Definition of factoid
1: an invented fact believed to be true because it appears in print
2: a briefly stated and usually trivial fact
Mailer was writing about Marilyn Monroe, perhaps the most iconic celebrity of all time who remains to this day at the center of the controversy over what sort of human beings were the Kennedy Brothers. Merriam Webster adds this bit of historical perspective to the term: “Mailer explains that factoids are “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper, creations which are not so much lies as a product to manipulate emotion in the Silent Majority.”
The subtle distinction between a “lie” and a “product” will send moralizers up the wall, but that difference is vital to understanding mass communications and power today in the Digital Era. A manufactured factoid is of course a lie, but it is far more than a lie and it has a much more ambitious purpose than a mere lie — which is simply an intentionally false assertion of “fact.” As Mailer grasped, and we see much more clearly now on the internet, manipulating emotion has almost nothing to do with facts or reality. It is infinitely more powerful than a simple lie, which can be countered. A factoid cannot be “disproved” if it seems true and if the assertion is trivial enough.
The most important aspect of both definitions of factoid is the triviality of the “fact” in question.
My first experience with internet factoid spinning came in 2004 with the controversy surrounding Dan Rather and a 60 Minutes report about George W. Bush’s military record. Instead of going to Vietnam, the son of the ex-director of the CIA served in the Texas Air National Guard. Rather alleged that Bush did not live up to his National Guard contract and was, in effect, AWOL for much of his time in service.
One aspect of the evidence was a memo allegedly written by his squadron commander, named Killian.
The “Killian documents” were initially claimed by CBS to have come from the “personal files” of the late Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, Bush’s squadron commander during Bush’s Air National Guard service. They describe preferential treatment during Bush’s service, including pressure on Killian to “sugar coat” an annual officer rating report for the then 1st Lt. Bush. CBS aired the story on September 8, 2004, amid more releases of Bush’s official records by the Department of Defense, including one just the day before as the result of a FOIA lawsuit by the Associated Press.
The Killian documents are widely considered to be fake. Starting with a Free Republic web posting by Harry MacDougald, a conservative Republican lawyer posting under the blogger name, “Buckhead.” MacDougald and multiple fellow bloggers claimed that the formatting shown in the documents used proportional fonts that did not come into common use until the mid-to-late 1990s and alleged that the documents were therefore likely forgeries.  While the widely publicized rationale of “Buckhead” was technically inaccurate, both related and unrelated serious challenges to the authenticity of the documents nonetheless exist. For instance, it is unlikely that the typewriters available to Killian’s secretary could have produced such a document, and the documents contained U.S. Army, rather than U.S. Air Force, jargon.
The forgery allegations subsequently came to the attention of the mainstream media, especially after experts also questioned the documents’ authenticity and lack of a chain of custody. The original documents have never been submitted for authentication. The man who delivered the copies, Lt. Col. Bill Burkett, a former officer in the Texas Army National Guard and outspoken Bush critic, claimed that he burned the originals. Burkett admitted lying to CBS and USA Today about where he had obtained the papers and eventually expressed doubts of his own about their authenticity.
Some Freeper calling himself Buckhead somehow wigged out that forensic factoid about electric typewriter fonts, and, as if by magic, every wingnut on the internet began a sustained campaign of invective against the fraudulent memo produced by Liberal Dan Rather on the Liberal CBS television network. The themes evoked by Rather and his opponents were very heavy. On one side of the dispute, this raised the question of rich sons from powerful families and how they avoided the draft. It also raised the issue of Shrub’s character — which had been celebrated after September 11 as greatness personified. On the other side, Bush supporters viewed the alleged forged document as proof of the fundamental dishonesty of Rather and “the media.”
What united both sides in this weird affair was a partisan resort to factoid spinning. Fierce arguments raged across message boards and comment threads all over the internet. What kind of fonts were available three decades earlier? Wingnuts blanketed the internet with documentation of the Font Question.
The fate of the Bush Presidency turned on this incredibly trivial detail. I argued at the time as did many other Rather defenders that there was plenty of other evidence to support the claim of special treatment for Dubya, but the onslaught of indignant wingnut whinging was relentless. Rather left CBS in a state of semi-disgrace and semi-heroism, all because of a font.
Fourteen years later, we see furious debates over factoids. They come from all points on the political compass and they are always disputed by the opposite political orientation. Invariably these arguments are snarky and insulting, filled with demands to “document” assertions — even as the topic at hand is often the unreliability of “documentation” as Rather found out the hard way.
The best example on this day at JPR can be found on the threads about Scotland Yard arresting two Russians for the attempted murder of the Skripals. For some inexplicable reason (at least to me), upon making two arrests in the Skripal attempted murder case, Scotland Yard published photographs of the suspects going through a London airport security gate. The pics had time stamps that showed the identical day, hour and minute.
Hmmmnnn? What does that prove? Nothing one way or the other. Just as the pics without the time stamps prove nothing one way or the other. But those time stamps are factoids that need to be “explained.”
One difference between the Rather case and the British poisoning case is that the party making the assertion was a TV network in 2004 while in 2018 it is the British government that is putting out the “evidence” in question. But from a structural point of view, that is yet another triviality. Rather than debate political or policy issues, we now debate factoids and what they show about the “credibility” of parties making assertions.
Another major factoid battle came with the Trayvon Martin Case in 2012. I was posting on another board at the time and the thread went to 2422 posts — a year long debate over every detail of the case, with both sides full of righteous indignation about how mendacious the other side was. This national “story” did not even have a direct impact on any election or any public policy debate. It either proved that Racism Rules or that Liberals are Dipshits, and neither side ever gave a millimeter.
It seems to me that factoids are such a popular internet topic of discussion because they absolve us all of debating the underlying issues with each other. Instead we can wax indignant about how “brainwashed” our opponents are, without ever having to make a coherent political argument.
I don’t care if this factoid spinning is pro or con, left or right, religious or atheistic, carnivore or vegitarian. I get the feeling of wanting to counter bogus factoids — I did it myself in the Rather Case. But it is yet another example of the incomprehensible shallowness of our political culture.
And, it is a sure tell of a troll. Anybody who posts mainly factoid spin is definitely a troll, probably paid by David Brock.mrdmk, Shlabotnik, relgire and 12 othersEnthusiast, Scott Crowder, bemildred, KenTanker0us, Koko, Iwalani88, ThomPaine, eridani, OCMI, Ohio Barbarian, nevereVereven, MistaP like this
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