Have you heard the news? There’s a movement afoot to legalize infanticide. They’re calling it “after-birth abortion.” Those disgusting liberals! We'll remember in November.
I was surprised to see comments like these flying around the Internet this week. I’m the guy who wrote the article they’re talking about. It’s two years old. Now the right-wing echo-sphere is passing the story around as though it’s new. People think “after-birth abortion” is a real thing or a policy proposal. They don’t even read carefully enough to notice that I was criticizing it. I’m getting tweets and comments depicting me as a baby killer.
This is the Internet echo chamber at its worst. How does it happen?
Here’s the rough story. Two years ago in the Journal of Medical Ethics, a couple of philosophers outlined a case for infanticide. They called it “after-birth abortion.” I explained their argument and challenged pro-choicers to explain how lines could be drawn against such an extension of abortion rights.
In the months that followed, every so often, somebody would bring up my article and puke at it. The latest round started with a few tweets this weekend. This time, the word spread. A couple of influential conservative activists tweeted it. On Sunday morning, it started to show up in the blogs of conservative writers who directly or indirectly follow them: Rod Dreher at the American Conservative, Robert George at Mirror of Justice, and later, Ramesh Ponnuru at National Review.
Full disclosure: I love these guys. Every Friday night, we get together to eat fish, play poker, and subvert reproductive freedom. They tell me Jesus stories and try to entice me to the dark side. But I have a hang-up: I can’t get past the feeling that pregnancy is one person growing inside another and that every part of that conundrum—one person, growing, another person—has to be taken into account. And I’m a sucker for context. So I cling to the mushy, unprincipled belief that while there ought to be fewer abortion decisions—and there would be, if pro-lifers would magically redirect their energy from abortion bans to birth control—when those decisions arise, they’re best made by the people directly involved.
The blog posts said nice things about me (for that, I’m bringing the wine and crackers next Friday), but they made “after-birth abortion” look like a new thing. “Saletan reports on two philosophers,” said Dreher. “Saletan is wrestling with himself,” said George. “Saletan … notices that two philosophers are advocating what they call ‘after-birth abortion,’” said Ponnuru. All of this in the present tense, two years later.
On Sunday night, Brit Hume saw the story. He tweeted the Slate URL with this message: “There are now people seriously arguing for abortion AFTER BIRTH.”
Hume has 237,000 followers. His words—are now—made “after-birth abortion” look like a news story. In fact, the tweet itself became a story. “Brit Hume stupefied by disgusting argument for ‘after-birth abortion,’” said Twitchy.com. “Fox News’ Brit Hume spotlights article on 'after-birth abortion,’” said Examiner.com.
In 24 hours, the story was everywhere. It was broadcast by CNSNews.com, rightwingnews.com, and Alliance Alert. It permeated blogs (my favorites were Gay Patriot and Ladies Against Feminism) and forums, including baby-friendly sites such as okshooters.com and ar15.com. People thought a new effort was underway to legalize infanticide. “The post birth abortion debate has started,” said one thread.
The Internet chatter became a giant game of telephone. I was transformed from an opponent of infanticide to an advocate. “Brit Hume calls out Slate.com for their disgusting argument for ‘after-birth abortion’ aka murder,” said youngcons.com. “Liberal defending AFTER ABORTION! SICK!” said a Facebook post. Today, an angry pro-lifer urged his followers to attack me: “Here's the great intellect's Twitter handle. Go get 'im!”
This is how the echo chamber works. In places, you can even find admissions of it. Ace of Spades HQ, a popular site for dittoheads, grabbed the “after-birth abortion” story from Twitchy, concluding, “This appears to be quite real.” Later, the site posted an update: “Apparently this is a 2012 piece. But Brit Hume just Tweeted about it, hence me (and others) treating it as if it's new.” At Sean Hannity’s fan forum, a commenter sized up the situation: “So this is probably making the rounds in chainmails and blogposts, and ended up hitting enough resonant frequency to become relevant again.”
Why do we do this? Why do we hype stories like this one, assuming the worst, failing to check the details or even read the article? Because we love to be outraged, and our outrage is useful. “#REMEMBER #AMERICA this November,” says a Facebook post responding to the “after-birth abortion” story. “We are ready for November,” says another.
If you think this disease is confined to the right, you’re kidding yourself. Every day, I see it on the left. I see it at Slate. I see it among people who think they’re enlightened and critically astute. We’re reading and writing faster than we can think. When you do that, you’re not using the Internet anymore. It’s using you.