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Pro-Trump media outlets attacked CNN by claiming the network was “staging fake Muslim demonstrations” in response to the June 3 London Bridge terror attack. The smear, which started with nativist, anti-Muslim Daily Mail columnist Katie Hopkins, was quickly called out by CNN as “nonsense.”
The vicious “alt-right” provocateur Mike Cernovich spent the 2016 election cycle claiming that Hillary Clinton had Parkinson’s disease and that her associates were leading a child sex-trafficking ring from a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant. Now he has the ear of enough sources close to President Donald Trump that, at times, he has published legitimate scoops that have later been verified by more credible sources.
“Big scoops by personalities who rose to prominence online by crossing the line into trolldom have short-circuited a mainstream-media bullshit detector that once spotted fake news by bylines alone,” warned BuzzFeed News’ Charlie Warzel, who has detailed several cases in which trolls linked to the racist and misogynistic “alt-right” have turned out to be unnervingly well-sourced.
By providing people like Cernovich with this information, the administration sources have created a new state of uncertainty for journalists and news consumers who might otherwise have been able to universally reject stories from “alt-right” sources. And that creates a dismal state of affairs given the willingness of those writers to troll the public by pushing flagrantly false reports and conspiracy theories.
The wave of more credible stories doesn’t reflect a new commitment to investigative journalism on the part of these figures so much as it reflects terribly on the sort of people in Trump’s orbit, who are feeding information to the dregs of the internet for personal or strategic reasons.
For Warzel, the rising power of the “pro-Trump media” makes sense because “its people are in the White House,” feeding information to simpatico media figures.
That is surely the explanation in some cases. According to Alex Jones, a conspiracy theorist who frequently brags about his influence with the president and who recently gave Cernovich a regular hosting gig on his radio show, the troll’s sources are “not a secret, it’s [the president’s] sons, especially Donald Jr.”
Trump Jr. repeatedly drew scrutiny during the 2016 election for his interactions with “alt-right” and white nationalist figures and memes. He follows Cernovich and several other “alt-right” figures on Twitter, and in April he declared that Cernovich deserved to win a Pulitzer Prize for one of his stories.
This seems like a plausible pathway for at least some of Cernovich’s stories. But White House staffers don’t need to be his buddy in order to use him -- they may see giving him information as a way to maintain Trump’s support with the “alt-right.”
In short, there may be a White House strategy to feed the trolls.
White House chief strategist Steve Bannon turned Breitbart.com into “the platform for the alt-right” during his tenure running the website, seeing the value in gaining fans within that movement. Throughout the election, the Trump campaign could count on people like Cernovich to push conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton. There is certainly value in keeping such people on the White House’s good side and being able to deploy their skill at manipulating the broader discourse.
In this scenario, sending tips to such figures is of a piece with the White House Press Office’s decision to grant press access to a rotating cast of fringe media figures. It’s a way to reward friendly outlets while keeping the press off balance.
Finally, there’s the possibility that the end goal of some of these stories is to feed the King Troll: President Trump himself.
Politico reported today that because the president lacks a structure for receiving information and is willing to believe anything put in front of him, “aides sometimes slip him stories to press their advantage on policy; other times they do so to gain an edge in the seemingly endless Game of Thrones inside the West Wing.” And that can have major consequences: “A news story tucked into Trump’s hands at the right moment can torpedo an appointment or redirect the president’s entire agenda. Current and former Trump officials say Trump can react volcanically to negative press clips, especially those with damaging leaks, becoming engrossed in finding out where they originated.”
“That is what happened in late February,” Politico continued, “when someone mischievously gave the president a printed copy of an article from GotNews.com, the website of Internet provocateur Charles C. Johnson, which accused deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh of being ‘the source behind a bunch of leaks’ in the White House.”
Johnson’s piece about Walsh was also cited in Warzel’s article about pro-Trump media figures who had received unusually well-sourced scoops. Johnson openly repudiates many conventions of journalistic ethics and has published numerous stories that were later disproved; he’s also been banned from Twitter. As his notoriety grew, he went from published stories at prominent conservative outlets like The Daily Caller to writing for his own website.
But President Trump is uninterested in any of this, and so when Johnson’s story passed across his desk it apparently became a “topic of heated conversation in the West Wing, setting off mini internal investigations into who had backstabbed Walsh,” Politico reported.
In this scenario, the “alt-right” commentariat becomes a way for White House aides to generate news clips that they can give the president, because he does not discern between their work and that of a mainstream newspaper. Unlike more credible reporters, writers for these outlets have no real standards; if you give them something juicy, they will publish it.
Either senior White House aides and people close to the president share the values of the “alt-right” racists and misogynists, or they’re willing to work with them to achieve their ends. Either way, the “alt-right” isn’t going away -- it continues to grow and metastasize and now has allies at the highest level of government.
Donald Trump Jr., the son of President Donald Trump, was interviewed by NRATV commentator Bill Whittle during the NRA’s 2017 annual meeting, which is being held in Atlanta, GA.
In the past, Whittle has promoted the racist notion that black people are inherently intellectually inferior to people of other races, cited a white nationalist to claim people in inner cities “don't have access to cognition,” and claimed African-Americans are compliant “slaves” of the Democratic Party who trade a willingness to engage in voter fraud for welfare.
Trump will speak later today at the NRA Institute for Legislative Action Leadership Forum.
Whittle interviewed Trump Jr. during NRATV’s broadcast from the NRA annual meeting exhibition hall alongside NRATV host Grant Stinchfield.
During the interview, Whittle claimed that former President Barack Obama’s administration had “weaponized” the government against “half of the country” and suggested that Obama was a dictator.
He also suggested that Obama was lazy compared to Trump, telling Trump Jr., “There was a picture, very early, it might have been the very first or second day after the inauguration, where you’re looking at the Oval Office and there is the Resolute Desk and there’s just all these piles of paper. It’s almost like it’s an executive who's got work to do and is ready to actually do some work. There’s one picture I think of Barack Obama where there is a piece of paper on the desk and he is kind of looking down at it disdainfully whether he should grace the presence of this thing. It’s nice to have a businessman, and the hours that he puts in, the organizational skills, it’s making a real difference.”
During a 2016 appearance on the webshow of libertarian-turned-“alt-right”-commentator Stefan Molyneux, Whittle revealed he accepted theories commonly called “academic” or “scientific” racism that tie together IQ scores, race, and crime.
In addition to positively citing prominent white nationalist Linda Gottfredson and widely denounced book The Bell Curve in advancing the claim that there are inherent intelligence differences between races, Whittle made a racist comment about aboriginal Australians and cited an episode of Star Trek in trying to explain his belief that races can be divided along the lines of “civilized man” and “barbarian.” (Biologists and anthropologists have long-rejected the theories that Whittle promoted).
Unsurprisingly, Whittle’s appearance on Molyneux's show was lauded by infamous neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer.
In addition to promoting “scientific” racism, Whittle frequently offers racist commentary, particularly on Muslim immigrants and African-Americans.
While discussing “black America” during a December 2015 appearance on Molyneux’s program, Whittle described African-Americans who support the Democratic Party as literal slaves who prefer to remain in captivity. He said that the party has “30 million” slaves and the “terms of their slavery are very simple -- there’s a word for somebody who is fed, and clothed, and housed, and whose health care is taken care of by another person, and that word is slave.”
Whittle then suggested that African-Americans commit voter fraud on behalf of Democrats as a condition of their slavery, claiming, “On the voting plantation that the Democratic Party has set up in America, we demand two hours of work from you every two years. Every two years we demand that you go down to the voting places and vote, once, twice, three, four times, however [many] times as you can imagine, or manage, and that’s the work we expect for you in exchange for keeping you in bondage.”
During another 2015 appearance on Molyneux’s show, Whittle said there is an “Islamic invasion of Europe” which he compared to “inner cities” in America “that are absolutely toxic, violent, enraged, bitter, [and] racist.” He went on to claim Black Lives Matter is “the street muscle” of the Democratic Party and that the group will make sure “everything’s gonna burn” if welfare is reduced.
Again drawing a comparison between Europe and the United States, Whittle said, “We have the exact same problem here with these same kind of communities. They’re unemployable -- unemployed and unemployable -- they’ve been on assistance their entire lives, they’ve never had to work before,” and he said that these people should get jobs because a job “beats the laziness” out of people and “disciplines” them into “civility.”
During a January 2016 appearance on Molyneux’s show, Whittle called Obama an “unqualified, unknown individual” who was elected “specifically and only because he is black” and said that electing Obama was “atoning for our slavery.” Moments later he said, “I didn’t own any slaves, and therefore I’m not responsible for slavery. I’m not benefiting from slavery because I never owned any slaves,” and he said, “There’s nothing in this country that survived the Civil War that was the result of slavery.”
Continuing to discuss the Civil War, Whittle said the “greatest tragedy in American history” is “not slavery, it’s not the Civil War, it’s what happened after,” before complaining about the philosophy of W.E.B. DuBois.
White nationalists have thrown their support behind Trump and have been particularly fond of Trump Jr. During the presidential campaign, Trump Jr. made a “gas chamber” reference, retweeted an anti-Semitic author, and compared Syrian refugees to Skittles, endearing himself to neo-Nazi websites.
On the coattails of President Donald Trump’s successful election campaign and an anti-"political correctness" wave, an alternative right-wing media echo chamber successfully reverberated itself into virtual relevance on social media, where it now reaches millions of people every day. This new-media ecosystem exists outside of traditional newspapers and cable news networks, instead taking to social sites like Facebook, Twitter, Periscope, Reddit, and YouTube to promote its far-right nationalist politics and conspiracy-laden worldviews to an audience it has isolated and now dominates as its preferred news source.
Key players in this circular far-right alt-media echo chamber, such as online troll Mike Cernovich and Infowars’ Alex Jones, have successfully crafted a false impression of credibility. They have synthesized a “new right” echo chamber from “alt-right” ideologies and orchestrated a media machine that disseminates content across multiple media platforms with extreme efficiency.
Key voices in this ecosystem often work a redundant media circuit across allied platforms to reinforce each other’s worldviews and concepts of reality, cast doubt on mainstream media, and suggest widespread conspiracies along the way. Cernovich demonstrated this tactic as he circulated a faux scandal story that suggested Susan Rice, who served as national security adviser to former President Barack Obama, was responsible for improper unmasking of Trump officials caught in surveillance of foreign officials.
Cernovich toured the Rice story around the alternative media sphere he occupies until it eventually broke into mainstream media. On April 2, Cernovich first tweeted the “breaking news” that Rice had ordered the unmasking. Later that day, Cernovich published his full story about the explosive allegations. On April 3, Cernovich promoted the story in a livestream broadcast to his tens of thousands of Periscope followers. The same day, “alt-right” thought leader Richard Spencer publicly slammed Cernovich in his own broadcast, granting the story a direct platform into the "alt-right" fanbase. On April 4, Cernovich took his story through the alternative media circuit, appearing on Infowars and Free Domain Radio and earning shoutouts from Stefan Molyneux, Lee Stranahan, and Donald Trump Jr. After riding the wave, Cernovich continued his self-promotion in a Reddit AMA thread and a post-story interview with Rebel Media.
Members of the echo chamber attract and maintain a fan base by developing an abusive relationship with their audience members -- a process they label “redpilling.” They gaslight their audiences until readers and viewers feel unable to trust any media other than those particular outlets to deliver them “the truth.” As a result, these new-media companies have groomed rabid fan bases that turn to them as beacons of honesty in a media world that they believe is orchestrated to distract the public from this echo chamber’s version of “the truth.”
Many media outlets disregard this new-media echo chamber, continuing to speak about the movement with the same blanket terms and condescension they used before the so-called “new right” distanced itself from “alt-right” leaders. But now, months later, this far-right alternative media apparatus is encroaching on its mainstream competition online. For example, Infowars recently surpassed CNN in its number of subscribers on YouTube, which marked a major milestone in far-right alternative media's encroachment on the video site’s news ecosystem.
According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in early 2016, about half of people age 49 and under said they get their news online. And as cable news viewership declines and as Americans’ trust in news media sinks to an all-time low, alternative new-media stars have leveraged a unique opportunity to redefine right-wing media and reach mass audiences once loyal to established journalism outlets. The alternative media ecosystem has also benefited from attention from top government officials and those close to them; presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway recently elevated Cernovich on Twitter, Donald Trump Jr. pushed an Infowars conspiracy theory, and Michael Flynn Jr., the son of Trump’s former national security advisor, has promoted Infowars and conspiracy theories like “Pizzagate” sourced from the alternative media sphere.
Graphics by Sarah Wasko
Trump Apologists Continued To Deflect Concerns Over Conflicts And Corruption In The White House
Broadcast and cable news programs heaped additional scrutiny on Ivanka Trump in the hours after The Associated Press broke a bombshell report that the lifestyle brand she owns had secured valuable trademarks in China before she met with the Chinese president for dinner at her father’s private Mar-a-Lago resort. News of the glaring conflict of interest between Trump’s role as a White House adviser and her private business empire was carried by the major broadcast networks --ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS -- as well as CNN and MSNBC. Fox News ignored the issue entirely during its evening and prime-time programming, and longtime Trump apologist and former Fox host Greta Van Susteren actually defended Trump during her program.
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For most of the last decade, the flow of misinformation was often easy to track in media, with right-wing media often forcing mainstream outlets to follow the stories and tone they favored. Now, a couple of months into President Donald Trump’s administration, this pattern has changed and new players have entered the ecosystem. Groups that used to be contained to their own bubble have been able to insert themselves into the food chain and been able to spread not just misleading, but patently false information to right-wing outlets and sometimes even in turn to mainstream media. A new dubious allegation regarding Susan Rice, former national security adviser to President Barack Obama, illustrates how this new pattern can spread pro-Trump misinformation and propaganda from fringe sources into mainstream media outlets.
Recently, fake news and the white nationalist “alt-right” movement have become two of the country’s biggest problems in terms of fighting misinformation. Both government officials and websites like Facebook and Google are trying to lessen the harmful impact as websites that share fake news continue to mislead news consumers. And the “alt-right” is growing in prominence thanks in part to President Donald Trump’s choice of Stephen Bannon, the former chairman of “alt-right” website Breitbart News, as his chief strategist. Fringe “alt-right” forums, on sites like Reddit, 4chan, and 8chan, exercise influence by pushing conspiracy theories and leading harassment campaigns.
These different groups do not operate in a vacuum. Repeatedly, they have come together to spread and amplify their misinformation and claims. Often, a claim will start on a fringe outlet or forum, and other such sites will amplify the misinformation, then fake news purveyors will push it, and then the claim will jump into more traditional right-wing media before sometimes spreading into mainstream media. Trump aides and other people connected to Trump have even promoted some of those stories, crucially helping them break through at times.
And that brings us to Rice.
On April 2, Mike Cernovich, a self-described member of the “alt-right,” claimed in a post on Medium that the “White House Counsel’s office identified Rice as the person responsible for the unmasking” of Trump officials caught in surveillance of foreign officials “after examining Rice’s document log requests.” The claim then spread among fringe outlets such as The Gateway Pundit -- which said the unmasking “was purely for political purposes” -- and Infowars, and spread via posts on 4chan and Reddit.
As the claim started getting pickup on Twitter, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, promoted Cernovich with a tweet linking to the main page of his Medium blog (the next day, Donald Trump. Jr praised Cernovich for “breaking the #SusanRice story”).
The claim was then echoed by Bloomberg’s Eli Lake, who added a layer of credibility to the attempted smear, writing that Rice “requested the identities of U.S. persons in raw intelligence reports on dozens of occasions that connect to the Donald Trump transition and campaign.” Meanwhile, multiple fake news purveyors hyped the allegations, dubiously claiming that Rice “could be headed to jail” for “absolute treason.”
Lake conceded in his piece, however, that Rice’s requests “were likely within the law.” Legal and national security experts echoed that conclusion, saying Rice’s actions weren’t “odd or wrong,” did not indicate “anything improper whatsoever,” and were “within the scope of the job of a national security advisor like Rice.” Lake's caveats did not prevent him from going on both Sean Hannity's radio and Fox News show, where the right-wing host described the story as "worse than Watergate."
As the claim spread into the mainstream, some in right-wing media criticized mainstream outlets for not giving the story enough attention or for not presenting it the way they would. Although some mainstream figures have echoed the consensus of experts, others have also suggested that Rice could be guilty of some kind of wrongdoing. Fox News in particular insisted that something must be improper if not illegal about Rice's actions, and in their scramble to claim they may have had the story before Cernovich, likely outed themselves as another outlet that the White House used as a puppet for the Rice leak.
Right-wing criticism of mainstream media’s coverage will likely ramp up, spurring some mainstream outlets to defend their coverage or possibly tweak some of their framing under pressure.
This is the new media ecosystem in the Trump era. No longer are these false claims all originating in traditional right-wing media before mainstream outlets give in to pressure to cover them. Now they can start from these fringe pro-Trump propaganda outlets, with right-wing media picking them up. Meanwhile, members of the “alt-right” continue to gain more prominence and acceptance in traditional conservative and conservative media circles. Indeed, radio host Rush Limbaugh, while hyping the Rice story, bragged that mainstream media outlets are “not the arbiters anymore”; whitewashed the original source of the story, Cernovich, as simply a “pro-Trump blogger,” and said CBS’ 60 Minutes “tried to destroy him”; and criticized mainstream outlets for dismissing the story because it was pushed by right-wing media.
This is not the first example of misinformation following such a trajectory. In March, after a federal judge in Hawaii placed a hold on Trump’s revised Muslim ban, fringe “alt-right” outlets such as Infowars and Gateway Pundit pushed a conspiracy theory that appeared to have started on Reddit alleging that Obama conspired with the judge. The claim then spread among fake news purveyors and was pushed by Donald Trump Jr. before breaking through to more traditional conservative media figures and outlets like Hannity and the Independent Journal Review. Later that month, in order to back up Trump’s false claim that Obama wiretapped Trump Tower, Infowars dubiously claimed it had National Security Agency documents that provided proof. The claim made its way around other “alt-right” outlets and fake news purveyors and wound up being pushed at the top of the Drudge Report.
This is the danger that the new media environment presents. The fringe is no longer being siloed; it has actively been raised into the mainstream by pro-Trump forces both known and unknown, and has been repeatedly validated by both mainstream reporters and especially an administration that has no hesitation about lying to the world. It’s crucial that mainstream media outlets understand this new environment and the kind of claims and conspiracy theories it puts forth. It is one thing to share the mainstream with extremist cranks, propagandists, and liars. It's another thing to succumb and do their pro-Trump misinforming for them.
Independent Journal Review (IJR) chief content officer Benny Johnson and two other IJR employees were indefinitely suspended after writing and publishing a baseless conspiracy theory -- originally pushed by “alt-right” fringe media -- which suggested that former President Barack Obama’s visit to Hawaii played a role in a ruling by a federal judge based there that froze President Donald Trump’s revised Muslim ban.
On March 16, under Johnson’s direction, IJR published, then retracted, an article that attempted to “point out the timing and the opportunity” presented by Obama’s presence in Hawaii days before the judge’s ruling. The conspiracy theory was originally pushed by fringe and “alt-right” outlets such as Infowars and The Gateway Pundit, and it seemed to originate from a thread on the online anonymous message board Reddit. The outlandish theory even made its way to Donald Trump Jr., who retweeted a Twitter post that tied the judge to Obama.
According to reports from Politico and Business Insider, after IJR investigated the publication of the baseless story, the site suspended Johnson and editors Kyle Becker and Becca Lower. In a statement, IJR founder Alex Skatell wrote that “we got it wrong and ultimately deserve all the criticism.” Business Insider noted that Johnson, who has been accused of plagiarism multiple times and has previously pushed false claims, “had been warned earlier that the story about Obama was an unfounded conspiracy theory, but he assigned it to Becker anyway.”
This is the second recent occasion in which a right-wing media figure has been disciplined for spreading unsubstantiated allegations and conspiracy theories about Obama. IJR’s actions came a day after reports emerged that Fox News’ Andrew Napolitano was being taken off the air “indefinitely” for promoting the false claim that Obama used the British government to spy on Trump.
Donald Trump Jr. liked a tweet by Alex Jones pushing the baseless claim that President Barack Obama “went outside" the chain of command "to spy on Trump" during the 2016 election with the help of the British government. The Trump administration was heavily criticized after White House press secretary Sean Spicer pushed the same conspiracy at a March 16 press conference.
On March 15, Alex Jones tweeted:
Former president went outside chain of command to spy on Trump during election - https://t.co/2AnsRkTg5R
— Alex Jones (@RealAlexJones) March 15, 2017
Jones’ tweet linked to a March 14 Infowars piece with the headline “Judge Napolitano: Obama Used British Intelligence To Spy On Trump.” The unbylined article highlighted an appearance Napolitano made on Fox & Friends during which he said that “three intelligence sources told him if Obama asked an American agency for a wiretap on Trump, there would be a record of that request, but by using British agency GCHQ Obama avoided leaving any ‘fingerprints.’”
Trump Jr. subsequently liked Jones’ tweet:
White House press secretary Sean Spicer created an international incident by citing Napolitano’s Fox News report during yesterday’s White House briefing. The British government has strongly denied the spying claims and Trump officials have reportedly attempted to "soothe British officials" over the claim.
Trump Jr. has repeatedly promoted fringe conspiracy theories that originated with conservative media, including Infowars. He also has frequently tweeted out content from Alex Jones and Infowars editor Paul Joseph Watson (@prisonplanet).
Jones claimed in February that President Donald Trump or his sons watch his videos and show “every night.”
Donald Trump Jr. Retweets Right-Wing Radio Host Pushing The Conspiracy Theory
Pro-President Donald Trump outlets and “alt-right” outlets pushed a conspiracy theory that former President Barack Obama was the reason a federal judge in Hawaii blocked Trump’s revised Muslim ban executive order. The president’s son Donald Trump Jr. retweeted the claim, which seems to have originally spread on Reddit. The conspiracy is yet another variation of right-wing media’s theory that Obama is running a “shadow government.”
Gateway Pundit, an online media outlet that is repeatedly cited and praised by President Trump and those in his inner circle, smeared a Canadian mosque just days after a terrorist shooting attack left six Muslim worshipers dead and eight wounded on January 29 by making dubious claims that the mosque has “strong ties to terrorism.”
The alleged shooter, identified as 27-year-old white student Alexandre Bissonnette, was known for “far-right views” and had expressed support for anti-immigrant groups and figures, including Trump. He has been described as a “very right-wing and ultra-nationalist white supremacist” by people who knew him.
In the immediate aftermath of the massacre, Gateway Pundit reported that the shooter had yelled an Arabic phrase in an attempt to insinuate the shooter was Muslim. The outlet went on to attack media outlets who had not reported this unconfirmed information. After the original attempt to smear Muslims fell apart, the outlet switched tactics and responded to the tragedy by attacking the mosque with a headline using all-caps styling on “MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD” and “TERRORIST” and asserting that it “has strong ties to terrorism.” Meanwhile, a search for the shooter's name using Gateway Pundit’s search function returns zero results.
The report cited by Gateway Pundit to prove links to terrorism claimed that the mosque was tied to the Muslim Brotherhood due to its founding by local members of the Muslim Student Association, a frequently maligned Islamic student organization located in colleges and universities across the United States and Canada. However, there is no evidence that the Muslim Brotherhood and Muslim Student Association are “actively affiliated,” and the only link between the two is the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood “helped establish the [Muslim Student Association] more than 50 years ago.”
Adding to the concern of the often absurdly wrong Gateway Pundit is that its influence has greatly risen under Trump, with owner Jim Hoft announcing on January 19 that the outlet would have its first correspondent in the White House. Trump himself regularly tweets at or about the outlet, including praising it “for reporting the truth.” Numerous members of his team such as counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway and White House director of social media Dan Scavino Jr. have also tweeted about the outlet, as well as Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr.
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Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign and continuing into the transition period, President-elect Donald Trump has surrounded himself with people who have helped propagate fake news, which got more attention than real news did on Facebook toward the end of the election cycle. That list includes two of his sons, his former campaign manager, his pick for national security adviser, and the adviser’s son, who was involved in the transition until recently. The fake news stories they pushed included a piece claiming Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton paid people to protest Trump’s election and a fake claim that Clinton and her campaign were involved in a child trafficking ring.