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Jared Holt

Author ››› Jared Holt
  • Rumored Ouster Of White House Press Corps Was Months In The Making


    According to reports, the incoming Trump administration has given “serious consideration” to the idea of removing the permanent press corps from the White House. This potential exclusion of the press from White House access has been months in the making, with President-elect Donald Trump, his political allies, and his right-wing media sycophants clamoring for the next administration to restrict access for outlets that have criticized his policies and statements and attacking the press in general. Meanwhile, the president-elect has been building up alternative, pro-Trump outlets.

  • Germany Investigating "Unprecedented Proliferation" Of Fake News In Wake Of Fabricated Breitbart Story

    Blog ››› ››› JARED HOLT

    The German government announced it will use "all possible means" to investigate the spread of fake news online following Russian hacks and a dubious Breitbart news story that falsely claimed Muslim immigrants attacked a church.

    Reuters reported that German officials announced the government’s plan to investigate the “unprecedented proliferation” of fake news online amid growing concerns within German intelligence that Russia may attempt to interfere in the 2017 German parliamentary election.

    The announcement came following the backlash of a fake news story published by that falsely claimed a “mob” of 1,000 Muslims attacked police and attempted to set a church on fire during New Year's Eve celebrations. German police immediately quashed the false story, and German newspaper editorial boards called out Breitbart for using “exaggerations and factual errors” to create “an image of chaotic civil war-like conditions in Germany, caused by Islamist aggressors.”

    In November, Breitbart announced it would open new bureaus in France and Germany to “help elect right-wing politicians” in the countries facing upcoming elections in environments where “anti-immigrant sentiment has been on the rise." Since that time, Breitbart has published a number of stories attacking Angela Merkel and German immigration policies.

    German officials also expressed concerns about Russian use of fake news in the country. The New York Times reported that Russia was behind the hacking into the German Parliament’s computer network in 2015 that left nearly 1 million Germans without internet access and increased fears that Russia will use fake news to “corrupt public debate and democratic processes.”

  • Fox News Goes All In On Its Efforts To Be Trump's Shills

    ››› ››› JARED HOLT

    Following Megyn Kelly’s announcement that she will be leaving Fox News for NBC, the network moved quickly to install pro-Trump host Tucker Carlson into her prime-time slot. Fox’s move cements its ongoing audition to serve as Trump’s go-to network for spreading his agenda, which has included the network devoting disproportionate airtime to his candidacy, then-Fox News CEO Roger Ailes advising Trump, and network figures shielding and defending him from negative coverage. Trump also retreated to the network toward the end of the campaign, and since his election he has considered or selected a number of Fox News figures to serve in his administration.

  • Here's Seven Times TV Journalists Dunked On Kellyanne Conway

    Blog ››› ››› JARED HOLT

    Kellyanne Conway, President-elect Donald Trump’s former campaign manager and newly announced counselor to the president, has been called out by TV journalists from multiple outlets for attempting to spin facts and distort reality on live television. Conway has repeatedly attempted to lie about Trump, only to be embarrassingly checked by TV journalists.

    NBC's Chuck Todd Called Out Conway Over Trump’s "Rigged" Election Claims: "All Of That Stuff's Been Debunked."

    [NBC, Meet the Press, 10/23/16]

    MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Schooled Conway On The Unconstitutionality Of "Extreme Vetting."

    [MSNBC, The Rachel Maddow Show, 8/24/16]

    CNN’s Dana Bash Pushed Conway To Admit Trump Was Talking About Sexual Assault When He Bragged About Grabbing Women By Their Genitals.

    [CNN, Debate Night in America, 10/9/16]

    ABC's George Stephanopoulos Called Out Conway For Suddenly Being OK With Trump’s Unreleased Tax Returns After Trump Hired Her.

    [ABC, This Week, 8/21/16]

    CNN's Alisyn Camerota Forced Conway To Answer For Trump Chief Executive Stephen Bannon's “Insulting, Offensive” Breitbart Headlines.

    [CNN, New Day, 8/18/16]

    CNN's Wolf Blitzer Called Out Conway’s Complacent Response To Trump’s Attacks Against Journalists, Despite Her History Working With News Media.

    [CNN, The Situation Room, 10/25/16]

    NBCs Andrea Mitchell Shut Down Conway When She Falsely Claimed Hillary Clinton Didn't Talk To Voters.

    [MSNBC, The Place For Politics, 9/13/16]

  • How Facebook’s Fake News Ecosystem Empowers Total Lies

    How Fake News Purveyors Used Facebook To Create The Notorious “Pizzagate” Conspiracy Theory

    Blog ››› ››› JARED HOLT & TYLER CHERRY

    Step One: A Lie Is Born

    Step Two: Fringe Blogs And Websites "Report" Baseless Claims As News

    Step Three: Fringe Sites Promote The Story On Affiliated Facebook Pages

    Step Four: Facebook Users Share Stories On Group Pages And Personal Timelines

    Step Five: Other Fake News Purveyors Copy The Story And Promote It Again On Facebook

    Step Six: Fake News Stories Become "Trending Topics" Which Makes Them Even More Viral

    Step Seven: The Lie Is Noticed And Validated By Public Figures

    Step Eight: Fake News Creators And Purveyors Make Money And Sites Repeat The Cycle

    Facebook never set out to be a hotbed of bogus conspiracy theories. But its information ecosystem and news feed algorithm proved ripe for bad actors, and purveyors of fake news have gamed the system to deceive and misinform the public -- with incredibly dangerous consequences.

    On October 30, a white supremacist-linked Twitter account posted a tweet that would develop into a national fake news story, one claiming Hillary Clinton and her allies were involved in a widespread child sex-trafficking ring. After fake news stories spread the baseless claim through Facebook, conspiracy theorists on message boards Reddit and 4Chan named a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor as a central hub in the supposed operation. The story gained further traction on Facebook from there. Weeks later, an armed man entered the restaurant and endangered the lives of patrons and employees while he attempted to “self-investigate” the conspiracy claims that Facebook’s fake news ecosystem had artificially legitimized.

    According to Media Matters’ definition of the fake news universe, fake news is information that is clearly and demonstrably fabricated and that has been packaged and distributed to appear as legitimate news. Incentivized by ad revenue or potential political gain, fake news purveyors (websites, social media pages and accounts, or individuals who share or aggregate fake news stories) have figured out how to exploit Facebook’s algorithmic curation of news -- which relies on user engagement in determining what stories to promote -- to launch outlandish fabrications into the mainstream. Fake news purveyors’ efforts to push fake news on Facebook were also made easier after the social media giant fired its human editors in August following conservative outcry over allegations of suppressing conservative news. Fake news purveyors have largely found success peddling fake news stories on Facebook by modeling the following formula, and it is with this formula that fake news purveyors used Facebook to catalyze Pizzagate’s journey from a random tweet to international infamy:

    Fake news can sprout from multiple types of content, including clickbait, conspiracy theories, propaganda, and simply made-up lies on random internet platforms. A solitary lie might not have much of an impact, but a lie weaponized in the form of a packaged “news” article to achieve political gain can have serious consequences.

    In the case of Pizzagate, a white supremacist-linked Twitter account tweeted a screenshot of a seemingly random Facebook comment that claimed an “NYPD source” said Hillary Clinton was involved in an “international child enslavement and sex ring.” The Twitter account, which BuzzFeed noted uses a profile image found on white supremacist message boards, posted the comment as fact, stating that the “rumors stirring in the NYPD” indicated a “pedophila ring” (sic) with Clinton at the center. As of December 15, the tweet had been retweeted 6,516 times and liked 5,303 times.

    Although the tweet was retweeted thousands of times, its initial reach was limited by Twitter's platform, which is smaller than that of other social media sites. According to a Pew Research Center report, only 24 percent of adult internet users said they use Twitter -- which ranks it slightly lower than LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Instagram -- versus 79 percent who said they use Facebook.

    Fake news stories born in the fever swamps of the internet, specifically, are breathed into life when fringe websites with no regard for the source or veracity of claims package the fabricated claims as legitimate news.

    A user on the fringe web forum Godlike Productions (GLP) echoed the original neo-Nazi’s tweet, claiming that he or she had “inside sources” that confirmed at least six “members of Congress, several top leadership from federal agencies, and others” were involved in a “massive child trafficking and pedophile sex ring” fronted by the Clinton Foundation. The user claimed that members of Clinton’s inner circle of influencers “were active participants” and that the FBI and Department of Justice feared “a complete loss of public support for the federal government.”

    Fake news purveyor and conspiracy website Your News Wire published a news-style article (listed in the news section of its site) that alleged that an “FBI insider” confirmed the Clinton Foundation was a front for a “political pedophile sex ring.” Marking the point at which a lie becomes weaponized into fake news, Your News Wire cited only the GLP message board, the original tweet, and an archived thread on 4Chan’s “/pol/” (“Politically Incorrect”) message board containing a self-described “person with intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the Clinton case” as supposed evidence that “a massive child trafficking and pedophile sex ring operates in Washington.”

    Fringe websites that would not otherwise gather traffic on their own then push the fake news story to their affiliated Facebook pages. This serves both to maximize user engagement with the story (often aided by clickbait headlines) and to redirect users to their website (which is the main source of revenue for fake news purveyors, mostly because of advertising).

    Your News Wire posted its article alleging Clinton confidants were orchestrating a pedophile sex ring to the site’s affiliated Facebook page, where it has received more than 28,000 engagements -- likes, comments or shares -- since the story was first posted on October 31 through publication of this post, according to social media analytics service BuzzSumo.

    Facebook’s platform offers digital publishers access to more people than any other platform does.

    After fake information is placed into the Facebook news ecosystem and served up on users’ timelines, users recycle and share content. Because of Facebook’s algorithmic curation of news stories, the more that users engage with a story, the more of their friends see it, and so on. Users can repost fake news stories to their own or their friends’ timelines, share to another group, or cross-post to other sites like Reddit and Twitter to increase traffic to the story.

    Once a fake news story posted to Facebook starts to generate more user engagement, other fake news purveyors will often adapt the stories on their own websites. Then, after publishing the fake news to their own site, either by copying the story verbatim or by adding new, baseless details to spice up the “report,” these other fake news purveyors follow the same step as the original fake news creator: push to Facebook. As more and more fake news purveyors publish the same story on Facebook, a wider audience sees and engages with the fake story, making it go viral.

    AnonNews, a news blog claiming to be associated with hacking group Anonymous, regurgitated Your News Wire’s story verbatim in an article and in a Facebook post that has since been deleted. BuzzFeed reported that the fake news purveyor Subject Politics “introduced new, baseless claims” to the original conspiracy theory and used “an unrelated image of officers carrying seized property to create the impression the NYPD ‘raided’ something belonging to the Clintons.” Subject Politics has since deleted the article and corresponding Facebook post (which is not archived online), which had generated 113,500 engagements before the article's deletion, according to BuzzSumo. Fake news purveyor True Pundit next introduced new criminal claims to accuse Clinton of money laundering, child exploitation, pay-to-play at the State Department, and perjury. The corresponding Facebook post for the True Pundit article has since been deleted, but it generated over 164,000 engagements from when the story was posted on November 2 until publication.

    Other platforms including Reddit and 4Chan also facilitate the spread of fake news, partly by serving as a platform for fake news purveyors to post their bogus stories, but also because their users create more fabrications that fake news purveyors then package into updated fake news reports.

    After widely shared fake news stories alleging a child sex-trafficking operation in Washington, D.C., spread on Facebook for days, a Reddit user posted an elaborate conspiracy manifesto on the subreddit “r/The_Donald” that named Washington pizza restaurant Comet Ping Pong as a central location for the imaginary pedophilia sex ring. Moderators on the site have since removed the post, though discussion about it remains.

    After the user created more false claims about the pizzeria, more fake news purveyors adopted the lies into their own fake news, which in turn ended up back on Facebook. Western Sentinel uncritically published claims made on the Reddit forum as if they were fact, using the manifesto as an indication that “some form of pedophile ring that involves quite a few public figures” is operating from the Washington pizza parlor. According to BuzzSumo, in an article and Facebook post that has been since deleted and is not archived, The Vigilant Citizen published an article crediting 4Chan users for having “uncovered” the conspiracy theory.

    As fake news stories gain traction among an array of Facebook pages that traffic in hyperpartisan misinformation, more and more users see and engage with them. Then, as a story is increasingly shared, mentioned, and liked by Facebook users, its “engagement” level skyrockets. Facebook, which relies largely on algorithmic curation to determine what stories appear in its “trending” box after having fired its human editors, prioritizes engagement and rewards highly engaged stories -- those with “a high volume of mentions and a sharp increase in mentions over a short period of time” -- by making them visible to even more users. Of course, as more users see a story (precisely because it is boosted by engagement), its engagement level continues to grow, feeding a cycle of increasing engagement.

    Facebook employees cited by Quartz said “engagement is the overriding priority” for determining how the site’s algorithm curates news, more so than “avoid[ing] prioritizing misleading stories.” As more users share fake news stories, more of their friends see them; as an exponential number of users engage with a fake news story, it becomes viral; and as a fake news story becomes viral, there’s a high likelihood it could pierce into the Facebook “trending” section, where of course, it lends itself to maximum visibility. Facebook’s algorithmic prioritization of engagement ultimately ends up amplifying fake news stories.

    As BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman reported of Pizzagate, “Thanks to just a few tweets, a couple of message board posts, and the help of some pro-Trump sites eager for traffic, this conspiracy theory generated hundreds of thousands of engagements on Facebook, reaching potentially tens or hundreds of thousands of people.”

    As fake news stories go viral on Facebook, their chance for entering into the mainstream increases. Both because right-wing political influencers have a propensity for believing and peddling bogus stories and because the viral nature of fake news stories arguably offers them a veneer of credibility (see step six), these fabrications disguised as news -- including Pizzagate -- can and often do find their way into the mouths of public figures.

    Michael Flynn Jr., son of Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for national security adviser, and a former member of the Trump transition team, for example, tweeted about Pizzagate the same day that a gunman entered the D.C. pizzeria to “self-investigate” the claims:

    When fake news-purveying sites are successful in stimulating Facebook user engagement for their content, and in turn receive traffic to their affiliated web pages, advertisements and data trackers placed on their websites can earn the site owners a lot of money. This revenue stream enables the sites to continue operation and incentivizes them to continue presenting unsubstantiated sensational claims as fact.

    Many hyperpartisan sites peddling fake news stories rely on Google AdSense to generate wealth. Online publishers can earn money through Google’s AdSense program by hosting advertisements on their websites while Google serves as a middleman between publishers and advertisers. On November 14, Google announced that it would “ban websites that peddle fake news from using its online advertising service” in order to target fake news purveyors’ revenue sources. Despite this announcement, a Media Matters analysis found that one month later, Google AdSense-linked ads still appeared on many sites that blast fake news across social media platforms. The same methodology also reveals that Your News Wire, the first site to package the Pizzagate conspiracy theory into a fake news story, is still hosting AdSense ads today alongside its original “article” about the imaginary child trafficking ring.

    Other sources of revenue for sites can come in the form of paid-to-publish articles advertising products, other ad services like Taboola, and pop-up advertisements.

    Fake News Has Real Consequences

    Fake news stories can have lasting -- and sometimes dangerous -- consequences.

    According to a Pew Research Center report, 64 percent of Americans -- including a majority in both political parties -- said fake news has caused “a great deal” of confusion about the basic facts of current events. The report states that about a third of Americans said they often see “completely made-up” political news while online and more than half said they see news that is “not fully accurate.” Fake news has the potential to undercut the public’s belief that the information they receive, even from legitimate sources of news, can be trusted.

    The power of fake news and the social media ecosystem that enables it are not inconsequential and cannot be easily dismissed. In the case of Pizzagate, what started as a random online conspiracy theory morphed into a widely shared international news story. According to a search of the term "Pizzagate" on BuzzSumo, ranging from October 30 -- the date of the initial neo-Nazi tweet that kickstarted the fake news story -- through December 19, social media users have shared web articles (including both real and fake news stories) related to the conspiracy theory more than 5.2 million times across different platforms since the lie's birth. (Buzzsumo allows users to “discover the most shared content across all social networks and run detailed analysis reports.”)

    BuzzSumo data also showed that Facebook specifically drove an overwhelming amount of traffic to Pizzagate-related articles from October 30 through November 21, when the Pizzagate rumors were officially debunked for the first time by The New York Times.

    But the debunking of the lie did not stop it. At Pizzagate's climax, police arrested a North Carolina man after he walked into Comet Ping Pong pizza parlor with an assault rifle and fired at least one shot. The Washington Post reported that the man told police he traveled to the restaurant to “self-investigate” the fake news reports alleging that the eatery was the center in a Clinton-run pedophilia sex-trafficking operation.

    Pizzagate-like tactics -- publishing a baseless smear in a news-style article format and distributing it to an eager fan base -- have also been adopted to target not just establishments like Comet Ping Pong, but also individual people. Alt-right social media personality Mike Cernovich has now used the same method of attack that made Pizzagate dangerous to attack video editor and satirist Vic Berger, urging his followers to “monitor” Berger and his Twitter followers to “find out what is going on, who these people are, what their connections are” because “they might be harming children.” By spreading the false rumor that Berger and his Twitter followers may be involved in a child sex ring, Cernovich’s “pizzagate” tactics have resulted in a flood of online harassment and death threats aimed at Berger from “alt-right” Twitter users.

    Fake news, beginning in the form of a baseless Facebook comment and eventually becoming weaponized by a cohesive machine of fake news creators and purveyors, has had and will continue to have real-life consequences unless Facebook tightens its rules for how it is allowed to thrive on its platform.

    Graphics by Sarah Wasko

  • One Of The “Alt-Right” Men Who Brought You “Pizzagate” Is Now Attacking Vic Berger

    Blog ››› ››› JARED HOLT

    “Alt-right” social media personality Mike Cernovich used “pizzagate”-like tactics to attack video editor and satirist Vic Berger, who was subjected to online harassment and threats after he mocked Cernovich. In spite of his repeated harassment of other Twitter users, the social media network has taken no action against Cernovich, who became a verified user in August.

    Cernovich operates the website Danger & Play, which publishes numerous articles, essays, and audio recordings that attack feminists and "SJWs" (social justice warriors) and dispute the validity of date rape claims. On his Twitter accounts, Cernovich has dismissed the possibility of date rape, writing, “The hotter the sex, the more closely it resembles rape” and “The only rape culture is Muslim rape culture” and asking, “Why should I care when women are raped?”

    Cernovich was one of many “alt-right” figures who weaponized fake news articles to push “pizzagate,” a conspiracy theory that baselessly alleged Hillary Clinton’s inner circle was orchestrating a child sex-trafficking ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizzeria. Cernovich and his fellow “alt-right” figures’ promotion of the story on social media resulted in “abusive social media comments” for the named pizzeria owners and inspired a man to enter the business with a gun and fire shots while attempting to “self-investigate” the claims.

    Retired general Michael Flynn, whom President-elect Donald Trump has selected as his national security adviser, has frequently interacted with Cernovich on Twitter and praised Cernovich’s “terrific book” Gorilla Mindset: How to Control Your Thoughts and Emotions, Improve Your Health and Fitness, Make More Money, and Live Life on Your Terms.

    Cernovich used the same method of attack that made “pizzagate” dangerous for the Washington pizzeria owners to attack Berger, urging his followers to “monitor” Berger and his Twitter followers to “find out what is going on, who these people are, what their connections are” because “they might be harming children.” By spreading the false rumor that Berger and his Twitter followers may be involved in a child sex ring, Cernovich inspired his Twitter followers -- who have already been hearing for months that Democrats are pedophiles -- to lash out at Berger and several of his Twitter followers, including some who have never spoken to Berger but merely follow his Twitter account.

    Berger starting satirizing Cernovich in November, mocking him with video supercuts, asking him to investigate a made-up conspiracy theory that Trump has rabies, and replying to Cernovich’s most disgusting tweets, which talked about “going to the gym” with “period juice all over you” and suggested that “date rape does not exist.” After Cernovich blocked Berger from following him, Berger asked his followers to write Cernovich and tell him to unblock him because “1st Amendment is very important,” apparently mocking Cernovich’s self-proclamation that he is a “free speech activist.”

    Cernovich responded to Berger by alleging in an article on his site, Danger and Play, that one of Berger’s Twitter followers sent him a direct message that included a photo of a newborn baby and the word “cum” after Cernovich posted a photo of himself with his newborn daughter. Cernovich cited a screenshot that “has been deleted as it was sickening,” but is not included on any archived pages.

    Cernovich’s “pizzagate” tactics have resulted in a flood of online harassment and death threats aimed at Berger from “alt-right” Twitter users. Berger tweeted on December 18 that he was abandoning his Twitter profile until the harassment “is settled” because he needed to “protect [his] family.” And that’s worrying because, as UW-Madison public affairs professor Don Moynihan pointed out, after “pizzagate” it is “reasonable to worry that lies will end in violence.” Journalist Dave Weigel also noted mockingly that this tactic of baselessly calling your opponent a pedophile and mobilizing people to take action “worked so well with Pizzagate.”

    During “pizzagate,” Cernovich repeatedly pushed fake news validating the conspiracy, accused the mainstream media of “covering up” for alleged pedophiles, implied Vice President Joe Biden was a pedophile, and alleged that there was “zero evidence” connecting an armed man who entered the Washington, D.C, pizzeria to “pizzagate” in the incident’s immediate aftermath.

    Cernovich activated a hotbed of Twitter users to threaten Berger using the same smear tactics the “alt-right” used to promote harassment over “pizzagate”: Publishing a smear in a news-style article format and distributing it to an eager fan base.

  • It’s Time For MSNBC To Address Reports That Joe Scarborough Is Advising Donald Trump

    Blog ››› ››› JARED HOLT

    MSNBC must address recent reports that President-elect Donald Trump “often seeks out” political advice from network host Joe Scarborough. If true, the reports call into question Morning Joe’s Trump coverage and present an ethical dilemma for the network.

    On November 19, The New York Times reported that Trump “still maintains the routine that sustained him during the campaign,” which includes “often seek[ing] out” advice from Scarborough. CNN media reporter Brian Stelter referenced the Times report on the November 20 edition of CNN’s Reliable Sources, stating that Scarborough "has been giving Trump advice.” Scarborough failed to address the allegations during the November 21 edition of Morning Joe.

    Scarborough has repeatedly attacked those who claimed he was supporting Trump on-air. In November, Scarborough lashed out at the “really disgusting” people who suggested he favored Trump, adding that he doesn’t want viewers to believe “that anybody [on Morning Joe] is rooting for Donald Trump because we’re not.” Similarly, when conservative columnist Bill Kristol called out the Morning Joe hosts for “rewriting history” on the show’s coverage of Trump during a guest appearance in October, Scarborough and his co-host Mika Brzezinski devolved into a screaming match, calling Kristol “bitter,” and claiming he was “practically crying.”

    Despite the hosts’ defense of their Trump coverage, they have repeatedly fawned over Trump and defended him from media criticism following an off-air meeting between Scarborough, Brzezinski, and Trump in September to “rekindle their relationship.” Since that meeting, Scarborough has lashed out at journalists who expressed concern over Trump’s refusal to say if would accept election results, refused to accept that a Trump television ad featured anti-Semitic themes, and denied the assertion that the press carried Trump through his campaign.

    Other media figures have criticized the program’s cozy relationship with Trump throughout the election. Conservative radio host Steve Deace told MSNBC that Scarborough had turned his show into “a Trump super PAC for six months,” and Baltimore Sun media critic David Zurawik called Scarborough’s relationship with Trump “inappropriate.” And an NBC pollster cited Morning Joe’s Trump coverage as an example of how the media have bolstered, and to an extent, even "created" Trump.

    Trump has also sought advice from other conservative media figures like Fox News’ Sean Hannity. In August, The New York Times reported Hannity had expanded beyond his role as “Trump’s biggest media booster” and “veer[ed] into the role of adviser,“ where he “peppered Mr. Trump, his family members and advisers with suggestions on strategy and messaging.” Like Scarborough, Hannity has repeatedly defended Trump from criticism and been accused of acting as an “arm of the Trump campaign.”

    At the risk of compromising the network’s journalistic integrity, MSNBC must address reports that Scarborough is advising Trump, since Scarborough has shown he will not address them on his own. If reports are accurate, Scarborough should fully disclose his advising role to Trump. To do otherwise would be journalistic malpractice.