“If True:” The Boolean Logic of Political Reporting

BuzzFeed’s recent report claiming sources indicated that President Trump directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress may be the final nail in his coffin, if true. If true. These two little words have done some heavy lifting over the last couple hours, days, and years where the line between fact and fiction has been blurred. Another report about the Trump crime syndicate; another middling pundit hedges his bets about whether this piece, if true, ends Trump’s presidency. The phrase has become a ubiquitous force in political reporting, but the language work within these two words represents a much different shift in the cultural and semantic logic of US political culture. This continual usage of “if true” represents the transposition of algorithmic logic into political reporting.

Certainly, the phrase “if true” doesn’t originate in early 21st century political journalism. However, it has become a meme of sorts relatively recently. Know Your Meme’s brief entry on the phrase, “Big, If True,” tracing its lineage back to an episode of Futurama, where Rich Little and George Foreman discuss a 1973 fight between Muhammad Ali and an “80-foot tall, mechanical Joe Frazier.” Foreman recounts that the fight destroyed the whole world, which Little confirms would be “interesting, if true.”

In 2014, Eric Geller traced the roots of the meme, “whoa, if true” to a 2008 Tweet about the potential acquisition of Twitter by MTV. This, of course, never happened, but the “whoa, if true” meme became an in-joke. Half-a-decade later, “whoa, if true” became common parlance across the Twitter-verse to express what Stephen Colbert prophetically termed “truthiness,” where facts don’t matter as long as something feels true. “Whoa, if true” became the digital counterpart to truthiness, pointing to things that feel true even though they might not be true.

However, the use of “if true” in the Trumpian universe seems to take on a different connotation. The phrase is no longer a joke to exemplify an outlandish claim, but a safeguard against accusations of “fake news.” By including “if true” at the end of any claim, DC pundits have an exit. The use of “if true” in the contemporary realm of political journalism no longer functions as a way to access the truthiness of a situation. It lacks the poetic nature of truthiness

Instead, politicos are transposing the boolean logic of an algorithm onto their political commentary. Rather than waiting for the narrative to reach its conclusion, algorithmic reporting attempts to get ahead of the story with “if true” statements.

“If true,” Trump needs to be impeached.

“If true,” Trump should never have been elected.

However, if we look at how booleans work, the “if” statement also requires an “else” statement, and these seem harder to find. The else falls back to the status quo. If these accusations aren’t true, what happens? What is the “else” that exists in the algorithmic logic of the DC press corps?

Functionally, for now, the “else” is status quo. If these accusations aren’t true, Trump continues his presidency. However, if these accusations are unsubstantiated, it is still quite possible that Trump should still be impeached. Political writers seemingly forget that there are dozens of “if true” statements that have been stacked on top of each other over the last few years.

“If true,” Trump violated campaign finance law.

“If true,” Trump defrauded the US government and taxpayers out of millions of dollars.

“If true,” Trump is a racist (well, that one isn’t as much an “if true” statement as a political platform).

With the newest round of opinion pieces setting up a new “if true” statement, the “else” default seems to returning to the status quo. But that boolean logic fails to understand the poetic nature of the public sphere. These “if true” statements are not only stacked several layers deep, but are not as binary propositions as many make them out to be. If the political discourse over the last three years has taught us anything, it’s that truth is rarely as black and white as we think.

In the case of the Cohen/Buzzfeed story mentioned above, the greyness of reporting became apparent less than twelve hours later. The Mueller team issued a rare statement regarding the report, disputing Buzzfeed’s claims as “not accurate.” The Buzzfeed reporters, have in turn, stood by their original reporting, clarifying nothing but believing their source.

In the end, what was the value of all these “if true” think pieces? If these reporters had simply waited another few hours, they would have had a much more interesting and complex story to report. If they had simply been patient instead of turning out chum for clicks, they wouldn’t have been spreading incomplete information.

Now, this isn’t necessarily a story only about that Cohen/Buzzfeed piece, but rather a noticeable trend in the algorithmic nature of contemporary political reporting. This dysfunctional political circus eats its own tail over and over again, because they have no patience. Rather than waiting to see responses to a news report, reporters simply hedge their bets by adding “if true” at the beginning of their piece, and news editors let loose the clickbait of impeachment. Every story has an out; every truth has a counter-truth. In the post-truth world, sources and evidence no longer hold the currency they had  in the world of truthiness where at least a report had to feel true. It no longer even matters if what you feel is true. What matters is that you have a way out of your position if you need to stand down.

The “if true” crowd doesn’t need to give an option for what happens if a story isn’t true, because at this point it’s probably the ending is the same regardless of whether a single story is true.

“If true,” this story leads to the same conclusion as the last dozen stories.

“If true,” this story shows us what we already know.

“If true,” he must be impeached. “Else,” he must be impeached.

The next time an outlet gets a scoop, and every other outlet releases a short article starting with “if true,” please feel free to ignore. Don’t give the clickbait articles the satisfaction of your click, and instead, encourage them to write something meaningful.

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