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  • 5 things that emboldened far-right trolls in 2017

    Blog ››› ››› CRISTINA LóPEZ G.


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Far-right trolls have long occupied the internet with their nihilistic sense of humor and taste for memes, engaged in sophomoric “shit-posting.” But for some, their impact has expanded beyond the fringe corners of the internet. They've shown they're able to influence national conversations, offering twisted narratives and conspiracy theories during major news events, injecting bigotry into the discourse, and challenging harassment policies of social media platforms, all while marketing themselves as legitimate torchbearers of the truth.

    This didn’t happen overnight; rather, a combination of factors made it possible. The far-right trolls learned how to manufacture outrage to mobilize their audiences into action. Their memes transcended “shit-posting” and began shaping political conversations. They found a friendly presidential administration that gave them access and provided them with a veneer of legitimacy. The coverage media outlets gave them failed to cover them in proper context and allowed them to sanitize their extremist brands. And social media platforms were slow in cracking down on their hateful rhetoric, allowing them to gain attention and amass thousands of followers.

    Even politicians have started noticing their reach, with some now imitating their style.

    Here are five factors that fueled the influence of far-right trolls in 2017:

    The politics of manufactured outrage that allow the far right to attract attention and drive narratives

    Trends of online discourse in 2017 showed that the far-right’s practice of using digital tools to affect change, exercise pressure, and punish perceived enemies is best understood as politics of manufactured outrage. Many trolls raised their profiles and gained relevance by criticizing what they saw as liberal over-sensitivity, seeking to provoke “snowflakes” for the sake of generating outrage and supporting Trump because his war against “political correctness” was an essential part of their ethos. Now they’re using social media platforms to command their followers to decry and condemn their critics over social justice issues they openly dismissed before.

    Mike Cernovich, a leading right-wing troll previously known for misogynistic musings and tasteless tweets, including denying the existence of date rape, effectively manufactured outrage to get MSNBC contributor Sam Seder fired from the network for a tasteless joke Seder tweeted in 2008. Though MSNBC rehired Seder, this was not an isolated incident.

    On another occasion, Cernovich targeted journalist Josh Barro and campaigned to get him fired from Business Insider by accusing the journalist of ableism after Barro made fun of Cernovich’s lisp, only stopping after Barro publicly apologized. But Cernovich’s own digital fingerprints make it impossible to believe that he suddenly developed a concern for ableism. In a similar fashion, “Pizzagate” conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec targeted New Republic’s Jeet Heer, accusing him of defending child pornography by taking a few of Heer’s tweets from  2014 and 2016 out of context.  Posobiec also interrupted a play under the pretense that he was offended by its contents, and sued a theater for its all-female screening of the movie Wonder Woman. And when he couldn’t find something to be outraged about, he simply created the opportunity by reportedly planting a “rape Melania” sign at an anti-Trump rally. Right-wing trolls followed the same playbook to smear protesters and ignite outrage during protests of an event featuring Cernovich by planting a sign that featured the logo of a practically defunct pro-pedophilia organization.

    The trolls are still freely deploying their playbook of haranguing their followers into more campaigns to force media outlets and social media platforms into doing their bidding -- whether to silence journalists and Trump critics by manipulating Twitter’s abuse report protocols and getting them suspended from the platform, or to “weaponize” their followers into harassment campaigns, or to pressure brands into advertising on shows they like.

    As BuzzFeed’s Kate Notopoulos wrote, these trolls “have weaponized taking things literally.” These stunts are often just manipulation disguised as false equivalence, since trolls like Cernovich justify their actions by arguing that media “dictate policy and personnel decisions via social shaming/‘news coverage.'" Mainstream right-wing media also dismiss criticism of these harassment campaigns, claiming that they're legitimate because “both sides” do it (regardless of whether that's true).

    The rise of the meme warfare from fringe message boards

    Right-wing and “alt-right” trolls successfully weaponized memes in support of Trump throughout the 2016 presidential election in what experts documenting troll culture refer to as “The Great Meme War.” Message board users created memes and deployed them on social media daily to attack political candidates. During this phase of meme-ing their favorite candidate into office, factions like the “alt-right” and other right-wing trolls were indistinguishable.

    2017 saw the meme warfare kick into high gear, with many meme campaigns transcending the message boards and becoming a source of harassment on college campuses, or turning into terrifying harassment campaigns against journalists. Such was the case with the “It’s okay to be white” meme, designed specifically to be “tame and inoffensive” yet elicit reactions that would portray any criticism or outcry as absurd. The meme quickly became a battle cry in the campus culture wars, culminating in professional troll Lucian Wintrich’s “It is OK to be white” speech at the University of Connecticut, which spurred disruptions, fights, and arrests.

    Similarly, there was a meme campaign against CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski following his story that an anti-CNN meme tweeted by Trump had been created by a Reddit user with a history of “racist and anti-Semitic imagery.” The campaign quickly transcended the digital world and resulted in death threats against CNN staffers and Kaczynski himself.

    Sloppy media coverage that allowed trolls to rebrand away from the toxicity of the “alt-right”

    Journalists have been complicit in aiding right-wing trolls who rose to prominence by riding coattails of the “alt-right” to rebrand away from its toxicity by either writing soft-focus profiles of trolls or by showing up woefully unprepared to interview them. After Richard Spencer -- the original “alt-righter” -- gained national media coverage due to his explicit white nationalistic views, many prominent trolls who were earlier happy to align with the “alt-right” commenced a rebranding campaign that was largely aided by media’s failure to hold them accountable.

    Cernovich, who has shown an inclination for “pivoting” whenever it becomes politically expedient for him, was at the forefront of hijacking the term “new right,” which was quickly adopted by other trolls like Infowars’ Paul Joseph Watson, Posobiec, Wintrich, and Gavin McInnes, founder of the violent “Western chauvinist” organization Proud Boys.

    But the figures of the so-called “new right” can’t sanitize their past adherence to the pro-Trump “alt-right” during the 2016 presidential election when they trafficked in anti-Muslim tropes, attacked transgender people, associated with Spencer, or openly pushed dangerous conspiracy theories like “Pizzagate” -- which falsely claimed Democratic operatives close to Hillary Clinton and her presidential campaign were running a child sex ring from a Washington, D.C., family pizzeria. More recently, the appearance of a known “alt-right” troll featuring a swastika flag and Adolf Hitler apologism on Wintrich’s Periscope illustrated that there’s little substantive difference between the “new right” and more extreme factions.

    A complicit presidential administration that gave these trolls further prominence

    In the Trump administration, right-wing trolls found powerful allies who admired and promoted their content and media appearances.

    The White House has been complicit in fueling the trolls’ war on journalists and mainstream media. The Trump administration granted them access to White House press briefings that allowed conspiracy theory websites like The Gateway Pundit to present themselves as legitimate news outlets and provided them with a prestigious platform from which to perform stunts and explicitly troll journalists. Reportedly, Trump’s sons, Eric and Donald Jr., directly provide Cernovich with insider information. It’s clear from Donald Trump Jr.’s Twitter activity that he has a penchant for far-right trolls and their content as he has used the weight of his name to promote right-wing trolls who defend his father and smear mainstream media.

    The president, himself, retweeted a tweet by Posobiec to his more than 44 million followers, resulting in Posobiec celebrating the presidential validation.

    Twitter and YouTube dropped the ball on cracking down on harassment and extremism

    Right-wing trolls largely owe their rise to social media platforms like YouTube and Twitter, which have allowed them to grow their platforms and reach massive audiences. In the process, Twitter was extremely lax in applying its anti-harassment policies, and allowed right-wing trolls’ harassment campaigns to successfully drive targets, like feminist writer Lindy West, off the platform.

    Meanwhile, YouTube provided a platform to white supremacists and conspiracy theorists. Though YouTube launched a demonetization initiative so people wouldn’t be able to profit from uploading extreme content and vowed to take down explicitly extremist content, the platform still remains the “talk radio” for right-wing trolls, allowing the spread of misinformation to a massive audience, often without consequence.

    Similarly, Twitter also just moved to crack down on its most toxic content creators. But it remains to be seen whether these policies will be successful in curbing the influence of MAGA trolls who often operate with the same harassment tactics as extremists. While Twitter removed the verification badges of many far-right personalities and expelled the most offensive users (some more than once), the fact that right-wing trolls remain in the platform only evidences Twitter’s problem with interpreting its own rules and applying them coherently.

    While the right-wing trolls’ current influence is undeniable, it’s not all doom and gloom. Their online influence hasn't translated into other political victories following Trump’s election (the candidates these trolls put their weight behind, Republicans Ed Gillespie in Virginia, and Roy Moore in Alabama, both lost). It could also be an indicator that their influence, at least in electoral politics, might have reached its peak. But whether their influence in inserting divisive cultural and political narratives into the mainstream will wane at all is yet to be seen.

  • Meet Anti-LGBTQ Extremism’s Insidious New Leader

    Blog ››› ››› RACHEL PERCELAY

    Michael Farris

    The extremist Christian legal giant Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) -- known for spearheading the anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ fight in state legislatures, nationally, and abroad -- just named a new president. Here’s what you need to know about ADF’s new leader, Michael Farris -- an experienced fearmongerer and fundamentalist lawyer who will lead the group's assault on LGBTQ rights.

    What Is The Alliance Defending Freedom?

    ADF is a Christian nonprofit based in Scottsdale, AZ, with a $48 million-a-year budget that works with over 3,100 allied attorneys nationally for the "right of people to freely live out their faith."

    Established as the “Alliance Defense Fund” in 1994, much of ADF's "religious freedom" work has long consisted of anti-LGBTQ activism. As part of the group’s mission “to recover the robust Christendomic theology of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries,” over the past two decades, ADF has supported criminalizing same-sex, consensual sexual activities, opposed anti-bullying efforts in public schools, and labeled the hate crime that led to the murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard a “hoax” to advance the "homosexual agenda." 

    Recently, ADF has been behind the national push for so-called “religious freedom” laws (RFRAs) that attempt to legalize anti-LGBTQ discrimination under the guise of “protecting” religious liberty. The group laid the groundwork for these laws by peddling the myth of “Christian persecution” -- the idea that Christians are under attack by the "homosexual agenda." ADF is also leading the nationwide campaign to pass “bathroom bills” -- like North Carolina’s House Bill 2 (HB 2) -- that ban transgender people, including students, from accessing bathroom and locker room facilities consistent with their gender identity.

    ADF has also taken its extremist agenda abroad through ADF International, a project of ADF that's trained “thousands” of lawyers that has, among other things, worked in Jamaica, Belize, and India to support laws that imprison gay people for having sex. They’ve also been actively involved in the U.N. and the Organization of American States in order to advance their anti-LGBTQ and anti-choice agenda.

    Who Is Michael Farris?

    Michael (Mike) Farris is a veteran of the religious right, dating back to his opposition of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and role as the Washington state director of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. In 1983, Farris founded the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), a self-described “Christian organization” that aims to defend “the constitutional right of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children and to protect family freedoms.” Farris has a long-standing history attacking LGBTQ people and their families, which includes:

    • writing an amicus brief defending criminalization of gay sex in the 2003 Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas;
    • opposing federal hate crimes legislation protecting LGBTQ people in 2009 on the grounds that it would lead to “dangerous” restrictions on religious speech; and,
    • arguing against civil unions in 2004, by saying that “I fail to see the point of all the hard work it is going to take to pass a constitutional amendment if we are going to open the door for civil unions whether they are enacted by legislatures or by tyrannical courts.”

    More recently, Farris been fighting human rights declarations at the U.N. He’s also spoken out against “radical feminist proposals” and “homosexual and transgender ideology” for disrupting the “idea that gender is a distinction made by God.”

    A 2015 investigation by ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative news organization, profiled HSLDA’s “frightening” and “highly influential” lobbying power, even against basic forms of homeschool regulation. HSLDA has fought against required annual tests and evaluations of home-schooled students’ work, such as a 2009 bill in New Hampshire. The organization has opposed laws that would require criminal background check for parents who want to homeschool children, calling them “draconian.” They also aggressively lobbied against mandatory reporting laws in instances of suspected child abuse. HSLDA advises its members not to tell neighbors or families that they are homeschooling “for fear one of them would call social services.”

    Building on HSLDA’s success, in 2000 Farris founded Patrick Henry College (PHC) partly due to what he described as “a demand from homeschooling parents for a college that promoted courtship culture, in which male students ask female students’ fathers for permission to ‘court’ with marriage in mind.” One out of only a handful of colleges in the U.S. that eschews federal funds in order to avoid complying with government regulations, PHC has an “outsized influence as a training ground for the religious right and a pipeline to conservative jobs in Washington.” During the George W. Bush-era, the school had more White House interns than Georgetown University. In February 2014, New Republic ran a profile of PHC, titled “Sexual Assault at God's Harvard,” about the mishandling of sexual assault cases at the evangelical school. As detailed by reporter Kiera Feldman, the investigation found “the administration treated sexual assault perpetrators with impunity, discouraged women from going to the police, and blamed victims for dressing or behaving immodestly.” In response to a sexual assault report filed by a student, a dean at PHC replied, “If you were telling the truth about this, God would’ve kept you conscious.”

    How Will Farris Lead ADF’s Attacks On LGBTQ Equality?

    Fearmongering was an integral part of HSLDA’s success in cultivating an active and involved membership base. Under Farris’ leadership, ADF will likely ramp up its campaign to convince supporters that any gains in LGBTQ equality will lead to widespread persecution of Christians or an influx of “bathroom predators.”

    Fitting with ADF’s vision of an American legal system rooted in 3rd century Christian theology, Farris has long advocated for a cultural change to shape American politics towards the far religious right. Farris also founded another organization, Generation Joshua, a 7,500 member organization that seeks to train teens to be the “next generation of Christian leaders and citizens.” While ADF already has a vast domestic and international training program to recruit lawyers and law students to provide pro-bono hours for anti-LGBTQ legal work, Farris’ work with K-12 and undergraduate students could lay the groundwork for ADF expanding its training to younger ages.

    In addition to his work training the “next generation” of far right leaders, Farris has already led legal fights on the international front. ADF’s biography of Farris spotlights his international work, both through HSLDA’s international arm and his “successful opposition to various United Nations treaties designed to control American domestic policy.” This “success” includes Farris’ opposition to ratifying the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a landmark human rights treaty that all U.N. countries have ratified -- except the United States. ADF already has “special consultative” status at the U.N., which allows ADF lawyers “virtually unfettered access to U.N. missions during key convention and treaty-drafting meetings.” Instead of simply opposing the United States ratifying human rights treaties, Farris will now be in the position to convince other member states to dangerously advance anti-LGBTQ and anti-choice positions.

    * Image courtesy of Sarah Wasko

  • Here Are All The Reasons Media Think Trump Is Not Releasing His Tax Returns

    ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN

    After Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump reiterated his plan not to release his tax returns prior to the election due to an IRS audit -- despite the IRS saying he is not precluded from doing so -- media figures questioned the legitimacy of Trump’s excuse, arguing instead that it could be due to his possible business dealings with Russia, paying little to no taxes, and not giving to charity, among other reasons.

  • Will The Media Fall For Paul Ryan’s Sham Poverty Proposals Again?

    ››› ››› ALEX MORASH

    With Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan slated to release a new proposal to “reform” American anti-poverty programs on June 7, media should be aware of his long history of promoting “far-right” and “backward-looking” policies that would enact draconian cuts to vital programs for families in need and actually "exacerbate poverty, inequality, and wage stagnation."

  • An Extensive Guide To The Fact Checks, Debunks, And Criticisms Of Trump’s Various Problematic Policy Proposals

    ››› ››› TYLER CHERRY

    Over the course of the 2016 presidential primary, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has laid forth a series of problematic policy proposals and statements -- ranging from his plan to ban Muslims from entering the United States to his suggestion that the United States default on debt -- that media have warned to be “dangerous,” “fact-free,” “unconstitutional,” “contradictory,” “racist,” and “xenophobic.” Media Matters compiled an extensive list of Trump’s widely panned policy plans thus far along with the debunks and criticism from media figures, experts and fact-checkers that go along with them.

  • Here Are The Big Players In The Inevitable Smear Campaign Against Judge Merrick Garland

    ››› ››› PAM VOGEL

    As President Obama reportedly prepares to announce Judge Merrick Garland to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court, media should be prepared to hear from several right-wing groups dedicated to opposing the nominee, no matter who it is. These advocacy groups and right-wing media outlets have a history of pushing misleading information and alarmist rhetoric to launch smear campaigns against Obama's highly qualified Supreme Court nominees, using tactics including, but not limited to, spreading offensive rumors about a nominee's personal life, deploying bogus legal arguments or conspiracy theories, and launching wild distortions of every aspect of a nominee's legal career.

  • Economists, Reporters Slam Fox's Neil Cavuto For Implying The Financial Crisis Happened On Obama's Watch

    ››› ››› ALEX MORASH

    Economists and veteran journalists slammed Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network anchor and senior vice president Neil Cavuto for framing a question in the January 14 Republican presidential debate in a way that implied President Obama was to blame for the financial crisis he inherited from the Bush administration. American financial markets peaked on October 9-10, 2007 before steadily declining as the economy slipped into recession, more than 16 months before President Obama's inauguration.

  • Media Fall For Paul Ryan's Sham Poverty Forum

    ››› ››› CRISTIANO LIMA

    Media figures have credited House Speaker Paul Ryan with thrusting the supposedly "forgotten" issue of poverty into the 2016 Republican presidential race following his participation in the January 9 presidential forum on poverty, but failed to mention that despite his new rhetoric, Ryan has a long history of promoting harmful policies that would "exacerbate poverty, inequality, and wage stagnation."

  • Will Media Give Other Republicans A Pass On Trump-Like Anti-Muslim Rhetoric?

    ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN

    Media figures and outlets are strongly condemning Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump's proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States. But while Trump's rhetoric is extreme, it is not unique -- several other Republican candidates have extreme anti-Muslim rhetoric without receiving such "universal condemnation," as The New Republic noted.

  • The Atlantic Calls Out GOP's "Dangerous" Embrace Of The Gold Standard

    Republican Candidates Push The Gold Standard "To The Dismay Of Most Economists"

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX MORASH

    The Atlantic pushed back against remarks from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and other Republican candidates at Fox Business' presidential debate that the United States should bring back the gold standard, noting "economists agree that the gold standard is a bad idea."

    Right-wing media personalities like Glenn Beck and Alex Jones, who have profited greatly from advertisers selling gold and silver, have pushed for a return to the gold standard for years against the opposition of nearly all economists and monetary policy experts. At Fox Business' Republican presidential debate on November 10, Ted Cruz and other GOP presidential candidates once again advocated for reinstituting the gold standard. The New Republic called Cruz's gold standard proposal "particularly reckless," and ThinkProgress noted Cruz's support for a gold-based money supply would leave the "entire economy exposed to catastrophe" after the senator proposed a return to the gold standard during the October 28 presidential debate on CNBC.

    On November 11, The Atlantic addressed many of these critiques, pointing out the volatility a gold standard would create and how the economic consensus is decidedly against returning to this outdated form of monetary policy. The article also noted Cruz's support for gold may be influenced by the millions of dollars gold standard supporter Robert Mercer has donated to super PACs supporting his presidential campaign (emphasis added):

    During Tuesday night's Republican debate a familiar topic resurfaced to the dismay of most economists: the case for the gold standard.

    Senator Ted Cruz criticized the Fed's ability to manipulate monetary policy (a common refrain among gold-standard advocates) saying, "Instead of adjusting monetary policy according to whims and getting it wrong over and over again and causing booms and busts, what the Fed should be doing is ... keeping our money tied to a stable level of gold

    [...]

    These conversations may be less an attempt to actually convince rivals, lawmakers, or voters that the gold standard is sound fiscal policy, and more about displaying commitment to conservative ideals, wooing big donors, and demonstrating a substantial disdain for current monetary policies.

    In general, economists agree that the gold standard is a bad idea. Pegging the dollar to the metal is, in theory, supposed to offer long-term rate stability. But in practice, that hasn't usually worked out. In the short term, linking dollars to gold quantities can produce a currency that's pretty volatile.

    [...]

    The conversations about gold in recent years are perhaps less about the belief that it's actually smart policy and more about condemning and rejecting the power of the government, through the Federal Reserve, to control the printing of money and the setting of interest rates. For some conservatives these powers stand in direct opposition to their preference for small government and their conception of free-market capitalism. Some also see the ability to print money, which can devalue existing dollars, as a form of taxation, another violation of Republican beliefs.

    The gold-standard advocates are not only politicians. They include a small but vocal (and rich) minority of Wall Streeters and hedge funders still angry about the Fed's low-interest rate (read: low yields) put in place during the 2008 crisis and lasting until today. This minority is an influential one, especially when it comes to political campaigns, because of its ability to drum up large sums of money. For example, the hedge-fund manager Robert Mercer, who favors the gold standard, donated millions to four super PACs affiliated with Cruz's campaign.

    [...]

    Pegging money to gold ounces offers no such protection, and in fact could be quite dangerous. While the commodity has long been considered valuable, it isn't immune to declines. The price has fluctuated significantly over the years, and hit a five-year low in July. As Matthew O'Brien noted in a 2012 article in The Atlantic, the ability to print money under a gold standard relies on how much gold can be found at any given time. That could create an economic disaster that has little to do with actual economic trends. With an economy that's just starting to show some signs of life after the recession, that's a problem the country certainly doesn't need.