Nine ways Fox has pushed disinformation about civil unrest to terrify its audience

The network can’t stop pushing hoaxes on its website, on Twitter, and on its airwaves

Fox protest coverage

Citation Molly Butler / Media Matters

Fox News has spent the last few weeks terrifying its viewers about the personal threat they face from outbreaks of civil unrest. As polls show that Americans overwhelmingly support the protests against racism and police brutality spurred by the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Fox’s coverage has focused overwhelmingly on instances of violence and chaos. From star host Tucker Carlson’s warning that “violent young men with guns” will soon “make the rules in your neighborhood” to contributor Dan Bongino’s declaration that “this fight is coming to your front door, to every single person watching,” the message going out to its audience is clear: You're in danger.

But the network’s relentless fearmongering is built on disinformation promoted by both its “news side” and “opinion side.” Fox and its personalities have promoted a stream of online hoaxes, pushed evidence-free conspiracy theories, manipulated images, and deceptively aired old video to keep up the unceasing drumbeat. 

This campaign of terror comes as President Donald Trump attempts to resuscitate his faltering reelection campaign with appeals to “law and order.” It’s all reminiscent of the fall of 2018, when both Trump and his Fox propagandists tried to rally Republican voters for the midterm elections by arguing that Democratic mobs were coming to kill them. 

Fox wants its audience to be scared -- and doesn’t care how dishonest it needs to be to make its case. 

Here are nine ways Fox has pushed disinformation about civil unrest to frighten its audience.

1. Fox tried to manufacture evidence-free antifa panic.

Fox personalities joined Trump and Attorney General William Barr in attributing urban violence at and around the George Floyd protests in late May and early June to “antifa,” a blanket term for a nebulous coalition of militant activists who target fascism and racism. As Fox host Laura Ingraham put it in a typical screed, antifa was engaging in “wanton acts of violence are part of a coordinated effort to eventually overthrow the United States government.” But reviews of federal arrests records by The New York Times found no links to antifa cited for those charged with serious crimes. The Washington Post consulted experts and law enforcement sources, and examined state and local arrest records, reporting that antifa had “mostly been nonexistent” at the protests and that “there is no evidence linking outbursts of violence to an organized left-wing effort.”

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Citation From the June 1, 2020, edition of Fox News' The Ingraham Angle:

2. Top “news”-side anchor pushed hoax about antifa placing “pallets of bricks” near protests.

Bret Baier, the network’s most prominent news anchor, reported on June 1 that antifa had been positioning “pallets of bricks” near protest sites as part of a coordinated effort to use as weapons, citing authorities in unnamed cities. Similar claims had circulated on social media at the time, but there was no evidence that the bricks in question had been placed by antifa, and in several cases, they were linked to ongoing construction projects.

3. Fox’s website spread paranoid conspiracy theory about antifa invading suburbia.

Citing a single unnamed “government intelligence source,” FoxNews.com reported on June 2 that violent agitators perhaps linked to antifa “want to move into more suburban areas” and that “arrests among [antifa’s] highest ranks may be imminent.” As the article itself acknowledged, false rumors that antifa was plotting violence in small cities and suburbs had circulated on social media -- at times spread by white supremacists posing as antifa. Two weeks later, neither the arrests of supposed antifa leaders nor its assaults on suburban communities have materialized.

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4. Network’s antifa-focused “investigative journalist” keeps falling for obvious online hoaxes about it.

This has happened at least three times and should be really embarrassing to everyone involved.

5. After unrest subsided, Fox kept playing old “riot porn” B-roll. 

Fox hosts continued to air weeks-old B-roll of violent riots long after the unrest had faded to give the impression it was still ongoing, as CNN’s Brian Stelter documented on June 12. He wrote:

I've been noticing this for several days now. Sometimes the video has a little label in the corner with the date, like “May 28" for fires in Minneapolis, but not always. And if you think the label is sufficient, you're kidding yourself. The video is often accompanied by talk of “unrest," violence and inner-city chaos. One of the banners on Sean Hannity's show Tuesday night said “GROWING LAWLESSNESS IN MAJOR CITIES." His show, and others, have been blurring the unrest seen in the wake of George Floyd's death with other, generalized types of crime. Statements like “we have to restore law and order" have implied that law and order has not been restored.

 

6. Fox illustrated coverage of Seattle protests with doctored, inaccurate images.

Fox’s website repeatedly used digitally altered or simply inaccurate images to illustrate reports about Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) -- several square city blocks protestors took over last week after police abandoned a precinct headquarters, as The Seattle Times documented. While local and national reporting suggests the scene largely resembles a street fair and that protesters’ relations with the city have been cordial, Fox’s coverage has claimed it is a chaotic and dangerous situation -- and it has altered photos to meet that description. 

In one case, Fox spliced a June 10 photo of an armed man at the protest together with scenes of battered downtown storefronts from May 30. In another, it combined the gunman photo with another photo featuring a sign declaring “You are now entering Free Cap Hill,” all without disclosing the manipulations. In a third case, the website used an image of a burning building during violent May 28 protests in Minneapolis to illustrate a story about the CHAZ.

Screenshot seattle protests

Fox initially responded with an inaccurate statement to the Seattle Times, but later appended editor’s notes to its CHAZ stories apologizing for the manipulated and erroneous images. 

7. Fox kept pushing allegations that demonstrators were extorting CHAZ businesses, even after police repudiated it.

Fox trumpeted an anecdotal and unconfirmed June 10 claim from the Seattle Police Department that demonstrators were demanding protection money from businesses in the CHAZ. But local journalists looked into and debunked that allegation -- which appears to originate with a right-wing radio host who claimed to have heard it from two unnamed officers. The police abandoned its claim the next day, with Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best acknowledging that the department had not “had any formal reports of this occurring.” Fox personalities nonetheless continued to promote the claim later that day and into June 12. 

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8. Fox “news” anchor gets confused by a Monty Python joke.

Fox frequently promotes Martha MacCallum as one of the network’s “straight news” journalistic paragons, descriptions that ring hollow to anyone with the slightest familiarity with her work. On Friday, MacCallum said during a segment on the CHAZ, “There is infighting among some the occupiers and some signs of rebellion against Raz Simone,” a rapper and activist who is prominent at the encampment. 

As evidence for her claim, MacCallum then read from a since-deleted Reddit post which stated, “I didn’t vote for Raz. I thought we were an autonomous collective, an anarcho-syndicalist commune at the least. We should take turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week.”

That’s a joke referencing a scene from the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

9. Fox drastically overstated the size of the CHAZ.

The CHAZ comprises several city blocks within the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, a sprawling city covering a land area of 84 square miles. That is apparently not scary enough for Fox, which at times has dramatically inflated its size. On Monday, Sean Hannity described the situation as “a whole -- half a city taken over,” adding, “It’s bad out there.”