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Lies, Damn Lies, and Two Million on the Mall

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, September 15 2009

For whatever reason, this random bit of recently-aquired political trivia keeps coming to mind today: when Romanian dictator and all-around murderous bully Nicolae Ceausescu got tired of attending rallies and other political events, he'd simply have his photo clumsily slapped onto a picture of the event and pass it out to the newspapers, who would dutifully reprint the thing as sacred truth. But they didn't have Photoshop back then, and the mock-ups were so clumsily done that nobody inside or outside Romania actually fell for Ceausescu's fraud. Sometimes it's difficult to figure out what has happened at political events. And we've been fighting about how crowd estimates probably since people were retelling the story of how Caesar got killed the day after it went down. That said, there are those times where the only sensible response is to scratch your head and say to yourself, "Now, something about that that doesn't look quite right."

Alas, that scratching of the ol' head didn't happen all that much this weekend, as misinformation spread like wildfire about the crowd gathered for the 9/12 Taxpayer Rally took place down on the National Mall. In the mess, tweets were treated as sacred truth. That's bad for all of us who still believe that there sometimes exists objective fact. And it is also, arguably, bad for conservatives who hoped to use this weekend's rally as a demonstration of the momentum of their burgeoning movement.

That there is anger about the policies, politics, personalities, and power of Barack Obama and Democratic Congress is a given. But getting a handle on how widespread that disapproving sentiment is, and where it is coming from, is a much tougher question to make sense of -- and may well be the defining political question of this fall as the health care debate heats back up in Congress and the impact of the trillions of dollars in government spending of the last several months becomes clearer. So it was of little surprise that how many people were filling the National Mall and surrounding streets became a hot political question. There were a lot of people there, no doubt. In fact, the D.C. Fire Department put out an estimate of 60,000 to 70,000, which is nothing for organizers to be embarrassed about. But two million is a tremendous number of people, and a figure like that should make you stop and pause before passing it around. The notion, though, spread unchecked through conservative blogs like Jawa Report and Riehl World View and Pajamas Media's Roger Simon, as well as Twitter, that the crowd assembled in Washington had indeed swelled to two million people -- an estimate that, as Five Thirty Eight's Nate Silver points off, was only off from the city estimate of the crowd by a factor of about 30.

To borrow an instant classic from the New York Times Bob Mackey in the context of the swirling of information around post-elections Iran, "Re-tweeting is a kind of reporting." And the "reporting" when it came to estimated the crowds at the 9/12 rally was distincting, well, miserable. Really, really bad. Media Matter's Eric Boehlert tracks the anatomy of how the two million rumor spread, with conservative blogger Michelle Malkin playing a staring role. Malkin added the enormous amplification of her considerable pulpit by posting that juicy two million nugget first posted by a tweeter by the name of Tabitha Hale, proprietor, it seems, of the Pink Elephant Pundit.com blog. Malkin added the commentary "Teeny, tiny fringe, huh?" (Malkin has since updated her report with a correction.)

Hale, it seems, picked up and pumped up a bit a number from the President of FreedomWorks, one of the organizers of the event. FreedomWork's Matt Kibbe had gone on the stage at the rally to report to the crowd that ABC News was talking about a crowd size of one million to 1.5 million people. Nuh-uh, said ABC News. The news organization took the unusual step of offering the meta-commentary that it hadn't in the least reported a number that huge. For his part, Kibee explained away his role in the dissemination of bad information by saying that, "with a dead iPhone," he had picked up the bad number from "tweets from a number of different folks behind the stage citing the ABC estimate."

At some point, of course, you can go down the rabbit hole of where these "different folks" cited by Kibbe got their information, if not from his falsely reporting to the assembled crowd the ABC estimate. But where the rumor got its start isn't as nearly as important as the way in which it spread, unchecked, like some really aggressive virus.

For more commentary, check out the Columbia Journalism Review's Megan Garber, who somewhat bombastically frames the mess as a testament to conservatives' loose grasp of facts. Oh, and that photo up top, the one passed all around conservative blogs as photographic proof of how big the crowd grew? The St. Petersburg Times' PolitiFact says it wasn't taken Saturday at all. It's from the 1997 Promise Keepers rally. Now that was a crowd.