President Donald Trump lies. A lot. On topics big and small, consequential and petty, Trump can’t seem to help himself from saying things that are just flat-out disconnected from reality. The Washington Post’s running total as of December 10 is 15,413 false or misleading claims from the president since he took office. By the time you read this, that number will likely have inched higher. He will lie tomorrow just as he lies today, just as he lied yesterday.
While there isn’t much journalists and news outlets can do to make him tell the truth -- especially since he tends to grant his interviews to friendly outlets -- there’s something they can do to stop his lies from infecting the public consciousness. Namely, the press can stop printing lies free from context.
In May, Media Matters published a study highlighting how frequently major news outlets amplify Trump’s lies on Twitter. While we found that nearly every outlet we considered was guilty in some form or another, none pumped out the president’s false talking points with more regularity than The Hill. (A follow-up study we published this month again found The Hill to be the worst offender at amplifying Trump misinformation.)
The Hill’s coverage of Trump’s Ukraine scandal -- specifically, its tweets on the topic -- has helped the president spread false narratives for his own benefit.
Earlier this week, Trump conducted a rally in Michigan while the House of Representatives was voting to impeach the president over the Ukraine abuse of power scandal. In response, The Hill did what it always does: Promote the president's spin about the events without any context, pushback, or attempt to assess the validity of what he was saying.
As has been the case throughout his presidency, The Hill tends to take everything Trump and his allies say at face value, sharing their statements repeatedly without indicating whether they’re actually true. Promoting Trump's impeachment spin at this Michigan rally was nothing new for the outlet. Here’s just a small sample of recent misinformation about the Ukraine saga boosted by the Hill without context or clarification.
Ukraine did not interfere in the 2016 presidential election, Russia did hack the Democratic National Committee email server, Trump does know Ambassador Gordon Sondland, the whistleblower’s report has been corroborated, former House Speaker Paul Ryan did subpoena the Obama administration, and Trump is not facing a “coup.”
What’s particularly frustrating about The Hill’s tendency to regurgitate the administration’s talking points is that the paper does this even when it has previously debunked the claim in its own reporting. For instance, The Hill repeatedly tweeted out Sen. John Kennedy’s (R-LA) assertions that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election by hacking the DNC email server even though the paper had previously called the claim “debunked.”
In recent months, The Hill has also spread Trump’s false claim about predicting the 9/11 attacks, his obviously incorrect assertion that the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution is “phony,” and his laughable lie about being an environmentalist. If it comes out of the president’s mouth, The Hill will be there to uncritically share it with the world.
The Hill also played a role in the creation of some of the conspiracy theories promoted by the administration, which it has yet to address in a meaningful way.
While testifying before the House Intelligence Committee, former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch called out former Hill columnist John Solomon for his role in smearing her. In fact, Solomon, whose sources allegedly included Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, created a convoluted mess of unfounded conspiracy theories around Yovanovitch and Ukraine, making him a favorite in conservative media. His work was regularly cited by Republicans during impeachment hearings.
Eventually Hill Editor-In-Chief Bob Cusack announced that the site would be reviewing and updating Solomon’s past columns.
Weeks later, Cusack reinforced that message, tweeting that The Hill was in the process of “conducting a meticulous review” of Solomon’s work.
While it’s no doubt a good thing that the Hill is reviewing Solomon’s work, the damage has been done, and the site continues to promote people repeating his narratives.
The Hill has played an outsized role in misinforming the public, and it needs to take real steps -- more than simply reviewing and updating past columns -- to prevent future harm. Solomon should have been a red flag from the start, given his lengthy history of shoddy work. Beyond that, the site needs to grapple with the brutal reality of today’s politics.
Publishing in an age of social media comes with its share of potential pitfalls. The specific way the Hill uses social media, sharing the same misleading posts several times over the span of about a day, is both extremely basic and extremely dangerous. The Hill’s tweets fuel what’s known as the “illusory truth effect,” a concept by which a lie begins to seem more true the more it’s repeated. A 2017 Wired article explains this as “a glitch in the human psyche that equates repetition with truth” and quotes University of Toronto psychologist Lynn Hasher as saying it’s “likely more powerful when people are tired or distracted by other information.” “Distracted by other information” is more or less Twitter in a nutshell.
If people are bombarded with a dozen tweets repeating the same false claim about Crowdstrike or the whistleblower’s report, there’s a chance they’ll come to believe those claims. Even if they know deep down that they’re not true, the statements might begin to feel true.
In a follow-up to his tweet announcing the “meticulous review of opinion columns written by John Solomon,” Cusack touts the Hill’s supposed “decades-long history of commitment to fair and non-partisan reporting ... without bias or agenda.” If that’s his actual goal, he needs to address his site’s reckless distribution of false information on Twitter.