I am going to show you a screenshot of a real website run by Elizabeth Warren’s real almost-campaign for the presidency. (She’s due to announce on February 9.) Ready?
Did you think that Elizabeth Warren took Risperdal? I didn’t. I doubt you did. But now we know: NO, ELIZABETH DOES NOT TAKE RISPERDAL.
What about this?
... OK? Thank you?
The purpose of Elizabeth Warren’s Fact Squad site, which the Internet Archive says has existed since the day she announced her exploratory committee, now seems to be to debunk right-wing fever swamp bullshit about Warren. But a previous iteration seems to have focused on responding to claims about her Native American heritage: The Washington Post wrote in October, after she released the results of her DNA test, that her Senate campaign committee had shared “a link to a new ‘fact squad’ website that seeks to debunk her critics.”
Now the site is taking on other topics—like the bogus claim that she takes Risperdal, a drug used to treat mood disorders like schizophrenia, which the site points out Politifact rated “false” last month. Because as we know, the sort of person who thinks Liz Warren has schizophrenia is also definitely going to be the sort of person whose mind will be put at ease by Politifact.
The site is unfortunately reminiscent of the short-lived fact-checking site Verrit, which was launched by a former Hillary Clinton aide to battle the scourge of “fake news.” Verrit’s selling point was its inscrutable and nonsensical system of assigning a “Verrit code” to each checked fact on the site, to prevent scoundrels from creating fake Verrits and trading on the good and respected Verrit brand to pass off false statements as fact.
Fact Squad is not as bad as Verrit, nor as deeply confusing. Its system of categories is a little overwrought, but not as downright mental.
But it falls prey to the same trap as Verrit, and is a product of the same warped consultant class mindset: the idea that every single thing some nutter on the internet is saying about your candidate must not only be refuted, but refuted seriously and officially on a glossy website. The site contains the sort of talking points, and rebuttals to opponents’ talking points, that campaigns have always distributed—lists of bills she’s passed, for example. That’s normal, and fine, and no one cares either way.
But it is an odd call to put that sort of thing alongside a bizarre right-wing conspiracy theory that Liz Warren has a racist statue in her kitchen. Isn’t it? Am I going insane? Has 2019 just moved way ahead of where I am, and now I’m supposed to nod solemnly when a leading candidate for president has a website that shouts NO I DO NOT TAKE RISPERDAL OR HAVE A RACIST STATUE at me, and thank her for tackling fake news?
We don’t have a lot of good answers about how to combat fake news without spreading it. We do know that the Streisand Effect—trying to debunk or suppress information and, in doing so, only spreading it further—is a real thing, and that self-styled objective Fact Checkers often get stuff wrong too.
Democrats are rightly frustrated with the state of the Republican Party, its loose connection to reality, and its willingness to encourage its supporters to just go hog wild on whatever nutty conspiracies they want to believe if it means they’ll vote for them. But I’m afraid the answer to that isn’t as simple as paying a bunch of unfortunate campaign staffers to update an encyclopedia of the most insane shit out there—just as taking a DNA test to prove her Native heritage wasn’t the answer to Donald Trump’s racist smears, either.