The dangerous ecosystem of fabricated news stories and hyperpartisan sites and social media accounts once again capitalized on anti-Muslim fearmongering to spread disinformation about and attacks on activist Linda Sarsour. And Google is still letting these fake news purveyors cash in on the hate.
Sarsour, a Palestinian-American activist and organizer born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, was one of four lead organizers of the record-breaking January 21 Women’s March held in Washington, D.C., and in sister cities internationally. She is the executive director of the nonprofit Arab American Association of New York and co-founder of Muslims for Ferguson, and she was recognized by the Obama White House for her roles in intersectional civil rights and racial justice organizing on the national level for years. Sarsour is also a practicing Muslim who wears a hijab.
Predictably and painfully, hyperpartisan political blogs seized on Sarsour’s religion in an attempt to devalue the success of the march and stoke anti-Muslim sentiment among readers. The poorly sourced attacks on Sarsour stemming from the conservative blogosphere -- quintessential fearmongering common in post-9/11 right-wing news -- coalesced with complete fabrications pushed by an entire network of unaccountable websites and social media pages catering more openly to an anti-Muslim audience.
Sarsour was “relentlessly trolled on Twitter since the Washington march,” but has now drawn support from thousands who fought back against this concerted anti-Muslim disinformation campaign against her. Even as the attacks on Sarsour appear to wind down, though, Google and other advertising networks are still allowing fake news purveyors to make money from their hateful fake news stories about Sarsour.
Attack: Sarsour “Met” An “Ex-Hamas Operative”
On January 21, the hyperpartisan right-wing site The Daily Caller -- “an outlet for opposition research paid for by the donor class” -- published a confusing report alleging that Sarsour “has family ties to terror group” Hamas and “recently met” an “ex-Hamas operative.” The outlet’s evidence for the latter claim appears to be a single photo of Sarsour posing with a group at a large-scale Muslim civics convention where she spoke. Among those pictured is a man named Salah Sarsour (no relation to Linda, as The Daily Caller even sort of acknowledges), who was identified as an alleged financier for Hamas in the 1990s, based on several statements made by his brother at the time. And that’s it. That’s the evidence.
The other “ties” referenced in the article’s headline hinge on Sarsour’s work with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim advocacy group frequently attacked by conservative media, and a 2012 New York Times article in which Sarsour explicitly “denies having any contact with Hamas or other radical groups.” The 2012 article detailed a rise in anti-Muslim attacks spurred by the conservative tea party, including calls for Sarsour to resign from her Brooklyn neighborhood advisory panel because some “members of her family had been arrested on accusations of supporting Hamas.” Additional articles, which The Daily Caller did not cite, indicate that two distant relatives and a family friend of Sarsour’s were serving long sentences in Israeli jails. The writer of the 2012 Times piece explained, “Though she had several times denied any connections to radical Islamic groups, some people argue she should be held accountable for her relatives’ activities and views.”
The Gateway Pundit, a right-wing blog notorious for hapless and irresponsible reporting that has pushed complete fabrications in the past, seized on this shoddy report from The Daily Caller -- along with two of Sarsour’s tweets from May 2015 that joked about widespread conservative fearmongering around sharia law -- to make the additional claim that “Sarsour is pro-Sharia law with ties to Hamas.”
Social media analytics site BuzzSumo shows that the Daily Caller article has been shared 170,000 times on various social media platforms since January 21. The Gateway Pundit post has been shared more than 405,000 times. The Daily Caller piece was also cross-posted at the Alex Jones website Infowars.
Attack: Sarsour Pictured “Promoting The ISIS Unity Finger Sign”
On January 22, a Twitter user posted a 2015 picture of Sarsour holding up a single finger, next to two unrelated pictures seemingly of unidentified ISIS members. The tweet asked whether “pro-Sharia” Sarsour was “promoting the ISIS unity finger sign.”
The January 22 tweet was retweeted less than 1,000 times, but it appears to have served as the primary evidence backing several posts from sites known for pushing fake news. The Gateway Pundit, most notably, cited the tweet in a January 23 post titled “Organizer For DC Women’s March Against Trump Pictured Flashing The ISIS Sign.” According to BuzzSumo, the post has already been shared nearly 40,000 times on social media since it was posted yesterday.
Missing from the original tweet, the Gateway Pundit post, and the countless subsequent posts about Sarsour’s allegedly pro-ISIS stance was the context of the original photo, which was part of a social media campaign meant to show solidarity with students who had been attacked by anti-Muslim blogger Pamela Geller for also simply holding up their index fingers. Here is the caption Sarsour wrote for the photo:
Pamela Geller recently was given a platform to spew hate and misinformation at Brooklyn College, thankfully booed off the stage. After the event, she circulated a picture of Muslim Brooklyn College students holding up their index fingers and associated them with terrorists. As a result of her outrageous claims, these young people have felt targeted and threatened. For me, it meant you are #1, cause you had the courage to stand up to her! I stand in solidarity with them and want them to know that they should never let an evil woman like Geller make them feel less than. Stay proud, stay strong. We got your back. #PamHates #indexfingers#OneLove #UnityAtBC #takeonhate
Fake News Stories Combined The Baseless Attacks And Harnessed Facebook For Smear Campaign
An avalanche of unaccountable websites pushing fake news stories, boosted by active Facebook pages drumming up shares and likes, have copied or co-opted the claims from The Daily Caller and The Gateway Pundit to spread dangerous disinformation about Sarsour across the internet. Many are lifting each other’s text directly, adding some deceptive sheen of proper citation or reporting, to fearmonger among their audiences and validate bigotry -- and they’re harnessing Facebook’s algorithm to boost clickbait headlines, misleading photos, and fabricated information. The following examples come from fake news purveying sites that rely heavily on Facebook to drive traffic to their pages, and tend to share dozens of posts per day on the social media site to generate maximum Facebook audience engagement and click-throughs to their websites.
Google And Other Advertising Platforms Allow Fake News Purveyors To Profit From The Hate
Purveyors of fake news stories not only churn out increasingly unadulterated bigotry using the power of Facebook; they also harness advertising networks -- like Google AdSense -- to profit from it. The stories highlighted above, for example, all featured Google AdSense advertising accompanying the posts about Sarsour.
As TechCrunch explained, while mainstream outlets “may be held accountable for exaggeration,” fake news purveyors “can focus on short-term traffic and ad revenue,” which “incentivize(s) misinformation.” Google turns billions in profits by allowing advertisers to use its advertising service on third-party websites, thereby also allowing the sites that host ads to also profit.
The Washington Post’s Abby Ohlheiser detailed how fake news writers make money, with one interviewee telling her he makes “$10,000 a month from AdSense.” David Carroll, an expert in advertising technology and professor at the New School, estimated that one fake-news share from a person within the Trump campaign “could earn the lucky hoaxer as much as $10,000 in extra revenue” and called it a “‘huge economic incentive to create stories that they want to distribute.’”
Google AdSense is not the only advertising network to place ads directly next to bigoted fake news stories like the ones smearing Linda Sarsour; these sites are often plastered in ads placed by multiple networks including Revcontent, Taboola, and Criteo. But this latest example is further proof that -- months after Google added and then quietly deleted new language to their AdSense policy that would theoretically crack down on fake news -- Google’s still willing to let fake news purveyors profit from spreading hateful lies.