How a CNBC headline describing Elizabeth Warren’s plan to fight disinformation snowballed into a right-wing smear

On January 29, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) released her plan to push back against disinformation that has seemingly taken over the internet in recent years. That same day, a CNBC headline suggested Warren had proposed “criminal penalties for spreading voting disinformation online.” The headline ultimately snowballed into a right-wing media smear accusing Warren of plotting to criminalize political beliefs with which she disagrees. 

Warren’s plan explains how online disinformation played a role in the 2016 election and how it could potentially impact future elections: 

In the aftermath of the election, experts studied thousands of posts from major social media platforms and found that the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) sought to benefit the Republican party by creating fraudulent accounts on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook and using them to post and spread false and inflammatory information. These efforts had three main goals: creating deeper divisions among voters on particular issues; discrediting or promoting particular candidates; and suppressing the vote.

Warren explained that online disinformation impacted the 2016 and 2018 elections through attempts to depress voter turnout, such as telling people they could vote by text, misinforming them about the date of Election Day, and other efforts. In her plan, among other measures, the senator stated that she will “push for new laws that impose tough civil and criminal penalties for knowingly disseminating this kind of information, which has the explicit purpose of undermining the basic right to vote.”

The Washington Post, Politico, and Bloomberg wrote up initial summaries of Warren’s proposals, emphasizing her call for tech companies to do more and detailing how she plans to address disinformation. But CNBC focused on the potential legal consequences with the headline “Elizabeth Warren proposes criminal penalties for spreading voting disinformation online.” 

CNBC headline 1/29

Following CNBC’s report, conservative media began to cover her plan with a similar frame. The Washington Times and National Review both wrote articles that emphasized “criminal penalties” for voter disinformation in the headline, while the Washington Examiner wrote that Warren “has a plan” for “criminalizing free speech online.” 

More sensationalist right-wing outlets began to pick up the claim, going even further to suggest that Warren had proposed criminalizing free speech -- a natural trigger for conservative media. Some, like Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk, pointed to past personal statements by Warren to claim she’s being hypocritical. TheBlaze claimed Warren is proposing “criminal penalties for spreading ‘disinformation’ to voters online.” The Daily Wire didn’t mention in its headline that the penalties in Warren’s plan targeted voter suppression, claiming that she “proposes criminal penalties for anyone who spreads ‘disinformation’ online.” The New York Post titled its article “Liz Warren’s plan to control online speech is straight out of Orwell.” 

It didn’t take long for the claim to reach Fox News. On January 29, Fox prime-time host Tucker Carlson claimed that Warren “has decided to go full fascist because that's who she is and has always been.” Like Kirk and others, Carlson pointed to Warren’s past statements before claiming that “this very same person is threatening to send you to prison for telling tall tales.” Carlson claimed Warren’s plan means that “when people say things that Elizabeth Warren doesn't like, … they should go to jail.” 

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Citation From the January 29, 2020, edition of Fox News' Tucker Carlson Tonight

The following morning, Fox & Friends hosted right-wing radio host Dana Loesch, who asked if we are “seriously going to start arresting someone because you don't like what they're posting online?” Loesch also suggested Warren’s plan would arrest people “over memes” and compared the proposal to 1984.

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Citation From the January 30, 2020, edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends

On America’s Newsroom, new co-anchor Ed Henry said Warren is trying to “criminalize disinformation,” claiming that “she wants to say if you lie about something, it can all of a sudden be criminal, in a political context.” New York Post columnist Miranda Devine called Warren “the purveyor of fake news herself,” adding, “That's why Donald Trump calls her ‘Pocahontas.’” Brian Brenberg of The King’s College said that Warren’s plan shows that “Democrats actually don't like alternative voices and alternative channels for information and news.” Brenberg concluded that “what is scary is what it could ultimately mean, and it's the suppression of voices that should be heard aren't through traditional media sources.”

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Citation From the January 31, 2020, edition of Fox News' Americas Newsroom

Fox Business host Trish Regan claimed that Warren “wants to criminalize free speech.” Her guest, Rep. Ralph Norman (R-SC), agreed that Warren “wants to criminalize opinion.” They both agreed that Warren would be subject to criminal penalties under her own plan, with Regan concluding that “she's pretty guilty herself.”

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Citation From the January 30, 2020, edition of Fox Business' Trish Regan Primetime