[Also published at Huffington Post.]
Recently a Facebook friend shared this outrage-inducing headline: BREAKING: Massive Illegal Immigrant Welfare Fraud Discovered.
My first reaction was, “Obviously fake news.” The source was something called WorldNewsPolitics.com, a website with no masthead, no physical address, and a name that doesn’t quite make sense.
But I took the trouble to check the story out, and I discovered that in fact it was more insidious than fake news: it’s an extremely misleading report of something that actually happened.
It’s a scam, built on just the barest amount of accuracy needed to survive a quick click-through. The goal is to fool the unwary into believing “This is truth the mainstream media is trying to keep from me.”
Here’s how it works, step by step.
- If you go to the “Immigrant Welfare Fraud” story, you’ll find it begins with this:
The Washington Free Beacon is reporting a breaking story that will have every American taxpayer furious. The Social Security Administration conducted a routine audit and discovered it paid $1 billion in benefits to individuals who did not have a Social Security Number (SSN).
Sounds outrageous, right? Why haven’t you heard of this in the mainstream media — are they trying to hide it? If you do a web search, what do you know? You get pages and pages of results — but only on right-wing sites.
Here’s an excerpt from what I found on Google:
Proof! Only the right-wing media tells you the truth, while the lying MSM covers it up!
- As you can see from the WordNewsPolitics story’s first few words, it’s actually a rewrite of an item from the Washington Free Beacon, a slightly more respectable publication — for example, you can find out who the Beacon’s editors and writers are. If you go to the Beacon’s story, you’ll discover that it’s a little less inflammatory, though still dramatic:
Based on the Beacon’s headline, we don’t know, despite what WorldNewsPolitics asserts, that these individuals were illegal immigrants, and we don’t know they committed welfare fraud. We’re only told that the federal government paid social security benefits to some people who didn’t have social security numbers. And in fact if we read the story, we find that we don’t even know that. All we know is that the numbers weren’t on file.
- From the Beacon story, we can click a link to the original source of the information: the Social Security Administration itself, which recently released an audit of its own practices. That audit found that not $1 billion but about $853 million (which the Beacon rounds up to $1 billion) was paid out to people “who do not have a social security number in the Social Security Administration’s payment records.” And it was paid out not all at once but over a period of 12 years, between 2004 and 2016.
- Still, $853 million sounds like a lot of money. But how much is it in context?
Well, I did the math, using figures from ssa.gov for the years in question (see below*). Hundreds of billions of dollars in social security benefits are paid out every year. If $853 million of them may have been misdirected — and that is not clear, since all we know is that the SSNs weren’t on file — it would amount to an error rate of less than 1/100 of one percent.
Of course it would be better to have no errors at all. But given how unlikely it is that any massive system will ever have an error rate of zero, 1/100 of one percent doesn’t seem quite so bad.
5. Now let’s ask ourselves how we know about all this. Is it the result of hard-hitting investigative work by the right-wing media?
No, we know because the government audited itself and transparently reported the results. This is what we want to see the government doing — searching for waste and trying to eliminate it.
We’re a long way from “Massive Illegal Immigrant Welfare Fraud,” aren’t we?
6. But wait, there’s more. Misleading stories like this one appear daily, and spread almost instantaneously, with very similar versions showing up all over the right wing media.
That’s no accident. There’s a system in place for making it happen, like sending marching orders to a waiting army.
To see how that works, let’s look in detail at the link to the Washington Free Beacon story that we found in the WorldNewsPolitics story:
In particular, notice the part of the url beginning with this:
This is what’s known as a campaign tag. It and other tags that follow it tell us that the source of this link was an email campaign from “Freedom Mail.” I’m guessing that refers to this conservative email list, identified in 2010 by Ben Smith of Politico:
…a secret (which strikes me as misguided, but harmless) list of center-right foreign policy writers and thinkers called Freedom Mail.
Whether or not this actually is the same Freedom Mail as the one behind the “illegal immigrant welfare fraud” campaign, the mechanism is the same across multiple interest groups and their email lists. Operatives comb the news each day for stories they can exaggerate, distort, and blast out to eager media outlets who are more interested in ideology than truth.
The supposed immigrant crime wave in Sweden? Congressional town hall protesters supposedly being paid?
Products of the same system.
It’s the system that gives right-wing media consumers much of their “news” every day. It explains why their angry social media posts and forum comments tend to contain the same talking points, and why those comments are so badly misinformed.
This is not to say there’s no one on the left pushing stories, many of which are also biased, though all such activity on the left is dwarfed by what’s happening on the right.
But legitimate journalists won’t report anything just because it shows up in an email from an advocacy group. The mainstream media checks facts — that’s what “mainstream” means.
The trouble is there’s a whole industry of right-wing media outlets, ranging from biased to outright fake, who are quite happy to give the fact-checking a pass.
And now you know why right-wingers keep seeing stories in right-wing media that they don’t find in the mainstream media.
It isn’t because the MSM is trying hide the truth.
It’s because those stories are crap.
And the people who believe them? They’re being played for suckers.
* Using figures from the Social Security Administration’s annual Fast Facts reports:
Total payments, 2004 – 2016: $9,100,155,400,000
Possibly misdirected payments: $853,000,000
Possibly misdirected payments, percentage: .0094%