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2017-02-06 13:38:09
Mediator: The Massacre That Wasn’t, and a Turning Point for ‘Fake News’

There were so many instant internet spoofs making fun of Kellyanne Conway’s now-famous “Bowling Green Massacre” that it’s hard to pick a favorite. Gun to my head, I’d say mine was the Twitter meme that showed a brass plaque dedicated to the names of the poor souls left for dead on Bowling Green’s grassy killing field. It was blank.

That’s because there was no massacre there. No one died. No one even stubbed a toe. But there’s a good chance you know that by now: that the supposed terrorist attack in Bowling Green, Ky., that Ms. Conway, a top presidential adviser, invoked on MSNBC last week to justify President Trump’s contentious travel ban never happened. (And, no, the reason you had never heard of it was not because the Dishonest Media ignored the alleged carnage at the time of its non-happening, as Ms. Conway alleged.)

The very fact that you probably know all this means that the “Bowling Green Massacre” may go down in the record of the Trump presidency as the first break in the “fake news” clouds that have cast such gloom over our fair and once (relatively) true republic.

The same internet that enabled false stories to run unchecked through news feeds during the election year dispatched new white blood cells that attacked Ms. Conway’s “alternate facts” with “true facts” (a redundant term that I guess we’re stuck with for now). Their most effective attack was traditional reporting, in many cases from news organizations that have doubled down on fact-checking, joined by newfangled memes that accentuate the truth.

The Massacre That Wasn’t showed that while Facebook, Google and Twitter take steps to combat nefarious hoaxes, they are already playing host to an organic correction movement led by ordinary users who are crowdsourcing reality.

It’s early. Vigilance, and continuing improvements throughout the news business, remain necessary. But the tale of the “massacre” could be the start of something new.

Ms. Conway’s mention of the supposed attack — she was trying to justify Mr. Trump’s order that closed the border to citizens from seven predominately Muslim countries — slipped past the MSNBC host interviewing her, Chris Matthews. The corrective story broke the way stories have broken since God invented newspapers: A guy walked into a bar.

In this case, the guy was Joe Sonka, a staff writer for the Insider Louisville website. He was having a beer at a bar called the Backdoor when “someone texted me that Conway said something insane,” Mr. Sonka told me.

As a reporter — and onetime liberal blogger — in Kentucky for several years, Mr. Sonka knew what Ms. Conway seemed to be referring to when he went home to check it out. In 2011, the federal authorities arrested two Iraqi refugees who were later given prison sentences — one for life and one for 40 years — for plotting to send money and weapons to Al Qaeda in Iraq from their new homes in Bowling Green. The episode led to a slowdown in Iraqi immigration as the Obama administration reworked vetting procedures.

The authorities never charged the men — one of whose fingerprints turned up on a roadside bomb in Iraq — with planning an attack on American soil.

So at 9:34 p.m. on Thursday, Mr. Sonka wrote on Twitter: “@KellyannePolls says that 2 Iraqi refugees ‘were the masterminds behind the Bowling Green massacre.’ (There was no such massacre.)”

It made like a Trump tweet and roared through the broader news media sphere.

“That tweet got 2.4 million impressions,” Mr. Sonka said. “Pretty crazy.”

There was fast follow-up by Vox, The Washington Post, CNN and Fox News (among many others); on conservative websites including Newsmax and Breitbart; and, finally, in multiple references on “Saturday Night Live” — the ultimate sign that something has truly broken through.

In the end, social media and journalistic scrutiny aligned with comedy to right a wrong pretty definitively. That it happened so organically showed that false “facts” might not always be the stubborn things so many people fear they are becoming.

To understand how deep those fears go, just look at how “1984,” by George Orwell, has climbed up the best-seller lists nearly 70 years after its debut. A “1984” stage adaptation is even heading to Broadway. (How about a Hamiltonesque musical: “2 and 2 make 5? Don’t give me that jive!”)

As the New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani put it recently, Orwell’s classic seems “all too familiar,” capturing “a world in which the government insists that reality is not ‘something objective, external, existing in its own right.’”

Mr. Trump renews those fears every time he taps out social media messages like one he posted on Facebook on Thursday complimenting an article about a “Trump-esque” travel ban Kuwait was imposing on five nearby countries. As it happens, this was untrue, as even Sputnik International, the Russian state-supported news service that helped promote the story, acknowledged.

Then there are the regular Trump Tweets calling CNN or The Times “fake news.”

The Bowling Green episode made such a splash because it played directly into concerns that the Trump administration would use untrue assertions to rally support for its agenda while denigrating as “dishonest” all the valid reporting pointing out the falsehoods.

But even before the Bowling Green story fell apart so spectacularly, there were signs that what had worked well during the presidential campaign last year might not succeed when it comes to the real-world work of government.

All the accusations of “fake news” and “dishonest media” couldn’t erase images of crying relatives stranded at airports — or the reporting on the legal questions surrounding Mr. Trump’s immigration order that led a judge to temporarily suspend it.

No one in the administration could disappear the readouts from the president’s tense call with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia leaked to The Washington Post. Nor could they reverse the effects of the reporting, some of it in The Times, about the potential business conflicts of his Army secretary nominee, Vincent Viola, who withdrew his name Friday night because of them.

Ditto for the blowback over the whole Bowling Green yarn. Ms. Conway went on to admit her error, first on Twitter (where else?) and later in an interview with Howard Kurtz of Fox News, saying it was overblown because “I misspoke one word.” (By that, she meant, apparently, that she should have said “Bowling Green terrorists” rather than “Bowling Green massacre.”)

And Ms. Conway was right when she wrote that “honest mistakes abound.”

After all, The Washington Post admitted over the weekend that several details in a column about internal White House strife over the president’s executive order on immigration were in dispute. A few days before that, WJBK-TV of Detroit walked back a report about a woman who died in Iraq supposedly after Mr. Trump’s new policy blocked her entry to the United States.

Yet by the end of the weekend, it was Ms. Conway’s credibility that was receiving the most scrutiny (which she described as unfair and coming from “a lot of the haters” in her interview with Mr. Kurtz).

Some, like the New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, were calling upon the television networks to stop booking her. And CNN declined to have her as a guest on Sunday — in part because the Trump administration offered her in lieu of Vice President Mike Pence, but also because of what the network told me were “serious questions about her credibility.”

It would be a positive development if Ms. Conway embraced the idea that the term “honest mistakes” can apply to reporters, too, as it would be if everybody — including journalists — doubly committed to getting the facts right, without hysteria or misfires. Too optimistic?

Well, if you had asked me a few days ago what I was planning to write about, I wouldn’t have said it would involve praising Twitter for keeping the national debate reality-based — and fun.

Eventually, the Bowling Green memes led to mock street memorials with signs like “Never Remember.” They had made it IRL, or “In Real Life,” which, the new administration is learning, has a way of sneaking up on you.