The Washington Post Magazine has a long feature article by former U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman on his painful experience navigating a pair of misinformation campaigns against him while he served at the American embassy in Brussels. Gutman’s story is a reminder of how quickly false allegations can spread in the hyperconnected 21st century, and how devastating they can be for people on the receiving end.
First, Gutman was fiercely denounced by Republican politicians and U.S. media outlets when a doctored version of his remarks on anti-Semitism began circulating in the blogosphere:
A freelance journalist reported that I had blamed Israel (rather than the increase in hostilities) for the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. Going one step further, a newspaper put quotation marks around the paraphrase.
Truth often loses its way in Washington and never more quickly than during a presidential campaign. As the embassy was receiving first wind of the misquote, then-candidate Newt Gingrich tweeted that I was wrong about anti-Semitism and needed to be fired immediately. The rest of the Republican field — Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman — joined the chorus of critics. Within hours, the story that I was an anti-Semite spread on the Web, onto cable news and across the conservative weeklies, making cameo appearances in mainstream newspapers, and even a front-page splash in North Dakota. A Jewish Republican group soon took out a full-page ad in the New York Times attacking Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and calling for my firing. The message traveled to newspapers in China, India and Thailand and continued to reverberate among bloggers throughout the world.
Gutman gradually recovered from that incident, but shortly before he was scheduled to return to the United States, he was confronted with yet another viral falsehood that he could not control:
A former member of the State Department’s inspector general office claimed that Clinton had covered up eight cases of alleged wrongdoing, including one ambassador who had “solicited” prostitutes in a park. A New York tabloid named me as the ambassador, creating a near-deafening roar in Belgium, across the Internet and throughout my world.
The leading Belgian newspaper filled the front four pages with coverage (though many of the stories were helpful, including one explaining that there had been no reports of any illegal activity in the park in the four years I had lived in Belgium and another quoting Belgian security officers explaining that they had often watched me without my knowledge, even when I did not have security, and that I had never engaged in any questionable activity). As the days passed, the stories online morphed as if part of an Internet game of telephone, growing uglier and more disgusting.
Gutman’s unfortunate saga should serve as a cautionary tale to journalists and readers alike to get the facts right. As the saying (often falsely—and ironically—attributed to Mark Twain) goes, “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” That is all the more true in the modern world of clickbait and online outrage shaming. All stories should be approached with a healthy dose of skepticism—especially when they have managed to gin internet mobs calling for someone to be fired.
But there is a second reason why we should be especially wary of media allegations in the modern age: Russia’s propaganda apparatus is doubling down on smear campaigns against U.S. officials and others who criticize Russia. It is becoming more important that both government and media in the U.S. (1) to check allegations before going public with them and (2) give lots of attention and publicity to vindications of those falsely accused. The media environment is toxic enough on its own, but there are bad actors out there practicing dark arts.
Read Gutman’s full essay to get a sense of how false accusations can distort politics and ruin careers.