Angelo Carusone on MSNBC: “The greatest threat for extremism going forward is this groomer narrative. ... It is no longer just limited to the fever swamps.”

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Citation From the January 29. 2023 edition of MSNBC's American Voices with Alicia Menendez

ALICIA MENENDEZ (HOST): Just days after the release of the Paul Pelosi attack video, the GOP back to spreading false narratives. House Judiciary chair Jim Jordan repeating the same conspiracy theories that helped put a target on Pelosi.


MENENDEZ: As if clinging to that nonsense was not enough. You may remember that many Republicans mocked Paul Pelosi for being assaulted. Joining us to discuss Media Matters president, Angelo Carusone, Clint Watts, MSNBC national security analyst and former FBI special agent. He's a distinguished research fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Angelo, I know you watch this, you track this. How is far right media responding to the Pelosi video becoming public? And remind our viewers how that incident appears to be connected to disinformation in the first place.

ANGELO CARUSONE (MMFA PRESIDENT AND CHAIR): So, I mean, a big part of it, a big piece of what stirred this up to the start, is that they created this existential threat about Nancy Pelosi, which then sort of filters down. And so people sort of feel like they have to take vigilante action in order to respond to this clear and present danger. And that's sort of how you get someone super radicalized down a pipeline where they think the only choice is to start to take action.

And what they did when that incident first happened is that instead of just saying this is a tragedy, wow, we're really sorry, they weaved it into  this massive conspiracy theory, that somehow, you know, Nancy Pelosi was hijacking this for some purposes, and more importantly, that maybe something was going on with Paul Pelosi, maybe he was having an extramarital affair with this man, maybe there was something sketchy going on. Perhaps there was some China money involved. They just peppered the landscape with conspiracies so that we couldn't even have a normal reaction to an attack.

And if you fast forward to the video being released, the right-wing media responded in two ways. The largest segment of it responded by basically saying, this confirms all of our conspiracy theories. When he answered the door, he was in his underwear. That's suspicious. He had a drink in his hand, that's suspicious. We didn't see any evidence that they didn't know each other. In fact, the call seemed to suggest that perhaps they did know each other. So they just doubled down.

And I think that that illustrates the danger here. And then a subset of it, you know, some parts of Fox News and some parts of the right-wing media sort of did what they did with the birther conspiracy and said, well, and this gets back to the clip that you were playing about Jim Jordan. They said, gee, you know, they sure took a long time to release this footage. Do you think they were trying to force us to have all this conjecture? They're the ones that created and fomented these conspiracy theories by withholding all of this information because they knew then it would create this doubt and feed the landscape with conspiracies, which would then allow them to come in and take some kind of control.

And therefore, you should not trust the powers that be – law enforcement. Somebody was doing that to kind of set us all up. And I think that just illustrates where we're going here, which is that we can't even agree on something as clear-cut and awful as what happened in a black-and-white video.

MENENDEZ: So Clint, I want you to pick up where Angelo left off, because that's the disinformation piece of it. How does it then tie to the extremism we've seen across this country?

CLINT WATTS (GUEST): Know, I think consistently, Alicia, what we've seen over the last 5 to 6 years is people that consume information out in social media, out in the open. What you tend to find is that if individuals are demonized on these conspiracy theories, you don't know who the attacker is going to be, but you do know who is going to be attacked, meaning that when they hear these things about Nancy Pelosi, Paul Pelosi or any other public figure that's being defamed, 1%, you know, a fraction of 1%, will take that as a very, very serious thing. And they will then undertake violence or undertake an attack or like we're seeing here in this video, go and try and seek those people out and cause them physical harm. And that's really where the extremism has gone over the last five, 5 to 6 years is that it's become what we call stochastic. It is based on mediated sort of targeting of individuals and talking about them in terms of conspiracies. But those conspiracies result in – the more people hear it, the more they tend to believe it, and the more a fraction of those people tend to believe they want to take action. And that's what we're seeing quite often nowadays.

MENENDEZ: Angelo, The New York Times reports former President Trump has wholeheartedly embraced QAnon since being banished from mainstream social media. You've seen that. I wonder, as now you know, he plans his return to Twitter, to Instagram, what you are most concerned about when it comes to disinformation.

CARUSONE: I mean, I am really concerned with two things. One, that there's sort of the Qanon conspiracy can get a supercharge here because as the reporting noted, I mean, we've counted that he's promoted Qanon more than 400 times on his own social media platform, he's only increasing it. And the week after the last midterms, you know, 50% of his posts either undermine the elections or promoted QAnon.

And I think that ties in with the extremism and some of the stuff that Clint was saying before, which is that I think the greatest threat for extremism going forward is this groomer narrative and this idea that Democrats that the news media are engaging in massive amounts of pedophilia, it is no longer just limited to the fever swamps. You now have increasingly mainstream Republicans making this argument and validating it. And then coupled with that, you sort of have an emboldened Christian nationalist sort of movement now, which kind of acts like sandpaper. It smoothes out the edges of that hate. And I think that that conspiracy alone, once Trump gets involved and starts to add more fuel to that fire because it validates the QAnon thing, it takes something that was on the fringes and moves closer to the center of power. I think it creates all the conditions that intensify a climate for attacks, a climate for violence. And it's all going to be enabled by the right-wing media and in particular by this action, which is going to give him a whole new set of reach.