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12 million attend Tax Day Tea Parties! At least, this is a possible headline from conservative websites who have demonstrated a deliberate propaganda campaign of artificially elevating their attendance numbers at every Tea Party event. What the true number was on “Tax Day” will be far less.
Tax Day Tea Party 2009
This was the first major national Tea Party protests. Libertarians are quick to point out that the movement actually has it’s roots as part of the Ron Paul campaign, but starting with the staged Santelli rant on CNBC, the Tea Parties become dominated by traditional Republican conservatives eager to escape blame for what the Republicans did under Bush to crash the economy. This had led to an increasing rift between libertarians and conservatives ever since. As a libertarian put it, “They laid artificial turf all over our fledgling grassroots movement.”
Either way, there were between 300-750 rallies held across the country to protest many things, particularly taxes and debt. The fact that 95% of Americans just received income tax cuts in the order of $300 billion as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the Stimulus Bill) was irrelevant to their furor.
The initial estimates came roaring across the internet: half of a million attend Tea Parties! The only problem is, this was a lie. It was quite difficult to quantify the precise number of people that attended, but Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight.com probably had the most cautious and balanced tally at ~311,000 nationwide. Even Americans for Tax Reform estimated that only 268,000 attended.
Despite the variance, two things became clear. The initial reports that made their rounds on the internet (particularly via conservative outlets like the Drudge Report and Michelle Malkin) were inflated. Second, the amount of crowd estimate inflation was of a strong order of magnitude. 500k from 311k is a 62% rise.
Glenn Beck’s 912 DC Tea Party
This is the perfect example of ‘creative’ information control to push an agenda. Fox News’ Glenn Beck had what was supposed to be the mother of all rallies in Washington DC on September 12th, 2009. Nobody really knew what to expect about the turnout, but due to the 6 months of planning and repeated advertising on Fox, many of us suspected it might fall in the 300,000 range, the same size as the nationwide Tax Day Tea Party protests in April 2009.
The first figures began to circulate that very day, propagated from conservative media outlets: 2 million. This would have been a huge success for this rally, the only problem was, the figure wasn’t even close to being true. The fire and park service did not officially release an estimate, which is something they have not done under direction of congress since they were sued after the Million Man March. In this case, someone working for them unofficially released a 60-70k estimate.
There was zero credible evidence in the 2 million figure. In fact, from the start, right wing sources have been using every trick in the book to circulate this grossly inflated estimate. For instance, trying to pretend this very old photo was from 912. Some people tried to claim that there were ‘hundreds of thousands’ of additional subway riders that day, when in reality, ridership only increased 87,000. As mounting evidence began to refute this grossly inflated figure, various conservative groups began to downscale their estimates.
FreedomWorks (the main organizers or the event) retracted their gross inflation to a ‘conservative’ estimate of 600-800k. Fox News only claimed 400k, and they were the main advertisers of the event. The National Taxpayers Union (another main sponsor of the event) put its estimates between 75-300k. However, the best estimates still tend to fall in the 60-70k range, with low estimates of only 30k.
Feel free to use your own judgment here, find a good aerial photo and contrast it with how many you think would be there by comparing it to the National Park Service crowd estimate photo. Note that the crowd must be packed tight, like during the Obama inauguration and also remember there was a black history event on the mall that day.
A few good resources eventually documented how the numbers got so grossly over-exaggerated, including an excellent piece by fivethirtyeight.com titled Size matters; So Do Lies. Becks 912 DC rally demonstrates a clear push by the conservative media towards ridiculously high attendance (from 15-100 times what was really there).
Michele Bachmann’s HCR Tea Party Protest
You would think they would have learned their lesson about this, but just a few short weeks later, Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) organized an anti- health care reform rally at the Capitol. When Sean Hannity reported on the event, he and Fox ‘News’ were quickly caught recycling Beck’s 912 footage to try and once again artificially inflate the attendance.
Sarah Palin’s Tea Party in Boston
Boston.com reported that Tea Party organizers expected 10,000 to show up for the first Tax Day Tea Party, held in Boston yesterday. This figure was quickly downscaled to 3000, and the final tally was likely less than 1000. See the overhead shot taken from a helicopter and judge for yourself.
This is not a matter of partisan politics. There is a systematic, widespread campaign of disinformation going on here to artificially inflate the Tea Party attendance numbers, and should come as no surprise to those who are honestly judging the truth of statements being made from a wide variety of sources. In fact, the propaganda concerning Tea Party attendance is just the tip of the iceberg.
According to an analysis by Politifact, the non-partisan fact checking organization devoted to evaluate the truth behind the claims of politicians and important spokesman for the parties and political ideologies, there is a clear differentiation between the conservative and progressive spokesman going on here.
Take any premature numbers you see circulated on the internet with a grain of salt. The right wing is extraordinarily manipulative in how they release and disseminate their spin, and any estimate you see widely circulated is likely to be far too high. Wait for more solid numbers to come in, which will probably not be for at least 24 hours, and by reputable sources.