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  • Pro-Trump media -- including Fox News -- are using deceptively edited videos in a smear campaign against Speaker Pelosi

    Blog ››› ››› CRISTINA LóPEZ G. & ALEX KAPLAN


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    On Thursday, deceptively edited videos of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) meant to cast doubt on her competency made the rounds on social media and right-wing websites. Later, Fox put its weight behind the narrative, and the network’s most prominent viewer, President Donald Trump, tweeted out a Fox clip about it.

    The smears seem like an obvious attempt to discredit Pelosi after she questioned Trump's fitness for office during a May 23 press conference, saying she wished “his family or his administration or his staff would have an intervention for the good of the country.” A day earlier, Pelosi had made the true statement that Trump was engaged in a cover-up. As CNN’s Brian Stelter pointed out in the May 24 edition of his Reliable Sources newsletter, “What's going on here is pretty obvious. Pelosi is questioning President Trump's competency -- saying she's concerned about the president's well-being, suggesting an ‘intervention’ is needed -- so Trump's allies are saying the exact same things about her.”

    There are actually two videos circulating in the pro-Trump media sphere. One spliced together clips of Pelosi’s comments on Thursday to make it seem like she stammered throughout the press conference. The other significantly slowed remarks Pelosi made during an appearance at the Center for American Progress (CAP) on May 22 to make her look inebriated. (Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani tweeted and later deleted that manipulated video.)

    Conspiracy theory website Infowars pushed the narrative with the headline “Watch Nancy Pelosi Stutter Slur And Suffer Memory Lapses in Press Conference.” Then Fox Business’ Lou Dobbs Tonight adopted a similar frame in an on-screen chyron and aired the deceptively spliced clip of the May 23 press conference. Trump then tweeted the Fox segment out to his 60.5 million followers.

    On Fox’s Fox & Friends this morning, guests Diamond and Silk falsely accused Pelosi of inebriation, possibly referring to the doctored footage of her appearance at CAP. Co-host Steve Doocy claimed in a later segment that he was unfamiliar with the doctored video but issued a correction for Diamond and Silk’s accusation by citing the Post. However, the two Fox Nation hosts refused to back down:

    Copies of the videos continue to spread on social media platforms like Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter, garnering thousands of interactions. Though these videos are deceptive, the tech giants seem unable to halt their spread -- and in some cases, they may even be making money from views, as at least one video pushing the smear on YouTube featured an ad.

  • A QAnon-linked conspiracy theory about Tom Hanks reached Twitter's and Google's search suggestions

    On YouTube, a user pushing the conspiracy theory made money off of the outrageous accusation

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN

    A conspiracy theory accusing actor Tom Hanks of being involved in the death of a known conspiracy theorist has spread on social media platforms, affecting search suggestions about Hanks on Twitter and Google.

    On May 13, Isaac Kappy, an actor known for pushing conspiracy theories such as QAnon and “Doughnutgate,” reportedly died by suicide in Arizona. Kappy had previously helped manipulate search results for Hanks when he baselessly accused him of pedophila. The day after Kappy's death, an anonymous user on 8chan’s QAnon-themed message board “/qresearch/” accused Hanks of being involved in Kappy’s death because Hanks had posted a photo on social media in April showing a glove on the ground with the caption “Historic Route 66. Roadkill? I hope not! Hanx.” The user claimed that Hanks posted the picture from New Mexico, that Kappy was "based" there as well, and that Kappy died near Route 66.

    Later, a QAnon-focused Twitter account posted the same message as the 8chan post along with 8chan reactions to it. In the following days, the conspiracy theory spread on Twitter.

    YouTube conspiracy theorists also pushed the absurd claim, and at least one of them made money off of it through the use of the platform’s “super chats” feature.

    Because of the conspiracy theory, Hanks' social media posts have been bombarded with suggestions that he killed Kappy, accusations of pedophilia, and references to other conspiracy theories.

  • The far-right is using the tragic Notre Dame Cathedral fire to push conspiracy theories and bigotry

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN & CRISTINA LóPEZ G.


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    As a fire consumed the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, far-right figures took to social media platforms and message boards to spread misinformation and baseless claims, such as speculating that the fire was connected to terrorism or suggesting that Muslims and ISIS were linked to the tragedy.

    As reported by The New York Times, a spokesperson for the cathedral said the fire’s cause is not yet known, and prosecutors have since ruled out arson. And yet far-right narratives and speculation have already influenced automated suggestions on social media platforms like YouTube, which scrambled as the news was breaking to contain auto-generated text linking content about the cathedral fire to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

    Here are some examples of the far-right using the Notre Dame fire to spread bigotry, misinformation, conspiracy theories, and other baseless claims on tech platforms and elsewhere:

    A popular conspiracy theorist known as Partisangirl speculated that French President Emmanuel Macron had “probably set fire to Notre Dame” as a way to deal with recent protests:

    Infowars’ Paul Joseph Watson spread a claim based on a since-deleted tweet that cited a Notre Dame Cathedral worker saying “the blaze was deliberately set":

    White nationalist Faith Goldy appeared to suggest that the fire was possible retaliation for the mosque shootings in New Zealand last month in which 50 Muslims were murdered:

    Jim Hoft’s The Gateway Pundit published a “flashback” to ISIS claims that the 2015 terrorist attack in a Paris concert house was “just the beginning”:

    A thread in Reddit’s pro-Trump forum “r/The_Donald” suggested Islam was to blame for the tragedy:

    Anti-Muslim extremist group leader Frank Gaffney baselessly suggested that the fire was part of a “Sharia-supremacist assault on Christianity.”

    Anti-Muslim blog Jihad Watch originally wrongly implied a Muslim woman arrested for an attempted car bombing was related to the attack (it later noted it was a separate story); the baseless suggestion was picked up by The Gateway Pundit and anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist Laura Loomer.

    Fox guest host Mark Steyn mentioned terrorist attacks by Muslims while discussing the fire and suggested it showed the decline of Christianity in Europe.

    Loomer, fellow anti-Muslim bigot Pamela Geller, and others on social media suggested a connection between the fire and two men smiling near it, with Geller writing, “Muslims laugh as blaze destroys Notre Dame.”

    Far-right conspiracy theorists Mike Cernovich, Stefan Molyneux, and James Woods claimed the fire meant “the West has fallen,” that it showed the “general decline in IQ throughout the West,” or that it showed “the great and glorious history of Christianity … being eradicated from the face of the ‘new’ Europe.”

    TheBlaze host Glenn Beck said that if the fire “was started by Islamists, I don't think you'll find out about it.”

    Major Twitter accounts pushing the QAnon conspiracy theory also suggested the fire was set deliberately, including Educating Liberals (run by Dylan Wheeler), an account the president's son Donald Trump Jr. follows.

    Anonymous users on far-right message boards on 4chan and 8chan blamed Muslims, suggested it was a false flag, and claimed it was retaliation from “the deep state.”

  • When conservatives claim censorship, they're often just showcasing their tech ignorance

    Blog ››› ››› CRISTINA LóPEZ G.


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Allegations that social media companies are biased against conservatives and censoring right-wing content have become a common narrative on right-wing media and, ironically, recurrent content on the same social media platforms the narrative targets. These claims are just another iteration of the long-term right-wing effort to brand most of the mainstream press as biased against conservatives in an attempt to “work the refs” and get favorable treatment, this time applied to tech giants.

    But many of the episodes used to push allegations of censorship or bias can actually be explained through technical arguments in which political motivations play no role. And that showcases, at best, a preoccupying level of digital illiteracy among those making the allegations and, at worst, the inherent bad faith of these claims.

    As explained previously by Media Matters’ Parker Molloy, this playbook has been working for conservatives for over half a century, at least since “Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater gave reporters covering his campaign pins that read ‘Eastern Liberal Press.’” The strategy of putting the onus of proving neutrality on the mainstream press worked -- media have since over-represented conservatives, engaged in false equivalences, offered platforms to far-right hacks in the name of balance, and prioritized negative coverage of Democratic politicians -- and the same playbook is now being applied to tech giants.

    This, too, seems to be working: These platforms have groveled in response to accusations of bias by tapping extremist figures and far-right grifters as advisers or by having their leadership appear on right-wing propaganda shows to appease right-wing audiences.

    Moreover, in what seem like efforts to avoid accusations of right-wing content censorship, tech platforms have let racism proliferate undeterred, making social media both an unsafe space for members of vulnerable communities and a valuable tool for dangerous far-right radicalization and recruitment.

    But many of the episodes that have been used to help right-wing media built a useful narrative can actually be explained by technical reasons unrelated to bias or censorship, including anti-spam policies used on tech platforms to combat inauthentic behavior or digital illiteracy on the part of users. What follows is a noncomprehensive list of examples:

    • A conservative site complained of bias because autocomplete search results on Google didn’t show the lack of new indictments stemming from the Trump-Russia investigation, ignoring the platform’s autocomplete policies against character denigration.

      As Media Matters’ Parker Molloy pointed out on Twitter, right-wing site Washington Free Beacon accused Google of bias against President Donald Trump because its search bar autocomplete results didn’t point users to the news that there had been no new indictments related to the special counsel investigation on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Google search liaison Danny Sullivan directly addressed the complaint, explaining that to avoid character denigration, the platform’s autocomplete policies specifically avoid offering predictions that contain “indictment” next to a person’s name. Sullivan had to reiterate his explanation after Washington Free Beacon promoted its article again without clarifying political bias was not playing a role in the autocomplete results.
    • Those alleging that a temporary loss of Twitter followers was indicative of the platform’s bias against anti-abortion movie Unplanned failed to understand Twitter’s “ban evasion” mechanisms. On April 1, a number of right-wing media figures and politicians accused Twitter of deliberately censoring anti-abortion movie Unplanned after the Twitter account for the movie lost followers temporarily. As explained by NBC’s Ben Collins, Twitter responded that the temporary loss of followers wasn’t about the Unplanned account itself, but came because an account linked to the Unplanned account had violated Twitter rules, triggering the platform’s automated “ban evasion” mechanisms, which aim to limit users banned from the platform from coming back by using alternative accounts. As Collins pointed out, Twitter’s ban evasion systems identify accounts that could be linked in different ways, including by shared IP or email addresses. Shortly after, Twitter manually overturned the automated system and restored the Unplanned movie account, noting that follower counts can take time to replenish.

    • Conservatives incorrectly interpreted temporary account activity limitations meant to stave off inauthentic, spammy activity as censorship. Platforms are known to limit the number of comments or likes single accounts can make in a determined period of time to stave off spam, automated behavior, and inauthentic activity; authentic accounts managed by real people can be affected by these limitations whenever their behavior matches automation patterns. Reportedly, different limits apply to different accounts depending on how old they are. Yet Donald Trump Jr. and White House social media director Dan Scavino have claimed they’re being censored when this has allegedly happened to them.

    • There have been accusations of “#censorship” based on “a crazy drop in new followers,” but there are unrelated reasons for altered follower counts. Trump Jr. has also claimed that drops in followers or stagnant follower counts amount to “#censorship.” However, Instagram has experienced glitches that have affected follower counts for many accounts, and the platform’s policies that aim to reduce inauthentic activity have in the past caused account purges that result in diminished follower counts for users displaying automated behavior. President Donald Trump made a similar accusation against Twitter, claiming to have lost followers. As Mashable pointed out, users across the political spectrum lose followers as a result of purges, or removals of “inactive accounts and fake profiles.” In fact, a Twitter purge in the summer of 2018 cost former President Barack Obama more followers than Fox’s Sean Hannity.

    • A Republican lawmaker complained that a Google search mainly returned negative results about unpopular Republican legislation, saying it was evidence of bias, but in fact it was likely reflective of an overwhelming amount of criticism. During a December 11 hearing before Congress, Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) cited “a firsthand experience” to ask Google CEO Sundar Pichai why the first few pages of results he found on Google about the Republican bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act showed so much negative criticism. Chabot also questioned why the majority of results of Google searches for the Republican tax cuts criticized them as favoring the rich. As Pichai explained, search results are not based on political ideology. What Chabot seemed to not understand was that Google search returns are actually based on rankings (a site that is ranked high appears higher on search results) that depend on factors like domain authority, which is calculated by the number and reliability of sites that link to it, among other things. Which is to say, negative results are evidence that sites with high domain authority are referring to the search term in negative ways -- something that has more to do with the substance of the search term than the search engine itself.

    • Another legislator complained to Google that an iPhone displayed negative language about him, implying it was evidence of Google’s bias, but the phone was manufactured by Apple. During the same December hearing in which Google’s Pichai testified, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) -- whose extremist record includes explicit endorsements of white supremacists -- complained that his 7-year-old granddaughter had been exposed to negative language about him on her iPhone. King said, "And I’m not going to say into the record what kind of language was used around that picture of her grandfather, but I’d ask you: How does that show up on a 7-year-old’s iPhone, who’s playing a kids game?” As Pichar said, Google does not manufacture iPhones; Apple does. Moreover, even if the hardware in question had been a Google-manufactured Android, King’s complaint displayed his own digital illiteracy more than any possible tech platform bias directed against him.

    • A congressman alleged that Google is biased because it showed negative information from his Wikipedia page in its search results, while his own staff’s edits to his page were not approved by Wikipedia editors. While questioning Google’s Pichai during the December hearing, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) took issue with Google’s search results displaying details from his Wikipedia page when his name is searched, because the “liberal editors around the world” of the free encyclopedia “put up a bunch of garbage” about him, while the “proper, honest” edits his own chief of staff made to Gohmert’s page were not approved. As Motherboard’s reporting on this matter has explained, what’s displayed on Google’s knowledge panels isn’t evidence of bias, but of the tech giant’s “cynical, damaging, and unfair over-reliance on Wikipedia’s volunteer editors.”

    • PragerU alleged that removal of far-right content on platforms was based on “deliberate censorship of conservative ideas,” but an expert found “plausible, non-ideologically motivated explanations” for the removal. After online propaganda machine PragerU accused platforms of “deliberate censorship of conservative ideas” for removing PragerU videos (and then reinstating them after admitting a mistake), an expert “reviewed several of the videos” and found explanations for their removal that had little to do with political bias. As Data & Society’s Francesca Tripodi explained, some videos contained language that could have been picked up by platforms’ automated systems and then -- when reviewed by third-party moderators that are sometimes outsourced to the Philippines -- the reviewers placed more importance on the specific language than on the political substance of the video. Tripodi also pointed out that the platforms’ lack of process transparency could have contributed to right-wing cries of censorship and bias.

    • Right-wing outlets affected by a Facebook purge claimed it was evidence of anti-right-wing bias. In fact, it was evidence of spammy behavior. Right-wing outlets claimed that the removal of right-wing content pages showed Facebook was biased against the right. Yet Facebook explained in an October 11 blog post that the reasoning behind the removal of over 800 pages and accounts was based on user violations of the platform’s rules against spam and “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” According to Gizmodo’s report at the time, Facebook pointed out that while the spammy behavior the platform targeted for removal seemed financially motivated, the pages were “at least using political content to drive traffic to their ad-supported websites.” Prominent amplification networks of right-wing content were affected by the purge -- but it was because the pages were in violation of the platform’s guidelines regarding “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” which had nothing to do with the pages’ political alignment.

    • An allegation that Facebook “deboosts” right-wing content was not supported by hard evidence. A Media Matters study found right-wing political pages and left-wing political pages on Facebook have about the same amount of interactions. Donald Trump Jr. has devoted media appearances and columns to pushing generalized claims of censorship from Big Tech. In a March 17 column published by The Hill, Trump Jr. pointed to Facebook documents published by serial bullshitter James O’Keefe to allege that the site targeted conservative posts for “deboost”-ing. A new Media Matters study of content from 395 Facebook pages that regularly post about American political news between July 2, 2018, and March 17, 2019, shows that not only did left-leaning and right-leaning pages have roughly the same engagement numbers, but -- between January 14 and March 17, the weeks leading up to this new wave of conservative censorship claims -- right-leaning pages on average actually received more interactions than left-leaning pages.

    Alex Kaplan and Natalie Martinez contributed research for this piece.

  • Actor James Woods is a main conduit for content from the far-right fever swamps to millions on Twitter

    Woods has a history of using his Twitter account to amplify far-right message board narratives, conspiracy theories, and hoaxes

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Melisa Joskow / Media Matters

    James Woods, a far-right Hollywood actor with a large Twitter following, has increasingly become a megaphone for content from the internet fever swamps, amplifying it by pushing it to his followers -- a role that has been noted by journalists, social media analysts, and far-right users themselves.

    Woods, whose verified Twitter account has more than 2 million followers, is a staunch supporter of President Donald Trump, and his criticism of the left regularly receives positive coverage from conservative media publications. Some right-wing outlets have even characterized Woods as a potential California gubernatorial candidate and championed him as a possible Academy Awards host. His tweets have been retweeted by Fox News host Laura Ingraham and Donald Trump Jr.

    When Woods was briefly suspended by Twitter in September after posting a meme from 4chan that falsely claimed Democrats were urging men not to vote in the midterm elections, the right-wing media ecosystem rushed to his defense. Trump Jr. said Woods was “a strong conservative voice,” and Media Research Center’s Brent Bozell called him “one of the top conservatives” on Twitter. Woods later claimed Twitter told him it would delete his offending tweet and let him back on the following month.

    Yet Woods has continued to use his wide reach on Twitter to regularly share smears, hoaxes, conspiracy theories, and other content that can be traced back to anonymous message boards that are popular with far-right users, like 4chan’s “/pol/,” 8chan’s “/qresearch/,” “The_Donald” subreddit (a forum on Reddit for Trump fans), and to white nationalist hotspot Gab. Just this year, Woods has played a crucial role in amplifying the following far-right narratives:

    • In January, while Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was recovering from surgery and missed oral arguments at the Supreme Court, followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory baselessly speculated that Ginsburg was incapacitated or had died. Later that month, with the false claim and hoaxes supporting it spreading on social media, Woods started repeatedly pushing the conspiracy theory and the hashtag #WheresRuth. A SCOTUSBlog analysis found Woods to be one of the most followed accounts that pushed the conspiracy theory, while The Washington Post noted Woods “helped get the hashtag #WheresRuth trending on Twitter.”

    • In January, soon after Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) announced her presidential campaign, “The_Donald” subreddit and 4chan’s “/pol/” relentlessly smeared Harris by claiming she used an extramarital affair with former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown to boost her political career. As far-right message board users were creating memes and misogynistic nicknames attacking Harris, Woods tweeted multiple hashtags such as #HorizontalHarris, #HeelsUpHarris, #WillieWanker, and #FreeWillie to push the smear to his Twitter audience.

    • In January, a Gab account falsely claimed that former President Barack Obama was behind recent mass layoffs from media outlets due to a 2016 law he signed. The Gab post was picked up by message boards and far-right social media accounts, and Woods tweeted an article pushing the conspiracy theory days later. A Gab user cheered Woods’ tweet, noting it went “to his nearly 2 MILLION followers" and suggesting he was the tipping point in getting the claim to spread broadly.

    • At the end of January and beginning of February, far-right message boards pushed a conspiracy theory that actor Jussie Smollett had coordinated with Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Harris in staging what he said was an anti-queer and racist attack on himself to help pass the anti-lynching legislation they had introduced. Smollett has since been indicted for filing a false police report, but there is no evidence that the senators were involved. The conspiracy theory became popular in far-right circles, and Woods tweeted an article pushing the false claim on February 22. An analysis from Storyful found that “Woods’ tweet prompted thousands of users to engage with the theory.”

    Woods’ amplification of fever swamp content has extended to multiple other cases as well:

    • He has repeatedly tweeted screenshots of 8chan posts from “Q,” the central figure of QAnon, and once tweeted and deleted a post simply saying “Q” that QAnon supporters interpreted as an endorsement. He also pushed a hoax about Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) that was popularized by a QAnon account.

  • The comparison of Sunrise Movement to Project Veritas is ridiculous

    Blog ››› ››› CRISTINA LóPEZ G.

    Editing a longer video to feature newsworthy bits is a far cry from engaging in James O'Keefe-style deception. 

    Sunrise Movement posted a video on February 22 showing a tense discussion between young climate activists and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). The group's Bay Area chapter streamed the exchange live on Facebook; a shorter version was subsequently posted on Twitter to fit the platform's 140-second video limit; and the group also shared the link to the full Facebook video later that night. Despite the longer versions posted elsewhere, the Twitter video prompted ill-considered accusations that it had been deceptively edited to paint Feinstein in a bad light, with people baselessly comparing the incident to the malicious work of O'Keefe's Project Veritas.

    The activists, including middle and high school students, visited Feinstein to petition her to support the Green New Deal, a nonbinding resolution to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. within 10 years. Sunrise Movement shared footage on Twitter that showed Feinstein dismissing them and equating the pressure from young activists on climate action to “my way or the highway,” telling them she doesn’t “respond to that.”

    After the initial video went viral, several commentators pointed to the longer version of the encounter as evidence that Sunrise Movement had maliciously misrepresented the exchange. People like “Never Trump” conservative Tom Nichols invoked Project Veritas, the notorious conservative group headed by O’Keefe.

    Nichols was far from the only person to invoke O'Keefe.

    O'Keefe has made deceptive editing of footage and doctored videos synonymous with his and his project’s name. He and his group have a well-documented record of peddling misinformation and staging stunts that backfire. Notably, Veritas’ modus operandi relies on deception, as its staffers routinely lie about who they are with the intent of filming targets in embarrassing situations, whereas Sunrise Movement activists identified themselves transparently. In one incident, O'Keefe attempted to lure a CNN reporter onto a boat filled with "sexually explicit props."

    In contrast to O'Keefe's antics, there is no question that Feinstein knew exactly whom she was discussing policy with. And the longer and shorter versions of the Feinstein are clearly similar in tone and content.

    One can have a reasonable discussion about what policies are best suited to addressing climate change. But that discussion cannot happen without a shared understanding of just how bad the situation already is. Likening these climate activists to one of the worst smear merchants around is not just profoundly unfair; it makes suitable action on the climate crisis even harder to achieve.

  • Right-wing trolls are sharing a hoax version of the Green New Deal

    The hoax has spread enough to reach Google's search suggestions, and people are falling for it

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Far-right trolls are attacking the Green New Deal by sharing a fake version of the proposal that includes a suggestion to use recycled urine.

    The Green New Deal is a comprehensive plan to fight climate change that has been championed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). She and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced a nonbinding resolution on February 7 that outlines policies for the U.S. to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions within 10 years, including transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy and revamping transportation, agriculture, buildings, and other infrastructure.

    As the Twitter account Unfakery pointed out, right-wing trolls are parodying the contents of the Green New Deal in an attempt to fool people into believing it actually includes a proposal to recycle urine.

    Google’s search engine also picked up the disinformation: The hoax currently comes up as a suggestion when one types in “recycling urine.” (Media Matters searched for the term via an incognito browser.)

    Here’s how far-right trolls spread the hoax:

    YouTube conspiracy theorist Mark Dice posted the hoax on both Twitter and Facebook and admitted that he made up the language, urging his followers to “spread it around,” make it “go viral,” and “don’t give away the joke.”

    A YouTube user posted a video about the Green New Deal that mentioned Dice’s hoax as if it were a real point in the proposal. Dice wrote a comment under the video saying that he created the hoax as “satire,” again urging people to spread it:

    Reddit forum “r/The_Donald”:

    4chan’s “politically incorrect” message board known as “/pol/” (an earlier 4chan thread also pushed the hoax, but it has since been deleted):

    Reddit’s “r/The_Donald”:

    Far-right troll and One America News Network host Jack Posobiec (who later wrote that it was “obvious satire”):

    Even though Posobiec noted that it wasn’t real, other far-right trolls continued to spread the hoax, including on /pol/:

  • Far-right figures push conspiracy theory blaming Obama for mass journalism layoffs

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Far-right figures on social media, message boards, and fringe websites have been pushing a conspiracy theory that claims former President Barack Obama is behind the recent mass layoffs at media outlets. These figures include conservative actor James Woods and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

    The conspiracy theory seems to have started on Gab, a social media platform favored by white nationalists, where a user falsely claimed that the Obama administration had been funding journalists to push its propaganda via the Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act and that the layoffs were due to the funding drying up. In fact, Obama signed the measure as part of a defense authorization bill, and it specifically aimed to fight foreign propaganda. The new conspiracy theory builds off of previous far-right hysteria that the 2016 law would target “alternative media.”

    The recent media layoffs -- which have hit numerous news outlets including HuffPost, BuzzFeed, McClatchy, and Vice Media -- are due to multiple factors, including their dependence on Facebook for page clicks (which decreased after Facebook made changes to its news feed) and struggles with ad revenue. Far-right trolls on 4chan’s “politically incorrect” message board known as “/pol/” have helped coordinate a harassment campaign against those journalists based on a false claim that reporters in the past had flippantly urged working-class Americans to start new careers in tech. The 4chan campaign targeted journalists on social media with messages telling them to “learn to code” -- language that was repeated by some users pushing the new conspiracy theory.

    Here’s how the false claim spread from Gab through the right-wing fever swamps:

    QAnon believer Amber Merkel on Gab:

    QAnon believer Neon Revolt on Gab:

    Twitter account @outlawjw, which has also pushed the QAnon conspiracy theory, tweeted the false claim from Gab:

    Reddit forum “r/The_Donald”:

    4chan’s “politically incorrect” message board known as “/pol/”:

    8chan’s "/pol/":

    Far-right website DC Whispers:

    Actor James Woods:

    Neon Revolt touted the important role Gab played in amplifying the conspiracy theory:

    Fake news site NewsPunch (formerly known as YourNewsWire):

    Conspiracy theory outlet Infowars posted on its website a video featuring Alex Jones pushing the false claim, and the video then spread on Facebook and YouTube:

    The false claim continued to spread online, such as on conspiracy theory site Natural News:

  • Newsmax host elevates far-right conspiracy theory accusing two Democratic presidential candidates of staging a hate crime

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Editor’s note (2/21): Following the publication of this post, Smollett was arrested on February 21 by Chicago police “on suspicion of filing a false report about” the alleged assault.

    Newsmax TV and Rebel Media host John Cardillo amplified a far-right conspiracy theory that originated from message boards and social media accounts and accuses Democratic presidential candidates Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) of staging the alleged anti-queer and racist attack against actor Jussie Smollett. The conspiracy theory contends that the senators' intent in drawing attention to a case like Smollet's was to help pass their proposed anti-lynching legislation. The baseless claim connects with the far-right narrative that Smollett's alleged attack -- which reportedly included the attackers wrapping a rope around the Empire star’s neck -- was a hoax in efforts to minimize the importance of anti-lynching legislation.

    Harris and Booker, both of whom recently announced their 2020 presidential candidacies, introduced the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2018 with Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) last summer. The bill, which unanimously passed in the Senate, would classify lynching as a federal hate crime. Earlier attempts to pass anti-lynching legislation in Congress failed repeatedly during the 19th and 20th centuries when the act of racial terrorism was widespread across the country. Both Harris and Booker have called the attack on Smollett a “modern-day lynching.”

    Here’s how the conspiracy theory bubbled up from the fever swamps to Cardillo’s Twitter feed:

    Twitter account @hankentwhistle:

    4chan’s “politically incorrect” message board known as /pol/:

    YouTube:

    Reddit’s “r/conspiracy” forum:

    4chan’s /pol/:

    Reddit’s “r/The_Donald”:

    Voat, a Reddit clone populated mostly by alt-right trolls:

    Gab:

    Multiple Twitter accounts:

    Newsmax TV host John Cardillo:

  • Twitter search suggestions promoted right-wing smear that attack against Jussie Smollett was a hoax

    Hoax allegations also neared top of YouTube search

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    CBS This Morning / YouTube

    Editor’s note (2/21): Following the publication of this post, Smollett was arrested on February 21 by Chicago police “on suspicion of filing a false report about” the alleged assault.

    Twitter’s search feature prominently suggested the right-wing smear that the alleged anti-gay and racist attack on actor Jussie Smollett was faked; it also featured a hashtag campaign that pushed the attack as a hoax.

    On January 29, TMZ reported that Smollett was attacked by two men in ski masks who allegedly put him in a noose while spewing racist and homophobic slurs. According to TMZ, the attackers also reportedly yelled, “This is MAGA country” during the assault. The Chicago Police Department originally denied the “MAGA country” remark, but later said Smollett did tell them about the comment in a follow-up interview.

    Anti-queer violence has been rising considerably, and the most recent FBI data shows that Black people are the most frequent victims of hate crimes. However, soon after TMZ’s initial report of Smollett’s attack, some right-wing media figures immediately started pushing that it was a hoax, before any further details were known. Far-right social media accounts and message boards also claimed that the “MAGA country” remark never happened or that the entire attack was a hoax, including Reddit’s r/The_Donald subreddit and 4chan’s “politically incorrect” message board /pol/.

    During the morning and early afternoon of January 30, Twitter users trying to search for Smollett’s name were met with suggested results like “smollett hoax,” “smollett fake,” “smollett fake news,” and “smollett lying.

    At one point, the search feature suggested the hashtag #SmollettHoax, even though that Twitter campaign only featured a handful of accounts pushing it.

    Two of the top six YouTube results for “Smollett” in an incognito search featured hoax allegations as well.

    Far-right social media accounts in the past have been able to manipulate algorithms on social media platforms like YouTube by acting in coordination to inauthentically game the results.

  • This is how a birther smear about Oakland-born Kamala Harris spread online

    QAnon followers and an Obama-era birther are behind the false claims about Harris' eligibility for the presidency

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Far-right and QAnon trolls have used Twitter, YouTube, and other online platforms to spread the baseless claim that presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris’ (D-CA) heritage makes her ineligible to be president even though she was born in Oakland, CA. The false claim, which has since been picked up by far-right troll Jacob Wohl, was first amplified by a birther who has previously challenged former President Barack Obama’s citizenship.

    As early as July 2017, a user behind an anonymous Twitter account falsely claimed that Harris is ineligible to run for president because her parents were “foreign-born.”

    Charles Kerchner, a former military officer who unsuccessfully appealed a challenge to Obama’s citizenship status to the Supreme Court in 2010, published a blog and a document on Scribd pushing the absurd smear against Harris in August 2018. Soon after, fellow birther Sharon Rondeau wrote a blog post that cited Kerchner to suggest that Harris was not eligible for the presidency.

    In the following months, far-right accounts on Twitter and users of the white supremacist hotspot Gab amplified both Kerchner’s PDF and Rondeau's blog. The false claim was picked up by YouTube users and posters on the anonymous message board 4chan, and a discussion on Reddit’s “r/The_Donald” subreddit cited Rondeau’s blog explicitly.

    Followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory have also played a significant role in amplifying the baseless smear. In December, an online radio host picked up one QAnon believer’s Twitter thread citing Rondeau. And in the hours following Harris’ announcement of her candidacy on January 21, widely followed QAnon account @WeAreOne_Q tweeted the baseless claim, which "r/The_Donald” users also picked up. Another major QAnon account tweeted the false claim and linked to Kershner’s PDF later that day. And on the morning of January 22, Wohl -- the QAnon-amplifying troll behind a sloppy scheme to smear special counsel Robert Mueller -- tweeted the false claim using similar language to @WeAreOne_Q’s tweet.

    BuzzFeed’s Molly Hensley-Clancy, noting Wohl’s tweet, pointed out that the smear had been sent to her previously in what appears to be a clear effort to give it oxygen:

    Making birther attacks on Obama with the aid of Fox News was key to President Donald Trump’s political rise. Media should now be ready to nip similar smears in the bud. But CNN’s Chris Cuomo used the opportunity presented by the smear against Harris to tweet, "The longer there is no proof either way, the deeper the effect.” Cuomo subsequently deleted his original tweet and clarified that Harris “has no duty to justify any such accusation.”

  • Facebook took advice from a far-right figure who blamed gay marriage for hurricanes

    Twitter consulted with a right-wing operative with links to extremism

    Blog ››› ››› CRISTINA LóPEZ G.


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    In efforts to appease fits of manufactured conservative rage over the moderation of hateful content on social media platforms, Facebook and Twitter have relied on the advice of anti-LGBTQ extremists and far-right grifters “to help them figure out who should be banned and what’s considered unacceptable.”

    As reported by The Wall Street Journal, Facebook sought out the advice of right-wing groups including extremists like the virulently anti-LGBTQ Family Research Council (FRC) and its president, Tony Perkins. Perkins has compared same-sex marriage to incest, blamed marriage equality and abortion for a destructive hurricane, and called pedophilia a “homosexual problem.” He is clearly not equipped to be an arbitrator on content that oppresses, harassed, and erases minorities. Perkins, along with FRC, has actively opposed LGBTQ equality around the world, supporting a law in Uganda that could have punished “repeat offenders” of same-sex sexual activity with the death penalty, and collaborating with a hate group that worked to pass Russia’s “gay propaganda” law. Domestically, Perkins also called for the State Department to stop supporting LGBTQ rights after President Donald Trump was elected.

    Moreover, FRC senior fellow Ken Blackwell has used his Facebook page to regularly push out links from right-wing propaganda sites that have a history of promoting anti-Muslim fake news and conspiracy theories. Blackwell also took part in what was seemingly a promotional campaign with Liftable Media, which owns right-wing propaganda sites like The Western Journal and relies on right-wing media figures to draw online traffic to its pages. And he has shared misleading memes and content from Russia’s Internet Research Agency, the company behind the 2016 presidential election interference on Facebook. Blackwell is also on the board of the NRA, and once blamed the mass shooting at UCSB by a men's rights supporter on marriage equality.

    The Journal’s article also reports that the Heritage Foundation, which has a long history of climate denial and gets funding from fossil fuel companies, has recently “forged a relationship with Facebook.” On Facebook, Heritage Foundation’s media arm, The Daily Signal, has put out anti-science garbage like “Why climate change is fake news,” contributing to Facebook’s climate-denial problem. In 2013, Heritage came under fire for hiring a researcher who wrote that Hispanic immigrants may never "reach IQ parity with whites."  (The researcher later resigned following outrage.)

    Twitter has also sought the advice of right-wing grifters and anti-abortion advocates. According to the Journal, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has been in contact with Americans for Tax Reform’s Grover Norquist, and Norquist has used that access to successfully lobby for conservatives who had trouble getting anti-abortion ads on Twitter. Anti-abortion groups have a habit of claiming censorship in order to bully social media platforms into allowing them to run “inflammatory” content.

    Dorsey also privately sought the advice of Ali Akbar, a right-wing personality with a prominent Twitter presence, when dealing with the question of whether to remove conspiracy theorist Alex Jones from the platform. (After a murky process filled with half-measures to address Jones’ many policy violations, Twitter and its streaming service Periscope finally removed Jones.) Akbar’s history of promoting hateful content on Twitter and Periscope makes him a poor choice for a consultant on hateful content. He once hosted Matt Colligan (“Millennial Matt”) -- a participant in the 2017 “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA -- for a Periscope video in which Colligan waved a flag that had a Nazi swastika. Akbar, who has claimed his talks with Dorsey have been going on for months, was recently briefly suspended from Twitter, seemingly after a tweet in which he accused media of egging on a “civil war in America” and urged his followers to buy guns and ammo. His account was reinstated within a couple of days.

    These examples show tech platforms’ tendency of caving to conservative whims in order to appease manufactured rage over baseless claims of censorship and bias. Evidence shows that right-wing pages drastically outnumber left-wing pages on Facebook, and under Facebook’s algorithm changes, conservative meme pages outperform all other political news pages. Across platforms, right-wing sources dominate topics like immigration coverage, showing the cries of censorship are nothing more than a tactic. And judging by tech companies’ willingness to cater to these tantrums, the tactic appears to be working.

  • Here is the right-wing misinformation going around on Election Day

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    As Election Day gets underway in the 2018 midterm elections, right-wing misinformation and hoaxes are targeting voters on social media platforms -- including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube -- and via text messages. The right-wing misinformation campaigns include hoaxes about Democrats burning flags, lies about a gubernatorial candidate buying votes, and followers of the conspiracy theory QAnon fearmongering about violent anti-fascist groups targeting voters.

    Here are some examples:

    Alex Jones promoted conspiracy theories about noncitizen and dead Democratic voters on Bitchute. During a broadcast published November 6 on Bitchute, a YouTube alternative, Jones said that polling indicates a “major red wave” and claimed without evidence that “they have caught people from Texas to Maryland, Democrats organizing illegal aliens to have mailed to their address absentee ballots in the name of dead people still on the rolls,” asking, “Will the Democrats be able to steal another election?”

    In Florida, some voters got a text from someone impersonating a campaign staffer for Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum. The text made misleading and false claims about Gillum’s campaign promises, including that he will "raise taxes on anyone making over $25,000 a year." As the Tampa Bay Times reported, Democrats have not proposed adding a state income tax (Florida does not current have one), and Gillum particularly has “repeatedly said that he wouldn’t propose” one. The text also mischaracterized Gillum’s position that “there is a racial element to the application” of Florida’s “stand your ground” law, falsely claiming he called it “a racist ideology.”

    A member of Facebook group Drain The Swamp claimed that a report showed 1.7 million California voters were not registered.

    A Twitter account posted a hoax video showing Democrats burning flags to celebrate a “blue wave.” From The Daily Beast:

    One fake video that’s getting circulation on both Facebook and Twitter today purports to show CNN anchor Don Lemon laughing as Democrats burn flags in a celebration of the “blue wave.”

    Twitter pulled the video from its site around 11:00 a.m. on Tuesday, although it’s still on Facebook.

    The video, which claims to be a scene from CNN’s “Reliable Sources” comes complete with a CNN-style chyron: "Dems celebrate 'Blue Wave' Burning Flags on Election Day." The original version of the video has was viewed nearly 55,000 views on Twitter since being posted Monday, with the tweet promoting it retweeted nearly 5,000 times.

    The video appears to have been first posted by Twitter user “@RealDanJordan,” who said it was a reason to vote for Republican candidates.

    The same Twitter account pushed memes telling men to skip voting in order to help Democrats.

    A user of the neighborhood social network Nextdoor posted false voter information.

    Trolls claiming to be from the Russian Internet Research Agency have been spamming reporters offering to give an inside scoop on their operations.​

    Users of different social media platforms are attempting to revive a false claim from 2016 that billionaire philanthropist George Soros owns a specific brand of voting machines.

    A member of Facebook group Brian Kemp For Georgia Governor claimed without any proof that Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams is “buying votes.”​

    A 4chan account encouraged fellow users to post on Twitter a meme falsely claiming people can vote by text.​

    Conspiracy theorist “Q” encouraged supporters to be vigilant about voter fraud at the polls. On the anonymous message board 8chan, the anonymous poster known as “Q” encouraged supporters of the absurd “deep state” conspiracy theory to be vigilant about voter fraud at the polls. The conspiracy theorist pushed vague allegations of widespread voter fraud across the U.S. and stated that during the election, “uniformed and non-uniformed personnel will be stationed across the country in an effort to safeguard the public.”

    A QAnon-themed YouTube channel posted a video echoing Q’s voter fraud conspiracy theories. As of this writing, the video had more than 43,300 views.

    A pro-Trump Facebook page spread similar claims that fearmongered about election fraud. The page posted a screenshot from the original 8chan post that had been taken from that YouTube video:

    In a QAnon Facebook group, one user claimed that voting machines in Pennsylvania were switching votes for non-Democratic candidates into votes for Democratic candidates.

    Natalie Martinez, Timothy Johnson, and Melissa Ryan contributed research to this piece.​