Fox News and some others on the right recently pushed the false claim that Biden intends to limit American meat consumption. The truth of the matter is that the Daily Mail baselessly linked an academic study to Biden. This study did an analysis of the possible impact of a hypothetical reduction in meat consumption by Americans. Biden had no connection to this 2020 study and has not indicated any intention to impose such a reduction in meat consumption.
It is possible that Fox News and others acted in error rather than with an intent to deceive. One Fox News host later acknowledged the claim is not true—so one could argue that John Roberts was merely mistaken when he made the false claim. Currently, he seems to be the only one admitting to this error.
We are all imperfect beings and make mistakes. As such, doing unto others as we would have them do unto us would generally require that we be tolerant and forgiving of honest errors. That said, there are also reasonable expectations that need to be met—especially when one purports to be a professional journalist.
A basic critical thinking rule is that before accepting a claim, the credibility of the source must be considered. As noted above, the Daily Mail was the main source of this story. The unreliability and inaccuracy of the Daily Mail are well known, which damages its credibility. But it has also won numerous awards, which increases its credibility. This mixed credibility entails that a careful thinker should neither reject nor accept a claim simply because it comes from the Daily Mail: it might be true, or it might even be an intentionally inaccurate story aimed at getting attention. In such a situation, the rational thing to do is to assess the claim being made by the Daily Mail in terms of its plausibility and in terms of other available evidence. To be fair to the Daily Mail, they did not directly claim that Biden was going to restrict meat consumption; rather they speculated about what might be done. To be fair to the truth, they ignored the fact that Biden has discussed several initiatives (none of which include compelling Americans to eat less meat). Fox News took the Daily Mail’s speculation and turned it into a graphic saying, “Up in your grill. Biden’s climate requirements: cut 90 percent of red meat from diet, max 4 lbs. per year, one burger per month.” This claim spread like BBQ sauce on ribs and was soon being used uncritically by politicians and pundits.
While Biden has openly accepted climate science and has made commitments to addressing climate change, he has not said anything about meat consumption. Even a cursory examination of his proposals reveals no such intention. A look at the study referenced by the Daily Mail would also reveal no connection to Biden. So, a few minutes of effort would have revealed that Biden has no plans to reduce American meat consumption. Because of this, serious journalists can be justly held accountable for uncritically asserting this false claim. If they did make an honest mistake, then this should be given due consideration.
While John Roberts was right to correct his error, this correction will have little impact. One reason is the psychological phenomenon of the continued influence effect. Even when misinformation (or disinformation) is corrected, many people persist in treating it as true. This phenomenon helps make lying effective as a political strategy: if a liar can get people to believe their lie, then efforts to correct the lie will tend to fail. Even a person does not persist in believing the lie, the emotional influence of the false claim can endure. Someone who was angry at Biden because of the meat lie is likely to still feel negatively towards Biden even if they accept the correction. To feel how this works, think of a time when you falsely believed something negative about a person. Even after you learned that this was untrue, you probably still had some residual negative feelings about them. The power of lies thus helps explain why certain politicians and pundits use them so often. Speaking of lies, let us consider those who were lying.
Since the claim about Biden was easy to disprove, it is reasonable to think that some people were lying when they pushed the claim. On the face of it, this is morally wrong. One could, of course, try to justify the lie on utilitarian grounds: Biden’s plans are so harmful that lying to stop him is morally justified. The obvious problem with this reply is that if Biden’s plans are that harmful, then there is no need to lie about them: the truth would suffice.
This could be countered by arguing that Biden’s harmful plans are so complicated and nuanced that people cannot understand them or the harms they will cause. As such, simple and extreme lies are needed to get people to oppose Biden’s true plans. This seems analogous to falsely accusing someone of a crime because they are “guilty of something.” Also, an inability to explain Biden’s true “nefarious” plans would seem to be a failure on the part of those attempting to criticize them: if his plans are truly bad, then one should be able to provide a clear account of the harms that will arise. Once again, there should be no need to lie if Biden’s true plans are terrible. The fact that many on the right rely so heavily on lies indicates their dearth of meaningful criticism of Biden’s true plans. This always strikes me as odd, since there are many things about Biden’s plans that can be justly criticized. But meaningful criticisms do require knowing facts about the matters at hand and being able to rationally assess them. It also often requires being able to provide alternatives for plans that are seen as defective. In general, the right now seems little inclined to engage in such good faith criticism. To be fair, good faith criticism is a lot of work—lying has all the advantages of theft over honest toil.
Lies also have a narrative advantage over truth: they can be tailored for maximum emotional appeal (this can be augmented by rhetoric and fallacies). While most Americans get their meat handed to them through drive through windows rather than by fighting an animal hand to hoof in the wild, there is the notion that meat is manly. In contrast, being a vegetarian (or, God forbid, a vegan) is considered weak and effeminate. Some Americans also seem to build part of their identity around their diet (meat or rejection of meat) and this makes meat a very emotionally charged issue for some. This has, of course, been encouraged by the meat industry (who would be fools not to do so). And, of course, the idea of the government interfering with something as fundamental as what we eat is laden with emotional power. Thus, falsely accusing Biden of plotting to take away our meat is a winning narrative—far more powerful than talking (or lying) about solar power or carbon emission limits.
As a closing point, I often wonder whether the “common people” who profess to believe these lies are victims or accomplices. Do, for example, the people who raged about Biden taking our meat on social media really believe that Biden intends to take away our meat or are they simply willing to go along with the lie? If they are going along with the lie, then one must wonder what the point is to the lie: if we all know it is a lie, what is the point? Perhaps it is all about performance or stance taking? That is, when someone goes along with the meat lie, they are just expressing their dislike of Biden and their love of meat—they care not whether what they say is true.