Video ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF
Loading the player reg...
Loading the player reg...
Sebastian Gorka and Steve Bannon: The alpha male power duo is no more
Sebastian Gorka worked with Stephen Bannon at Breitbart.com both before and after his brief stint in Trump's White House. In numerous television appearances since leaving the White House, Gorka bragged that he and Bannon are “far more dangerous on the outside,” that “the alpha males are back,” and that he and "Steve" would be great at "the long game" of working outside the White House.
Bannon has since been fired from Breitbart after reportedly suggesting that Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with a group of Russians in Trump Tower was treasonous.
Far-right trolls have long occupied the internet with their nihilistic sense of humor and taste for memes, engaged in sophomoric “shit-posting.” But for some, their impact has expanded beyond the fringe corners of the internet. They've shown they're able to influence national conversations, offering twisted narratives and conspiracy theories during major news events, injecting bigotry into the discourse, and challenging harassment policies of social media platforms, all while marketing themselves as legitimate torchbearers of the truth.
This didn’t happen overnight; rather, a combination of factors made it possible. The far-right trolls learned how to manufacture outrage to mobilize their audiences into action. Their memes transcended “shit-posting” and began shaping political conversations. They found a friendly presidential administration that gave them access and provided them with a veneer of legitimacy. The coverage media outlets gave them failed to cover them in proper context and allowed them to sanitize their extremist brands. And social media platforms were slow in cracking down on their hateful rhetoric, allowing them to gain attention and amass thousands of followers.
Here are five factors that fueled the influence of far-right trolls in 2017:
Trends of online discourse in 2017 showed that the far-right’s practice of using digital tools to affect change, exercise pressure, and punish perceived enemies is best understood as politics of manufactured outrage. Many trolls raised their profiles and gained relevance by criticizing what they saw as liberal over-sensitivity, seeking to provoke “snowflakes” for the sake of generating outrage and supporting Trump because his war against “political correctness” was an essential part of their ethos. Now they’re using social media platforms to command their followers to decry and condemn their critics over social justice issues they openly dismissed before.
Mike Cernovich, a leading right-wing troll previously known for misogynistic musings and tasteless tweets, including denying the existence of date rape, effectively manufactured outrage to get MSNBC contributor Sam Seder fired from the network for a tasteless joke Seder tweeted in 2008. Though MSNBC rehired Seder, this was not an isolated incident.
On another occasion, Cernovich targeted journalist Josh Barro and campaigned to get him fired from Business Insider by accusing the journalist of ableism after Barro made fun of Cernovich’s lisp, only stopping after Barro publicly apologized. But Cernovich’s own digital fingerprints make it impossible to believe that he suddenly developed a concern for ableism. In a similar fashion, “Pizzagate” conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec targeted New Republic’s Jeet Heer, accusing him of defending child pornography by taking a few of Heer’s tweets from 2014 and 2016 out of context. Posobiec also interrupted a play under the pretense that he was offended by its contents, and sued a theater for its all-female screening of the movie Wonder Woman. And when he couldn’t find something to be outraged about, he simply created the opportunity by reportedly planting a “rape Melania” sign at an anti-Trump rally. Right-wing trolls followed the same playbook to smear protesters and ignite outrage during protests of an event featuring Cernovich by planting a sign that featured the logo of a practically defunct pro-pedophilia organization.
The trolls are still freely deploying their playbook of haranguing their followers into more campaigns to force media outlets and social media platforms into doing their bidding -- whether to silence journalists and Trump critics by manipulating Twitter’s abuse report protocols and getting them suspended from the platform, or to “weaponize” their followers into harassment campaigns, or to pressure brands into advertising on shows they like.
As BuzzFeed’s Kate Notopoulos wrote, these trolls “have weaponized taking things literally.” These stunts are often just manipulation disguised as false equivalence, since trolls like Cernovich justify their actions by arguing that media “dictate policy and personnel decisions via social shaming/‘news coverage.'" Mainstream right-wing media also dismiss criticism of these harassment campaigns, claiming that they're legitimate because “both sides” do it (regardless of whether that's true).
Right-wing and “alt-right” trolls successfully weaponized memes in support of Trump throughout the 2016 presidential election in what experts documenting troll culture refer to as “The Great Meme War.” Message board users created memes and deployed them on social media daily to attack political candidates. During this phase of meme-ing their favorite candidate into office, factions like the “alt-right” and other right-wing trolls were indistinguishable.
2017 saw the meme warfare kick into high gear, with many meme campaigns transcending the message boards and becoming a source of harassment on college campuses, or turning into terrifying harassment campaigns against journalists. Such was the case with the “It’s okay to be white” meme, designed specifically to be “tame and inoffensive” yet elicit reactions that would portray any criticism or outcry as absurd. The meme quickly became a battle cry in the campus culture wars, culminating in professional troll Lucian Wintrich’s “It is OK to be white” speech at the University of Connecticut, which spurred disruptions, fights, and arrests.
Similarly, there was a meme campaign against CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski following his story that an anti-CNN meme tweeted by Trump had been created by a Reddit user with a history of “racist and anti-Semitic imagery.” The campaign quickly transcended the digital world and resulted in death threats against CNN staffers and Kaczynski himself.
Journalists have been complicit in aiding right-wing trolls who rose to prominence by riding coattails of the “alt-right” to rebrand away from its toxicity by either writing soft-focus profiles of trolls or by showing up woefully unprepared to interview them. After Richard Spencer -- the original “alt-righter” -- gained national media coverage due to his explicit white nationalistic views, many prominent trolls who were earlier happy to align with the “alt-right” commenced a rebranding campaign that was largely aided by media’s failure to hold them accountable.
Cernovich, who has shown an inclination for “pivoting” whenever it becomes politically expedient for him, was at the forefront of hijacking the term “new right,” which was quickly adopted by other trolls like Infowars’ Paul Joseph Watson, Posobiec, Wintrich, and Gavin McInnes, founder of the violent “Western chauvinist” organization Proud Boys.
But the figures of the so-called “new right” can’t sanitize their past adherence to the pro-Trump “alt-right” during the 2016 presidential election when they trafficked in anti-Muslim tropes, attacked transgender people, associated with Spencer, or openly pushed dangerous conspiracy theories like “Pizzagate” -- which falsely claimed Democratic operatives close to Hillary Clinton and her presidential campaign were running a child sex ring from a Washington, D.C., family pizzeria. More recently, the appearance of a known “alt-right” troll featuring a swastika flag and Adolf Hitler apologism on Wintrich’s Periscope illustrated that there’s little substantive difference between the “new right” and more extreme factions.
The White House has been complicit in fueling the trolls’ war on journalists and mainstream media. The Trump administration granted them access to White House press briefings that allowed conspiracy theory websites like The Gateway Pundit to present themselves as legitimate news outlets and provided them with a prestigious platform from which to perform stunts and explicitly troll journalists. Reportedly, Trump’s sons, Eric and Donald Jr., directly provide Cernovich with insider information. It’s clear from Donald Trump Jr.’s Twitter activity that he has a penchant for far-right trolls and their content as he has used the weight of his name to promote right-wing trolls who defend his father and smear mainstream media.
Right-wing trolls largely owe their rise to social media platforms like YouTube and Twitter, which have allowed them to grow their platforms and reach massive audiences. In the process, Twitter was extremely lax in applying its anti-harassment policies, and allowed right-wing trolls’ harassment campaigns to successfully drive targets, like feminist writer Lindy West, off the platform.
Meanwhile, YouTube provided a platform to white supremacists and conspiracy theorists. Though YouTube launched a demonetization initiative so people wouldn’t be able to profit from uploading extreme content and vowed to take down explicitly extremist content, the platform still remains the “talk radio” for right-wing trolls, allowing the spread of misinformation to a massive audience, often without consequence.
Similarly, Twitter also just moved to crack down on its most toxic content creators. But it remains to be seen whether these policies will be successful in curbing the influence of MAGA trolls who often operate with the same harassment tactics as extremists. While Twitter removed the verification badges of many far-right personalities and expelled the most offensive users (some more than once), the fact that right-wing trolls remain in the platform only evidences Twitter’s problem with interpreting its own rules and applying them coherently.
While the right-wing trolls’ current influence is undeniable, it’s not all doom and gloom. Their online influence hasn't translated into other political victories following Trump’s election (the candidates these trolls put their weight behind, Republicans Ed Gillespie in Virginia, and Roy Moore in Alabama, both lost). It could also be an indicator that their influence, at least in electoral politics, might have reached its peak. But whether their influence in inserting divisive cultural and political narratives into the mainstream will wane at all is yet to be seen.
Right-wing and far-right media outlets and figures are falsely claiming that Beverly Young Nelson, who has accused Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore of sexually assaulting her when she was 16, admitted that she forged a high school yearbook that contains Moore’s signature. Nelson actually said she added some notes next to the signature, but that it was Moore’s signature.
Loading the player reg...
Donald Trump Jr. has repeatedly liked tweets that link to prominent fake news purveyor True Pundit, which played a major role in pushing the Pizzagate conspiracy theory. The president’s son also tweeted a True Pundit link on July 26, one of many times he personally promoted a serial misinformer.
On July 26, Trump Jr. tweeted a link to a story from the website.
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) July 26, 2017
Last year, True Pundit fabricated NYPD and FBI sources to push the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which falsely alleged that a Washington, D.C. pizzeria was a front for a pedophile ring run by former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. The lie eventually led a gunman to “self-investigate” the matter and he opened fire inside that pizzeria. True Pundit repeatedly invented and pushed wild stories about Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign, including that she wanted to “just drone” Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, that she wore an earpiece at a debate, that she used hand signals to communicate with debate moderator Lester Holt, that she was potentially “suffering from a plethora of medical ailments, and that she was drunk the morning of a campaign rally. The website has also claimed that Coretta Scott King thanked now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a speech in the 1980s. She did not.
Trump Jr. has a history of personally sharing fake news and promoting conspiracy theorists and internet trolls. In May, Infowars host Alex Jones even claimed that Trump Jr. was one the main sources for right-wing troll and discredited media personality Mike Cernovich.
Loading the player reg...
Fox News host Sean Hannity has been one of President Donald Trump’s biggest propagandists and defenders, lashing out at the president’s perceived enemies and critics to defend his actions and policies.
But Hannity has not defended Trump on any issue more staunchly than on the ongoing controversy surrounding Trump and his administration’s possible ties to Russia, which the Justice Department and both chambers of Congress are investigating. Hannity has sunk to unprecedented levels to undermine these investigations. He has made up often inconsistent conspiracy theories about who actually was behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails, has hyped dubious scandals involving former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and former President Barack Obama, has attacked former FBI Director James Comey and the special counsel for the Russia probe, Robert Mueller, and has even suggested that collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government is fine. Here are 22 examples of Hannity ignoring facts, promoting falsehoods and conspiracies, and attempting to cast blame on others in order to defend, deflect, and downplay accusations that Trump's campaign colluded with Russia to interfere in the U.S election.
Hannity has repeatedly pushed the conspiracy theory that murdered DNC staffer Seth Rich, and not Russia, was involved in the hacking of DNC emails and that he was murdered as retribution for providing the emails to WikiLeaks. Even after Rich’s family asked him to stop, Hannity continued to push the conspiracy theory and even promoted dubious figure Kim Dotcom’s conspiracy theories about Rich, which were picked up by multiple fringe media outlets and Reddit users. A recent lawsuit from a Fox contributor, who was quoted pushing the conspiracy theory in a since-retracted FoxNews.com article, alleged that some of the talking points used by Hannity about Rich were crafted by a GOP donor in order to undermine allegations of Russian interference in the U.S. election.
In June, Hannity said that even if the Trump campaign had “talked to somebody in Russia” about releasing hacked Clinton emails, “Is that a crime?”
After former acting Attorney General Sally Yates testified before the Senate that she warned the Trump administration about then-national security adviser Michael Flynn and his contacts with Russian officials, Hannity tried to downplay it by claiming the Obama administration had unlawfully “unmasked” Flynn and other officials caught in surveillance.
Hannity has repeatedly brought up so-called “Clinton scandals” to distract his viewers from issues surrounding the Trump administration. Hannity has falsely claimed that Clinton committed multiple felonies, that the Clinton Foundation got millions of dollars due to a uranium deal with Russia (a falsehood which Trump has since pushed), and has wildly speculated about how "damning" FBI documents about the probe into Clinton’s private email server must have been.
After Trump fired Comey, Hannity immediately defended the move, smearing Comey as “very lucky that President Trump kept him around this long because of his now unhinged and very erratic behavior.” A week later, as Trump was being scrutinized for his decision, Hannity again called Comey “a national embarrassment” and “an utter and complete failure” who “deserved to be fired.”
When Trump issued a threat on Twitter suggesting that he may have recorded tapes of his conversations with Comey, Hannity called it one of the “most brilliant … tweets in the history of mankind.”
In May, Hannity promoted a highly dubious claim from far-right troll Jack Posobiec that Comey leaked classified information to the media and dropped a supposed probe into former national security adviser Susan Rice because it would have implicated him too, saying Comey “did nothing about the violation of fourth amendment privacy rights, and of course, leaking of classified information, which is a crime.”
After the revelations that Donald Trump Jr. had a meeting during the presidential campaign with Russians to get supposedly damaging information on Clinton, Hannity pushed a false claim originating from pro-Trump fringe media (and which Trump’s legal team encouraged) saying the meeting was some kind of a Democratic set-up against the Trumps and that former Attorney General Loretta Lynch was somehow involved in the plot.
Hannity tried to downplay the Trump Jr. meeting by falsely claiming that Clinton’s presidential campaign and the DNC had colluded more closely with the Ukrainian government than Trump had with Russia.
Hannity dubiously claimed that “the Russian lawyer” in the Trump Jr. meeting “didn't give the Trump organization any information whatsoever,” and allowed Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow to claim Trump Jr. could have been the victim of “a blackmail job.”
Hannity has repeatedly claimed that the so-called “deep state” is out to get Trump, even saying that “a soft coup is underway" against Trump with "sinister forces quickly aligning in what is becoming now, in my mind, a clear and present danger” to Trump.
In June, Hannity promoted another false talking point from Posobiec, spread by fake news purveyors and other figures in the far-right fringe, that Comey said in May that Trump never asked him to halt any FBI probe.
After Comey testified before the Senate about Trump firing him and the release of memos describing his interactions with the president, Hannity invited Trump Jr. on his radio show to smear Comey as "weak and feckless."
When The Washington Post reported on June 14 that Mueller was investigating Trump for potential obstruction of justice, Hannity called it the "biggest act ... of retribution we have ever seen from the deep state in the history of this country."
As the meeting between Trump Jr. and Russian officials was under scrutiny, Hannity asked Vice President Mike Pence on his radio show to get Clinton investigated rather than “Russia, Russia, Russia.”
On July 24, Hannity urged his viewers to harass journalists who had been reporting Trump-Russia stories, saying to “write a message to their bosses” and “take to the social media.”
Two days after pro-Trump website The Gateway Pundit and multiple fake news purveyors claimed in July that a “mysterious IT specialist” published a report proving Russia did not hack the DNC, Hannity said on his radio show that “there are reports out there that” the hacking of the DNC emails “was all done domestically.”
In July, Hannity gave credibility to Fox correspondent-at-large Geraldo Rivera’s conspiracy theory that a former IT staffer for former DNC Chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) could have been the source of the DNC emails Wikileaks published, asking, “Doesn’t that blow the whole [Russia narrative] out of water?”
Hannity has repeatedly hosted reporters from pro-Trump outlet Circa News, owned by conservative media giant Sinclair Broadcasting, who have discussed supposed “improprieties by former President Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice and fired FBI Director James Comey, and [have cast] doubt on rival media reports of possible Trump campaign collusion with Russia,” according to The Daily Beast. Most recently, Hannity hosted a Circa reporter on his show who dubiously hyped supposed wrongdoing by former Obama aide Ben Rhodes.
Hannity has called for Mueller’s investigation to be shut down, claiming that “there is no way that this investigation can be fair or objective” because Mueller will “side with” Comey. He has also alleged that the investigation is biased because some members on Mueller’s team have donated to Democrats (Trump and his family have also donated thousands of dollars to Democrats.)
Loading the player reg...
When faced with (largely self-inflicted) negative press, President Donald Trump’s team has repeatedly run to right-wing outlets -- such as Fox News and Sinclair Broadcasting -- to plant White House-approved spin, lash out at his political enemies, and get more favorable coverage, overall.
Trump's legal team suggested giving Trump Jr. meeting details to Circa, spinning meeting as "setup” by Democrats
President Donald Trump’s legal team proposed using the Trump-friendly media outlet Circa to promote the evidence-free claim that Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with Russians during the 2016 presidential election was a Democratic “setup.” Not only did Circa run with the story on July 8, two days later, Fox News host Sean Hannity was more than happy to further the story with Circa’s Sara Carter and John Solomon, frequent guests on Hannity’s shows.
On July 31, The Washington Post reported that when Trump’s legal team recently discovered incriminating details about Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a possible Russian agent, the lawyers proposed an alternate version of the encounter “be given to Circa, an online news organization that the Kasowitz team thought would be friendly to Trump.” The Post additionally noted that “the president’s legal team planned to cast the June 2016 meeting as a potential setup by Democratic operatives hoping to entrap Trump Jr.”
Circa’s Carter wrote about Trump Jr.’s meeting with the Russian in a July 8 article which included a statement from a spokesman for Trump’s legal team, as well as the assertion that “the president’s legal team said Saturday they believe the entire meeting may have been part of a larger election-year opposition effort aimed at creating the appearance of improper connections between Trump family members and Russia.”
On July 10, Fox host Sean Hannity invited Carter and then-fellow Circa reporter John Solomon to discuss whether “this whole meeting with Donald Trump Jr” was “possibly a setup” (emphasis added):
HANNITY: All right, Sara Carter, let's go to you and your reporting along with John. Good to have you both back, by the way. Let's start with your reports about was this possibly a setup? In other words, this whole meeting with Donald Trump, Jr. -- is this a very different story than the American people are being told?
SARA CARTER: Yes, I think there's a story here that people aren't getting from the mainstream media. And one is this. Natalia Veselnitskaya -- she was the attorney that Donald Trump, Jr., met with -- was actually connected to a company called Presevan Holding, which was run by a Russian named Dennis Katzik . And Dennis Katzik actually hired Fusion GPS. Remember, this was the security investigative firm behind the Christopher Steele dossier. So the Christopher Steele dossier, which has been disreputable, which people have not been able to prove anything, that tried to connect, you know, Donald Trump to the Russians, was actually the company that this woman was working for.
So it makes sense. And I know that congressional investigators are looking into this. What was her connection to Fusion GPS? And how does that play out with the meeting that she held with Donald Trump, Jr., which he said he did not know prior to that meeting exactly who she was and what she was representing. So that is a very, very important part of this story.
HANNITY: Do you believe that this was a setup by the DNC and this Fusion group that we're talking about?
JOHN SOLOMON: You know, there's not enough facts and evidence to assume that yet. I think there is clearly a lot of people that were working at once, and what overlays they have and what intersections they have, we don't know in part because Fusion GPS hasn't answered a lot of the questions that the Senate has put to them. Until we find out who was funding the dossier, until we find out who brought Natalia into the country, until we learn those sort of questions, we're not going to know the full picture, and I think it's too soon to make any assumptions. [Fox News, Hannity, 7/10/17]
The Trump team narrative, with the help of Hannity and Circa, was quickly picked up and spread throughout right-wing media and fake news purveyors.
Circa is owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, which is known for its conservative bias and connections to Trump associates. During the 2016 campaign, Sinclair made a deal with Trump’s team to push stories favorable to the future president. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Carter and Solomon have used Hannity’s platform to do just that.
Loading the player reg...
Loading the player reg...
Loading the player reg...
President Donald Trump and members of his administration have spent months describing as fake news reports on his ties to Russia and the allegations that the Russian government acted to aid his presidential campaign. They have remained steadfast amid a drumbeat of stories and even U.S. intelligence community findings about Russia, the election, and Trump’s staff. His right-wing media allies have been a key force in this endeavor, consistently finding ways to minimize or explain away damning new revelations and blaming them not on Trump, but on a shadowy nexus of Democrats, the “deep state,” and the press. This aid is essential to maintaining the president’s political position: The vast majority of Republicans have continued to support Trump in part because of the efforts of his loyal propagandists.
Over the last week, new information has emerged that should change the trajectory of the Russia story. As The New York Times reported, the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., as well as top Trump campaign aides Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner, met during the 2016 presidential campaign with a Kremlin-linked Russian lawyer. Emails that Trump Jr. released reveal that the meeting came about after Trump Jr. was told the lawyer had damaging information about Hillary Clinton that was provided by a Russian government effort to help his father’s campaign. Trump Jr. has effectively admitted to trying to collude with a hostile government. The debate should now move to how deep that collusion went, and who was involved.
But this damning new information has moved few minds among the president’s core media supporters. Instead, faced with the devastating revelation that the president’s campaign was trying to collude with the Russian government, they have followed the president’s lead by offering the risible argument that anyone would have done the same thing if given the opportunity. Faced with evidence that the president’s team serves no morality but that which benefits itself, they have declared that everyone else shares this twisted worldview.
As Newt Gingrich put it to The Atlantic, “If somebody in the middle of the campaign walks in the door and says ‘I have information that will harm your opponent,’ virtually every campaign in the world will say show me, what do you have.” “Let me tell you, if my father was running for president of the United States,” Kimberly Guilfoyle said on Fox, “I would sit down and take a meeting and find out if there was information against an opponent.” Yesterday, the president himself adopted this argument, telling Reuters, "Many people, and many political pros, said everybody would do” what his son did; he reiterated the point this afternoon.
It is obviously, flagrantly false that Trump Jr.’s actions were typical and proper. The media has said so: As The New York Times put it, “while opposition research is part of modern presidential campaigns, it normally does not come from representatives of a hostile foreign power.” Top Republican campaign operatives have said so, claiming that the incident was extremely unusual, that they wouldn’t have taken the meeting, and that the Trump team should have reported it to law enforcement. Christopher Wray, Trump’s nominee to become FBI director, has said so, stating that politicians in that situation should call the bureau. And history says so: When a top aide to Al Gore’s presidential campaign received George W. Bush’s debate preparation materials in the mail, he turned them over to the FBI. (And Trump ally claims that Clinton’s campaign similarly colluded with Ukraine are specious nonsense.)
At this point, it seems foolish to imagine that Trump’s media allies will change their opinion of the story, regardless of what new information comes forward. They are in too deep at this point, having sacrificed their credibility and independence too many times to turn back now. He expressed unchecked bigotry and they were fine with it; audio bragging about sexual assault was explained away as “locker room talk”; his campaign viciously attacked and even physically battered reporters and was cheered. At a certain point, they went too far, and now have little choice but to tell one another that colluding with a hostile foreign power is not just acceptable, but necessary.
The president’s media allies have decided to believe the president instead of their own lying eyes. The result is a series of arguments that have the country not only unmoored from a common view of reality, but of anything approaching a common morality. The propagandists have moved the goalposts from a question of whether a presidential campaign colluded with a hostile foreign government, to whether such collusion is actually a good thing. The nagging remaining question is whether their audience will ever decide that they’ve seen enough of this farce.