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.
Right-Wing Media Scandalize Report That Susan Rice Allegedly Asked For Legal Unmasking Of Trump Officials Found In Intel Reports About Russians
On April 2, alt-right media figure Mike Cernovich reported that former national security adviser Susan Rice requested the unmasking of Trump officials. The next day, Bloomberg’s Eli Lake confirmed that Trump administration lawyers accused Rice of requesting “the identities of U.S. persons in raw intelligence reports on dozens of occasions that connect to the Donald Trump transition and campaign.” Right-wing media figures quickly ran with the report as a “BOMBSHELL,” but according to numerous legal and national security experts, “Rice’s actions are likely legal.”
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Media outlets and journalists sharply criticized the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for interfering in the presidential election after Director James Comey violated precedent and policy by sending a letter to Congress saying the agency is reviewing newly discovered emails surrounding Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server as secretary of state. That announcement was followed by a series of additional leaks from the FBI.
Frank Gaffney, the head of the Center for Security Policy (CSP), is reportedly a member of GOP presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz's (R-TX) national security advisory team. The Southern Poverty Law Center has termed CSP an anti-Muslim hate group, and Gaffney has a history of pushing bigoted anti-Muslim smears and conspiracy theories.
Right-wing media figures criticized President Obama and Hillary Clinton for not saying "radical Islam" during remarks they made on December 6, claiming terrorism cannot be fought without using the term. However, others have noted the term alienates Muslims and aids terrorists.
Conservative media wasted no time attacking former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her testimony in front of the House Committee on Benghazi, accusing the Democratic presidential candidate of playing "the victim," mocking her laugh, and evoking fringe conspiracy theories to smear her.
Conservative media reacted with outrage to President Obama's speech defending his administration's landmark nuclear agreement with Iran, claiming the president had taken "a blame America approach," calling it "unpresidential," and demanding impeachment, despite the fact that experts have lauded the deal as "necessary and wise."
After President Obama repeated the assessment of James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, of the intelligence community's initial view on the threat posed by the Islamic State, media are accusing Obama of "throwing the intelligence community under the bus."
The newly-released 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi documents the experience on the ground the night of the September 2012 terrorist attacks, effectively debunking a number of old media myths surrounding the tragedy.
The book, written by journalist Mitchell Zuckoff and five former CIA contractors who defended the diplomatic post and nearby CIA annex during the assault, is an interesting eyewitness portrayal of the attacks and the heroism the men displayed. But while the book has received ample media attention, outlets are largely ignoring several key points from 13 Hours' narrative that undermine false media narratives about the attacks.
On CNN's The Lead, host Jake Tapper interviewed three of the authors and specifically focused on what he called the "biggest point of contention" between the authors and administration officials, which is their description of the so-called "stand down" order. According to the contractors, though they were ready to leave the CIA annex to defend the diplomatic post almost immediately following the initial distress call, they were asked to wait for approximately 20 minutes as their CIA base chief attempted to contact local a Libyan militia for assistance and develop a plan. They disagreed with the delay and wanted to move in more quickly.
This disagreement was eventually politicized and inflated by media and political figures, who insisted that members of the Obama administration, or then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, had ordered rescue efforts to "stand down" permanently and leave Americans to die. But as the contractors explained to Tapper, though they believe they could have done more to save American lives that night had they been allowed to leave immediately, they did not view the decision as one of "malice" towards Americans, nor did they place the blame for the decision on anyone higher up than the base chief.
As the New York Times noted, their story "fits with the publicly known facts and chronology" we already knew about the non-existent "stand down" order. For example, the Associated Press reported last year on the disagreement between CIA leaders and security contractors about the delay to try to gather support from militia allies, citing Republican Rep. Lynn Westmoreland pointing to the disagreement as a possible source of the "stand down" myth.
The "stand down" order dispute has defined the majority of media coverage on the book. Fox News, which produced a special based on the book, has used the "stand down" reporting in 13 Hours to suggest they've been right all along about it. But Fox figures are moving the goalposts -- they network's obsession with a "stand down" order has revolved around the idea that the administration ordered a forces to not respond that night, which does not resemble the story laid out in the book.
While media have been focused on whether the contractors were ordered to "stand down," 13 Hours actually debunks other myths surrounding the attacks.
A Daily Beast article relying on anonymous criticism of Hillary Clinton was latched onto by conservative media, who selectively quoted the article to smear the former Secretary of State for not officially designating the Nigerian group Boko Haram a foreign terrorist organization.
As Maggie Haberman noted in Politico May 10, following the kidnapping of Nigerian school girls by Boko Haram, conservatives began hyping a report from the Daily Beast which quoted an anonymous official criticizing the former Secretary of State for previously turning down requests to designate Boko Haram as a terrorist organization, implying that such a designation could have prevented the kidnapping.
The "actual details," as Haberman explained, revealed that experts at State were concerned an official designation would negatively elevate the group and lead to an inhumane response from Nigeria (emphasis added):
Clinton found herself on the receiving end of questions about the kidnap of 300 Nigerian girls. The Daily Beast reported that Clinton's State Department declined entreaties from congressional Republicans and others to label Boko Haram, the group responsible for the kidnappings, a terrorist organization. Secretary of State John Kerry gave the group that designation last year.
During Clinton's time at State, "The FBI, the CIA, and the Justice Department really wanted Boko Haram designated, they wanted the authorities that would provide to go after them, and they voiced that repeatedly to elected officials," the Beast quoted a former senior U.S. official familiar with the discussion as saying.
Republicans have widely circulated the original Daily Beast story. The actual details of why the Clinton-run Department declined to affix the group with terrorist status are complicated- her former Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, Johnnie Carson, was reportedly concerned about elevating the group among extremist outfits, and potentially giving the Nigerian government latitude to go after them in an inhumane way.
Media Matters has explained that Clinton did put top Boko Haram leaders on the terrorist list, and academic experts on Africa confirmed the Department's fears that a designation for the whole organization could have severe negative consequences. Additionally, before Boko Haram was ultimately designated an official terrorist organization under Secretary Kerry, the group had been a part of peace talks with the Nigerian government which were reportedly "on the verge" of producing a ceasefire. As soon as the designation became official, they abandoned the talks.
Some of this relevant context was included in the original Daily Beast article, but was buried toward the end. Conservative media were able to conveniently ignore the details while promoting the out-of-context attack on Clinton's tenure.
Here we go again.
One year after creating a fact-free bubble in the run up to the last election, media conservatives are once again denying reality, this time in service of reanimating the Benghazi hoax that ensnared news organizations throughout 2012, denying authoritative evidence that should finally put an end to the hoax.
An exhaustive New York Times investigation into the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, published on December 28, discredited the key elements of the right-wing campaign to politicize the attack -- a desperate attempt to bring down the Obama administration and sink a possible presidential run by Hillary Clinton.
Significantly, the Times definitively debunked the myth that al Qaeda played a central role in planning the attack.
Daily Beast contributor Eli Lake, who has been a key validator of the Benghazi hoax, pushed back against the Times, insisting that al Qaeda was responsible for the attack. Contrary to what the Times reported, Lake claimed, "evidence has emerged in the last year that does show the participation of militias and fighters with known ties to al Qaeda." Lake specifically cited comments made by Congressmen Mike Rogers (R-MI) and Adam Schiff (D-CA).
Lake's insistence that al Qaeda was responsible for the attack is in line with Fox News' response to the Times report. Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, a Fox News contributor often portrayed as legitimate voice in the national media, accused the Times of covering for Democrats with its report.
This denial of reality is reminiscent of the way the right retreated to a bubble throughout the 2012 election, and poses a real threat to Americans' understanding of international terrorism.
The relentless campaign to insist that al Qaeda was responsible for the terrorist attacks in Benghazi misinforms the public understanding of that terrorist group and the role that local extremist groups play in international relations. In responding to critics of its reporting, the Times editorial board explained:
Americans are often careless with the term "Al Qaeda," which strictly speaking means the core extremist group, founded by Osama bin Laden, that is based in Pakistan and bent on global jihad.
Republicans, Democrats and others often conflate purely local extremist groups, or regional affiliates, with Al Qaeda's international network. That prevents understanding the motivations of each group, making each seem like a direct, immediate threat to the United States and thus confusing decision-making.
As The New Yorker's Amy Davidson noted, a failure to acknowledge the complexities of extremist groups could lead to tragic real-world results:
Not every angry Muslim, not even every angry Sunni Muslim, is part of Al Qaeda. Using the name so generically and broadly is a deliberate decision not to understand who our enemies are, or to care--if they don't like us, they are Al Qaeda, and we can stop listening.
And how, then, are we supposed to know who our friends are? Insisting that any Muslim who attacks us is Al Qaeda also means that, when we are standing around handing out guns to strangers--something we do a little too often--we'll assume that those who don't strike us as Al Qaeda types won't attack us.
Daily Beast contributor Eli Lake claimed that the Obama administration might have committed a "serious blunder" in its response to the terrorist attacks in Benghazi by not sending enough military support. But Lake's claim, based on a Republican-led fixation on the timeline of events, never takes into account that military leaders have said they were unable to respond any faster or with any more force than they did that night.
Lake highlighted concerns raised by Republican Rep. Devin Nunes (CA) who speculated in a letter to Speaker John Boehner that there was no lull in fighting in between attacks on the U.S. compound the night of September 11, 2012. The official timeline of events established that the attacks occurred in two waves, with an initial attack on the main facility and a second attack on an annex building more than four hours later. Lake entertained Nunes' theory, and wrote that the absence of a lull between those attacks could raise legitimate questions about the military's response:
If there was a lull in the fighting that night, as the [State Department's Accountability Review Board] report states, more air support or specialized counter-terrorism teams would likely not have made much of a difference. If the fighting continued throughout the night, however, or the witnesses allegedly say, the decision not to send more backup that evening would be a more serious blunder.
But the extent of a lull in fighting is entirely beside the point. Military experts have repeatedly testified that the response represented the best of our military's capabilities.
Then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta ordered the Marine Corps' Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team (FAST), stationed in Spain, to get to Libya "as fast as you can" as soon as the first attack began. Their ability to respond began at that point. Fred Bruton, a former diplomatic security agent, and Samuel M. Katz, a journalist, explained the logistical issues at play that are far more relevant than the lull Lake fixates on:
There was never a question concerning U.S. resolve or the overall capabilities of the U.S. military to respond to Benghazi. There was, however, nothing immediate about an immediate response. There were logistics and host-nation approvals to consider. An immediate response was hampered by the equation of geography and logistics.
Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who has said that criticisms of the military's ability to respond quickly enough that night are based on a "cartoonish impression of the military," has also said that he "would not have approved sending an aircraft, a single aircraft" over Benghazi given safety concerns about "the number of surface to air missiles that have disappeared from Qaddafi's arsenals." According to Gates, getting a force to Benghazi from outside the country "in a timely way would have been very difficult if not impossible."
Lake never explains how the absence of a lull in fighting would have changed the equation in any meaningful way.
There were special forces stationed in Tripoli, but the commander of Special Operations Command Africa ordered the troops to stay in Tripoli because they were needed to protect the embassy. Regardless of this decision, they would not have been able to get to Benghazi before the second attack concluded. An interview of a diplomatic official in Tripoli by congressional investigators established that the flight these special forces were scheduled to take, but did not, was to take off after 6:00 a.m., local time -- approximately 45 minutes after the attack at the CIA annex that killed two people.
Military experts including Panetta, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs retired Admiral Mike Mullen, all agree that the military did everything they possibly could that night.
In fact, even Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee have determined there's no evidence to suggest aid was withheld because of a quick first attack. From an April report (emphasis added):
The House Armed Services Committee also examined the question of whether the Defense Department failed to deploy assets to Benghazi because it believed the attack was over after the first phase. The progress report finds that officials at the Defense Department were monitoring the situation throughout and kept the forces that were initially deployed flowing into the region. No evidence has been provided to suggest these officials refused to deploy resources because they thought the situation had been sufficiently resolved.
For more on conservative media myths about the September 2012 attack, read The Benghazi Hoax, the new e-book by Media Matters' David Brock and Ari Rabin-Havt.