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  • 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.”

  • An MSNBC political analyst is advising a GOP candidate with ties to white supremacists

    ››› ››› STEPHEN MORRIS

    MSNBC political analyst Rick Tyler, formerly a presidential campaign spokesperson for Ted Cruz who was fired for promoting a fake story, is currently “helping” Chris McDaniel, a Mississippi Republican waging his second attempted primary challenge for a Senate seat. McDaniel has a record of associating with extremists, neo-Confederates, and radio hosts with anti-Semitic views.

  • The absurd doomsaying about Dianne Feinstein's primary challenge is exactly what we heard about Joe Lieberman. It was all wrong.

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Pundits, particularly on the right, are warning that the primary challenge California Sen. Dianne Feinstein faces from the left represents an existential threat to the Democratic Party and puts at risk the party’s hopes of taking advantage of President Donald Trump’s cataclysmic approval ratings by winning congressional majorities in November. It was “lunacy,” thundered the editorial board of The New York Post, for a majority of the state party’s delegates to back state Senate leader Kevin de León over Feinstein at last month’s convention. “Historically, the Golden State has been a harbinger of national trends,” the board added. “If that holds true, the whole Democratic Party is headed right . . . er, left . . . off the cliff.”

    I’ve heard all this before.

    In 2006, insurgent candidate Ned Lamont challenged Connecticut’s moderate Sen. Joe Lieberman, who had served three terms and been the party’s nominee for vice president in 2000. I had a front-row seat for the race as a staffer for Diane Farrell, a Democrat running against a Republican congressman in the state.

    Lamont’s message that Lieberman was too supportive of unpopular President George W. Bush and his failed war in Iraq, backed by a plucky coalition of liberal bloggers and anti-war activists, won the day. But after Lieberman’s defeat in the primary, a host of critics declared that by purportedly purging the party of a moderate voice, Democrats had severely damaged their chances in the 2006 and 2008 election.

    The doomsayers were wrong. Democrats torched the Republicans in that fall’s midterm elections, winning the House and the Senate and setting the stage for Barack Obama’s victory in 2008.

    Farrell, the candidate I was working for, was likely the only Democrat in the country whose defeat could plausibly be pinned on the Lieberman race; she lost by a few thousand votes while running in Lieberman’s home district against Republican congressman Chris Shays, who had endorsed Lieberman’s re-election (two other Democratic challengers beat Republican incumbents for House seats in the state; Lieberman was re-elected in the general election on a third party ticket). Shays lost in 2008 to Jim Himes, who has won reelection by large margins ever since on what is now a safe Democratic seat.

    The Lamont and de León primary challenges are quite similar. Connecticut and California each became deep blue states during the decades-long tenures of their moderate Democratic senators. (When Feinstein was first elected in 1992, she shared a ticket with Bill Clinton, who pulled 46 percent of the vote to become the first Democrat to win the state in decades; in 2016, a whopping 62 percent of voters backed Hillary Clinton.) As their states became substantially more Democratic and elected more progressive candidates, party activists criticized their longtime senators for not representing the modern electorate.

    Critics want to paint support for de León over Feinstein as a wild swing to the left, the mirror image of the Republican Party’s push for extremist, incompetent candidates that cost them seats in past elections (“Democrats are having their Tea Party moment, if that isn’t unfair to the Tea Party,” The Wall Street Journal editorial board trolled).

    Lamont-era Democrats faced a similar challenge. But the de León primary challenge should be significantly less concerning. While Lamont was a Greenwich businessman whose prior political experience consisted of a few terms in that town’s government decades earlier, de León served four years in the state assembly and eight in the state Senate, leading that body for the last three. And de León’s record is difficult to present as radical: He supported Hillary Clinton for president in 2008 and 2016 and his positions seem roughly congruous with California’s junior senator, Kamala Harris, who was elected in 2016 with more than 61 percent of the vote.

    The Senate primary does put the party’s leadership on the spot. As David Dayen noted in The New Republic, “Every Democrat in the Senate, at a time when they are striving to win back the chamber, will have to answer: Do you support a colleague, or the challenger who best represents the political moment?” That’s surely an annoyance for them. But if the Lamont primary is any guide, the state’s voters will make their choice in the primary, then the party will inevitably endorse the victor.

    The warnings about California will no doubt continue -- there’s no story that had been told more often than “the Democrats are about to blow it” -- and will crescendo if Feinstein falters. But there’s little evidence that the result will leave the Democratic Party or the progressive movement worse for wear.

    Here at Media Matters, we know this better than most. I first met two other members of our staff during the campaign in Connecticut in 2006. One was a field organizer for Lieberman, one was a blogger backing Lamont. Twelve years later, we’re all watching together as the same narratives play out once more.

  • Russian propaganda is rampant on Reddit. Here's why that matters.

    Blog ››› ››› MELISSA RYAN


    Sarah Wasko - Media Matters

    Russian propaganda runs rampant on the online message board Reddit, especially on the notorious Trump supporters’ subreddit r/The_Donald. A search on Reddit for Russian propaganda outlets RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik News turns up well over 200 examples apiece. This week, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman (who uses the handle “spez”) admitted the obvious that yes, Russian propagandists have been using Reddit, and outlined some of the steps the company had taken in response.

    Reddit disclosed its efforts to combat Russian propaganda on its site in response to the news that the Senate intelligence committee had expanded its Russian interference investigation to include Reddit and Tumblr. In his post on Reddit, Huffman admitted that Russian trolls had weaponized the platform, that the company was cooperating with the investigations as asked, and that the misinformation problem would be difficult to solve saying “I wish there was a solution as simple as banning all propaganda, but it’s not that easy. Between truth and fiction are a thousand shades of grey.” Reddit is now facing the same scrutiny as Google, Twitter, and Facebook over the spread of Russian propaganda on the platform. Huffman (spez) immediately answered questions from the Reddit community in the comments section.

    Reddit is different from the other platforms Russian trolls targeted, as users play such a large role in shaping its community. Volunteer moderators build and maintain subreddits, and the company’s leaders generally respond to user questions and concerns when they make announcements. That doesn’t mean that Reddit has done a better job on issues tech platforms are facing, just that the relationship Reddit has with its user base is less top-down than those of other social networks dealing with Russian propaganda.

    The subreddit most closely associated with Russian propaganda is r/The_Donald, already known among Reddit users as a problem child or, as Gizmodo reported in 2016, “a community which, by exploiting poor enforcement of Reddit’s already limp user protections, has effectively been holding the rest of the site hostage.” Multiple Redditors in the comments section of Huffman’s post pointed out that not only had r/The_Donald been infiltrated by Russian trolls (many argued that it was little more than a front) but also that the subreddit’s continued existence was a sign that the platform wasn’t taking Russian propaganda seriously at all.

    Huffman addressed this criticism by responding in comments: “Banning them [users on r/The_Donald] probably won't accomplish what you want. However, letting them fall apart from their own dysfunction probably will. Their engagement is shrinking over time, and that's much more powerful than shutting them down outright” (link original). Redditors responded by downvoting Huffman’s comment a record-breaking 6,000 times.

    I’ve long maintained that tech platforms will change only as much as their users demand. It doesn’t matter what the issue is -- hate speech, propaganda, disinformation, et cetera -- tech companies have no incentive to do anything beyond what’s profitable, unless pressured enough by their users. What strikes me is that Reddit’s community is better equipped to pressure Reddit to clean up its act than users of any other platform are. Unlike with your average Facebook user, that Redditors are well aware that a lot of Russian propaganda originates from and lives on this platform (*cough* The_Donald *cough*). Redditors have organized communities, and volunteer moderators are already in place. Users have a forum they can use to speak directly to the company leadership, and because that forum is public, media can cover it more easily, amplifying the conversation.

    Consumers have more potential power over tech companies than they realize, but only if they take collective action. Reddit’s unique community structure could be the birthplace of a new advocacy model -- one that could spread to communities on other tech platforms.