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The Social Construction of Political Reality (on Social Media)


This morning I came across the “meme” reproduced above. It was on the Facebook wall of one of the few conservatives still on my friend list. I was totally perplexed. I had no idea what this was about. But someone on the thread posted a Snopes article on the subject – which commentators immediately rejected as left-wing propaganda – that more or less explains the matter.

On April 1, 2021, a video showing U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg unloading a bike from an SUV was shared on social media. Conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza published: “Buttigieg CAUGHT Faking Green Lifestyle, Rides Bike to Work After Car Drops Him Off Near Destination.” A headline on The Post Millennial read: “WATCH: ‘Environmentalist’ Buttigieg unloads bike from SUV before riding the short distance to his destination.”

A number of YouTube users including conservative commentator Charlie Kirk also shared the video in question.

The video

Snopes implies that the claim originated with Twitter user Tim Xeriland. While I didn’t look all that hard, some date-restricted searches suggest that he is either the origin point or very close to it.

You can watch the video for yourself, but without additional context – or perhaps some informed guesswork – it’s not clear at all what it shows other than the Secretary of Transportation riding away from the camera, his security detail following, after his bike is unloaded from one of its vehicles.

Does Xeriland have any information that we don’t have? Was he there? His account says that he’s based in Dallas, Texas. There’s no indication that he was in DC that day. Moreover, the video is lifted – without attribution, of course – from CNN correspondent DJ Judd, who captions it: “Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg biked to the White House for today’s Cabinet Meeting, it would appear.”

Video is powerful. I don’t know why. It seems like there are a lot of reasons why animals would evolve to assume that their senses convey accurate information. Humans, ceteris paribus, rely heavily on sight. So it seems reasonable that we would be disposed to believe what we (apparently) see with our own eyes.

Human beings are also vulnerable to motivated reasoning and in-group bias. Partisanship bootstraps on both of these tendencies. We are more likely to believe information – to extend trust – to someone we perceive as a member of the in-group, and we are disposed to want to think that ‘we are good’ and ‘they are bad.’

Taken together, I suspect, these mechanisms come together in what I call the “caption + ambiguous video” form of social-media political disinformation. The caption, especially but not exclusively when it accords with political biases, primes viewers to look for evidence of what they’re told the video shows. Once they think they’ve ‘seen it’ then ‘it’ becomes, for them, quite real.

Hence the video – which doesn’t show Buttigieg riding the last few yards to a White House meeting on a bike but doesn’t obviously not show him doing so – went viral pretty damn quickly. Prominent conservative liars, like Dinesh D’Souza and Kellyanne Conway, have promoted it.

Now, the whole story is implausible. DJ Judd doesn’t mention anyhing of the kind, even though he took the video. Another journalist provided brief footage of Buttigieg riding away from the White House. Conservative news organizations that at least vaguely care about their reputation are a bit cagey about the whole thing. The account account offered by Fox News’s news division, for example, never indicates that Buttigieg actually staged anything, and even notes – without comment – the fact that a SCOTUS Blog reporter provided a snippet of video that is inconsistent with the allegations.

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg was accused by conservative critics of attempting to stage a photo op on Thursday after a video showed security staffers unloading his bike from an SUV at the White House. …. A longer video posted by local news outlet WFMZ-TV provided additional footage of the security personnel unloading the bike. A third video uploaded by SCOTUS Blog staffer Katie Barlow showed Buttigieg biking out of the complex.

(If we’re going to get sucked into bike trutherism, I’ll just note that the visuals in the video are consistent with the idea that Buttigieg was departing the West Wing. The only street directly adjacent to the White House where cars park diagonally is West Executive Avenue. Because the street is one way, and also because of the angle of the cars, we know Buttigieg is heading south in the video. Given the corner created by the entrance to the Old Eisenhower Executive Office Building on his right, it sure looks like he’s heading away from the West Wing, not toward it. It also looks possible to figure out roughy where the video was shot from. But what do I know? Maybe I’m just seeing patterns that aren’t there.)

There are plenty of grounds to make fun of Buttigieg. He’s not doing much to reduce his carbon footprint by riding the bike rather than in the SUV which is following him anyway. But why stick to the facts when you can throw bullshit at the wall? Some it will occasionally turn out to be right.

Google Maps view of West Executive Ave, NW

I spent a lot of time in November and December looking at the various videos “proving” voter fraud, they generally fit the same pattern: they didn’t show much of anything – but with a caption added they became irrefutable evidence of nefarious activity. The moment that happened, group reinforcement set in with commentators essentially acting as the “crowd source” for additional reasons why the video definitely showed poll workers rigging the vote for Biden. Meanwhile, the video travels far. The claim travels even farther. A “new” fact settles in, creating priors for the next round of bullshit. The very few times the claim turns out be true, it validates all of the false ones. Rinse and repeat.

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