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  • What does Dan Scavino do all day?

    Scavino is the ambassador to Trump’s vast online army of trolls -- and diplomatic relations are strong

    Blog ››› ››› MELISSA RYAN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    In a profile of White House social media director Dan Scavino published in The New York Times Magazine, writer Robert Draper seems puzzled at Scavino's role in the Trump campaign and administration. Throughout the piece, Draper attempts to answer the question: What does this guy do all day?

    From the article:

    Scavino was another of the “originals” on Trump’s 2016 campaign, and I saw him numerous times on the trail, but I could never quite ascertain what he was doing to further his boss’s presidential ambitions. Aggressively nondescript, Scavino could often be seen in a suit at the side of the stage, taking photos of the immense rally crowds with his iPhone and later, while scowling at his laptop aboard Trump’s 757, posting the images to Facebook. … Scavino’s sole task, from what I could tell, was to document Trump’s popularity.

    My perplexity over Scavino deepened after Inauguration Day, even as he got an official title: assistant to the president and director of social media, a position that had never existed before and one that paid him the maximum White House staff salary of $179,700. The Trump White House continued to employ an official photographer (Shealah Craighead) as well as a chief digital officer (Ory Rinat). This small digital team shared a suite across the street, in the Executive Office Building. But Scavino got an office on the ground floor of the West Wing, just down the hall from the leader of the free world.

    Draper spends the rest of the article trying to grasp Scavino’s role and why it matters. He comes to the conclusion that Scavino’s most important job is minding President Donald Trump’s Twitter account.

    The only official function Scavino filled that might justify his salary and his prime White House real estate was detailed in the lawsuit’s [over Trump blocking people on Twitter] stipulation of facts. “Scavino,” both parties to the lawsuit agreed, “assists President Trump in operating the @realDonaldTrump account, including by drafting and posting tweets to the account.” No one else, besides Trump himself, had access to the most consequential and controversial social media account in the world.

    Having access to the president’s Twitter feed isn’t a job; it’s a sign that you’re good at your job. Trump’s Twitter account is arguably his most valuable digital asset. Scavino has access because he’s a trusted member of Trump’s administration.

    Draper does eventually get around to describing Scanvino’s day-to-day job duties -- reaching out to Trump’s base online and serving as the keeper of those relationships.

    More than anyone else in the White House, the director of social media spends his day online, monitoring the #MAGA congregation. “Dan talks to the base more than anybody else after the president,” one senior White House official told me. “He’s the conductor of the Trump Train, and these people know he’s true blue, and he also knows all the influencers.” A year ago, the former chief strategist Steve Bannon shared a West Wing office with Scavino. “He has his hands on the Pepes,” Bannon recalls, referring to the cartoon frog that serves as mascot to the alt-right. “He knew who the players were and who were not. He’d bring me Cernovich — I didn’t know who Cernovich was until Scavino told me.” Bannon was referring to the alt-right blogger Mike Cernovich, who has frequently promoted debunked and scurrilous conspiracy theories.

    But Draper doesn’t recognize both the actual labor involved in Scavino’s operation and its value to the administration and Trump personally. And it’s important for anyone covering Trump (as well as anyone running against Trump and the GOP) to understand not just Scavino’s job but why his work matters. Draper’s profile misses both.

    Scavino isn’t just monitoring the #MAGA movement online; he’s actively cultivating relationships with that community, more than likely sharing messaging and talking points with influencers, and amplifying their content to a broader audience. More than once, user-generated content from Reddit forum “r/The_Donald” has been tweeted out by Trump himself, most notoriously when Trump tweeted this meme of himself beating up CNN. Scavino is almost certainly responsible for this Trump tweet attacking Rosie O’Donnell after a similar thread appeared on r/The_Donald as well. (Designer Mike Rundle tweeted a crude but accurate depiction of the Scavino social media pipeline.)

    Scavino’s outreach isn’t an unusual occurrence. The Obama White House devoted staff resources to the same task, as has most every major presidential campaign since 2004. Online outreach is a crucial part of any digital operation. Given that Trump needs to hang on to his base perhaps more than any president before him, it makes sense that Scavino’s White House role is prominent.

    I don’t write this to defend him as a person. After all, Scavino is a guy who, through his personal Twitter feed, amplifies conspiracy theories and harasses others. Scavino is not the kind of person I want paid with the taxpayer dime. But it’s important to understand what his job is -- and that Scavino is quite good at what he does.

    Per the profile, Scavino is the “conductor of the Trump Train.” Draper got the quote right but failed to consider what it meant, even as he described the train as a “juggernaut.” Scavino’s role isn’t just to craft tweets for Trump. He’s keeping the Trump Train’s passengers on board.

  • Sinclair and the midterms: Tennessee edition

    Blog ››› ››› PAM VOGEL


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    If you live in a midsize city or battleground state, you are now more likely than ever to see propaganda bolstering President Donald Trump and conservative spin on your local news -- just in time for the 2018 election season -- thanks to conservative media giant Sinclair Broadcast Group.

    Media Matters has identified communities that will see competitive congressional midterm races and that have Sinclair-owned or -operated news stations. Many Sinclair stations are already airing national news programming with a conservative slant, and they will be ramping up coverage of their local races.

    We’ve already tackled Nevada. Now, we’re taking a look at Tennessee.

    Key 2018 race

    • Senate: Tennessee has an open Senate seat this year, and the race is considered a toss-up by Cook Political Report as of publication. The current front-runners are U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), and former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat.

    Sinclair stations in state

    WTVC (NewsChannel 9) and WFLI (The CW) in Chattanooga

    WZTV (Fox 17), WUXP (My30), and WNAB (CW58) in Nashville

    • Sinclair-owned WZTV (Fox 17) also regularly airs at least some of Sinclair’s “must-run” content, including nationally produced news packages, fearmongering “Terrorism Alert Desk” updates, and the weekly show Full Measure.
    • Sinclair-owned WUXP (My30) shares a main studio address with Fox 17 and re-airs at least some of Fox 17’s local news programming.
    • Nashville Broadcasting-owned WNAB (The CW58) “receives certain services from an affiliation of Sinclair Broadcast Group” and also shares a main studio address with Fox 17 and My30. It does not appear to regularly air news programming.

    Coming soon: WREG (News Channel 3) in Memphis

    • WREG (News Channel 3) in Memphis is currently owned by Tribune Media but will soon be owned by Sinclair if the company’s pending acquisition of up to 42 Tribune stations is approved.

    What else you need to know

    Sinclair’s political action committee gave a total of $4,500 to Blackburn’s Senate campaign committee in 2017. Blackburn currently serves on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and she chairs its Subcommittee on Communications and Technology -- an important subcommittee for Sinclair.

    Are there Sinclair stations near you?

    Use Media Matters’ interactive map at FindSinclair.com to learn more.

    Graphics by Sarah Wasko.

  • Sinclair and the midterms: Nevada edition

    Blog ››› ››› PAM VOGEL


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    If you live in a midsize city or battleground state, you are now more likely than ever to see propaganda bolstering President Donald Trump and conservative spin on your local news -- just in time for the 2018 election season -- thanks to conservative media giant Sinclair Broadcast Group.

    Media Matters has identified communities that will see competitive congressional midterm races and that have Sinclair-owned or -operated news stations. Many Sinclair stations are already airing national news programming with a conservative slant, and they will be ramping up coverage of their local races.

    First, we’re looking at Nevada.

    Key 2018 races

    • Senate: The contest between incumbent Republican Sen. Dean Heller and Democrat challenger Rep. Jacky Rosen is rated a toss-up by Cook Political Report as of publication.
    • House: Nevada’s third congressional district (NV-3) south of Las Vegas is an open race rated as “lean Democratic” by Cook Political Report as of publication.  
    • Governor: Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) is not eligible to run in 2018. The election is thus an open race, and it was rated a toss-up by Cook Political Report as of publication.  

    Sinclair stations in state

    KSNV (NBC 3) and KVCW (The CW) in Las Vegas

    KRXI (Fox 11), KRNV (NBC News 4) and KAME (My21) in Reno

    • Sinclair owns and operates KRXI (Fox 11). A Media Matters search of the iQ media database found that Fox 11 aired the scripted promotional segment narrated by Bill Frankmore and Melissa Carlson at least six times between March 23 and March 30.
    • Sinclair also provides operations support for two other stations in Reno, KRNV (NBC News 4) and KAME (a MyNetwork affiliate branded as My21), through shared service agreements. All three Reno stations also share a studio space, and My21 does not appear to have its own website, instead posting its schedule on the Fox 11 site.

    KENV in Elko

    • KENV is licensed to serve Elko -- considered part of the Salt Lake City, UT, media market -- but serves as a semi-satellite to KRNV in Reno, meaning that it airs some of the same news programs but may have different branding. It also shares a studio space with KRXI, KRNV, and KAME in Reno. 

    What else you need to know

    Sinclair’s political action committee gave $1,500 to Heller’s re-election campaign committee in September 2015. Heller serves on the Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, including on its subcommittee related to communications and technology -- an important subcommittee for Sinclair.

    In January and February press releases, Heller touted Sinclair, among other businesses, for giving “their employees special bonuses and raises” after the passage of the Trump/GOP tax law.

    Here’s footage of NBC 3 airing a March “Bottom Line with Boris” segment in which former Trump aide Boris Epshteyn downplayed a potential Democrat wave in 2018 midterms:

    Are there Sinclair stations near you?

    Use Media Matters’ interactive map at FindSinclair.com to learn more.

    Graphics by Sarah Wasko. 

    UPDATE: This post has been updated to include the Nevada gubernatorial race. 

  • Steve Bannon reveals plans to visit Sweden to “learn from” the nation’s far-right party

    But even a party with neo-Nazi roots doesn't want to be associated with Bannon

    Blog ››› ››› NINA MAST


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Steve Bannon revealed to a Swedish newspaper that he will be visiting the country to “learn from” the Sweden Democrats (SD), an anti-immigration, anti-Muslim party attempting to rebrand away from its neo-Nazi roots. In seeking alliances with Sweden’s most prominent right-wing party leaders, Bannon is trying to dig himself out of the political irrelevance his downfall has brought. But it appears that even the members of a party with neo-Nazi origins are embarrassed to be associated with him.

    In a March 28 interview with Dagens Nyheter, a daily newspaper in Sweden, Bannon revealed his plan to visit the country in the next few months “to learn” from the Sweden Democrats, “some of whom we have studied closely.” When asked what insights would he share with SD members from his time at the White House (he was fired in August 2017), Bannon said he’d urge the SD to continue fighting, increase the party’s contact with the base, and stay away from the so-called “globalists.” He also called SD leader Jimmie Åkesson a “dynamic” politician and characterized SD as an example for “the whole world to study.”

    Bannon’s interest in Sweden is neither new nor surprising, as he has long telegraphed his plans to export his far-right politics to Europe. During Bannon's time at the helm of Breitbart.com, as well as during and after his White House stint, the outlet has shown an obsession with a mythical migrant crime wave in Sweden, particularly as the nation prepares for a general election (Sweden has become a gateway to the anti-migrant agenda in Europe). Bannon’s announcement of his plans comes on the heels of a series of embarrassing setbacks for him -- ranging from a humiliating electoral loss by a Republican politician he championed in a ruby-red state to his ousting from Breitbart, which he helped build. It appears he is looking for a comeback wherever he can find it.

    When asked directly whether the SD party invited him to visit Sweden, Bannon gave a vaguely affirmative answer, stating he didn’t want to make an announcement yet but that he would “definitely come to Sweden ... relatively soon.” But just hours after the interview was published, the secretary of the Sweden Democrats party denied that anyone in the party arranged or even had knowledge of Bannon’s trip and refused to say whether SD will welcome Bannon to Sweden.

    Though SD was born out of neo-Nazi circles in the late ‘80s, it has since attempted to enter the mainstream by distancing itself from the overt white nationalism of some of its past leaders. In 2006, the party changed its logo from the torch used by the U.K.’s fascist National Front to an innocuous blue and yellow flower. Now, Sweden Democrats is the nation’s most established right-wing party and boasts a thriving (if controversial) social media presence. But its polarizing message has pushed its supporters away from the party in recent months.

    Though SD was polling as the nation’s second-largest party last June, a December 2017 poll showed support for SD has dropped to its lowest level since 2015. In February, a local SD member was forced to resign after posting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on Facebook. Just last week, the party suffered another self-inflicted wound when one of its members was sentenced for repeated domestic abuse.

    The recently created more extreme far-right party Alternative for Sweden (inspired by the German AfD) serves as an additional threat to SD. AfS hopes to curry favor with SD’s most extreme elements and has successfully recruited several SD parliamentarians in the past few months, including one who was expelled from SD for extremist ties.

    It’s a testament to Bannon’s toxicity that the Swedish party that perhaps most viably embodies Bannon’s ideology has denied any contact with him, seemingly in an attempt to protect its vulnerable credibility. SD’s Åkesson has admitted that in the past, his party has been its own worst enemy, a problem which Bannon might find hard to resist, probably because he can easily relate.

  • Russian trolls used my Tumblr to spread election propaganda. Here's my story.

    Blog ››› ››› MELISSA RYAN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    My name is Melissa and I was duped by Russian propagandists on Tumblr.

    It started innocently enough. In 2016, I ran a pro-Hillary Tumblr that became quite popular. I started it after searching for Hillary and Bernie memes on Tumblr and discovering just how little pro-Hillary content existed on the platform. I was also overwhelmed by the volume and tone of the anti-Hillary content there. Tumblr’s demographic skews young, so I wasn’t surprised by how much pro-Bernie content I found on the platform, but the state of Hillary’s presence on Tumblr (outside of her campaign’s own page) really shocked me. I decided to do something about it, and I Like Hillary was born.

    I didn’t put a lot of time or energy into the site, maybe 10 to 15 minutes every morning before work. I’d search the internet for new Hillary content and reblog posts from the other pro-Hillary Tumblrs I followed. But the return for my minimal effort was enormous. I’ve created popular Tumblrs before (most notably This Man Legislates), but traffic on this new one was through the roof. At its peak, I Like Hillary posts were averaging more than 200,000 engagements per week, with the top post gathering more than 71,500 notes. Given the effort I put in, that’s the best return on investment I’d ever seen on a digital project I’ve created.

    When Trump won the election, I abandoned I Like Hillary, but what I found on the initial search stuck with me. I’ve been doing digital strategy in politics and advocacy for more than 11 years, and what I saw online in 2016 didn’t make sense to me. Spend more than 10 minutes on any online platform and you got the sense that every American voter thought Hillary Clinton was an evil criminal, something the election results (in which Clinton won the popular vote) didn’t bear out. Hillary Clinton might have been an unpopular candidate, but she wasn’t hated by everyone. It didn’t add up.

    Of course, now we know why so much of what happened online in 2016 didn’t make sense. Russian propaganda ran rampant on all of our favorite social media sites. The Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency reportedly ran digital influence operations on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, and, as it turns out, Tumblr.

    Per BuzzFeed, Russian trolls exploited the young audiences of Tumblr in their content strategy:

    Russian trolls posed as black activists on Tumblr and generated hundreds of thousands of interactions for content that ranged from calling Hillary Clinton a “monster” to supporting Bernie Sanders and decrying racial injustice and police violence in the US, according to new findings from researcher Jonathan Albright and BuzzFeed News.

    While Facebook and Twitter continue to face intense public and congressional pressure over the activity from trolls working for the Russian Internet Research Agency, Tumblr has somehow managed to escape scrutiny. But the blogging platform was in fact home to a powerful, largely unrevealed network of Russian trolls focused on black issues and activism.

    “The evidence we've collected shows a highly engaged and far-reaching Tumblr propaganda-op targeting mostly teenage and twenty-something African Americans. This appears to have been part of an ongoing campaign since early 2015,” said Albright, research director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.

    A month after this article ran, Tumblr let its users know that, yes, the platform  had been infected with Russian propaganda. In a blog post, Tumblr outlined steps it was  taking to correct the problem and made public a list of 84 accounts known to be run by Russian trolls. Additionally, it emailed users to let them know if they’d engaged with IRA trolls on their own Tumblr accounts.

    I received one of those emails.

    I actually already knew that Russian trolls had engaged with I Like Hillary and that I might have unknowingly reblogged IRA-created content. When I tweeted about the initial article and the Tumblr I ran, Jonathan Albright (the researcher quoted above) reached out to me. He’d taken a look at my Tumblr and it took him less than five minutes of scanning the comments to find inflammatory posts from known Russian trolls. I’d missed this entirely.

    How did Russian trolls use Tumblr specifically? As this piece in New York magazine points out, we have a pretty clear idea because the chains of reblogged posts of Russian origin still exist:

    But Tumblr also provides our best glimpse of the IRA’s actual practices, what they posted, and how these users inserted themselves into American discourse. That’s because Tumblr’s primary interaction, reblogging, requires users to duplicate another user’s post onto their own profile. User B reblogs User A, and on User B’s blog, User A’s comment remains. In essence, the structure of Tumblr is millions of users copy-pasting each other. If Tumblr were to wipe every instance of Russian activity, it would also “break the reblog chain,” wiping every user interaction that came after an IRA one. Tumblr opted against that, which means that, armed with a list of aliases and the indexing power of Google, you can find plenty of old posts from IRA trolls.

    Mostly, it appears, the IRA’s Tumblr strategy was to rip popular Twitter posts and re-upload them to Tumblr.

    Essentially, I gave Russian propagandists an outlet. I unknowingly allowed them to use something I’d created online in their active measures campaign. I was duped.

    The tech companies have been reluctant to tell users that they were exposed to Russian propaganda. Given how Facebook users reacted with anger when they were told about their own exposure, I can understand the reluctance of others. Tumblr waited too long to inform its users, but I appreciate the way the company did it, especially its decision to provide the list of account names and leaving the chains of reblogged content intact.

    No one wants to admit they were duped. I’ve long known this intellectually, but now I understand it personally. It’s embarrassing to learn that something you made became a tool for Russian propagandists. I’ve been studying all of this for more than a year, but it had never occurred to me that my own social media content might have been involved in a Russian propaganda effort. We were all duped to some degree. Russia used our own online lives against us, with the goal of pitting Americans against one another.

    It worked.

  • The Trump campaign and the RNC are advertising on Alex Jones’ YouTube channel

    Blog ››› ››› TIMOTHY JOHNSON

    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    The Trump Make America Great Again Committee -- a joint fundraising operation run by President Donald Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign and the Republican National Committee -- is running a campaign advertisement on toxic conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ YouTube channel.

    Media Matters observed the ad just a day after Jones used his YouTube channel to depict survivors of the Parkland school shooting as members of the Hitler Youth:

    During the March 27 broadcast of The Alex Jones Show, Jones broadcast a video that dubbed a Hitler speech over Parkland survivor David Hogg’s speech at the March For Our Lives gun violence rally and depicted Parkland survivor Emma Gonzalez and other march participants as members of the Hitler Youth.

    Jones has been at the forefront of pushing conspiracy theories about survivors of the February 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

    Jones also pushed conspiracy theories about the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting -- labeling it “a giant hoax,” “staged,” and “fake” -- and has called other mass shootings and national tragedies “staged” “false flag” events. (He often claims that contrary to official accounts, attacks and other mass casualty events are carried out by his political opponents.)

    Jones was an early Trump backer, and the president appeared on his show in December 2015 to praise Jones’ “amazing” reputation. Jones says he has been in touch with Trump during his presidency and brags that his communiques reach the president during his “executive time.”

  • Right-wing media downplay Cambridge Analytica stealing personal data to help the Trump campaign

    Blog ››› ››› BOBBY LEWIS & ZACHARY PLEAT


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Right-wing media outlets have downplayed the news that Cambridge Analytica, President Donald Trump’s data firm from the 2016 presidential election, was banned by Facebook for harvesting personal information from at least 50 million Facebook users without their knowledge or consent.

    A whistleblower named Christopher Wylie explained to the Observer on March 17 that Cambridge Analytica used personal Facebook information obtained in early 2014 to make a system that could profile individual voters. The Observer explained that the data was collected by an app from an academic named Aleksandr Kogan, who paid several hundred thousand Facebook users to take a personality test for academic purposes, which then collected information from their Facebook friends, “leading to the accumulation of a data pool tens of millions-strong.” According to a March 17 report in The New York Times, Cambridge Analytica then obtained the data from Kogan; this information helped Cambridge Analytica “develop[] techniques that underpinned its work on President Trump’s campaign in 2016.” (Founded by the Republican megadonor Robert Mercer, Cambridge Analytica also counted former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon as an early investor and board member, and it was Bannon who reportedly introduced the services of the data firm to the Trump campaign.)

    But Facebook told the Times this data collection and the subsequent transaction between Kogan and Cambridge Analytica “was a scam -- and a fraud,” since the information was allowed to be collected for academic purposes only. Facebook has since suspended Cambridge Analytica, Kogan, and Wylie from its system.

    Right-wing media’s sparse coverage either blamed Facebook or claimed no improper activity

    Alex Jones dismissed the Cambridge Analytica story as “a giant hoax” and claimed it was connected to the death of Stephen Hawking. In a sprawling March 18 rant, Alex Jones defended Cambridge Analytica, claiming that their actions were simply “what social networks are; that’s how they data mine, that’s how they harvest.” Jones also claimed that “there’s probably 20 companies in Austin bigger than Cambridge Analytics [sic] doing the same thing for Democrats, they’re the ones that dominate it all.” Jones added that the Times story was “just a ridiculous PR stunt with this new superhero character they’re launching,” referring to the whistleblower who first revealed the data collection, and “that [he] has pink hair so you know you’ve got to listen to him, and he’s gay, so you can’t question him.” Jones also connected the story to the death of physicist Stephen Hawking, saying that “Hawking dies as their PR guy and then one week later, we’ve got the new guy, and it’s like Jesus arrived.”

    Fox & Friends ignored the story completely. A Media Matters search of SnapStream closed captioning transcripts of the March 19 edition of Fox News’ Fox & Friends showed that the president’s favorite television show failed to mention the legal troubles of a data firm that helped him win the presidency.

    Breitbart News Daily also ignored the story. Media Matters searched Veritone for mentions on Breitbart News Daily of “Cambridge,” “breach,” “50 million,” or “Facebook,” and found no relevant mentions of the Cambridge Analytica story. Breitbart News Daily was formerly hosted by Breitbart News’ then-executive chairman, Stephen K. Bannon, who is also former chief strategist for the Trump campaign and White House, as well as a former Cambridge Analytica vice president.

    Wash. Free Beacon’s Elizabeth Harrington claimed the story simply scandalizes “what advertisers do all the time,” and is just another attempt to “taint[]” Trump’s victory as “illegitimate.” On a March 19 appearance on Fox News, Harrington also complained about a “double standard” because former President Barack Obama had “one of the co-founders of Facebook, Chris Hughes, working on his campaign” in 2008, which gave him “an advantage on social media.”

    The Drudge Report suggested the story constituted a “data leak” at Facebook that could help to “sink” the company. Drudge also speculated that the data leak “violated [an] FTC privacy deal,” linking to a Washington Post article quoting a former Federal Trade Commission official speculating that Facebook may have violated a FTC consent decree by supplying information to Cambridge Analytica.

    A Breitbart report uncritically repeated Cambridge Analytica’s questionable claim that they “deleted all data” they improperly received. Breitbart quoted a statement from Cambridge Analytica, which claimed “Cambridge Analytica deleted” all Facebook data that it improperly received. The Breitbart report did not mention that Facebook found reason to believe that potentially “not all data was deleted.”

    Over the weekend, Fox’s America’s News HQ reported on Cambridge Analytica’s Facebook suspension. The day after the story broke, Fox News reported on Cambridge Analytica’s suspension from Facebook, citing reporting from the Guardian and New York Times that it “harvested private information from more than 50 million Facebook profiles.” The Fox report included Facebook’s statement that Cambridge Analytica may not have deleted all of the data.

    Rush Limbaugh downplayed the story as “nothing unique,” calling Cambridge Analytica’s tactics “the modern-day equivalent of high-tech grass-roots politics.” Rush Limbaugh dubiously claimed that the tactics used by Cambridge Analytica are part and parcel of modern political information gathering, saying, “The Democrats have perfected using the personal data stored by internet companies for I don’t know how long,” but he failed to mention that the information used by Cambridge Analytica was meant for academic purposes only.

    Ben Shapiro claimed the Cambridge Analytica story is part of “a larger attempt to convince social media companies … to shut down conservative opinions.” The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro pointed to the Cambridge Analytica story to push the right-wing conspiracy theory that tech companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter are targeting and silencing conservative voices. Shapiro wrote of the reports about Cambridge Analytica, “This entire scandal is designed to pressure Facebook into cracking down on supposed right-wing activity,” and he claimed that “this is part of a broader pattern” of Democrats encouraging social media platforms to silence conservatives. Shapiro’s argument fits into a right-wing media narrative alleging censorship on the part of social media platforms that take action to address fake news and hate speech.

    Fox host Greg Gutfeld: "I'm not sure it's really Cambridge Analytica that's at fault here." In a segment discussing Cambridge Analytica, The Five co-host Greg Gutfeld said "I'm not sure it's really Cambridge Analytica that's at fault here." Fellow co-host Jesse Watters joined Gutfeld in defending Cambridge Analytica and claimed "I spoke to the Trump campaign today, and they said that they never used any of the data that Cambridge Analytica used from Facebook."

    GREG GUTFELD (CO-HOST): I'm not so sure about this story. I'm not sure it's really Cambridge Analytica that's at fault here. I read The Guardian story. The guy who is at the center of this kind of seemed like a B.S.-er, and he was like -- he was kind of, like, making himself into the hero, and I am always skeptical of that.

    [...]

    JESSE WATTERS (CO-HOST): I spoke to the Trump campaign today, and they said that they never used any of the data that Cambridge Analytica used from Facebook. What they did was they hired five staff members from Cambridge, and they had to sign a deal to get the staffers to come to work with them in Texas, but they never used any of this so-called "psychographic modeling." They used data and research from the RNC, and from their own internal data network. So, a lot of it is trying to paint the Trump campaign as if they, you know, they reached into Facebook and ripped out all of this in an unethical way. It's just not true, but like you said, it's more about Facebook and protecting their customers' information, and obviously they didn't do a great job about it because they didn't let people know that their data was being mined, and I think Facebook has to answer to that. [Fox News, The Five, 3/19/18]

  • Let’s treat Steve Bannon like the fringe crank he is

    The media elite embrace Bannon even as he cozies up to far-right European extremists

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    The past several months have been difficult for Steve Bannon, the disheveled, wannabe Machiavelli of American politics. Late last summer he was unceremoniously fired from his senior post in the Trump White House, then the candidate he backed in the Alabama special Senate election suffered a historic defeat under the weight of credible reports of sexual assault, and then he was evicted from his chairmanship of Breitbart News. All throughout the long, dark winter he was relentlessly mocked and jabbed by opponents and erstwhile allies alike, including President Donald Trump, who rechristened him “Sloppy Steve” and blamed him for the Senate loss in Alabama.

    But now it’s springtime for Bannon, and he’s plotting a comeback. Undaunted by his manifold defeats and humiliations, Bannon is looking to prove once and for all that a whack job extremist -- no matter how disgraced or putrefied by white supremacist politics -- can still command the attention and respect of America’s elite.

    Next week, Bannon will be one of the keynote interviewees at a Financial Times forum on “Trust, Technology and Transformation in an Age of Upheaval.” He’ll be appearing alongside some of the biggest names in news media: New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet, CNN President Jeff Zucker, HuffPost Editor-in-Chief Lydia Polgreen, and others. Per the Financial Times’ description of the event, lucky attendees will get to “hear insights from owners/editors of traditional media on how they are dealing with digital disruption.”

    Earlier this month, the very same Steve Bannon was in the middle of a goodwill tour of Europe’s repugnant far-right political parties. Having stumbled in his efforts to lead an American political movement devoted to white resentment and xenophobia, Bannon hopped across the Atlantic to have a spirited wallow in the rising bog of European ethnonationalism.

    In Italy, Bannon showed up just ahead of the country’s latest round of elections reportedly to support the far-right League party and its leader, Matteo Salvini. The League and Salvini are noxiously anti-immigrant and often openly bigoted -- Salvini campaigned on mass deportation of African migrants, advocates the “controlled ethnic cleansing” of Italian cities, and has called for segregation of public transportation. During a speech in France on March 10, Bannon referred to him as “Brother Salvini.”

    That speech was delivered before a gathering of the National Front, France’s premier far-right, xenophobic political party. The National Front has been trying to worm into the mainstream of French politics by carefully distancing itself from the blunt racism and winking Holocaust denial of its founders. The modern National Front employs more guarded language and PR savvy while blending aggressive nationalism with hostility toward immigrants, Muslim immigrants in particular. Party leader Marine Le Pen, who has masterminded the reformation of the National Front’s image, still sometimes lets the mask slip, like when she compared public demonstrations of faith by Muslims to the Nazi occupation of France. Bannon was happily at home among the party faithful, telling them to embrace accusations of racism and xenophobia as “a badge of honor.”

    This is who Steve Bannon is hanging out with these days, and these are the people whose influence he’s trying to borrow in order to mount some sort of comeback. And he, of course, has every right to choose “hero of European racists” as his next career move, although one could argue that it’s really the only place he has left to go after being excommunicated by Trump and Breitbart following the Alabama fiasco.

    But it’s scummy and gross that Bannon, after declaring common cause with bigoted political movements in Europe, can head back to the United States and have the welcome mat laid out for him by the country’s media elite. I’m not even sure what insights the Financial Times forum expects to glean from Bannon. As a media executive he was a fraud and a failure -- when he wasn’t using Breitbart.com as his personal PR service, he deployed its resources to (ineptly) bolster the sagging fortunes of the lunatic candidates he picked as the vanguard for his political movement. He vilifies all media outlets that aren’t servile to the president, and he spins wild conspiracy theories about secret plots between journalists and politicians to sabotage his preferred candidates.

    Steve Bannon is drifting deeper into the fringes as he grasps for relevance. He has done seemingly everything in his power to forfeit his credibility and render himself toxic, and he's still afforded elite deference despite being an extremist crank.

  • YouTube outsources truth to Wikipedia

    YouTube’s solution to conspiracy theory videos? Let Wikipedia handle it. There are three big reasons that will not work.

    Blog ››› ››› MELISSA RYAN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    YouTube has a conspiracy theory problem. The platform is full of conspiracy theory videos, and its algorithm moves viewers up a ladder of engagement. YouTube encourages consumption of more videos on a daisy chain of content that becomes more radical with each new suggested video. Last week, Zeynep Tufekci outlined this process in an op-ed for The New York Times, making the point that what “keeps people glued to YouTube” is that its “algorithm seems to have concluded that people are drawn to content that is more extreme than what they started with — or to incendiary content in general.”

    Conspiracy theory videos that correlate to news events go viral on YouTube with alarming regularity, often spreading misinformation and lies about real people in the process. Last month, YouTube was forced to remove a conspiracy theory video alleging that underage Parkland student David Hogg was a paid crisis actor after it became YouTube’s top trending video. False information about Hogg and his family spread on YouTube for days before the company removed the smears. This week, YouTube admitted that it didn’t know why an “InfoWars video claiming that Antifa members are the ‘prime suspects’ in the mysterious package bombings in Austin, Texas appeared at the top of search results.” YouTube has reportedly informed InfoWars that the site is on its second strike and dangerously close to being permanently banned from the video-sharing platform. But even if YouTube follows through with its threat, InfoWars is merely a drop in the bucket.

    YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki was asked about the problem during a panel at South by Southwest (SXSW) this week and previewed the platform’s latest attempt at a solution: information cues. YouTube will apparently keep a running list of known conspiracy theories, and videos referring to these conspiracies will include a text box underneath them with links to Wikipedia articles challenging the claims. You can see how this would look on YouTube’s platform here.

    I have some bad news for Wojicki. Adding “information cues” isn’t going to solve the problem. It might actually make it worse.

    It passes the buck: Tech platforms don’t want to be held responsible for the content on their sites. Both Facebook and Twitter have made it clear that they don’t want to be “arbiters of truth.” The platforms have also pushed back hard against the idea that they are media companies, continually arguing that they’re neutral platforms for individuals and media companies to publish content. Yet the tech platforms seem more than willing to outsource the truth to other entities like Snopes, The Associated Press, and now Wikipedia. Determining what is and isn’t true isn’t something tech platforms should feel free to outsource, especially to an organization of volunteer editors at Wikipedia who weren’t informed in advance, much less consulted, about the feasibility of using their website in this way.

    It tips off the trolls: If we’ve learned anything over the past couple of years, it’s that trolls are quite good at organizing to keep ahead of the tech platforms’ attempts to curb them. Whether it’s Russian trolls getting Americans to RSVP for events on Facebook, white nationalists attempting to flood Rotten Tomatoes with fake movie reviews, or Nazis taking on the video gaming platform Steam, there’s no denying that trolls are constantly manipulating the rules of the game. The platforms can’t keep up with things as they are, let alone plan for the next thing. And now Wojcicki’s “information cues” announcement gives trolls a heads-up. Informations cues aren’t even live yet, but hostile actors foreign and domestic can already start to plan how they’ll game Wikipedia pages that debunk conspiracy theories. I’m sure the volunteer editors at Wikipedia are really looking forward to the onslaught!

    It won’t have the desired effect: Information cues have been tried before and failed miserably. Recall Facebook's attempt to have fact-checkers such as Snopes dispute fake news. It failed, causing Facebook to alter the program in December so that fact checks now show up simply as “related articles.” It turns out that flagging content as potentially untrue can backfire, further entrenching mistaken beliefs. Other research on misinformation found similar effect. YouTube’s information cues have the potential to make their already viral conspiracy problem even worse.

    As long as conspiracy theories are allowed to live online, they’ll continue to flourish. The trolls who disseminate them have mastered almost every platform and they know that tech companies will take only half steps to stop them. Meanwhile, tech companies offer no protection for real people who become entangled in organized conspiracy theory campaigns and whose professional and personal lives can be upended as a result.

  • Sinclair's Boris Epshteyn: A pro-Trump Republican struggling in Pennsylvania is actually good news for Trump

    Blog ››› ››› PAM VOGEL

    Boris Epshteyn, Sinclair Broadcast Group’s chief shill for President Donald Trump, was definitely not worried about the special election in Pennsylvania yesterday, and he is not worried now that the results remain too close to call. In the alternate universe Sinclair and Epshteyn promote to local news viewers across the country, the brewing upset is actually good for Republicans and Trump.

    Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district, which voted for Trump by a 20-point margin in 2016, held a special election last night to replace former Republican Rep. Tim Murphy, who resigned last year. The race should have been an easy win for the GOP in a reliably red district, but as of publication, it remains officially "too close to call," with Democrat Conor Lamb leading Republican Rick Saccone by a tiny margin.

    But Boris Epshteyn, the No. 1 Trump propagandist at conservative local TV news giant Sinclair Broadcast Group and a former Trump aide, thinks that this outcome is somehow good for Republicans and doesn’t reflect poorly on Trump -- and he wants local news audiences to see it the same way.

    Epshteyn kicked off election day with a pre-emptively dismissive note in his morning email newsletter, arguing, “An election in one district in Pennsylvania in March does not indicate how the rest of that state, let alone the country, is going to vote in November.”

    As the results were coming in last night, Epshteyn took to Twitter to declare the close race “already a good result for the Republican Party” and ask, “Where is that Democrat passion everyone is talking about?” His tweets quickly met the fate of many scorching takes: a high ratio of mocking replies from other users.

    (Epshteyn attributed the mass mocking of his election analysis to “triggered” liberals upset that he was “hitting a nerve and calling it right.”)

    This morning, Epshteyn continued his attempts to spin the Pennsylvania results with a quick note in his newsletter to tell his fans that the election is just not a big deal:


    Breakfast with Boris newsletter

    Epshteyn also promoted his live appearances this morning on several Sinclair stations in Maryland, Ohio, Florida, and even Pennsylvania to talk about the results. They were even worse. In his morning spot on WBFF/Fox 45, Sinclair’s flagship station in Baltimore, he argued that Saccone had actually benefited from a “Trump bump” because the race was too close to call instead of a blowout for Lamb:

    BORIS EPSHTEYN: Saccone was down by about six points going into the final weekend. Now it’s tied. I don’t see how this is a negative for the Republicans. I see it as a positive.

    TOM RODGERS (ANCHOR): Well, everyone keeps going -- saying, “Well, look, Trump won it by 20 points.” So because Trump was campaigning for him --

    EPSHTEYN: Sure.

    RODGERS: -- do you see the connection there that says maybe Trump hurt him? Or do you see it that Trump helped him with the election when we’re looking at Saccone’s votes?

    EPSHTEYN: Well, the president really made one true appearance where he endorsed and helped Saccone. Overall, you’re right. Saccone was down by six points, the president came in, now it’s tied. You’re seeing a Trump bump of about six points. But it’s very different from having Donald Trump on the ballot in 2016 to now having a special election where he’s not on the ballot and made one appearance. The two are not the same at all.

    Epshteyn has now also released online a "must-run" segment focused on the Pennsylvania special election. In the clip, he argues that the race is "not necessarily" any "indication of a Democrat wave for the midterms in November," and reminds viewers that "the president was not on the ballot."

    Many may have missed Epshteyn’s weird, transparently pro-Trump defenses of the election outcome so far -- especially considering what little interest the public seems to have in his takes. But his latest Trump propaganda missive will be force-fed to viewers across the country now, as Sinclair mandates that all its news stations air Epshteyn’s desperate spin.

  • GOP groups are using right-wing troll Dinesh D’Souza for fundraising

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC HANANOKI



    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Republican Party groups are continuing to partner with right-wing troll Dinesh D’Souza for fundraising. D'Souza has mocked the survivors of the mass shooting in Parkland, FL, claimed that Rosa Parks was an “overrated Democrat,” and written that slavery wasn’t “a racist institution” and “the American slave was treated like property, which is to say, pretty well."

    D’Souza was the headline speaker for a March 10 fundraising event for the Flathead County Republican Central Committee in Montana. The Daily Inter Lake, which was allowed to attend the event while “reporters with the Missoulian and Montana Public Radio could only speak with attendees outside,” reported that “the evening was a can’t-miss event for many of Northwest Montana’s current and aspiring political leaders”:

    State Reps. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, and Mark Noland, R-Bigfork, state Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, Montana House candidate Shawn Guymon, Flathead County Sheriff candidate Calvin Beringer, and U.S. Senate candidates Matt Rosendale, Troy Downing and Al Olszewski were all seen greeting guests in the center’s lobby beforehand. U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., came in just before the event.

    D’Souza is also scheduled to keynote an April 14 fundraising dinner for the Bonneville County Republican Party in Idaho. The group stated that Idaho Republican gubernatorial candidates “Congressman Raul Labrador, Dr. Tommy Ahlquist, and Lt. Governor Brad Little are expected to attend and offer remarks at the second annual event.”

    Bonneville County GOP first vice chair Bryan Smith has defended the group's choice, telling "EastIdahoNews.com that his organization has received some pressure to cancel D’Souza’s speaking engagement" but the local party isn't considering changing the speaker:  

    “We’ve had phone calls to two of our phone numbers. They often don’t leave names, or it’s a bogus name with no return number,” Smith tells EastIdahoNews.com. “Nobody on the executive committee involved in organizing the event thought for a moment to get another speaker. It’s a free country. We believe in free speech. We do not cancel people because we disagree with their views. Let him come and speak, and then we can judge it on the outcome.”

    D’Souza was invited to the Lincoln Day Dinner before the controversy erupted. Smith says one reason is because the author “epitomizes the great American dream.”

    D’Souza headlined a February 16 Republican Party event in Nevada that was attended by Nevada Republican officials including Sen. Dean Heller and state Attorney General Adam Paul Laxalt.

    D’Souza should be considered too toxic to have a place in mainstream politics.

    Last month, the right-wing pundit took to Twitter and repeatedly mocked the student survivors of the February 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. While D’Souza eventually apologized, his comments were part of a long pattern of vitriol. As Daily Beast Senior Editor Andrew Kirell wrote:

    Over the past year, D’Souza has: suggested the Charlottesville white-supremacist rally (which led to the murder of an anti-racism protester) was a “staged event” designed to make the right look bad; shared a meme calling former President Barack Obama a “gay Muslim” and suggesting Michelle Obama is a man; started a conspiracy theory that the media covered up Las Vegas gunman Stephen Paddock’s background as an anti-Trump activist (he wasn’t); used a photo of a grieving military widow—despite her protests—to attack football players kneeling during the national anthem; and defended Adolf Hitler, who sent thousands of gay people to death camps, as being “NOT anti-gay.”

    D’Souza also called civil rights activist Rosa Parks an “OVERRATED DEMOCRAT,” and wrote of slavery: "Was slavery a racist institution? No. Slavery was practiced for thousands of years in virtually all societies. … the American slave was treated like property, which is to say, pretty well." He also called for a repeal of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, explaining he believes that the “law should be changed so that its nondiscrimination provisions apply only to the government.” (Many of D’Souza’s other idiotic remarks can be found here and here.)

    Shortly after D’Souza’s Florida shooting remarks, a business association canceled an event featuring him, citing "circumstances beyond our control."

    D’Souza pleaded guilty to making illegal campaign contributions to a Republican Senate campaign in 2014. He has since claimed that the prosecution was “a political prosecution” and attacked prosecutor Preet Bharara as “a familiar Indian type, one of those gang leaders out of 'Slumdog Millionaire' transplanted to the United States. … Since Preet Bharara doesn't have a strong Indian accent he may be employable as one of those tech guys who helps you fix your computer.”