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EPA quashes viral tale that it used drones to spy on U.S. farmers

It was a blood-boiler of a story, a menacing tale of government gone too far: The Environmental Protection Agency 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 U.S. congressmen. The only trouble is, it isn't 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 American 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.

Then 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.

"We've never thought that. We've never said that. I don't know where it came from," said Kristen Hassebrook, at the association of Nebraska Cattlemen, when asked about drones buzzing cattle farms.

This is the part that's true: For more than a decade, EPA inspectors have flown over farmland in small private planes, looking for clean-water violations, like dirty runoff or manure dumped into a stream.

The EPA said the flights are legal, under a 1986 Supreme Court decision. They also are cheap: An on-the-ground inspection might cost $10,000, but it costs just $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.

But in Nebraska, the cattlemen have raised new concerns about the impact of the flights.

"It is truly an invasion of privacy," said Chuck Folken, who runs a farm in Leigh, Neb.

On May 29, Nebraska's congressional delegation -- four Republicans and a Democrat -- wrote a letter to the EPA, asking about the aerial surveillance. The letter didn't say a word about drones.

But soon enough, somebody did.

First a couple of Twitter users got it wrong. Then 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 lawmakers' letter, but didn't mention drones.

That same afternoon, the falsehood spread to television. On a Fox News Channel opinion show called "The Five," Fox contributor Bob Beckel said the same thing aloud. "They are drones, they are flying overhead," he said.

Over the next three days, the story appeared on blogs, was tweeted and re-tweeted.

On June 5, the falsehood hit a growth spurt.

"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."

Two days later, on Comedy Central, the Daily Show made fun of Kelly, but repeated the falsehood. "Those aren't the same drones!" host Jon Stewart said.

On June 6, the fast-moving rumor made it to Capitol Hill.

"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," he said.

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. Fortenberry 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 himself had signed the original, drone-free letter from the Nebraska delegation, whose misinterpretation had begun the drone rumors in the first place.

But at this point, nine days later, the false reports about his own statement had reverberated around the country, and found their way back to Fortenberry, who appeared to treat them as something new and alarming.

But the truth has begun, slowly, to rouse itself and stagger after the lie.

A spokeswoman for Fortenberry said he now accepts the EPA's account that no drones exist. Fox News said on June 10 and June 14 that the flights were by planes, not drones.