Questions were raised on the Internet today regarding three Democratic members of the United States Senate who may or may not have been convicted or suspected of pedophilia.
Googling the phrase “Ron Wyden pedophile” brings up more than 25,000 hits. Democrat Wyden, the senior senator from the state of Oregon has yet to confirm or deny that he has direct links to the theory or practice of pedophilia.
Further, the Internet contains an 11,000-word conversation on a Web page containing dozens of allegations of molestation on the part of Senate minority leader Harry Reid. The page describes the long-serving Nevada senator engaging in deeply disturbing, intimately described sex acts with children and that he was caught “reading a chicken-hawk magazine.” One commenter wrote that Reid hangs around playgrounds handing out candy and inviting his victims to enjoy “pony rides” on his knee.
Reid, who is married with children (four of whom are boys), has never responded to the accusations, although one of the comments at the Web page specifically and directly states that the well-regarded Democrat “is an allegedly convicted child molester.”
Most shockingly, one of the “Pederast Three” in the Democratic Senate caucus is a woman. A Web page from 2008 with the headline “Sen. Barbara Boxer Does Kiddie Porn” extensively quotes an article in the Washington Post. While there is no direct evidence that the California Democrat has done more than think about, watch, or distribute sexual images of minors, there is no evidence she is uninvolved in the production of child pornography, either.
Wait, wait, wait. What am I talking about? Are Senators Ron Wyden, Harry Reid, and Barbara Boxer pedophiles?
Of course they aren’t. But every single word I wrote above is technically true.
And it mirrors the nonsense that has been zipping around the Web in the last 24 hours alleging that four Republican senators and several mayors are members of the Ku Klux Klan. That claim, which has been denied by many of the politicians, the “Operation KKK” group supposedly collecting the information, and the Klan itself, has nonetheless garnered significant attention in major media outlets from the Washington Post to USA Today to Time Magazine.
Look, anyone can put anything on the Internet. To write the paragraphs above, I didn’t even have to put up any information on the Web. I just did a little browsing and found Web pages, mostly satirical, that contained information I could twist into a scandalous, breathless headline and opening paragraph.
How can esteemed publications justify repeating such unsubstantiated and logically dubious allegations? By ignoring the obvious falsehood of the charges and writing a story about the story. The idea of major politicians affiliated with an infamous racist group is salacious and makes for great clickbait (as I imagine my headline above about pedophile Democratic senators will be) and the publications can always claim that it’s news if people are talking about it, even if what they are talking about is nonsense.
But publications refrain from reporting harmful information all the time, even when it would clearly be of public interest: the names of rape victims or children accused of crimes; and operational details of law enforcement and military campaigns. Some media outlets have stopped publicizing the names and likenesses of school shooters out of fear of encouraging other disturbed teenagers to try to become famous by committing massacres of their own.
So except in unusual cases responsible publications should neither write stories about – nor write stories about stories about (!) – accusations that are unfounded or unverifiable. They can assign their own reporters to investigate the claims, but if they’re baseless they must not be published.
Evolving social media technologies have exacerbated this phenomenon. One far-left Web site that breathlessly reported the details of the KKK non-story boasted of 14,000 social media shares in its first 24 hours. Facebook users are quick to comment on, share, and repost essays based on lurid headlines without checking to see if the media source is reputable or the content – which they may not even read – is based on anything substantive.
Accusing Republican senators of KKK membership plays into liberal hysteria about supposedly racist GOP politicians. Social psychologists have long demonstrated that people are eager to believe information that reinforces what they already know – or what they think they know.
This kind of nonsensical episode could be easily prevented if everyone would just follow one basic rule about handling fishy-sounding claims on Facebook: check them out on Snopes. In this case, the myth-debunking Web site reports that there is very little “there” there with this story.
Now, let’s wait to see how long it takes Snopes to label the story about Barbara Boxer being a child pornographer a myth as well.
David Benkof is Senior Political Analyst for the Daily Caller. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.