Deconstructing Fake News in Real Time (Update)

I’m going to show you how fake news develops in real time. This is an ongoing story, and one that will most likely make leaps and bounds into the mainstream press. It starts with an innocuous (though unnecessary) piece of legislation, adds some ginned up outrage from an advocacy site, and will most likely garner national attention by the end of this week.

Let’s start with the initial piece of legislation.

  1. Unnecessary legislation comes to Nashville

Laws require definitions. Tennessee Code Annotated 1–1–305 is a statute that defines certain words running throughout the rest of the Tennessee Code. HB 1111, which you can read here, wants to add another subsection to the existing statute. If passed, the bill would explicitly state all words not defined in the statute are defined by their “natural and ordinary meaning.”

As used in this code, undefined words shall be given their natural and ordinary meaning, without forced or subtle construction that would limit or extend the meaning of the language, except when a contrary intention is clearly manifest.

Sounds simple, right? After all, words mean things, and without knowing what a particular word means, you can’t clearly articulate the law enough for a person outside the legal profession to understand it.

It’s an unnecessary law, though. One doesn’t need a law telling you a word means what it says in the dictionary. But legislators have jobs, and making laws is part of the job description. Here, the authors and sponsors of the bill are doing their job by creating a law that says “words mean what they say in the dictionary.”

HB 1111 currently stands ready for the signature of the House Speaker as of April 27, 2017.

2. Cue the ginned up outrage machine

One easy way to generate fake news is to find a narrative and push it to the limits of outrage culture. We live in a time when outrage is currency, and if you can get someone mad enough about an issue their outrage will spread like a virus.

Enter “The New Civil Rights Movement,” a website devoted to “breaking LGBTQ news.” They found the bill and published a story on April 28 called “Tennessee Passes Natural And Ordinary Meaning Bill Which Will Strip Rights From Same Sex Couples, Women.”

The title alone is enough to send fears down a person’s spine. After all, only hateful bigots would want to deprive women and same sex couples of their rights. And if you look at the title alone on your Facebook feed or Twitter timeline, you’d think the Volunteer State was on the precipice of doing just that.

If you take a closer look at the story, you’ll see something different. Take a look at the slug line or subheading of the story.

‘LGBT Erasure’ Bill Can Deprive Same-Sex Couples Of Rights In Adoption, Birth Certificate Issues

Ouch. That’s some persuasive language in action from the start. Calling HB 1111 the “LGBT Erasure Bill” makes it seem as if the bill’s authors and sponsors want to send LGBTQ citizens to “re-education” camps. Adoptions and birth certificates are also important, and no one wants to deprive same sex couples any rights in those areas.

But notice the shift in language. We’ve gone from “Will Strip Rights” in the title to “Can Deprive.” Those are two different words with different meanings. The former is certain, the latter a possibility. Finally, women are now out of the picture once you reach the slug line.

Let’s move on to the story itself.

3. Provide outrage scenarios to advocate your narrative.

The New Civil Rights Movement first introduces HB 1111 as something that “might sound reasonable, but it’s not.” They prove their case by means of “what if” scenarios that are designed to provoke outrage in people. Here’s an example.

For example, a same-sex couple could be refused the right to have both parents’ names on a birth or adoption certificate, if the law or form specifies “husband and wife,” or “mother and father.” (emphasis added)

Notice the bolded words. The article’s author is hoping to fan the flames of your passion in support of his advocacy by giving you a scenario that hasn’t happened yet. It’s an attempt to stoke fear where none is necessary.

Let’s try one more, outside the realm of LGBTQ issues.

It could also have consequences beyond the LGBTQ community. For example, it would impact state constitutional protections for women by prohibiting state courts from reading the term “man” to also include “woman.” The Tennessee law requiring no “man’s” services or property be taken without consent or compensation could suddenly be interpreted to exclude the same protections for women. (emphasis added)

Ouch. Now we’re depriving heterosexual women of their rights as well if this bill is passed! But take a look at the bolded language again. Once more, the article’s author is asking the reader to imagine a scenario that hasn’t happened yet. They want you to be afraid so you jam legislator’s phones voicing your staunch opposition of the bill.

4. Appeal to authority and find a boogeyman.

If you want to seem credible, find a source that sounds credible. If you want to get people really mad, find a boogeyman so the outrage mobs will have a place to direct their Two Minutes of Hate. Luckily, the author of this article found both.

NBC News quotes the Tennessee AG, Herbert Slatery, (sic) who wrote of the legislation: “Statutes that are related to marriage or to the terms, conditions, benefits, or obligations of marriage could, in some instances, be in conflict with the holding in Obergefell if gender-specific words in those statutes were construed according to the proposed legislation.”

Okay, so the Attorney General of Tennessee has spoken on the bill, and he thinks it could place some of the state’s statutes in contrast with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark case granting marriage equality! That’s rough! And NBC News quotes AG Slattery’s opinion on the bill, so it’s got to be true, right? After all, isn’t NBC News a credible source?

Dig a little deeper into the opinion, and you’ll find that Slattery said something a little different than what’s reported at TNCRM.

We note, however, that if the proposed legislation were to become law, it may not necessarily result in a judicial construction of statutes that preserves the literal meaning of gender-specific words. The Tennessee Legislature has already expressed its intent that gender-specific words are to be construed as gender-inclusive when they appear in the Tennessee Code. (emphasis added)

So on an additional read of the Attorney General’s opinion, his specific analysis is the proposed bill might conflict with the holding in Obergefell, but it might not because the Legislature has already said to construe words as “gender-inclusive” in the Tennessee Code. Okay. Not a good look for TNCRM, but let’s try the BOOGEYMAN!

Our Boogeyman, for the purposes of this analysis, is Sen. Richard Briggs, who apparently doesn’t understand the simplicity of relationships between men and women. Oh that nasty, hateful bigot! Let’s take a look at the quote pulled from his testimony in support of HB 1111.

“We may not like some of the things we see, and we may not like the way that things are being defined these days but I think at some point we are going to have to go back and write a whole new section of law that’s dealing with these complex issues,” Senator Briggs said, “when you have same-sex couples and try to define better what are — what do parental rights mean when you have maybe a natural mother and a not natural other parent. And the same and be said, for fathers.”

Now if one were to read TNCRM’s article and take Senator Briggs’ comment in their context, it would equate to a full blown intent to discriminate against same sex couples and women. However, the author of the post fails to mention Tennessee’s already had issues with “complex law” that hasn’t quite caught up yet with the times.

Specifically, the Volunteer State’s had to deal with a divorce case involving same sex couples and custody rights. The trial judge gritted his teeth and issued a narrow ruling to send the matter before the Tennessee Court of Appeals, because the law hadn’t caught up yet to the times.

There are many complex issues involving same sex couples, and Tennessee has acknowledged that.

When Obergefell became the law of the land it caused a ton of issues in family law circles. People didn’t put their names on kids’ birth certificates because they didn’t think they needed to. In one case, that led to a divorce where a woman was declared a stepmother and was denied custodial rights based on the statute. That’s “complex” because the law in question hasn’t been changed since the 1970s.

Yet it’s not enough for TNCRM to even bother to look at the laws and the varied, multilayered issues surrounding family law. Better to point and shriek outrage at the subject matter of the post.

5. Blast the issue to social media.

We live in a world where most people can’t pay attention to something for more than a few seconds. A large factor in this is social media. If you see someone comment on an article like TNCRM’s, and they condemn HB 1111 on your Facebook feed, you’re more likely to nod your head and say “Vote Briggs Out!” If you’re sufficiently outraged, you might share the post.

And there’s a good chance you might never read the original article or dig deeper.

TNCRM is guilty of producing #FakeNews in an attempt to spread their own personal agenda. How does one fight back against outlets that would rather play advocate than provide real news and honest journalism?

  1. Question everything you read.
  2. Click past the links and think for yourself.
  3. Ask if the piece is reporting facts or playing to outrage.
  4. Think critically about the subject in question.
  5. Check reporting on the sources that don’t fit your confirmation bias.

In an age where everyone has an agenda and “journalists” are paid bloggers to advance a narrative, it’s more important than ever for you to think critically about an issue instead of nodding your head at imagined “bigotry” or “hatred” and move on.

Update: After several accusations of being a bigot because I dared question TNCRM, people now point to the following article from the News-Sentinel as proof that I was incorrect in labeling the above mentioned story #FakeNews. Unfortunately the haters couldn’t be bothered to read through everything and actually think, as I stressed would be important in analyzing stories like this.

Let’s recap.

I said the legislation was unnecessary: Correct.

I said this would cue the ginned up outrage machine: Correct, and proven right many times from outlets like TNCRM and The Advocate.

I said outrage scenarios would be the order of the day: Correct again. That the Witt case was mentioned in the News-Sentinel’s article allows for my detractors to get their confirmation bias fix in.

Confirmation bias is a powerfully addictive drug for our brains. We want our worldview to be correct, so we actively look for scenarios where our views are confirmed. To my detractors, evidence from the News Sentinel that legislators tried to intervene in the Witt case is proof that the “Natural and Ordinary Meaning” law had “malevolent intent” behind it.

Unfortunately for them, I was right in yet another respect:

I said their appeals to authority weren’t good enough: In making his ruling on the Witt case, Judge McMillan relied on the office of the Attorney General for guidance since Erica Witt’s attorney, Virginia Schwamm, essentially would change family law as it’s been defined in Tennessee for decades. The office of the Attorney General responded as I predicted they would.

Sara Sedgwick, senior counsel for the health care division of the office, urged McMillan in a brief to view the words “wife” and “husband” in a “gender-neutral” fashion. To do otherwise, she wrote, would be to violate constitutional law, particularly in light of the same-sex marriage decision.

Once again, I’m right.

I said this law would get national attention by the end of the week.

Original date of this post was May 1. Four days later I’m proven correct yet again.

Advocacy journalism is still #FakeNews regardless of where you spread it and how. Nothing takes away the fact that I spotted this for what it was, said that it was much ado about nothing, albeit unnecessary legislation, and nailed a prediction that it would get national traction by week’s end.

Sip on your Haterade. I win.

Chris Seaton is a criminal defense and family law attorney, and host of “The Sit Down with Chris Seaton.” He is a trained hypnotist and theatrical pickpocket who regularly studies persuasion and NLP.