The Style and Speed of Misinformation

This very special episode of ‘All In’ from MSNBC is a must watch; you don’t often get a record of the case voters make for themselves.  Among other things, there’s a near perfect example of the style and speed with which misinformation spreads.  Watch the first 3 minutes of the video, up until Chris starts talking to the young lady in the hijab and answer the following question:

Who is (was) Obama’s Chief Economic Advisor, and why might that be a problem?

Note: the video should start at 28:52 and the real meat happens at about 31:20, no need to watch past 32:30 . . . finding a stable source for broadcast TV uploads can be tricky.

If you didn’t watch or didn’t catch it, go back and watch it again.  Check in with how you feel as it happens:

Audience Member: ‘Then why was Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of GE, who proudly declared he paid zero percent in corporate taxes;  Why did Barack Obama name him his Chief Economic Advisor?’

Bernie: ‘Damn right! That was a stupid thing to do!’


Your answer is probably ‘Jeff Immelt’ and ‘The sitting CEO of a company like GE is likely to prioritize private profits over the overall health of the American economy!’.   That’s a perfectly logical conclusion to make. . . even though it’s wrong.

A warning: What follows may seem inanely inconsequential, but is necessary.  Bear with me. . .

Immelt was never Obama’s Chief Economic Advisor.  Immelt’s association with Obama was as Chairman of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness; a panel deliberately created to include voices from outside government.  Their charge was not to make policy, but to discuss issues and send policy recommendations to the president.  The panel was a reaction to the recession of ’08, a deliberate attempt to deliver different perspectives to the white house.

But you, healthy skeptic that you are, might not be convinced by the panel’s charter.  The president, after all, can listen to whoever they’d like.  Could Immelt have been running the show from where he sat, a de facto chief advisor?  Great question, but no.

Even the former chairman, Paul Volker, didn’t feel that Obama took his recommendations all that seriously.  And by the time Immelt was appointed, the council was so inactive that Mitt Romney criticized Obama for letting the panel languish during their 2012 campaign for the Presidency.

Just so we’re clear, Volker’s disappointment and Romney’s ire are, overwhelmingly, not the point.  We’re just threading the needle:  Jeff Immelt, Chairman of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, in no way held a position equivalent to or analogous to that of Chief Economic Advisor.  He constructed no policy and never held any Senate confirmed position in Obama’s Administration.

Let’s pause.  At this point, you might be wondering if we are really going to examine a few seconds of television this deeply?  Yes, we are.  Just this once, let’s follow all the details all the way to the end and see what happens.

So who was Obama’s Chief Economic Advisor?  That term is, sometimes, used to refer to the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, a seat held by Jason Furman (who isn’t the CEO of anything . . . he’s just a career economist).  More often the title is used to refer to the Director of the National Economic Council.  During Obama’s administration this position was held by Larry Summers (another career economist), then Gene Sperling (a lawyer turned career economist), then Jeff Zients (the odd man out, who did come from the corporate sector) .  You could certainly make the case that Sperling had a conflict of interest in his personal loans from Robert Shapiro.  You might also be able to make another conflict of interest case about Zients’ ownership of Portfolio Logic LLC.  But, none of these people are sitting CEOs of a company like GE.  None of them occupy that kind of space in the country’s economy.

Now that you’ve been pummeled with more detail than you ever wanted to know, I hope we can agree that Immelt was not Obama’s Chief Economic Advisor, and that the person who occupied that seat was nothing like or ‘as bad as’ Immelt in terms of wealth and corporate power.  If so, we can also agree that what you’ve just watched can only be categorized as misinformation at best, and a lie at worst.

So why did Bernie Sanders, Chris Hayes, an assortment of Salts of the Earth, and MSNBC conspire to lie to you?

They didn’t.  At least, they didn’t mean to.  They’re only reacting in the way everyone has learned to react to most information.  Let’s dissect:

I doubt that many in attendance actually knew where Immelt sat in terms of ability to shape real economic policy (save for, possibly, Bernie or Hayes), it’s not something people tend to keep at the forefront of their minds.  Yet, when the audience member made the accusation it caused a room full of left leaning voters to burst into applause.  It must have, at least, seemed true enough not to question and it must have given us something we wanted.

Why did it seem true enough not to question?  Because it demonstrated equivalence.  ‘Everybody knows’ that the left is as bad as the right.  Arguments made to that effect, therefore, are probably true.

What did it give us that we wanted? Superiority, and a little relief.  If the CEO of GE was making economic policy under Obama’s administration, it lets us point out hypocrisy, and pointing out hypocrisy feels great!  The conflict isn’t only over, it was never really there in the first place!  Instead of a difficult decision about which politics to support and how to support them, now we get to be an adjudicator presiding over all of it.   Those in conflict are only in conflict because they are not as wise as we.  No need to decide who to support or who to criticize, and no reason to get involved in the fight.  We’re out of conflict, and off the hook. Phew!

The result? Everyone in that audience, and everyone watching the clip, came away from the exchange thinking that GE’s sitting CEO was Obama’s Chief Economic Advisor.  Our internal narrative about equivalency was reinforced, even though the facts don’t support it.

Why did the commenter think Immelt was Chief Economic Advisor?  Why didn’t Sanders or Hayes (or anyone else) make any corrections?  Because the narrative works just as well on them as it does on us.  It feels good to say and feels good to hear, so it spreads. No conspiracy required.

The clip and commentary above are a tiny part of the political landscape.  It shouldn’t, by itself, prove much of anything to you.  But, how isolated is this incident?  How often does misinformation travel through this particular door?   Well, you won’t know until you post a guard.