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Originally published Saturday, June 16, 2012 at 9:00 PM

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EPA 'spy drones' overshoot the facts

The hubbub over nonexistent drones spying on U.S. cattle farmers provides a look at something hard to capture in U.S. politics: the vibrant, almost viral, life cycle of a falsehood.

The Washington Post

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WASHINGTON — It was a blood-boiler of a story, a menacing tale of government gone too far: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was spying on Midwestern farmers with the same aerial "drones" used to kill terrorists overseas.

This month, the idea has been repeated in TV segments, on multiple blogs and by at least four members of Congress. The only trouble is, it isn't true.

It was never true. The EPA isn't using drone aircraft, in the Midwest or anywhere else.

The hubbub over nonexistent drones provides a look at something hard to capture in U.S. politics: the vibrant, almost viral, life cycle of a falsehood. This one seems to have been born less than three weeks ago, in tweets and blog posts that twisted the details of a real news story about EPA inspectors flying in small planes.

The falsehood spread, via conservative websites, mentions on Fox News Channel and "The Daily Show," and the endless replication of Twitter.

In its mature stage, the idea was sustained by a digital echo chamber. Members of Congress repeated false reports — and then new reports appeared, based on the lawmakers.

"We've never thought that. We've never said that. I don't know where it came from," said Kristen Hassebrook, of the Nebraska Cattlemen's group, when asked about drones buzzing cattle farms. Her group seems to have started the hubbub and watched as its complaint against the EPA was turned into something it wasn't. "But obviously the word 'drone' is a very sexy word."

The complaint

This is the part that's true: For more than a decade, EPA inspectors have flown over farmland in small private planes, the traditional kind, with people inside. The inspectors are looking for clean-water violations, such as dirty runoff or manure dumped into a stream.

The EPA says the flights are legal, under a 1986 Supreme Court decision. And they're cheap: an on-the-ground inspection might cost $10,000; it costs $1,000 to $2,500 to survey the same farm by air. An agency spokesman said these flights are not happening more frequently now than in the past.

In Nebraska, the cattlemen have raised new concerns about the flights. "It is truly an invasion of privacy," said Chuck Folken, who runs a farm and cattle feedlot in Leigh. Farmers worry about photos of private homes and backyards winding up in government files. "We don't need our own government ... flying over us, taking pictures of us, telling us what we're doing wrong."

Nebraska's congressional delegation — four Republicans and a Democrat — wrote a letter May 29 to the EPA, asking about the aerial surveillance. Since the concern was about airplanes, their letter didn't say a word about drones.

Soon enough, somebody did. First a few Twitter users got it wrong. On June 1, the website pjmedia.com posted a blog item with the title, "EPA Using Spy Drones to Fly Over Midwestern Farms." It provided a link to a story on the Fox News website, which discussed the letter but didn't mention drones.

The same afternoon, the falsehood spread to TV. On the Fox News Channel "ensemble opinion show" "The Five," Bob Beckel said the same thing aloud. "They are drones, they are flying overhead," Beckel said.

"No, they're not," said fellow panelist Dana Perino, who served as White House press secretary under former President George W. Bush. "They're taking pictures."

"No, no, no. They're drones," Beckel said.

During the next three days, the story appeared on blogs, was tweeted and retweeted.

The growth spurt

It had all the makings of a great rumor, since it combined two ideas many people already believed: domestic use of drone aircraft was soon to increase and that President Obama has used environmentalism as a cover for government overreach.

The falsehood experienced a growth spurt June 5.

"Republican lawmakers demanding answers today after learning the Environmental Protection Agency has been using aerial spy drones for years to spy on cattle ranchers," Fox News Channel's Megyn Kelly told viewers. "These are the same drones we use to track down al-Qaida terrorists, flying over Nebraska and Iowa." Asked about the source of Kelly's report, a Fox spokeswoman declined to comment.

Then "The Daily Show" checked in, making fun of Kelly, but repeating the falsehood: "Those aren't the same drones!" host Jon Stewart said.

The rumor made it to Capitol Hill June 6.

"The Obama administration has, once again, stepped way over the line," Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., said in a news release. He was sending a letter to the EPA, responding to "reports" about drone use. "First they wanted to expand their authority to regulate water, and now they want to use air drones to spy on American citizens."

The same day, an editorial in Investors Business Daily described "drone" flights. At EPA headquarters, a spokesman said, the first inquiries about EPA drones began coming in. Spokespeople said the reports weren't true.

Too late. The day after that, three more congressmen complained.

Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., and Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, wrote their own letters about the reports of drones. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., described his worries about drones in the "AgMinute" radio address released weekly by the House Agriculture Committee.

He cited "press reports" that the EPA "has been using military-style drone planes to secretly observe livestock operations."

Here was the echo chamber at its peak. Fortenberry had signed the original, drone-free, letter from the Nebraska delegation, whose misinterpretation had triggered the drone rumors.

Back to the beginning

At this point, the false reports about Fortenberry's statement had reverberated around the country and found their way back to Fortenberry, and he appeared to treat them as something new — and alarming.

His radio address set off a new round of echoes, with online outlets repeating his worries about the drones.

In the days since, the truth has begun, slowly, to rouse itself.

A spokeswoman for Fortenberry said he now accepts the EPA's account that no drones exist. Fox News reported last Sunday and Thursday that the flights were done by planes, not drones. On Friday, PJMedia told readers the same thing: "We're happy to report that the EPA denies this."

Other conservative media outlets, such as The Daily Caller and the New American, which had reported on the EPA drones, also told readers the EPA denied using drones.

But the falsehood was far ahead, still replicating itself.

By week's end, the second Daily Caller story, which said the drones did not exist, had been posted 14 times on Twitter, and recommended by 30 people on Facebook.

The first story, which said the drones were real, was still going: It had 233 Twitter mentions, and 661 recommendations on Facebook. No, wait, 662.

Washington Post staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman

and staff researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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