‘Lead Stories’ and the hoax that wasn’t

An Oct. 18, 2019 story at National Review said Hillary Clinton claimed the Russians were grooming Democratic Party presidential candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) for a third-party campaign. And the fact checkers at Lead Stories, a fact-checking organization verified by the International Fact-Checking Network called it a hoax.

Lead Stories was wrong. But its role as a Facebook fact-checking partner gives this story importance. Facebook could use the “hoax” from its fact-checking partner’s rating to limit the reach of stories repeating the claim about Clinton.

That could affect the conservative National Review. And it could affect BBC News, CBS News, CNN, NBC News, Politico (see pre-publication update below) and Salon. Each listed news outlet published a version of the story, and many of them published on the same day as National Review.

How did Lead Stories end up pitting itself against such an array of respected news outlets?

‘Lead Stories’ Makes Its Case

Lead Stories argued Clinton was saying the Trump campaign, not the Russians, was grooming the not-quite-a-mystery Democrat:

The National Review and other media outlets mades [sic] a mistake in conflating the Kremlin with the Trump Campaign. Clinton was speaking about the Trump campaign as “they” when she said “they” had a strategy of promoting an independent run by a candidate who could draw votes from the Democratic nominee in key states. She then suggested that the female candidate the Trump campaign was “grooming” is a “favorite of the Russians.” She did not [say] that the Russians were doing the grooming.

To justify its reasoning, Lead Stories posted portions of the podcast transcript and quoted Clinton spokesperson Nick Merrill.

With evidence like that, who needs evidence?

We say the conclusion from Lead Stories fails to account for the bulk of the evidence.

Hoax, or Reasonable Interpretation?

It’s true Clinton did not come right out and say “The Russians are grooming Tulsi Gabbard for a third-party run.” But Clinton said more than enough to make it reasonable to conclude she meant exactly that. Throughout her interview with David Plouffe, Clinton associated the Trump campaign with Russian efforts to affect elections.

Context: Segment 1

During the first segment of the podcast, Plouffe asked Clinton if she worried that the Trump campaign might perfect the techniques it used in 2016. In answering, Clinton referred to “four big problems” for the Democrats and she mentioned the Russians in association with two of them.

The theft of material, through hacking, cyberwarfare, and then the weaponization of that information. The actual propaganda on social media, you know, the phony news studios in Macedonia and Ukraine and St. Petersburg, they’re pumping phony stories about me dying and Pope Francis endorsing Trump on a, you know, hourly basis.

(S)he said she went with a Republican colleague to be briefed by the FBI, and it was terrifying, and then the FBI said you can’t tell anybody. So we know, we know the Russians were in at least four systems, we know we’re really vulnerable every hack-a-thon that happens, you know, 10-year-olds are hacking our voting system and the networks that connect them, so, we have four big problems.

Shortly after that, Clinton said the Trump campaign continues to maintain contacts with the Russians and described Trump as “Vladimir Putin’s dream,” further saying she assumes Putin has something “personal and financial” on Trump.

The first interview segment laid out Clinton’s belief that the Trump campaign and the Russians work hand-in-glove to one degree or another. Clinton ended her answer to Plouffe’s question by saying it will be hard to compete with the amount of money Republicans are raising for the 2020 election.

Plouffe picked up the thread by replying “And the Russians.”

“Yeah, and the Russians,” Clinton replied.

Context: Segment 2

The second segment continued on the Russian theme.

Plouffe asked Clinton if Trump was an even worse president than she expected. Clinton replied she was horrified by Trump’s willingness to give foreign powers whatever they want in return for financial, personal or political help. Clinton averred that we don’t know what Trump got in exchange for the withdrawal from Syria. When Plouffe chimed in saying Trump must have gotten something, Clinton reintroduced Russia again in her reply. Clinton said Russia pushed Trump to pull out of Syria. Then, about four sentences later, Clinton reminded Plouffe that Trump’s election was illegitimate because he got unprecedented help from Russia.

Plouffe again picked up the thread: “Right. But despite (knowing his election was illegitimate) he’s going to double down.”

“Yes, he is.” Clinton replied.

Double down on what? Apparently double down on Clinton’s list of the things resulting in the illegitimate election of Mr. Trump: “unprecedent(ed) help from Russia, their cutout Wikileaks, from Cambridge Analytica … from suppression, all the things that … added up to give him those votes that he got.”

Clinton pounded the theme that Trump received help from Russia in 2016 and will welcome it again in 2020.

After a Plouffe question and a Clinton answer that omitted mention of Russia, Clinton returned to the theme when Plouffe’s next question involved the 2020 campaign.

Clinton answered with a review of the Trump strategy she talked about earlier, wrapping up with a bow: “All this stuff they did this last time, which was very effective. And the Russians played a big role in.”

Plouffe picked up Clinton’s thread again right before asking the question that led to Clinton’s now-infamous “grooming” comment. “Right, and they’ll double down on this time.”

Then Plouffe asked how much Clinton felt concern about Trump lying about the Democratic Party candidate to drive voters from supporting that ticket.

Clinton responded in keeping with her well-established Russian theme:

Well I think it’s gonna be two parts and I think it’s gonna be the same as 2016. Don’t vote for other guy. You don’t like me, don’t vote for the other guy because the other guy’s gonna do x, y and z or the other guy did such terrible things. I’m gonna show you in these, you know, flashing videos that appear and then disappear and they’re on the dark web and nobody can find them. But you’re going to see them, and you’re gonna see that person doing these horrible things.

They’re also gonna do third party again. And I’m not making any predictions, but I think they’ve got their eye on somebody who’s currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third party candidate. She’s a favorite of the Russians, they have a bunch of sites and ‘bots and other ways of supporting her so far, and that’s assuming Jill Stein will give it up, which she might not because she’s also a Russian asset. Yeah, she’s a Russian asset. I mean, totally. And so they know they can’t win without a third party candidate. And so I don’t know who it’s gonna be but I guarantee they’ll have a vigorous third party challenge in the key states that they most need it

Regarding Clinton’s first paragraph, did the Trump campaign in 2016 show flashing videos on the dark web? We found no evidence supporting the idea. But the Mueller Report described widespread Russian disinformation using a variety of media, including video.

Was Clinton describing Trump campaign disinformation or Russian disinformation? We seem to have better evidence for the latter than the former. Zebra Fact Check would welcome any information supporting the notion that the Trump campaign disseminated disinformation videos, such as those Clinton described, to the dark web or social media.

In Clinton’s second paragraph she announced the charge that “they” are grooming someone from the Democratic Primary to be a third-party candidate. Clinton called the candidate “a favorite of the Russians,” which argues weakly against identifying “they” as the Russians. Clinton could have said “they” again. On the other hand, calling the candidate the favorite of the Russians by name plays to the theme we’ve identified running through the Clinton interview.

Clinton’s mention of 2016 Green Party candidate Jill Stein cinches the question for us (bold emphasis added):

She’s a favorite of the Russians, they have a bunch of sites and ‘bots and other ways of supporting her so far, and that’s assuming Jill Stein will give it up, which she might not because she’s also a Russian asset.

We think it’s very clear that Clinton said the Russians have sites and ‘bots along with other methods of supporting the potential third-party candidate (Gabbard). NBC News reported such Russian support for Gabbard on Feb. 2, 2019. So the Russians turn into “they” in that sentence, at least. And, in the 2016 parallel, the Mueller Report found the Russians used fake left-leaning social media accounts to support Stein’s candidacy. Is there evidence the Trump campaign acted similarly?

How would the Trump campaign groom Gabbard differently from the Russian method?

It’s the “assuming Jill Stein will give it up” line that gives the game away. Gabbard reportedly already receives online aid from the Russians. And Gabbard receives that aid apparently without Stein giving it up, for Clinton said she might not.

Assuming Trump campaign interest in supporting a third-party candidate, why would they hesitate to support Gabbard as a third-party candidate merely because Stein continues to embrace her role as the incumbent Russian asset in the U.S. presidential election?

It doesn’t make sense.

It doesn’t make sense, that is, unless one understands that the Trump campaign and the Russians largely work hand-in-glove.

And wasn’t that one of Clinton’s major themes during the interview?

Clinton implies Trump would support Gabbard if the Russians approve. Except the Russians are apparently the only ones who offer tangible evidence of grooming efforts.

Advice for the Mainstream Media

A little journalistic digging might have settled this issue days ago, if journalists had asked some key questions.

What methods did Clinton think the Trump campaign would use to “groom” a third party candidate?

Why would the Trump campaign’s supposed support for a Gabbard third-party run hinge on Stein’s abdication of her status as a Russian asset?

Answers to those questions would likely help confirm Clinton was, in effect, saying the Russians were grooming Tulsi Gabbard for a third-party presidential bid.

Conclusion

Based on the evidence detailed above, it is likely Clinton meant exactly that. Lead Stories offered no evidence it considered the Russia-tinged context of the full Clinton interview and displayed no apparent curiosity about the specifics of Clinton’s allegations. What evidence it did present referencing Russia was downplayed or ignored.

The fact checker was wrong. The news media were not spreading a hoax.

Pre-publication Updates: Lead Stories

As we prepared this story we tweeted at Lead Stories’ Maarten Schenk to question Lead Stories’ “hoax” conclusion. We don’t see how a reasonable conclusion, particularly when apparently shared independently by multiple mainstream media sources, can count as a hoax.

As we write this, we believe we have so far failed to convince Lead Stories of its error.

We also used email to point out an apparent mistake in the Lead Stories fact check. Lead Stories reported the “hoax” it supposedly identified had “originated” with National Review. Our review of the evidence found the Daily Beast published parallel reporting about an hour before National Review published its version of the story.

The New York Times Corrects?

When Zebra Fact Check used Twitter to announce the impending publication of this article, Lead Stories’ Maarten Schenk asked that we include mention of The New York Times running a correction on its reporting of the Plouffe-Clinton interview.

We cheerfully agreed.

The Times ran the following correction below the amended version of its story:

Correction: Oct. 23, 2019

An earlier version of this article described incorrectly an element of Hillary Clinton’s recent comments about Representative Tulsi Gabbard. While Mrs. Clinton said that a Democratic presidential candidate was “the favorite of the Russians,” and an aide later confirmed the reference was to Ms. Gabbard, Mrs. Clinton’s remark about the “grooming” of a third-party candidate was in response to a question about the Republicans’ strategy, not about Russian intervention.

The Times‘ correction offers no evidence indicating the need for the correction, instead baldly asserting a conclusion incidentally contrary to the one we have argued in detail. Hence we find the Times’ correction fails to persuade us of any flaw in our argument.

Indeed, we would argue the “correction” makes the Times’ story less accurate. In context, Clinton admixed the actions of the Russians with those of the Trump campaign. The Times’ amended version fails to recognize that fact.

Did Mr. Schenk believe the Times’ correction might serve as a non-fallacious appeal to authority?

Politico Corrects?

h/t to Maarten Schenk for alerting us to this, also.

Like The New York Times case we address above, Politico ran a “correction” resulting in a less accurate version of its story.

Politico ran the following correction to its story originally titled “Clinton says Russia is grooming Gabbard to be a third-party candidate“:

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated Hillary Clinton’s statement about a potential third-party 2020 presidential candidacy by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. Clinton suggested that Republicans would encourage Gabbard to run as a third-party candidate.

In fact, as we noted in our analysis above, Clinton very likely said the Russians were using social media to build up the Gabbard candidacy (we noted evidence from NBC News). But lacking an example of an article specifically calling for Gabbard to run third-party, the correction simply makes the story that much less accurate. Writing favorably about a candidate does not necessarily equate with encouraging a third-party run.

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