Fake news and NAFTA

June 28, 2018

Donald Trump has regularly used lies and exaggerations in his public pronouncements. According to the Globe and Mail, a fake chart of Canadian tariffs levied against the United States is making the rounds, with no effort to correct the record by the posting websites when presented with the facts by the Globe. The tacit approval of this misinformation from the White House seems as to indicate that in the current administration’s view, lies are fair game in beating down an opponent. No wonder Canadians are staying away from the border and making their Internet purchases on Canadian sites.

The following appeared in the Globe and Mail this morning:

ADRIAN MORROW U.S. CORRESPONDENT
WASHINGTON
PUBLISHED JUNE 27, 2018
UPDATED 12 HOURS AGO

If you believe a chart of tariff rates circulating on Facebook and Twitter by supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump, Canada is egregiously gouging the United States.

Under the North American free-trade agreement, the table claims, Canada charges levies of 45 per cent on aluminum, HVAC equipment and televisions; 35 per cent on vacuums and cable boxes; 25 per cent on cars and steel; and 48 per cent on copper. The highest U.S. rate for any of these items, by contrast, is listed at just 5 per cent.

There’s just one problem: Every Canadian number on the chart is false. Under NAFTA, the tariff Canada charges the United States for every one of the listed items is zero.

(Graphic missing here)

Globe and Mail Evening Update, June 28, 2018, provided a summary:

Have you seen the chart of tariff rates circulating on Facebook and Twitter by supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump, suggesting Canada is gouging the United States? Under the North American free-trade agreement, it says, Canada charges levies of 45 per cent on aluminum, HVAC equipment and televisions; 35 per cent on vacuums and cable boxes; 25 per cent on cars and steel; and 48 per cent on copper. The highest U.S. rate for any of these items, by contrast, is listed at just 5 per cent. One problem: Every Canadian number on the chart is false. Under NAFTA, the tariff Canada charges the United States for every item listed is zero. The origin of the fake tariff chart is not clear. It first cropped up on social media in the days after the Group of Seven summit in Quebec, when Trump called Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “dishonest and weak” for complaining about the President’s metals tariffs. (subscribers)

The only thing ‘wrong’ about this chart is that all the numbers are completely wrong. There are no such tariffs.

The misinformation comes as Mr. Trump ratchets up his trade attacks on Canada. He has hit the country with steel and aluminum tariffs, demanded changes to NAFTA to tilt the playing field toward the United States and threatened crippling levies of 25 per cent on Canadian-made cars.

False, shareable memes, including some created by Russian agents, have been circulating among Trump supporters for years. But they have usually targeted emotionally charged topics, not dry policy matters. The emergence of the chart reflects the increasing furor with which the President’s base sees international trade. And it has observers worried that such misinformation will contribute to the momentum Mr. Trump is building for an escalating continental trade war.

“The President is purposefully evoking a fight against Canada right now. He has an agenda to demonize the trade relationship,” said Bruce Heyman, a former U.S. ambassador to Canada, who said the popularity of the chart is an outgrowth of Mr. Trump’s misleading and hyperbolic trade rhetoric.

The President has, for instance, repeatedly accused Canada of “taking advantage” of the U.S. with its high tariffs on dairy – one of the few barriers that remain under NAFTA – but has been silent on the United States’ own tariffs on a range of food products from sugar to peanuts to sour cream.

At a Monday rally in South Carolina, the mere mention of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s name drew boos from the crowd. “Justin, what’s your problem, Justin?” Mr. Trump said. “Canada has a 275-per-cent tariff on dairy products … I said, ‘Look, if you want to do that, we’re going to put a little tariff on your cars coming in.’ ”

The exact origin of the fake tariff chart is not clear. It first cropped up on social media in the days after the Group of Seven summit in Quebec, when Mr. Trump called Mr. Trudeau “dishonest and weak” for complaining about the President’s metals tariffs.

On June 13, a pro-Trump Twitter account called @TakebkUS tweeted the chart. Both the chart and the tweet contained the same grammatical error, mistakenly inserting an apostrophe to pluralize “tariffs” and “TVs.” But the person who runs @TakebkUS, who would not give his or her name, told The Globe he or she did not create the chart and did not remember where it came from.

The next day, a Trump-supporting Facebook page called The Federalist Papers posted the chart with the comment “Does this seem wrong to you?” and garnered 27,000 reactions.

On June 21, Charlie Kirk, the founder of a conservative student group, fell for the hoax. “Trump is levelling the playing field with Canada who has been ripping us off,” he tweeted, along with the false Canadian tariff levels. His tweet received more than 10,000 retweets and 20,000 likes.

Neither Mr. Kirk nor The Federalist Papers responded to requests for comment. None of the people who shared the table erased or corrected it after informed by The Globe that the numbers are fake.

Scott Lincicome, a trade expert with the Cato Institute think tank, said the chart’s figures are so outlandish that it is clearly a deliberate hoax and not an honest mistake.

“It strikes me as so obviously wrong that it wasn’t unintentional,” he said. “Someone sat down and decided they would create a fake chart.”

The table’s creator even cited three supposed sources for the false numbers: The Office of the United States Trade Representative, the U.S. International Trade Commission and the Canadian Minister of International Trade. None of the three show figures on their websites anywhere close to the supposed Canadian NAFTA tariffs in the chart. The spread of politically charged internet hoaxes first came to public attention during the 2016 presidential election, when made-up news stories and memes – generally targeted at Trump supporters – spread through Facebook and Twitter. Some were allegedly built by Russian agents trying to tip the election to Mr. Trump.

“Trump made NAFTA an emotional issue and made his supporters think about it in emotional terms,” said David Carroll, an associate professor at the Parsons School of Design who has tracked the rise of false news. “There’s no issue that isn’t seen through a sense of resentment.”

In reality, Mr. Heyman said, the few trade disputes between the two countries are small blemishes in a mostly harmonious and 99-per-cent tariff-free trading relationship worth $900-billion last year.

“Imagine a pristine sports field, and in the middle of it, Trump sees a single dandelion,” Mr. Heyman said. “He says, ‘Oh my God, look at that – it’s full of weeds, we’d better rip up the whole field.’ ”

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