sentence might have prior knowledge of the CAC, which would lead the reader to interpret A2 as meaning the CAC. That reader then might retrospectively interpret the first sentence in light of the second sentence, and so interpret A1 to mean the CAC as well. That would yield IO 2.
(h) Similarly, a reader who took approach (b) respecting the first sentence might not have prior knowledge of the CAC, but might use the Internet to gather additional information as in approach (f), and so interpret A2 to mean the CAC. That reader then might retrospectively interpret the first sentence in light of the second sentence, and so interpret A1 to mean the CAC as well. That would also yield IO 2.
Most Likely Interpretive Options
On this analysis, a reasonable reader seems most likely to have adopted one of the following Interpretive Options (IOs) in interpreting the ’674 Tweet:
- 1. Both A1 and A2 mean the APPC.
- 2. Both A1 and A2 mean the CAC.
- 4. A1 means the APPC, while A2 means the CAC.
Application of Most Likely Interpretive Options to the Facts
Now, let’s apply these most likely IOs to the facts as we understand them. Which of these IOs yields one or more meanings that is inconsistent with the facts as we understand them? IOs 1 and 2. A reader who adopts IO 1 will understand the second sentence of the ’674 Tweet to mean that President Obama was chair of the board of APPC, which we know to be inaccurate both because our research shows that President Obama has never had any involvement with the APPC, and because the APPC has never had a board. In addition, such a reader will understand the second sentence to mean that Professor Ayers was a “founding member” of the APPC, which our research shows to be untrue, both because Professor Ayers seems never to have had any involvement in the APPC, and because, if “founding member” is interpreted to mean “founding board member,” that meaning is impossible, as the APPC has never had a board.
A reader who adopts IO 2 will understand the first sentence of the ’674 Tweet to mean that FactCheck is a project of the CAC, which we know to be impossible, since FactCheck was founded after the CAC ceased to exist.
That is, of the three IOs respecting the ’674 Tweet that a reasonable reader is most likely to have adopted, two of them yield meanings that are inconsistent with the facts as we understand them, and those meanings can be expressed as follows:
- Inaccurate Meaning 1. That President Obama served as “Chair of the Board” of the APPC (derived from the application of Interpretive Option 1 to the ’674 Tweet);
- Inaccurate Meaning 2. That Professor Ayers “was a founding member” of the APPC (derived from the application of Interpretive Option 1 to the ’674 Tweet); and
- Inaccurate Meaning 3. That FactCheck.org is a project of the CAC (derived from the application of Interpretive Option 2 to the ’674 Tweet).
Now, as an empirical matter, we cannot be certain how many, or what percentage, of readers of the quoted tweet actually adopted IO 1 or 2. Nonetheless, given that two-thirds of the IOs that a reasonable reader seems most likely to have adopted are inconsistent with the facts as we understand them, it seems reasonable to assume that a substantial portion of the actual readers of the ’674 Tweet interpreted that tweet to have one or more meanings inconsistent with the facts as we understand them. Indeed, at least one tweet in @ConservativeGal’s Twitter stream appears to reflect a reader’s acknowledgment of having derived one of these inaccurate meanings from the ’674 Tweet. On July 20, 2010, the following tweet (archived here) from the Twitter account of a Twitter user named @unicornmajik appeared in @ConservativeGal’s Twitter stream, in the form of a reply to one of the earlier appearances of the ’674 Tweet:
@unicornmajik @ConservativeGal FactCheck.org is a project of Annenburg Policy Cntr. obama & Ayres // when i found out i stopped using them PROGRESSIVES
This tweet appears to state that the sender of the tweet had come to believe, seemingly on the basis of one or more of the Inaccurate Messages conveyed by the ’674 Tweet, that FactCheck was not politically impartial.
In light of this analysis, I conclude that it is fair and reasonable to characterize the ’674 Tweet as factually inaccurate, and in need of correction.
On July 19 and 20, 2010, I expressed these conclusions on Twitter to the @ConservativeGal account, and received several responses from that account. (Warning: Some of the quotations below contain coarse language.):
Respecting the first substantive response, posted on July 20, 2010 (click here for the first substantive response in full), the key portions of the response appear to be as follows (again, in the following quotation and in all subsequent quotations, the text is reproduced as it appears in the original):
Of course, there will never be any proof of collusion between obama and the Philadelphia branch of Annenburg [...]
In 1995, obama was the President & Chairman of the Board for The Chicago Annenburg Challenge. The CAC received 31.5M from the Annenburg Foundation, but the CAC and the Annenburg Foundation claim they are not “directly” connected philosophically.
The earmarks then Senator Obama requested & received (3.5M twice) was for the Annenburg Foundation, which funded the Chicago Annenburg Challenge and also funds FactCheck.org.
Obama is tied to both groups one via earmarks, the other via direct participation.
Respecting IO 1, this first response appears to constitute a correction respecting President Obama’s involvement in the APPC; i.e., a correction respecting Inaccurate Meaning 1. The correction is notable in part to the extent that it implies an acknowledgement that readers of the ’674 tweet are likely to have adopted IO 1. Yet the response does not appear to contain any correction respecting Professor Ayers, i.e., Inaccurate Meaning 2.
Respecting IO 2, the first response does not appear to contain any information that could constitute a correction respecting the relationship between the CAC and FactCheck. Although the sentence beginning “The earmarks then Senator Obama requested…” seems to refer to the CAC and FactCheck as separate entities, nothing in the response appears to assert affirmatively that FactCheck is not a project of CAC, which would seem to be required in order to correct the understanding of a reasonable reader who adopts IO 2. In my view, this first substantive response does not appear to acknowledge that a reasonable reader is likely to have adopted IO 2.
Here is the relevant part of the second substantive response I received (click here for an archived version of this response):
I never said ayres was a founding mbr of U Penn…GOSH CAN YOU EVEN READ??????
Here, the response seems to deny that IO 1 is even a plausible way of interpreting the ’674 Tweet. Yet the analysis above indicates that a reasonable reader is likely to have adopted IO 1. Further, the first substantive response seems to imply an acknowledgement that readers are likely to have adopted IO 1. Therefore, a correction respecting the meaning of the ’674 Tweet respecting Professor Ayers — i.e., Inaccurate Meaning 2 — that arises under IO 1 seems in order. No such a correction was offered in this second substantive response.
The third substantive response echoed the second (click here for an archived version of the third substantive response):
I still stand by that statement…now you TELL ME WHERE U PENN IS EVEN MENTIONED YOU IDIOT!!!!
Again, the third substantive response seems to deny that IO 1 is plausible, notwithstanding the implied acknowledgement in the first substantive response that readers were likely to have adopted IO 1 in interpreting the ’674 Tweet.
Here is the fourth substantive response I received (click here for an archived version of the fourth substantive response):
FactCheck.org’s own w/s says it is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center…so where am I lying? YOU LIE!!!
This response seems to constitute a correction addressed to readers adopting IO 2: the response clarifies that FactCheck is a project of the APPC, not the CAC; i.e., it corrects Inaccurate Meaning 3. This response seems also implicitly to acknowledge that readers are likely to have adopted IO 2 in interpreting the ’674 Tweet. With the fourth substantive response, the ’674 Author appears to have issued corrections respecting two of the three inaccuracies identified through our analysis above: Inaccurate Meaning 1 respecting President Obama’s purported role as chair of the board of the APPC, and Inaccurate Meaning 3 respecting the purported relationship between FactCheck and the CAC. However, at this point, no correction of Inaccurate Meaning 2 respecting Professor Ayers’s purported involvement in the APPC had been received.
Here is the fifth substantive response I received (click here for an archived version of the fifth substantive response):
I conceded nothing…I did nothing wrong…everything on the tweet is TRUTHFUL…YOU’RE THE ONE WHO IS LYING YOU SCUMBAG!
As we have seen, two previous substantive responses — the first and the fourth — seem to have contained corrections respecting Inaccurate Meanings 1 and 3, as well as implicit acknowledgements that readers are likely to have adopted IO 1 or IO 2. In this fifth substantive response, the ’674 Author denies that the ’674 Tweet could be interpreted to contain any inaccurate statements. Further, in this response, the ’674 Author denies having “conceded” anything. The word “conceded” here could mean “corrected,” or that readers are likely to have adopted IO 1 or IO 2 in interpreting the ’674 Tweets, since either of those IOs, as we have seen, would yield interpretations of the ’674 Tweet leading a reader to derive one or more of the Inaccurate Meanings identified above. Or the word “conceded” could have both of these meanings. Thus, in this fifth substantive response, the ’674 Author seems to deny having made the corrections to Inaccurate Meanings 1 and 3 that seem to have been made in the first and fourth substantive responses, and to deny that readers are likely to have adopted IO 1 or IO 2.
Here is the sixth substantive response I received (click here for an archived version of the sixth substantive response):
No you’re trying to lie & say things I didn’t say. That is called a LIAR and people who LIE are SCUMBAGS. :-)
This response, consistent with the second, third, and fifth substantive responses, seems to deny that a reader could derive Inaccurate Meaning 2, concerning Professor Ayers, by applying IO 1 to the ’674 Tweet.
Here is the seventh substantive response I received (click here for an archived version of the seventh substantive response):
It is not my fault that the FactCheck.org website says that it is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center…Talk w/ them
This response appears to echo the fourth substantive response in expressing a correction of Inaccurate Meaning 3 that a reader would have derived by adopting IO 2.
Here is the eighth and final substantive response I received (click here for an archived version of the eighth substantive response):
Respectfully, I say u r full of CRAP! I made no inaccurate statement & if it reflects badly on anyone it is not conservatives!
This eighth substantive response echoes the fifth substantive response, in denying that a reader could have derived any of the Inaccurate Meanings from the ’674 Tweet, and implicitly denying that a reader would have adopted IO 1 or 2 in interpreting the ’674 Tweet.
Evaluation and Ideas for Further Research
In the course of eight substantive responses, the @ConservativeGal account issued corrections of two of the three Inaccurate Meanings — Inaccurate Meaning 1 concerning President Obama’s purported involvement with the APPC and Inaccurate Meaning 3 respecting the purported relationship between FactCheck and the CAC — that our analysis shows would have been understood by readers who adopted Interpretive Option 1 or 2 in interpreting the ’674 Tweet. In the course of those eight responses, no correction to Inaccurate Meaning 2 — respecting Professor Ayers’s purported involvement in the APPC — appears to have been made. Further, in the course of the responses, several statements denied that any of the Inaccurate Meanings could have been derived from the ’674 Tweet. Those statements also implicitly denied that a reasonable reader would have adopted IO 1 or 2 in interpreting the ’674 Tweet.
Why the @ConservativeGal account would have made corrections respecting Inaccurate Meanings 1 and 3, but not Inaccurate Meaning 2, is unclear, particularly when our analysis shows that Inaccurate Meanings 1 and 2 derive from adoption of the same Interpretive Option, namely IO 1. If the @ConservativeGal account was willing to correct Inaccurate Meaning 1, and thereby implicitly acknowledge that a reasonable reader is likely to have adopted IO 1 in interpreting the ’674 Tweet, why would that account not also complete the correction process by making a correction respecting Inaccurate Meaning 2, which also derives from the adoption of IO 1?
This manner of partially correcting earlier factually inaccurate statements is an example of what I propose to call “selective retraction.” By “selective retraction,” I mean the public correction of one or more, but fewer than all, of a set of multiple, factually inaccurate statements made during a single, earlier, public communication. What might explain the use of selective retraction in the case of the ’674 Tweet?
One possible explanation lies in a cost-benefit analysis that takes into consideration factors including the so-called “attention economy,” potential liability for defamation, and the social value of individual reputation. In the online networked communication environment, users’ attention is very highly valued — since both economic and reputational benefits derive from such attention — and consequently communicators compete vigorously for that attention. See, e.g., F. Mulhern, Integrated Marketing Communications: From Media Channels to Digital Connectivity, 15 Journal of Marketing Communications, Issues 2 & 3, at 85-101 (April 2009); T.H. Davenport & J.C. Beck, The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Economy of Business (2001). A rational online social network communicator will therefore seek to maximize the quantity of user attention that his or her messages receive.
When making decisions respecting the content of a future communication about a public figure, such a rational online social media communicator can be expected to weigh the potential quantity of user attention to be gained from the communication, against harms (including monetary costs) to him- or herself or to others in whose welfare the communicator has an interest, that may arise from the communication. Where the communication contains false statements about a third party, the rules of defamation law, and the social reputation of that third party, may play significant roles in the communicator’s calculation of the potential harms to ensue from the contemplated communication. (See, e.g., John C. Martin, The Role of Retraction in Defamation Suits, 1993 University of Chicago Legal Forum 293-312, 303-304, 308-311 (1993)).
Where the third party is a very well-known public figure respected by many but also criticized by many in society, a false statement about that third party — once the falsity of the statement is disclosed — may cause harm to the communicator’s reputation, and also potentially subject the communicator to liability for defamation. A rational communicator can be expected to weigh those potential costs against any potential benefit in the form of user attention. In many U.S. states, public retraction of a prior false public statement may limit the damages that may be awarded for that statement under the law of defamation. (See, e.g., Christopher P. Guzelian, Scientific Speech, 93 Iowa Law Review 881-928, 926 n.151 (2008) (Issue No. 3).) In addition, although making the correction is likely to harm the communicator’s reputation to some degree — insofar as the correction reveals that the communicator made a factually incorrect statement to begin with — because the third party enjoys a good public reputation among a sizeable portion of the society, to the extent that making the correction causes the communicator to be publicly perceived as being associated or even allied with the third party, such an association is unlikely to cause the communicator any substantial reputational injury. Further, making a correction may enhance the communicator’s reputation, by conveying to the public that the communicator possesses desirable character attributes, such as a respect for truth and accuracy. (See, e.g., John C. Martin, The Role of Retraction in Defamation Suits, 1993 University of Chicago Legal Forum 293-312, 294-301, 311 (1993)). Thus a rational communicator may calculate that making an initial false statement about a public figure who enjoys both esteem and criticism among large portions of the public, and then correcting that statement, would yield sufficient attention to outweigh the potential monetary and reputational costs to the communicator stemming from the revelation that he or she had made a false statement.
A similar cost-benefit analysis would seem to apply to a less well-known public figure — such as a research institution — having a generally positive public reputation.
However, where the third party public figure has a bad reputation among a majority of a society, the cost-benefit analysis looks quite different. First, the benefits — in the form of user attention — of making a false public statement about a public figure of ill repute may substantially exceed the benefits potentially deriving from such a statement about a well-regarded public figure. The reason is that, to the extent the former is associated with notorious information or circumstances, a false public statement about an ill-regarded public figure may garner an unusually large audience by sharing in the notoriety associated with that figure. Second, a rational communicator may determine that he or she is likely to incur little or no reputational harm from disclosure of the fact that he or she made a false statement about an ill-regarded public figure, since few are likely to care about the accuracy of what is said about such a figure. Third, though potential liability for defamation remains, the high bar a public figure must satisfy to meet the “actual malice” standard, coupled with the likelihood that a finder of fact in a defamation trial may be as unsympathetic toward a public figure with a bad reputation as is the majority of the society, and the recognition by some jurisdictions of the doctrine of the “libel-proof” plaintiff (see, e.g., Joseph H. King, Jr., The Misbegotten Libel-Proof Plaintiff Doctrine and the “Gordian Knot” Syndrome, 29 Hofstra Law Review 343-400, 348-351 (2000) (Issue No. 2)), may lead a rational communicator to substantially discount the cost of potential legal liability for the false statement, as well as the need for a public correction. Fourth, the making of a correction respecting a public figure of ill repute could cause the communicator to incur even greater reputational harm than a correction respecting a public figure of good or middling reputation. The reason lies in the risk that one who makes a correction respecting a false statement about a disreputable public figure could be viewed as sympathetic to, or even allied with, the disreputable public figure.
Respecting the ’674 Tweet, since President Obama is a famous figure who enjoys great esteem among a large part of the U.S. population but receives regular criticism from other, sizeable portions of the population, the ’674 Author would seem to have been justified in calculating that the making of a factually inaccurate statement about him, followed by a correction, would yield more benefit in the form of attention than cost in the form of legal liability or reputational harm. The ’674 Author may have made a similar conclusion on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis respecting the making of a factually inaccurate statement about FactCheck. Further, given the low esteem in which Professor Ayers appears to be held by a very large portion of the U.S. public in light of his former terrorist activities, the ’674 Author may well have calculated that there were great benefits in the form of user attention to be gained by making a factually inaccurate statement about him, while the ’674 Author would incur few or no legal or reputational costs from making that statement and omitting to correct it. Moreover, the ’674 Author may well have calculated that issuing a correction respecting a factually inaccurate public statement about Professor Ayers could have substantially harmed the ’674 Author’s reputation, to the extent that such a correction would have caused the ’674 Author to be perceived as sympathetic to or allied with Professor Ayers’s former, extreme political views and conduct.
However, why the @ConservativeGal account, after having made the corrections identified above, proceeded repeatedly to deny that any corrections had been made, and that any of the Inaccurate Meanings could have been derived from the ’674 Tweet, is unclear. So far I am unable to identify a possible rationale for these denials.
Further research avenues suggested by these findings include:
- 1. Testing the cost-benefit analysis explanation proposed in this post, to determine whether and to what extent it accounts for other instances of “selective retraction” of political communications made in online social media and containing false assertions;
- 2. Exploring other instances of political communication in online social media in which the correction of a factually inaccurate public statement is followed by a denial that a correction had been made and that any inaccurate statement had been made, in order to determine whether this rhetorical maneuver occurs with any frequency, and, if so, under what circumstances it occurs; and to propose possible explanations for it;
- 3. Exploring possible relationships between ad hominem rhetoric and selective retraction in communication occurring in online social media, and between ad hominem rhetoric and the type of denial maneuver discussed in research avenue 2 above, in communication occurring in online social media. This avenue of research would explore such research questions as: Where selective retraction occurs, does the ad hominem rhetoric used by the communicator differ in type, severity, or frequency from the ad hominem rhetoric found in other retraction circumstances? Where the kind of denial maneuver described in research avenue 2 is found, does the ad hominem rhetoric used by the communicator differ in type, severity, or frequency from the ad hominem rhetoric found in retraction circumstances not exhibiting that denial maneuver? What functions does ad hominem rhetoric serve in selective retraction situations and situations exhibiting the denial maneuver described in research avenue 2, and how, if at all, do those functions differ from the functions of ad hominem rhetoric in other retraction situations?
A Moral Assessment
From a moral perspective, the failure to correct the inaccurate assertion that Professor Ayers was associated with the APPC is objectionable, for the following reasons.
First, because the ’674 Tweet appears to have been very widely disseminated, Inaccurate Meaning 2 is likely to have been conveyed to many thousands of individuals, in some instances multiple times. Although the number of “followers” of @ConservativeGal’s Twitter stream as of July 18, 2010 is unknown, as of August 3, 2010, @ConservativeGal’s Twitter stream had 13,759 followers. Further, that stream appears to show that the ’674 Tweet reappeared in that stream at least 5 times on July 20, 2010 (see instances 1 (archived here), 2 (archived here), 3 (archived here), 4 (archived here), and 5 (archived here)).
In addition, a search of Twitter shows that the ’674 Tweet was retransmitted (“retweeted” or “RTd” in the lingo of Twitter) at least 5 times by accounts other than the @ConservativeGal account, each of which accounts had a substantial number of followers (see RTs 1 and 2 (archived here) (this RT reflects both an earlier RT by a Twitter account that had 2120 followers as of August 5, 2010, and which I have not been able to retrieve, and an RT of that RT by another Twitter account that had 1351 followers as of August 5, 2010), 3 (by an account that had 1873 followers as of August 5, 2010) (archived here), 4 (by an account that had 1462 followers as of August 5, 2010) (archived here), and 5 (by an account that had 1328 followers as of August 5, 2010) (archived here)).
In addition, because the well-known hashtags #tcot and #p2 were added to the ’674 Tweet, many thousands of additional Twitter users, who did not follow the Twitter accounts associated with @ConservativeGal or with those who retweeted the ’674 Tweet, but who were viewing the #tcot or the #p2 Twitter stream during July 18-20, 2010, had the opportunity to read the ’674 Tweet.
In light of these many thousands of individuals to whom the ’674 Tweet was disseminated, insofar as the degree of moral harm caused by the failure to correct a factually inaccurate statement is in substantial part a function of the number of individuals who read and believed the factually inaccurate statement, if we are justified in assuming that a substantial portion of those to whom the ’674 Tweet was disseminated read it, and a substantial portion of those who read the ’674 Tweet derived Inaccurate Meaning 2 from it, then we are also justified in concluding that the moral harm of failing to correct Inaccurate Meaning 2 is great.
Second, leaving uncorrected the inaccurate assertion respecting Professor Ayers at issue in this post has the potential adversely to affect the public and scholarly reputation of the APPC. Such an effect is detrimental to society because society benefits from the important, well-respected, and frequently commended research that the APPC produces in a number of areas of policy communication, including political communication and political fact-checking, health communication, and communication on policy issues affecting children and adolescents. The APPC’s political fact-checking research in particular benefits society by improving the quality of our public political discourse, which contributes to better political decisionmaking and ultimately better policy outcomes. Because Professor Ayers, by his own admission, is a former domestic political terrorist and ideological extremist, a public assertion that he was significantly involved with an organization has the potential to lead readers of that assertion to believe that that organization approved of or embraced Professor Ayers’s radical political views. The consequences of such an assertion seem particularly serious for a nonpartisan research organization devoted to the study of policy communication, because the public and scholarly credibility of such an organization rests to a substantial extent on the perception that the organization is politically impartial. This post demonstrates that the ’674 Tweet is highly likely to have caused such a reputational injury to the APPC, and furnishes one concrete example of a reader whom the ’674 Tweet apparently caused to view the APPC’s fact-checking research as politically partisan. To the extent that a public correction of Inaccurate Meaning 2 could substantially mitigate or eliminate the reputational injury incurred by the APPC as a result of the ’674 Tweet, the failure to make such a correction leaves that injury unattended, and the resulting societal harms unremedied.
Third, insofar as maximizing the amount of factually correct information, and minimizing the amount of factually incorrect information, believed by members of the public are moral goods, making and then failing to correct the factually inaccurate public statement respecting Professor Ayers at issue in this post directly harm society by increasing the quantity of factually incorrect information that members of the public believe, and declining to act to decrease the quantity of such information that members of the public believe.
Fourth, to the extent that making and failing to correct a factually inaccurate statement are a priori morally wrong, the failure to correct the factually inaccurate statement respecting Professor Ayers at issue in this post is morally objectionable irrespective of the consequences of that failure.
In sum, the failure to correct the factually inaccurate assertion respecting Professor Ayers at issue in this post is morally objectionable on both a priori and consequentialist grounds.
Therefore, the ’674 Author seems to be morally obligated to correct the factually inaccurate statement in the ’674 Tweet respecting Professor Ayers’s purported involvement with the APPC.