Misinformation in Action: Fox News and the TSA “Muslim Exemption”

November 23, 2010, 4:04 pm | Posted by

Following up on my post yesterday about the effectiveness of false rumors about the Park 51 project, today comes news of another example of misinformation tactics in action.

Specifically, in the last week conservative pundits have stoked the false belief that Muslim women will be exempt from the TSA’s controversial new pat-down procedures. Like the Park 51 rumors, this myth has caught on because it preys on people’s fears about terrorism and confirms existing right-wing attacks of the Obama administration as favoring Muslims over “real Americans.”

As TPM notes, the tale stems from a travel advisory put out by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) advising Muslim women on their rights during security checks. The advisory includes a note that women who undergo additional screening because of their hijabs have the right to request that the extra procedure be limited to that specific area.

Whether unintentionally or not, conservatives have chosen to read this as a request for a full exemption from all security measures, and see the administration’s openness toward finding reasonable accommodations where possible as proof of a secret conspiracy.

This view seems to have first appeared on November 12th on CNSNews, a subsidiary of the Media Research Center, a media watchdog group that aims to counter “liberal bias” in the news.

From there the story circulated around right-wing forums and blogs, ultimately making its inevitable debut on Fox News’s The Sean Hannity Show on November 16th and the following day in a particularly unpleasant segment with Dennis Miller on The O’Reilly Factor.

To their credit, TSA officials are hard at work trying to debunk this myth, posting a fact-check on their blog and mentioning it in public appearances.

Here’s TSA director John Pistole on MSNBC’s Hardball last week setting the record straight.

SMERCONISH: All right. Here’s another one that I hear from radio callers, the Muslim garb exception. You may not even know what I’m talking about. But if someone approaches a TSA checkpoint and they’re wearing, by a way of example, a burqa, what’s the drill?

PISTOLE: Everybody goes through the same process. So whatever their ethnicity or religious beliefs which I’m sensitive to and appreciate, the bottom line is people are treated the same in terms of either going through the advanced image technology if that’s available or the walk-through metal detector. And if they alert, then they have to have that alert resolved, and the best way of doing that is through a thorough pat down.

SMERCONISH: No free rides, right, Mr. Pistole?

PISTOLE: That’s correct.

While it’s impossible to control what false rumors gain popularity on the Internet here’s hoping that respectable media outlets and elected leaders refuse to further legitimize or foster this misinformation.

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When the Facts Have No Effect

November 22, 2010, 11:51 am | Posted by

Two studies from Kelly Garret and Eric Nisbet at Ohio State University shed some light on the anti-Muslim fervor that broke out this summer surrounding the Park 51 project.

The first study surveyed participants’ exposure to false rumors about the Islamic center, and then measured their responsiveness to the truth. The results were fairly disappointing:

Overall, only 35 percent of the participants who previously encountered and believed the rumor held more accurate beliefs after reading a rebuttal, and even fewer – about 28 percent – were moved to reject the rumor.

Given that these anti-Muslim rumors are so difficult to dislodge once people have heard them, the best strategy may be to cut them off before they gain momentum. Garret and Nisbett’s second study helps identify how this misinformation gets to the public in the first place. Again, their findings are predictably disheartening:

People who said they relied heavily on Fox News, either online or on television, were more aware of the false rumors about the mosque and were more likely to believe these rumors compared to those with low reliance on Fox.

Reliance on conservative talk radio had a similar effect on users as did Fox News. Those with a heavy reliance on conservative talk radio heard on average two rumors, compared to 1.5 rumors for those with a low reliance – an increase of 33 percent.

These numbers support Justin Elliot’s comprehensive timeline of Park 51 media coverage, which documents how the political agenda of a small group of right-wing activists combined with the conservative echo chamber turned this uncontroversial local issue into a media firestorm.

As these studies reveal, the nationwide opposition to the Park 51 project was never a good indication of informed public opinion about the project. It was the product of a coordinated smear campaign by conservative activists and media to stir up fear to generate ratings and score political points.

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Religion as a Political Weapon

November 18, 2010, 3:53 pm | Posted by

Dan mentioned the new Public Religion Research Institute poll yesterday. One particular finding caught my eye:

There is a strong relationship between how Americans perceive Obama’s faith and their views toward him….among Americans who say Obama’s beliefs are very different from their own, nearly 8-in-10 say they have a very (51%) or mostly (27%) unfavorable view of him.

Although the poll doesn’t directly assign causation, my instinct is that Americans’ opinions of Obama’s beliefs don’t influence their opinion of him generally, but rather their political opinions of him drive their views of his beliefs.

From even the beginnings of the 2008 campaign, Obama’s opponents have been attempting to ‘otherize’ him, to paint him as fundamentally different from “real Americans.” His education, international upbringing, organizing background, race, “celebrity,” etc. have all been incorporated into attacks at some point. His faith just serves as another opportunity to sow confusion and mistrust. While focusing on elected official’s religions isn’t a new political tactic, this time it feels like a more extreme version. After all, right-wing media have embarked on a sustained campaign to convince their audience that the President is a Muslim, and two-thirds of Republicans and Tea Partiers think Islam is incompatible with American values.

Thinking recently, both Bush and Kerry’s opponents used their faiths to highlight their positions on social issues, with each side arguing the other was either too religious or not religious enough. But neither alleged that their opponent was actively lying about his faith altogether.

These types of attacks seem more akin to a much older style of politics, more like the anti-Catholicism President Kennedy faced or the anti-Semitism directed at Jewish leaders for most of our country’s history.

I’d be interested to know if there’s any good data from these earlier periods to see how influential religious attacks were and how it compares to today.

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Good News from Murfreesboro

November 18, 2010, 11:16 am | Posted by

A Tennessee judge has ruled in favor of the Muslim community whose planned mosque has provoked bigoted backlash. Opponents had filed for an emergency injunction against the construction under the false premise that the Muslim community had not followed the proper planning and approval process.

In reality, these extremists, funded by an outside anti-Islam group, were more interested in smearing Islam and casting doubt onto its legitimacy as a religion. Thankfully, the judge dismissed these claims:

In spite of the plaintiffs’ fiery accusations that Islam is not a religion but a violent political movement looking to supplant U.S.laws, [Judge] Corlew barely mentioned terrorism or public safety concerns, saying that the county’s planning commission isn’t the proper venue to vet such claims when approving a site plan.

This is welcome news for the Muslim community of Murfreesboro who have already been subject to arson this year. Hopefully this will help set a precedent for other jurisdictions battling these issue as it’s very likely these national groups will try this same strategy again at one of the 35 other locations where mosques are under attack.

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1.6 Million Killers

November 16, 2010, 1:26 pm | Posted by

Writing in the Christian Science Monitor last week, national security “expert” Joseph Bosco made the tired argument that moderate Muslims are failing to prevent terrorism.

Bosco starts by clarifying that he believes 99.9% of Muslims are peaceful allies, a standard rhetorical way of saying “all but an immeasurable minority.” But Bosco isn’t speaking rhetorically:

If only 1/10th of 1 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are terrorists, that is 1.6 million killers acting in Allah’s name.

Bosco isn’t citing some official estimate or research, and he’s not even guesstimating using a particular logical train. He’s taking a symbolic number (99.9%) usually used to defend groups from unfair attacks, and interpreting it literally to turn it into a wildly irresponsible smear.

To be clear, actual estimates of the number of terrorists hover in only the hundreds to low thousands mid tens to low hundreds of thousands. Being generous to Bosco and tagging it at 10,000 160,000 (.01%) puts him off by only 15,900%. 900%.

This fuzzy math doesn’t belong on the pages of a reputable publication.

UPDATE: The previous estimates this post linked to were for Al-Qaida membership specifically. Estimates of global terrorists are higher, but still significantly below Bosco’s guess.

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