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  • Anti-abortion group Operation Rescue has become fully “red-pilled” by an 8chan conspiracy theory

    Blog ››› ››› SHARON KANN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    It was concerning enough when in January 2018, the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue encouraged followers to look into the allegations of an anonymous conspiracy theorist on the 8chan message board. Now, it appears that Operation Rescue, with its history of violent rhetoric and harassment, has become fully converted and is seeking to cultivate anti-abortion followers into believers in a far-right conspiracy theory.

    Headed by longtime extremists Troy Newman and Cheryl Sullenger -- the latter has served time for conspiring to bomb an abortion clinic -- Operation Rescue has been described as an organization dedicated to “shut[ting] down abortion clinics by systematically harassing their employees into quitting.” Operation Rescue initially signaled that they’d been “red-pilled” -- a term popularized by the “alt-right” to refer to an ideological conversion to “seeing the world as it really is” -- in a January 7 press release, in which the group signal-boosted a series of posts from a far-right community on 8chan.

    8chan is a message board system -- similar to 4chan and Reddit -- that enables users to engage in discussions anonymously. This has made such communities hotbeds of racist commentary, misogyny, and politically motivated harassment campaigns, in addition to serving as fertile ground for those in the so-called “alt-right” or white nationalist movement. As Mother Jones’ Mariah Blake explained, “men’s rights forums on sites like 4chan and Reddit are awash in misogyny and anti-feminist vitriol” -- a trend that has turned such sites into what Vox’s Aja Romano called a “gateway drug” that leads people into the “alt-right.” 

    In the January 7 release, Operation Rescue focused on an 8chan conspiracy theory called “The Storm” in which a user who refers to himself as “Q” claims to be a “high-level government insider” secretly sharing clues to “inform the public about POTUS’s master plan to stage a countercoup against members of the deep state.” The scope of the conspiracy theory has expanded to encompass all types of events, ranging from a fire at Trump Tower to a train accident involving Republican members of Congress. Most recently, followers of The Storm have joined a campaign calling for the release of a four-page classified memo drafted by House intelligence committee Republicans that allegedly shows illicit behavior by the FBI and Justice Department during the early phases of investigating connections between Trump associates and Russia -- a campaign organized around the Twitter hashtag #ReleaseTheMemo. According to The Daily Beast, right-wing figures as well as online message board communities “have since turned the hashtag into a rallying cry, imploring fans to tweet the hashtag.” On February 2, the President Donald Trump authorized the release of the memo, despite explicit warnings from the FBI about the veracity of its contents.

    In the January 7 press release, Operation Rescue acknowledged that "Q" is a conspiracy theorist -- or at least inspires conspiracy theories. Since then, the social media activity of the group and its leadership indicates that they’ve gone full Sean Hannity. Between January 7 and February 12, both Sullenger’s Twitter account and the official Operation Rescue account have increased their engagements with accounts promoting #ReleaseTheMemo and related hashtags (#Qanon, #TheGreatAwakening, #FollowTheWhiteRabbit). In the past month alone, Sullenger’s changed her account handle to “CherylS sez #ReleaseTheMemo” and followed a number of right-wing media personalities’ accounts, including Alex Jones, Jerome Corsi, Paul Joseph Watson, Mike Cernovich, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Mark Levin, and Sara Carter.

    Since January 2018, Sullenger and Operation Rescue’s social media accounts have demonstrated a precipitous slide into full-embrace of The Storm and #ReleaseTheMemo:

    Cheryl Sullenger

    • January 10 -- Sullenger tweeted a National Review article and included the hashtag #Qanon.

    • January 16 & 17 -- Operation Rescue sent a press release, calling on followers to participate in the “Mother of All Tweet Storms.” According to the release, followers of The Storm were “asked to create memes that express truths that have been misreported or ignored by the Main Stream Media (MSM) and call them out for their dishonest reporting.” Operation Rescue characterized the event as “a tweet war of Biblical proportions with folks joined together in a concerted effort to break through to the masses with the truth about governmental corruption, human trafficking, and even Planned Parenthood.” The Operation Rescue Twitter account then spent the better part of January 17 tweeting a variety of memes attacking Planned Parenthood and promoting hashtags related to The Storm.

    • January 22 -- Sullenger tweeted #ReleaseTheMemo and included a screenshot from Fox News’ Hannity, in which host Sean Hannity was talking about it. Hannity has been an active promoter of so-called “deep state” conspiracy theories.

    • January 24 -- Sullenger reacted to news that Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards is leaving the organization sometime in 2018, by tweeting multiple memes of Richards depicted in prison with the hashtag #ReleaseTheMemo. The official Operation Rescue account also tweeted a press release about Richards’ departure using the hashtags #ReleaseTheMemo and #FollowtheWhiteRabbit. Sullenger also tweeted a link to a YouTube video about #Qanon, calling it, “Must watch!” In addition to Sullenger’s Twitter activity, the Operation Rescue account also liked a tweet about #ReleaseTheMemo.

    • January 27 -- Sullenger retweeted a Jerome Corsi tweet about #ReleaseTheMemo, featuring a story from far-right blog The Gateway Pundit about Hannity and the memo. Sullenger additionally tweeted an explainer video about The Storm, writing, “#TheStorm is real. #ReleaseTheMemo.” Sullenger also tweeted @realDonaldTrump, asking him to read the memo during the State of the Union address because “Americans need to know the #truth.” Meanwhile, The Operation Rescue account liked a tweet about #GreatAwakening and #QAnon.

    • January 28 -- Sullenger attacked Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) -- a frequent right-wing target -- on Twitter, citing a clip from Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight. This tweet included the hashtags #GreatAwakening and #ReleaseTheMemo. In addition to her own tweet, Sullenger also retweeted content from Jerome Corsi and Hannity about #ReleaseTheMemo.

    • January 29 -- Sullenger quote-tweeted a claim from Corsi about the memo, writing that she would not “be happy until we can all see the memo with our own eyes.” In addition, Sullenger also tweeted about the resignations of FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and Democratic National Committee CEO Jess O’Connell from their positions -- linking each to #ReleaseTheMemo. Notably, Sullenger shared an image from an account (@Thomas1774Paine) about the memo supposedly being delivered to the White House -- writing in a public post on her Facebook that “we are on the brink of history!” The Operation Rescue Twitter account retweeted a user, @LadyStephC, calling the memo “the tip of the iceberg” and including a number of hashtags related to The Storm.

    • January 31 -- After a train crash involving Republican members of Congress, Sullenger retweeted a conspiracy theory from Corsi that suggested the accident was part of a “deep state” plot to stop the Republicans from releasing the memo.

    • February 1 -- Sullenger tweeted several memes linked to the #ReleaseTheMemo campaign, suggesting that if the memo is released some Democratic politicians will go to jail. Another meme that she tweeted showed "Q" as a revolutionary standing up to the "deep state" and implied the only way Americans would be "free" is by following him. Sullenger retweeted “alt-right” troll Jack Posobiec, in addition to tweeting a screenshot of an 8chan message board comment (allegedly from “Q”) and including the hashtags #ReleaseTheMemo and #Qanon.

    • February 2 & 3 -- Retweeting a comment from Trump’s Twitter account about opposition research firm Fusion GPS, Sullenger argued that the same firm had “issued fake ‘forensic analysis’” in order to “cover up [Planned Parenthood]'s illegal baby parts trafficking” -- referring to a debunked allegation from the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress. In her tweet, Sullenger included the hashtags #ReleaseTheMemo and #ThesePeopleAreSick. Sullenger also retweeted right-wing media personality Mark Levin. After the release of the disputed memo, Sullenger retweeted several of Corsi's tweets hyping allegations of widespread wrongdoing by government entities. On February 3, Sullenger retweeted Trump claiming that the memo "totally vindicates" him.

    • February 4 -- Sullenger tweeted a video alleging that Super Bowl LII attendees were at risk of being targeted by terrorists, commenting, "Better safe than sorry!" For good measure, Sullenger also tweeted a Life News article about Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards calling her "evil" and using the hashtags #LockHerUp, #AbortionIsMurder, and #GreatAwakening. 

    • February 5 -- Retweeting an account that previously shared screenshots from 8chan, Sullenger commented that both Clinton and Planned Parenthood "both must pay for crimes." Sullenger also shared a press release published by Operation Rescue further connecting the memo to the organization's typical talking points about Planned Parenthood. 

    Troy Newman

    Throughout much of this timeline, the social media accounts of Troy Newman did not engage as often with topics related to The Storm, #ReleaseTheMemo, or even right-wing media personalities. However, on January 31, a public post on Newman’s Facebook page directed followers to what appears to be a conspiracy theory blog for a man named Jim Stone.

    The site seems to house blog posts about a number of conspiracy theories, including one about an alleged plot by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to smuggle a gun into the State of the Union and assassinate Trump:

    Among other extreme conspiracy theories, Stone claimed the January 31 train accident occurred because Republican members of Congress had “received death threats over the memo, and were heading to a safe place when they were stopped by a staged ‘accident’”:

    Perhaps the most outlandish conspiracy theory of all: "If Trump gets killed, they can produce a fake Trump and have him say whatever they need him to say in real time." The blog continued that this technology had been used "with Hillary [Clinton] during the campaign" and that it was "critical information you cannot skip seeing": 

    After the memo was released on February 2, Newman tweeted and posted on Facebook, wondering if it was "too early to call this an attempted coup" against Trump. 

    One thing is certain: If Sullenger and other members of Operation Rescue have been fully “red-pilled,” they are not only exposing their audience to a wellspring of conspiracy theories, but also potentially becoming further radicalized themselves. And if exposure to rapidly misogynist online communities is truly a “gateway drug,” as Romano warned, the cross-pollination between these 8chan conspiracy theorists and anti-abortion extremists is an incredibly dangerous prospect.

  • Alex Jones blamed the Finsbury Park attack on Muslims. It was actually inspired by one of his regular guests.

    Trial proceedings against the accused Finsbury Park attacker reveal he was motivated by the anti-Muslim commentary of extremist Tommy Robinson

    Blog ››› ››› TIMOTHY JOHNSON

    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    During the early morning of June 19, 2017, a man drove a 3.5 ton van into a crowd in Finsbury Park, London. The attacker targeted worshippers leaving the nearby Muslim Welfare House mosque after finishing evening prayers. One man was killed and 10 others were injured. The driver of the van reportedly shouted that he wanted to "kill all Muslims" before being arrested.

    As the first details of the attack emerged, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was hosting a special edition live broadcast of his show to coincide with the airing of Megyn Kelly’s controversial interview of Jones for her short-lived Sunday night NBC show. Guest co-host Mike Cernovich first mentioned the incident, saying, “Looks like some kind of van attack in London, so there might be more breaking news.” Jones responded sarcastically saying, “Well, that’s not Muslims. Muslims never do anything wrong.”

    Moments later Cernovich returned to the attack saying, “Breaking news: Man arrested after van plows into people outside of a London mosque.” Jones again reacted sarcastically, saying, “But it has nothing to do with Islam, right, Cernovich?” and said, “Then they say we’re anti-Islam. Yeah, I’m anti-Stone Age insanity, women wearing beekeeper suits.” Cernovich and Jones then went on an anti-Muslim diatribe that included Jones commenting that “Muslims are allowed to rape because it’s their culture, but then if a woman gets drunk and has sex, oh you date-raped her.” 

    The driver of the van, Darren Osborne, is now on trial. Proceedings have indicated that Osborne was radicalized in a matter of weeks as he became obsessed with the commentary of Tommy Robinson, a former leader of the violent anti-Muslim hate group English Defence League, Rebel Media employee, and frequent guest of Alex Jones.

    According to English law enforcement, Osborne “became radicalised in just three to four weeks, as evidence from devices he used show him reading posts by the former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson, far-right group Britain First and other extremists.” Osborne’s partner testified that Osborne was “brainwashed” by Robinson and others and said, “Darren has been watching a lot of Tommy Robinson stuff on the internet. I have pleaded with Darren to stop watching this sort of thing, but he just wouldn’t stop.”

    The Independent reported that Osborne began consuming anti-Muslim material in the weeks before the attack from a variety of sources before zeroing in on Robinson and joining his email list. According to the Independent, “After picking up the van, Osborne started an intense bout of online activity, repeatedly searching Mr Robinson’s name and viewing his tweets alongside derogatory articles on Sadiq Khan and Jeremy Corbyn for more than two hours.” During testimony at the trial, Osborne admitted that he hoped to kill Khan, London’s mayor, and Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party.

    Robinson is a frequent guest and topic of conversation on Jones’ program. In fact, hours after the attack, on June 19, 2017, Jones hosted Infowars Editor-at-Large Paul Joseph Watson and the two downplayed the attack and offered a preemptive defense of Robinson. Watson predicted that “leftists” would probably “go after” Robinson in reaction to the attack. Jones said, “We should get Tommy Robinson on. He’s never done anything violent, he’s done nothing wrong.” (While Robinson was criticized in the wake of the attack, the fact that the attacker was an avid consumer of his commentary wasn’t reported until January 2018.)

    According to a search of Jones’ YouTube channel, in the past several years, Robinson has made frequent remote appearances on Jones show -- he has previously been refused entry to the U.S. -- to spread anti-Muslim hate. Robinson was on Jones’ show as recently as February 7, where he and Jones smeared Muslims as massively inbred.

    Jones’ channel has promoted Robinson's appearances with titles like “Tommy Robinson’s Desperate Emergency Warning of Impending Islamic Takeover” and “Tommy Robinson: After Manchester Bombing, Muslims Claim They Have Nothing To Be Sorry For.”

    During the intro of a video with the title “If The UK Continues To Fail Its Citizens English Men Will Take The Law Into Their Own Hands,” Robinson encouraged people to act extrajudicially against what he saw as the threat of Muslims, saying, “The situation in France -- I think England will be different. I can see a point when English men are going to react, and react en masse. I’d say by the phone calls I’ve been receiving all week that they’re pushing the point closer all ready. I don’t see any -- we have no -- there is no reasonable solution to this. … So to get through this and to bring the change we need there’s going to be chaos either way.” That video was posted on June 6, 2017 -- 13 days before the Finsbury Park attack. 

  • Far-right figures are saying the deep state is responsible for the stock market crash

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    Far-right media figures are claiming that yesterday’s historic drop in the stock market is part of a deep state plot to destroy Trump and that Trump is “hitting back.” The claim began with conspiracy theorist radio host Michael Savage, who said on his show yesterday that the deep state is “taking the market down” following Trump’s State of the Union (SOTU) address because it is trying to “destroy [Trump] where he is strongest.” Infowars then pushed Savage’s conspiracy theory, comparing it with with Alex Jones’ conspiracy theory from 2017 in which he claimed that “globalists” would cause a stock market crash and blame it on Trump. The Gateway Pundit also promoted Savage’s claims in an article that the website’s founder Jim Hoft tweeted.

    Rebel TV’s John Cardillo also claimed that the Federal Reserve was “purposefully tanking the markets,” and Alex Jones suggested the drop could be “a false flag by the big banks.” Infowars’ Jerome Corsi tweeted an article from Zero Hedge, a website known for publishing conspiracy theories, about Trump's legal team's support for a second special counsel to "probe" FBI and the Justice Department, to claim that Trump was hitting back against the deep state which had crashed the stock markets. Corsi put the hashtag #QAnon in his tweet, a reference to the fringe conspiracy theory “The Storm.”

    From the February 5 edition of Savage Nation:

    MICHAEL SAVAGE (HOST): They’re trying to destroy Trump’s strongest card which is the economy. Mueller has gone nowhere with his fake Russia investigation. Trump’s stirring SOTU speech last week was so great that even CBS admitted 75 percent of the people who watched it approved of it and loved it. So what happened right afterwards? The establishment, meaning the deep state, call it whatever you want, went into overdrive to destroy Trump, or try to destroy him where he is strongest because they couldn’t get him where they thought he was weakest. And so they’re taking the market down. They’re trying to hurt you. They are the enemies of the average American. Make no mistake about it, they’re going for you. These people are so evil and so power drunk, that they burn the nation to the ground rather than let Donald Trump live another day in office.

  • “The Storm,” the deep state, and antifa: Pro-Trump media are full of conspiracy theories about today’s train accident

    ››› ››› NATALIE MARTINEZ & NICK FERNANDEZ

    After a charter train that was carrying Republican members of Congress collided with a stalled dump truck that was stuck on the train tracks in western Virginia, pro-Trump media outlets immediately pushed various conspiracy theories about the accident, including suggesting that “the deep state” was “trying to send a message” to Republican members of Congress. Fake news websites also pushed a conspiracy theory linking the potential release of the classified memo written by the Republican members of the House intelligence committee with the timing of the train crash that they claim was enacted by the “deep state.”