- A media outlet ran a story with the headline “”Ben Carson admits fabricating West Point Scholarship“, based in part on muddled comments from Ben Carson that were not clear.
- The false version of the story was picked up by media and spread rapidly on social media.
- The story was eventually shown as incorrect and prominent media called the story a “lie”.
- But the damage was done. Propagandists know that the first message received by the target, even if later found to be false, is the message mostly likely to stick with the target. This is why elegant lies are effective in persuading others. (Update: There are contemporary examples from the Trump administration saying things that are not true. I wrote this post, originally, in late 2015 but did not publish until January 2017.)
- This post is not about Ben Carson but is about a propaganda method that is illustrated well by this story involving Ben Carson and Politico. Even though the initial headline and story were not correct, this is the “message” that will live on in the minds of the targets.
Kyle Cheney at Politico.com wrote a story titled “Ben Carson admits fabricating West Point Scholarship“. After spreading online, both CNN and Washington Post noted this headline was not true; Politico later revised the article and rewrote the headline.
In propaganda messaging, the first message – even if wrong or preposterous – is the one that is most likely to be remembered long term. The story from Politico twisted the muddled comments of Ben Carson (both deserve blame in this matter).
Here is Politico’s original story that went viral:
The headline and several points in the story were factually incorrect yet the story was quickly picked up by news media nationwide and spread widely. Social media participants “shared” the item online:
Salon online magazine:
Behind the scenes, Politico replaced the headline and wrote a new story – not indicating a retraction or correction to the original (Update: They later added a substantial Editor’s note to their rewritten story, acknowledging changes and defending their original report. This blog post was originally written in late 2015 but not public on this blog until January 2017.)
- The Washington Post asked, “Why won’t Politico slap a correction on its Ben Carson story?“
- CNN Money later wrote “Where Politico’s Ben Carson Story Went Wrong“. An earlier version of the story stated “NEW YORK (CNNMoney) – What initially looked like a disaster for Ben Carson could now be a major black eye for Politico.”
The point of this is to illustrate how an exaggerated or incorrect story, with a click-bait style headline, can reach millions of people. And how that first impression is the message that is likely to stick in memory.
Consequently, the explosive story that Ben Carson “fabricated” (i.e. lied) about a scholarship to West Point, is the message that the public remembers. (Again, as noted, Carson’s comments about West Point seemed rather muddled.)
In Terms of Propaganda
This is an example of telling falsehoods can be a successful propaganda strategy. It works well if the message feeds into pre-propaganda (recent news reports from CNN questioned Carson’s claim of experiencing violence in his youth) and the message is consistent with the general views of potential targets, and hence “sounds plausible”.