People are talking today about a segment on Tucker Carlson’s show last night in which Carlson focused on a recent report from Skeptic Magazine’s Skeptic Research Center. Given the protests over the shooting of Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake, to name two recent examples, what do people actually know about police shootings? The Skeptic report is just a brief look at the following question: “How knowledgeable are people when it comes to the available data on fatal police shootings of Black Americans?” Here’s a description of how the data was gathered:
Data is being collected in September and October 2020 via Qualtrics Survey Software and Qualtrics’ sample recruitment services. 1500 adults will fill out a 15-minute survey. The study sample is nationally representative, meaning that the proportion of participants will reflect the U.S. adult population in terms of educational attainment, gender, and household income. We also over-sampled ethnic minorities to ensure that their attitudes, experiences, and perceptions can be assessed adequately.
And here are the results which were highlighted on Carlson’s show last night. The question posed was “How many unarmed Black men were killed by police in 2019?” As you can see, a majority of “very liberal” respondents believed the number was 1,000 or more, with nearly 22% saying 10,000 or more.
There are no perfect data sets from which to draw the actual numbers but the best ones available suggest the number of unarmed Black men killed by police in 2019 was between 13 and 25. Those are probably undercounts but you get the point. Based on this survey, many people, especially those on the left, have a vastly inflated idea of the number of unarmed black men being killed by police.
Carlson’s point last night was that this matters because people trying to decide whether or not “defund the police” is a good idea may not have a firm grip on the facts. Here’s what Carlson said:
Public policy can change dramatically on the basis of things people think they know but don’t actually know, and we have seen that, a lot. Entire police departments got defunded. So it’s worth finding out where the public is getting all this false information — this ‘disinformation,’ as we’ll call it.
So we checked. We spent all day trying to locate the famous QAnon, which in the end we learned is not even a website. If it’s out there, we could not find it. Then we checked Marjorie Taylor Greene’s Twitter feed because we have heard she traffics in misinformation, CNN told us. But nothing there. Next we called our many friends in the tightknit ‘intel community.’ Could Vladimir Putin be putting this stuff out there? The Proud Boys? Alex Jones? Who is lying to America in ways that are certain to make us hate each other and certain to destroy our core institutions?
Well, none of the above, actually. It wasn’t Marjorie Taylor Greene. It was cable news. It was politicians talking on TV. They’re the ones spreading disinformation to Americans. Maybe they’re from QAnon.
You could quibble a bit with the claim that “entire police departments got defunded.” It’s true that several departments (Seattle, New York City, etc.) had millions cut from their budgets in response to the defund the police efforts. But some cities, including Minneapolis, actually backtracked on defunding. Thus far no departments have been completely defunded.
In any case, Carlson has a point that people’s lack of accurate information about these issues may play a role in the partial defunding that has happened and in people’s willingness to tolerate it.
And here’s where we get to an interesting admission from Philip Bump at the Washington Post. In a piece criticizing Tucker Carlson’s comments Bump argues that the Russians did in fact traffic in a disinformation effort “specifically focused on trying to make Americans hate each other.” Here’s Bump:
It’s an impressive feat as a cable-news host to make a lengthy joke about how cable news is a key source of disinformation and to apparently unwittingly splice into that joke at least two bits of your own disinformation. For example, Carlson asks who is “lying to America in ways that are certain to make us hate each other” shortly after “joking” that maybe Russian President Vladimir Putin is behind disinformation. Of course, Russia was demonstrably behind a years-long effort specifically focused on trying to make Americans hate each other, an effort manifested in social media posts meant to exacerbate existing societal tensions. Russia did almost exactly what Carlson is trying to laugh off as ludicrous.
I think that’s what you call an admission against interest. Why? Because if you look at what Russia actually did during this online campaign to make Americans hate each other, some of it was intended to literally be indistinguishable from Black Lives Matter material online. Here’s one of the Russian ads:
The Russian efforts weren’t limited to faux BLM ads, but those appear to have been the most successful. As the NY Times reported in 2018, a page called “Black Elevation” created and coordinated several actual protests in the U.S. prior to the 2016 election:
The group promoted events and coordinated activities in several cities. It messaged activists and asked them to spread the word. It posted videos and photographs that encouraged people to show up at protest rallies. It even advertised a job opening.
And it was all a lie. Black Elevation was actually part of an orchestrated political influence campaign, aimed at sowing divisions among Americans ahead of the midterm elections in November, according to Facebook…
The Black Elevation page was identical to other activist pages, down to the videos calling on the public to oppose racism, they said.
A researcher from Columbia University told the Times, “They were mimicking the language of activist pages and in some cases just copying them to attract followers.” The most successful of these efforts by far was an anti-Trump rally organized by BlackMattersUS, another Russian front:
BlackMattersUS, a social media campaign believed to be Russians meddling in US politics, promoted a large anti-Trump march in New York City in the days after the election.
The archived events page shows the event was shared with 61,000 people, 33,000 were interested in the event and 16,000 people marked themselves as going. “Divided is the reason we just fell. We must unite despite our differences to stop HATE from ruling the land,” a description of the event page reads.
So Bump is correct to say that the Russians really did have a disinformation campaign running, one designed to “make Americans hate each other.” And that effort really was successful in generating some protest activity in a few instances. What he left out was the part about how they did it. They did it by creating content that was indistinguishable from real Black Lives Matter content. As Rep. Adam Schiff put it in 2018, “they parroted Black Lives Matter to try to broaden the racial divide in this country.”
So, fine, if you want to dock Tucker Carlson a point or two for downplaying Russia’s efforts, I’m fine with that. But it’s pretty significant that Russia’s most successful efforts were just a carbon copy of BLM talking points. Russia tried to make Americans hate each other by sounding just like BLM. That says something about Russia but it also says something about BLM and the messages they have been promoting.
And that brings us back to Carlson’s main point, which I think still stands. If people had a better handle on the facts surrounding this topic, such as the number of unarmed black men actually killed by police, it would probably change the public discussion quite a bit. The fact that many in the public have mistaken impressions seems to fall at the feet of the media.
This has been true for a long time. We learned after the shooting of Mike Brown that it makes a huge difference when disinformation (“Hands up, don’t shoot“) gets circulated in advance of facts. And yet the media keeps making the same mistake over and over. They made it again recently when reporting that Jacob Blake was “unarmed” when he was shot. In fact, he later admitted he had a knife in his hand.
I could make a list of a dozen other examples where the media got it wrong on this issue going all the way back to the death of Trayvon Martin. The falsehoods arrive in blaring headlines and the corrections are walked back quietly. And that’s one reason you had so many people rioting last summer and so many ready to defund the police since then.