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Size Matters; So Do Lies

Back in April, when there was a round of several hundred “tea party” protests across the country to coincide with Tax Day, I devoted significant attention to figuring out how many people had actually attended the rallies. The best figure I could come up with was at least 300,000 — “at least” being an important caveat because there were dozens of smaller tea party protests for which no reliable crowd size estimates were available. The real number was probably something between 350,000 and 400,000.

This was, I believed at the time and continue to believe, a relatively impressive figure. It is also one that liberals were silly to be so predictably and universally dismissive of. Indeed, the protests were a harbinger for the tough slog ahead for Democrats on health care and other issues. Yes, the grievances that these protesters had may have been somewhat disconnected, and their rank might have run the gamut from ordinary, red-meat conservatives and to the black helicopter set. But, anger is still anger — and a lot of people, self-evidently, were angry.

At the same time, in attempting to cobble together literally hundreds of independent, local newspaper reports to come up with this figure, I learned a few things about the gamesmanship involved in the reporting of crowd size estimates. Namely, there is a lot of misleading information out there — some resulting from deliberate lies from protest organizers who exaggerate about how many people they’d drawn to their events, and some of it arising more innocently — estimating the size of a crowd actually isn’t all that easy, particularly if you’re in the midst of one. This misinformation, moreover, tended to be self-perpetuating: an organizer might tell a reporter from a local radio station that they’d drawn 3,000 people to their event (when really they’d drawn 800); the 3,000 figure would be picked up by the local TV station, and then the next day on by the local newspaper, which had heard the number on TV. At each stage of the process, as in a game of “telephone”, the fidelity of the information was degraded. Perhaps the appropriate context on the number (that it had not been independently verified) had been dutifully reported by the radio station — but by the time the the transmission had made its way to the newspaper, that context had been lost. The Atlanta rally, for instance, was reported by the local CBS station to have drawn some 15,000 persons — a figure which, it was later discovered, would quite literally have been physically impossible.

Usually, though, these exaggerations were contained within some reasonable bounds. The estimate reported by CBS Atlanta, for example, appears to have been about double the actual crowd size in that city. I found other cases in which there might have been a threefold or fourfold discrepancy between the numbers claimed by protesters and those provided by local fire departments or sheriff’s offices. But almost never more than that — at some point, a lie ceases to be credible. And of course, there were many protest organizers that provided perfectly honest estimates of their turnouts. I even came across a couple of cases in which they appeared to have lowballed the numbers relative to the estimates provided by independent observers.

But yesterday, someone told a real whopper. ABC News, citing the DC fire department, reported that between 60,000 and 70,000 people had attended the tea party rally at the Capitol. By the time this figure reached Michelle Malkin, however, it had been blown up to 2,000,000. There is a big difference, obviously, between 70,000 and 2,000,000. That’s not a twofold or threefold exaggeration — it’s roughly a thirtyfold exaggeration.

The way this false estimate came into being is relatively simple: Matt Kibbe, the president of FreedomWorks, lied, claiming that ABC News had reported numbers of between 1.0 and 1.5 million when they never did anything of the sort. A few tweets later, the numbers had been exaggerated still further to 2 million. Kibbe wasn’t “in error”, as Malkin gently puts it. He lied. He did the equivalent of telling people that his penis is 53 inches long.

Malkin, who to her credit later corrected the error, frets that it might be used to by liberals to “discredit the undeniably massive turnout”. She’s right to be worried — it absolutely will be used that way. If you don’t want to be discredited, then don’t, as Kibbe did, tell a ridiculous (and easily disprovable) lie.

Malkin herself did not lie; she merely repeated a lie. It does not particularly call into question her character. It does, however, call into question her judgment. The reason is that if there had in fact been 2 million protesters in Washington yesterday, there would have been no need to lie about it — the magnitude of the protests would have been self-evident. I was in Washington for the inauguration, an event at which there really were almost 2 million people present — and let me tell you, it was a Holy Mess. Hotels, charging double or treble their usual rates, were booked weeks in advance. Major stations on the Metro system were shut down for hours at a time. The National Guard was brought in. At least 3,000 people got stuck in a tunnel. Essentially the entirely of the National Mall, from the Capitol to the Washington Monument, was dotted with onlookers. Heaps of trash were left behind. The entire city was basically a warzone for a period of about 20 hours, from midnight through mid-evening.

But there are no accounts of any of those sorts of things happening yesterday. 70 thousand people, rather, is about the number that will attend the Washington Redskins’ home opener next week. That’s a lot of people. Washington — actually Landover, Maryland, where FedEx Field is located — will be inconvenienced. But it won’t be shut down. Business will go on more or less as usual.

This was not a small rally. It was also not, in comparison with something like the 2006 pro-immigration protests, a particularly large rally. It was a business-as-usual sort of rally. Mock the protesters at your peril: business as usual suddenly isn’t so good for Democrats these days, and the sentiments of the 70,000 people who marched on Washington surely mirror those of millions more sitting at home. They were done a disservice by being represented by a liar like Kibbe.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.