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Pamela Geller

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  • Right-wing media and Trump Jr. peddle debunked, years-old story about illegal voters in Florida

    And one fact-checker explains what she did to fight back.

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Is it true that “nearly 200,000 Florida voters may not be citizens?” No, but that didn’t stop some prominent conservative social media accounts -- including that of the president’s son -- from spreading a since-debunked 2012 story making that claim.

    To understand how this happened, it’s good to know a little background about Florida’s brush with “anti-fraud” initiatives in recent years.

    In May 2012, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner announced a partnership between the Florida Department of State and Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to remove possible noncitizens from the state’s voter rolls ahead of that year’s election. The departments would cross-check data with each other for voter inconsistencies, flag them, and send them to the state’s Supervisors of Elections for review and, if needed, removal of registrations.

    It was a massive debacle. What began as a review of roughly 2,600 possible inconsistencies at the time the partnership was announced had ballooned to nearly 182,000 names within days. That’s when NBC Miami ran with the somewhat sensational headline “Nearly 200,000 Florida Voters May Not Be Citizens.”

    But the system was embarrassingly rife with false positives, leading to a lawsuit over the disenfranchisement of U.S. citizens who were removed but actually eligible to vote. In the end, out of those 182,000 names, just 85 were found to be ineligible -- an error rate of 99.95 percent. The following year, the state enrolled in Crosscheck, the interstate anti-fraud program championed by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Similar to the results of Florida’s 2012 in-state program, Kobach’s Crosscheck program also “gets it wrong over 99 percent of the time,” a Washington Post analysis concluded. In April 2014, Florida exited the Crosscheck program, only to later accidentally release the partial Social Security numbers of nearly 1,000 Kansas voters

    In all, the “nearly 200,000 Florida voters may not be citizens” story turned out to be just 85 ineligible voter registrations. But why let the truth get in the way of a good story?

    This week, as conservative media push the unfounded idea that the current election in Florida is being “stolen,” this old story that confirmed all their worst fears seemed too good to be true: And it was.

    We know by now that most people simply don’t read past the headline of stories they see in their social media feeds. And headlines suggesting that there are an equivalent number of noncitizens voting illegally in Florida as there are people living in Tallahassee are eye-catching. That would be outrageous to people on any end of the political spectrum. But even based on the facts known at the time, the story wasn’t quite accurate.

    Rounding “nearly 182,000” up to “nearly 200,000” is a needless inflation of even the most sensationalized true version of the story, and saying “voters might not be citizens” suggests that these people have actually voted -- when the numbers actually refer to voter registrations. Both points probably could have been more artfully and accurately addressed in the original headline. Also, the word “might” is doing a lot of work here.

    It’s those small embellishments that made the story perfect for the era of weaponized headlines.

    The NBC headline, as some might say, aged poorly. And here’s how it spread:

    On November 10, the link was shared in a number of pro-Trump Facebook groups. On Twitter, the story got a boost from Instapundit, a conservative account which has more than 105,000 followers:

    A bit later, David Wohl, attorney and occasional Fox News guest, shared it on Twitter to his more than 26,000 followers.

    By the next day, commentator and conspiracy theorist Pamela Geller had published a blog post, in which she put the entire text of the NBC report, swapping out the article’s actual publication date (May 11, 2012) with November 10, 2018.

    Harlan Hill, a member of the Trump 2020 campaign advisory board, tweeted, “200,000 non citizens voting in Florida!?!? But I thought Democrats said voter fraud was a myth? We have got a SERIOUS problem on our hands. #StopTheSteal #MAGA”

    Then, in a since-deleted tweet, Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk wrote, “This is an absolute disgrace to our country. Foreign interference in our elections. Every single one of these people should be arrested, deported, and never allowed reentry. RT to spread this!”

    And finally, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted the link out, adding, “Amazing, but not shocking at all anymore.”

    Townhall.com also published a story on the topic that, while updated, still maintains that “200,000 non-citizens might have voted in the state's elections” in 2012.

    While it’s hard to put the #FakeNews (like, you know, actual fake news) toothpaste back in the proverbial tube, one woman tried, and she was actually kind of successful at it.

    Brooke Binkowski is a former managing editor at Snopes, and she currently runs the fact-checking site TruthOrFiction.com. When she saw the post begin to spread, she took quick action. First, she tweeted at people who might have known the article was old and didn’t accurately represent how that story concluded but shared it anyway “for approval and to fit in,” hoping to convince them to delete their posts and stem the spread of misinformation.

    “That headline hijacks intellect and goes straight to the amygdala if you’re fearful,” she tells me over a Twitter direct message. “‘Oh no! 200,000 non citizens trying to STEAL OUR ELECTION! they're gonna turn this country into a banana republic!’ and whatever else people think when they're too busy to click on the story.”

    When that didn’t work, she called the NBC station that ran the original story in hopes of getting the staff to update the article to reflect that it isn’t a current story. She explained the situation as best as she could, asking the station to add “STORY FROM 2012:” in the headline so it would show up in shares across social media.

    “Clickbait is one thing, but when you are actively interfering in what should be an open electoral process -- as I said in my email to them -- that’s quite another,” she adds. She continued:

    People don't realize how much damage buffoons like Jacob Wohl and Gateway Pundit and Donald Trump Jr. and all the rest of those people can do. They push this completely idiotic stuff and then it gets laundered by bots and turned into a story that's used to influence policy. It's now crystal clear that's what they are doing and that it is semi-coordinated, that there's a network of people who are pushing all this information to make it seem respectable, and they are mixing a little tiny bit of truth in to make it seem plausible.

    NBC Miami did end up updating the headline, adding “2012 Election:” at the very beginning. It also added an editor’s note at the top of the article:

    Editor’s note on Nov. 12, 2018: This story was published in May 2012.

    The initial list of 180,000 names was whittled to 2,625, according to the Florida Department of State. The state then checked a federal database and stated it found 207 noncitizens on the rolls (not necessarily voting but on the rolls). That list was sent to county election supervisors to check and it also turned out to contain errors. An Aug. 1, 2012, state elections document showed only 85 noncitizens were ultimately removed from the rolls out of a total of about 12 million voters at that time.

    While the story continues to be shared on social media as fresh news, the updated headline and editor’s note do seem to have had the effect of cooling its spread among influencers. Plus, the added context, including the disparity between “nearly 200,000” figure and the actual total of 85, has given people a way to quickly understand the facts of a somewhat complicated local story.

    Binkowski stresses that it’s important to understand that there are a lot of people who simply are not making statements or arguments in good faith. “If you are a news person, please be aware of this cycle and your massive responsibility. If you are a news executive, please pay your journalists a living wage,” she said, noting that “they are up against something new and nightmarish and trying to inoculate the world against it and could use all the support they can get.”

  • Right-wing media are celebrating the election of far-right extremist Jair Bolsonaro as president of Brazil and comparing him to Trump

    Blog ››› ››› GRACE BENNETT & COURTNEY HAGLE


    Media Matters / Melissa Joskow

    On October 28, far-right Brazilian Congress member Jair Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil. Bolsonaro has repeatedly embraced authoritarianism, and he has a history of espousing misogynistic, racist, anti-LGBTQ, and other extremist rhetoric. Right-wing media are celebrating his victory and high poll numbers by cheering on his proposed policies and highlighting the similarities between Bolsonaro and President Donald Trump:

    • Fox’s Laura Ingraham said Brazilians are “looking at Bolsonaro as someone who’s more like Trump, who’s going to get back to the basics on the economy. And I bet Bolsonaro and Trump form a very productive relationship trade-wise -- watch the trade deal that’s going to come out of this Bolsonaro-Trump relationship.”
    • During the October 29 edition of Fox & Friends, co-host Brian Kilmeade said Brazilians “wanted to bring in someone from the outside who spent very little of his own money in order to win.” Fox’s Rob Schmitt added that Brazilians wanted “change,” and “got it,” with “the Trump of the tropics.”
    • Fox’s national security and foreign affairs expert Walid Phares celebrated Bolsonaro on Fox Business Network, claiming, “He’s going to go anti-terrorism, anti-smuggling, he's going to reform the economy, and he made a statement that he is going to be a partner with the United States against those extremists and also helping us with the issues of the migrants.”
    • Sinclair’s Boris Epshteyn boasted in his morning newsletter that “President Trump’s country - first policies are becoming more popular around the globe” and expressed his hope that “the positions shared by these two leaders will result in a strong and mutually beneficial relationship between the U.S. and Brazil.”
    • Hugh Hewitt shared an article about Bolsonaro’s win and tweeted: “Brazil deregulated will work with Columbia Mexico U.S. for a booming hemisphere”
    • In The Gateway Pundit, Jim Hoft wrote that “Anti-Communist ‘Trump of the Tropics’” Bolsonaro won the election and complained that Reuters “calls Bolsonaro ‘far right’ because he openly opposes communism.”
    • Pamela Geller wrote that Bolsonaro’s ascent to power is “similar to what the United States experienced with President Trump. Bolsonaro has been called ‘Brazil’s Trump’ due to his nationalistic policies and his tough stance on crime.” Geller also criticized the media’s coverage of Bolsonaro as a “far-right politician,” drawing comparisons between the media’s treatment of him and Trump.
    • The Daily Caller’s Jason Hopkins praised “Trump of the Tropics” Bolsonaro’s tough stance on crime and free-market economic reforms, arguing that his support comes not from “establishment figures and those in the American left-wing media,” but from “Brazilian citizens who wanted change.”
    • Far-right troll Mike Cernovich complained that “many Brazilian friends have told me Bolsonaro is being lied about in the media,” repeatedly claimed Bolsonaro is not “far right,” and argued, “The far left is being rejected worldwide. … The Brazilian people voted for change.”
    • Far-right agitator Katie Hopkins noted Bolsonaro’s victory alongside an anti-Islam image, and she added that she is “bloody loving the rise of the right.”

    Bolsonaro’s rise followed years of anti-democratic statements from him that can only be read as fascist. An October 28 article in The New York Times compiled some of the Brazilian president-elect’s most extreme comments. When asked in a 1999 interview whether he would shut down Brazil’s Congress, Bolsonaro replied:

    There is no doubt. I would perform a coup on the same day. [Congress] doesn’t work. And I am sure that at least 90 percent of the population would celebrate and applaud because it doesn’t work. The Congress today is useless … lets do the coup already. Let’s go straight to the dictatorship.

    He also appeared to advocate for a violent “civil war” to “do the job that the military regime didn’t do: killing 30,000.” Bolsonaro has repeatedly advocated for torture and threatened earlier this month to jail his political opponents after taking office.

    The Times also reported that Bolsarano once told a fellow lawmaker that he “would not rape [her] because you [she is] not worthy of it.” He has stated that he would not hire women equally, and he referred to having a daughter as a “weakness.” In 2011, he claimed he would “rather his son die in a car accident than be gay,” and two years later he claimed that he would “rather have a son who is an addict than a son who is gay.” Just last year, Bolsonaro implied that Afro-Brazilians are lazy, claiming, “They don’t do anything. They are not even good for procreation.” Bolsonaro has promised to roll back policies meant to protect the environment, and, according to the Times, he claimed the “Amazon is like a child with chickenpox, every dot you see is an indigenous reservation.”

  • Five Republican candidates are administrators for a racist Facebook group that pushes conspiracy theories

    Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis has come under scrutiny for his involvement with the same “Tea Party” Facebook group

    Blog ››› ››› NATALIE MARTINEZ


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    UPDATE (8/31 12:20 p.m.): Corey Stewart and Daniel Crenshaw are no longer listed as administrators and moderators of the Facebook group “Tea Party.” Stewart is a neo-Confederate who is running to represent Virginia in the Senate. Crenshaw is running to represent Texas’ 2nd Congressional District.

    All five of the Republican candidates who were listed as administrators and moderators of the group at the time of publication have left the Facebook group. Rep. Jim Renacci and Rep. Ron DeSantis left the group prior to publication of this post.

    UPDATE (8/31 9:12 a.m.): Danny Tarkanian, who is running to represent Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District in the House of Representatives, and his wife Amy Tarkanian are no longer listed as administrators and moderators of the Facebook group “Tea Party.” Matt Rosendale, who is running to represent Montana in the Senate, is also no longer listed as an administrator and moderator of the group.  ​

    UPDATE (8/30 5:10 p.m.): Patrick Morrisey, who is running to represent West Virginia in the Senate, is no longer listed as an administrator and moderator of the Facebook group “Tea Party.” And in July, Rep. Jim Renacci (R-OH), who was named as the Republican nominee for a Senate seat representing his state in May, was listed as an administrator of the group.

    ORIGINAL POST:

    Five GOP-backed Republicans running for office in 2018 are listed as administrators and moderators for a racist, conspiracy theory-pushing Facebook group called “Tea Party.” Some of the group’s administrators have spread hate speech against Muslims and Black activists, and have pushed the Pizzagate conspiracy theory and other false stories about Seth Rich’s murder, the Clintons, and the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, to the group’s almost 95,000 members.

    Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) recently came under harsh scrutiny for his involvement in the same Facebook group, where he was listed as an administrator until August 29. A former employee of the anti-Muslim ACT for America was brought on as an administrator to campaign for DeSantis in the group about a week ago.

    Administrators and moderators of the group have been campaigning for all six candidates since as early as September 2017. The candidates are:

    • Daniel Crenshaw, running to represent Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives;
    • Danny Tarkanian, running to represent Nevada in the House;
    • Corey Stewart, running to represent Virginia in the Senate;
    • Matt Rosendale, running to represent Montana in the Senate; 
    • Patrick Morrisey, running to represent West Virginia in the Senate.

    Daniel Crenshaw has been a member of the Tea Party group since May 2018. He has shared Facebook videos from his congressional campaign page twice, with the most recent share coming on August 13. A few other administrators have promoted Crenshaw’s candidacy and shared his Senate campaign’s Facebook page. Some of these posts identified Crenshaw as an administrator for the group.

    Danny Tarkanian and his wife, Amy Tarkanian (a former chair of the Nevada Republican Party), are both listed as administrators of the group. Administrators of the group have been promoting Danny Tarkanian since 2017, when he was running for Dean Heller’s Senate seat in Nevada (he later withdrew). Administrators have also promoted Tarkanian’s 2018 run for the House. Although Danny has not posted in the group, Amy Tarkanian promoted his Senate campaign in the group multiple times in 2017. In 2018, she also shared a post attacking Oprah for her weight and family life.

    Corey Stewart, a neo-Confederate candidate in Virginia, joined the Facebook group in July 2017 and has been a favorite of some of the group’s administrators since September 2017. Administrators promoting Stewart’s campaign have highlighted his anti-immigrant and pro-Confederate-statue positions and amplified Stewart’s social media attacks against Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA).

    Matt Rosendale and Patrick Morrisey have both been members of the Tea Party group since October 2017. Neither has posted in the group, but other administrators have been bolstering their Senate campaigns since they were admitted

    Several far-right and conservative media figures also appear to be listed as administrators and moderators of the Facebook group. These names include:

    A reader tip contributed to this story. Thank you for your support and keep them coming.

  • Right-wing media praise Trump after he snubbed the British prime minister and voiced white nationalist views

    Blog ››› ››› DINA RADTKE


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    On July 12, British tabloid The Sun published a wide-ranging interview with President Donald Trump in which he disparaged British Prime Minister Theresa May and espoused white nationalist views. Conservative media figures responded to the interview by praising the president and berating his critics.

    Trump sat down for an interview with the Murdoch-owned paper shortly after the conclusion of the NATO summit, at which he insulted world leaders, missed and was late to a number of meetings, and took credit for convincing other nations to increase their NATO contributions, which he did not actually do. After alienating allies at the summit, the president proceeded in the Sun interview to undermine May and criticize her Brexit blueprint, praise her chief political rival, and threaten and threaten to kill a potential trade deal between the U.S. and Britain. Trump also used white nationalist rhetoric to talk about immigration to Europe, saying, “I think what's happened to Europe is a shame. I think the immigration - allowing the immigration to take place in Europe is a shame. I think it changed the fabric of Europe. And unless you act very quickly, it's never going to be what it was. And I don't mean that in a positive way.”

    Here’s how conservative media figures have responded to Trump’s latest outburst:

    • Fox News contributor Nigel Farage praised Trump for his “bombshell to the establishment” opposition to “globalist structures like the European Union.”
    • Fox's Steve Hilton: “The president is 100 percent right about Brexit.” May is weak and “caved in to the elitist establishment.”
    • Fox & Friends host Ainsley Earhardt: Trump is "allowed to" snub British Prime Minister Theresa May and "he's not afraid of the backlash."
    • Fox host Jeanine Pirro: “I don’t think it matters if [Trump] likes [May] as a person.”
    • Breitbart: “Trump just dropped the Mother of all Brexit Bombs on Theresa May.”
    • Breitbart also tried to legitimize Trump’s white nationalist view by hyping “significant demographic changes being seen across Europe” and fearmongering about the advent of “culturally alien practices” like female genital mutilation in Europe.
    • Anti-Muslim activist Pamela Geller: “Reality vs Fantasy: President Trump warns Europe is ‘losing its culture’ by allowing ‘millions and millions’ of migrants, PM Theresa May praises their’ fantastic contribution’: Reality has a nasty way of shattering delusions. Trump speaks as it is. May…”
    • CRTV's Michelle Malkin attacked “media freaks” for overreacting to Trump’s comments, saying he was just “speaking truth” rather than acting like a "doormat.”
    • Fox's Geraldo Rivera: “He’s a great negotiator, the president.”
    • Fox host Melissa Francis: “To be clear… #TheresaMay wanted the President to lie about how he felt about her approach Brexit. And he wasn’t willing to lie. I guess #TheResistance & #NeverTrumpers thinks lying & diplomacy and the same thing.”
    • Asked about Trump’s conduct at the NATO summit and his interview with The Sun, YouTube vloggers Diamond & Silk said, “He’s doing an amazing job. He’s standing up for the American people and for America.”
    • Right-wing blog HotAir dismissed Trump’s comments, arguing they might actually help May.
  • Arizona Senate candidate Kelli Ward and her husband are admins of a racist conspiracy Facebook group

    Kelli and Michael Ward are using the Facebook group Tea Party to promote her Senate campaign

    Blog ››› ››› NATALIE MARTINEZ


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Republican Arizona Senate candidate Kelli Ward and her husband Michael Ward have been campaigning on a racist Facebook group with over 94,000 members called Tea Party that pushes conspiracy theories. The Wards are among the group’s administrators and moderators, along with some other Republican congressional candidates and extremist media figures. Some of the administrators and moderators have shared far-right conspiracy theories, fake news, and anti-Muslim, racist propaganda in the group.

    A CNN KFile review of the social media activity of Kelli Ward’s husband found that Michael Ward has pushed far-right conspiracy theories on Twitter about Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich’s murder and the DNC’s supposed involvement in it, the Clintons’ supposed murder of their political rivals, and incumbent Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain’s alleged connections to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Zachary Henry, spokesperson for Kelli Ward’s campaign, called Michael’s tweets and retweets “obscure details of Dr. Ward's social media activity.”

    However, since Kelli Ward’s previous Senate bid against John McCain in 2016, she and her husband have been promoting her posts in a Facebook group, Tea Party, that features conspiracy and racist content posted by other administrators and moderators.

    Michael Ward regularly shares posts from his wife’s verified Facebook page to the Tea Party group. He has also previously requested donations from group members. Although most posts directly quote Kelli Ward’s social media and campaign positions, in a 2016 post, Michael Ward claimed that McCain is a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood.

    Some of Ward’s co-administrators and moderators have both promoted her campaign in the group and spread conspiracy theories and racist propaganda to the group’s members. Tea Party administrator Mike Michaels, who is also a co-administrator for the Facebook page Citizens For Trump along with Fox News analyst Jan Morgan, has also promoted Kelli Ward’s campaign events in the Tea Party group. Mike Michaels has posted multiple anti-Muslim messages in the group, referring to Islam as a “cancer” multiple times and saying that American women would “not be safe if Muslim immigrants come here from Syria.” Michaels has pushed the conspiracy theory that former President Barack Obama is Muslim multiple times. He also implied that Black Lives Matters is worse than the KKK.

    Group moderator Lori Saxton has pushed conspiracy theories about the DNC’s involvement with Seth Rich’s murder, the Clintons allegedly murdering their political rivals, and Pizzagate. Another administrator, DeeAnn LaRue, claimed that the “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA, was “orchestrated by the left” in a post that got over 2,000 interactions.

    The Tea Party Facebook group is also run in part by extremist media figures Pamela Geller, Jack Posobiec, Patrick Howley of the far-right site Big League Politics, and Eliyokim Cohen of the racist fake news site Jews News (who has defended neo-Nazis in the group). Other administrators and moderators of this group include neo-Confederate Virginia GOP Senate nominee Corey Stewart, as well as Republican congressional candidates Danny Tarkanian, Daniel Crenshaw, Matt Rosendale, Patrick Morrisey, and Chris McDaniel, and Rep. Jim Renacci (R-OH), who is running for re-election.

  • After HuffPost profile of anti-Muslim Twitter crusader, 4chan trolls begin organizing database of “leftist journos”

    Blog ››› ››› CRISTINA LóPEZ G.


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    After HuffPost’s Luke O’Brien published an investigative piece profiling the woman behind a prolific Twitter account that regularly spews anti-Muslim vitriol, MAGA trolls reacted by falsely claiming the piece published the women’s personal information and by singling out O’Brien for harassment. On 4chan, trolls even suggested creating a database containing personal details of “leftist journalists” to facilitate harassment against them.

    Much of the backlash was led by the subject of the piece herself, who goes on Twitter by Amy Mek, short for her name, Amy Mekelburg, and uses a real photo of herself.

    Prominent Pizzagate conspiracy theorist and One America News Network correspondent Jack Posobiec and opportunistic MAGA troll Mike Cernovich also helped spread the false narrative that O’Brien had doxxed the woman, with anti-Muslim troll Pamela Geller presenting her as merely a “patriot who tweets” while ignoring the vitriolic hatred against Muslims she regularly spreads on her prominent platform.

    As the New York Times reported, doxxing -- or making an individual’s identifying or contact information public with malicious intent -- “has emerged from subculture websites like 4Chan and Reddit to become something of a mainstream phenomenon.” Trolls are arguing O’Brien’s investigative journalism was equivalent to doxxing, but he didn’t provide a phone number, address or email address for her (the usual approach to doxxing), and the story’s supposed outing wasn’t much of a stretch given that her real photo was attached to her Twitter account, which uses a name similar to her legal one. As Right Wing Watch’s Jared Holt -- who used to work for Media Matters -- explained, O’Brien’s piece is “different from what is commonly thought of as ‘doxing’” because “he did not publish personally identifiable information such as an address, which could put Mekelburg in potential danger.”

    Also, Mekelburg is hardly an unassuming private individual of no interest to the public. She has become extremely prominent on Twitter, and she has done so by posting vitriol that poses a real threat to entire communities.

    Nevertheless, on 4chan, trolls are reacting to O’Brien’s piece by proposing the creation of a database housing the personal information of those they deem “leftist journalists”.

    Within the forum, suggested tactics include targeting “national rag journos” with “reach and audience”:

    A member suggested using Wikipedia as a model:


    Another member pushed the idea of adding activists to the list, pre-emptively gathering their information to deploy “when they do something” and including information that could help locate them outside of social media:

    Online message boards have proven to be hubs that house conspiracy theories, hoaxes, and harassment campaigns against individuals the far-right dislikes. Targeting journalists could have a chilling effect on the coverage of extremism and hate.

  • In the wake of mass shootings at schools, conservatives blame everything but guns

    Blog ››› ››› DINA RADTKE, SANAM MALIK & NATALIE MARTINEZ


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    After nearly every school shooting, right-wing media scramble to find reasons why guns should not be blamed for gun violence.

    After 10 people were killed during a mass shooting at a high school in Santa Fe, TX, pro-gun proselytizers in the conservative media sphere insisted that gun safety laws would not have prevented the shooting and instead pointed to other aspects of American culture that they said required reform. Here are some of the excuses right-wing pundits offered for the May 18 shooting:

    In February, after the school shooting in Parkland, FL, claimed 17 lives, conservative media took the very same approach:

    • Fox News contributor Tammy Bruce claimed that talking about firearms doesn’t get to the “core issue” of “the human condition.” She and the hosts of Fox & Friends also blamed drugs, virtual reality, and video games for the shooting.
    • Radio host Michael Savage tweeted that “liberal judges and the ACLU” were to blame.
    • Fox guest Lou Palumbo blamed “the media, the entertainment industry,” and “the lack of parenting.”
    • Fox News contributor Kevin Jackson blamed “Leftist-run schools” and falsely claimed that the shooter was linked to antifa.
    • Fox News host Laura Ingraham blamed “mental illness”and “broken or damaged families” for the shooting on her show.
    • The Gateway Pundit suggested that the shooter supposedly being a registered Democrat was a factor. (He was not actually a registered Democrat; the blog was forced to correct the story.)
    • Townhall’s Kurt Schlichter blamed the FBI’s Russia probe for the shooting, tweeting, “The FBI was too busy trying to undermine the president to bother with doing it's (sic) freaking job.”
    • The Daily Caller’s Peter Hasson suggested that the shooting was related to the shooter growing up without a father.
    • Liberty One TV’s Joe Biggs (formerly of Infowars) tweeted that the FBI was “too busy chasing Trump/Russia nothing burgers” to have prevented the shooting.
    • Pamela Geller falsely claimed that the shooter was connected to antifa and Islamic terrorist groups.
    • Laura Loomer shared a fake photo of the shooter and speculated that he was a “radical leftist” with potential ties to antifa and Islamic resistance groups.
    • Infowars claimed that the “MSM” (mainstream media) was “already covering it up” that the shooter was likely a “Democratic voter” and had clothing “similar to the style worn by ISIS fighters in Syria.”

    But as others have pointed out, most of the phenomena listed above are also present in other countries that don’t experience nearly as much gun violence as the United States does.

  • Right-wing media figures are blaming everything but guns for the Parkland shooting

    ››› ››› SANAM MALIK & NATALIE MARTINEZ

    On February 14, 17 people were killed in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. Right-wing media figures rushed to blame the shooting on “leftist” public schools, the FBI and its Russia probe, and on debunked connections between the shooter, Nikolas Cruz, and antifa and Islamic terrorist groups.

  • Pamela Geller's anti-migrant video is a hoax. There's even a complete film crew in the shot.

    Geller was purporting to show anti-police violence by migrants in Italy, but the video was debunked in 2014

    Blog ››› ››› NINA MAST


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Update: Geller removed the video from her YouTube channel and website, but doubled down on her claim of “Muslim migrant violence” in an update:

    "Left-wing propaganda sites and Muslim supremacist terror-tied orgs have taken issue with one of the videos I previously ran saying it wasn’t real. The fact is there are thousands of videos exposing Muslim migrant violence and destruction that elicit no response from the enemedia. Left-wing propaganda sites and Muslim supremacist terror-tied orgs continue to ignore those videos and the widespread horror these migrants have wrought on the countries they’ve invaded."

    Notorious anti-Muslim commentator Pamela Geller uploaded and shared an obviously staged video framing migrants in Italy as anti-police vandalizers in the context of Italy’s highly contested general election.

    On February 11, Pamela Geller’s “Morning News Report” newsletter featured a YouTube video titled “Migrants in Italy” which was uploaded on February 7 to Geller’s YouTube channel, and shared on her personal website. The video shows people (who are actors) vandalizing an Italian police car with bats and sticks. Geller presented the video as real without verifying its authenticity in a shameless attempt to smear migrant men.

    The video, in reality, is an amateur recording of an Italian film shooting. The drama Mediterranea chronicles two friends from Burkina Faso who experience hostility after immigrating to Italy. The allegation that the video depicts Italian migrants engaged in a criminal act has been debunked since as early as 2014, by Italian, French, and German language websites. (A directional microphone and light-diffusion panel are also visible in the frame, though Geller seemed not to have noticed them.) As of this writing, the video has over 5,000 views.

    Pamela Geller is the anti-Muslim movement’s most visible figurehead. Her recent shameless promotion of blatant xenophobic misinformation comes weeks before Italy’s general election in March which is being widely considered a referendum on immigration. After an Italian neo-fascist shot six immigrants in central Italy last week, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi called for Italy’s 600,000 undocumented immigrants to be deported, calling them a “social bomb ready to explode.” Berlusconi’s coalition of anti-immigrant parties has a real chance of winning in the March election.

    In addition to spreading anti-immigrant bigotry, Geller is currently crusading against social media companies. In what has been described as one of “the dumbest lawsuits" ever, Geller sued the Department of Justice for social media companies’ “censorship” of her anti-Muslim rhetoric online. Though her meritless case was dismissed, Geller is now taking her so-called censorship stunts to far-right media platforms, like on the show of former Breitbart technology editor and white supremacist sympathizer Milo Yiannopoulos. During her appearance as a guest on Yiannopoulos' podcast on February 11, Geller condemned what she claimed is the censorship of conservative views on social media.

    And, just last week, Geller appeared on a “social media neutrality” panel convened by right-wing trolls and conspiracy theorists who blamed social media censorship for their declining traffic rates. Despite using social media to spread obvious misinformation and hateful speech, Geller accused media of removing content critical of Islam because Sharia law, according to her, mandates that Islam not be criticized.

    Geller’s promotion of an obviously staged video is just the latest example of her exploitation of YouTube’s "radical free speech experiment" to spread racist misinformation in a bid for self-promotion, but this time, amid concerns in Italy about election-related fake news and rising anti-immigrant sentiment, her stunts could have larger consequences. 

  • Right-wing trolls held a panel to complain about their declining traffic rates since Trump was elected

    A who's who of the dregs of the internet gathered for a pity party about how they're all failing

    Blog ››› ››› CRISTINA LóPEZ G.


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Following declining traffic rates on their websites, an assortment of conspiracy theorists, hoax peddlers, anti-Muslim bigots, partisan activists, and pro-Trump media figures -- who depend on social media to broadcast their messages and profit from their audiences -- convened a panel in Washington, D.C., to claim tech giants like Google, Twitter, and Facebook are “shadow-banning” and censoring them for being conservative and supporting President Donald Trump.

    The panel on Social Media Neutrality, put together on February 6 by The Gateway Pundit’s Jim Hoft, featured Right Side Broadcasting Network's (RSBN) Margaret Howell, anti-Muslim bigot Pamela Geller, software developer Marlene Jaeckel, and The People's Cube's Oleg Atbashian -- whose site’s content has triggered the Defense Department’s flags for hate and racism. Fox News regular Michelle Malkin and self-proclaimed “guerrilla journalist” (but actual partisan hack) James O'Keefe also made video appearances.

    The participants were united in their claim that, based on their declining traffic rates since after the election, Facebook, Twitter, and Google must be silencing or "shadow-banning" them. A "shadow-ban" refers to when users are blocked from sharing content to an online community, but can’t tell they have been banned. Hoft took issue with digital platforms warning users that his website contains “disputed articles,” even though his site has a lengthy record of publishing false information.

    After expressing her admiration for conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ programming at Infowars, RSBN’s Howell accused Media Matters of “orchestrat[ing] a hit” against RSBN’s YouTube channel and being “in cahoots” with tech giants, claiming a Media Matters piece was the reason Facebook removed RSBN’s content for violating terms of service without clarifying which terms of service the platform had considered violated. She also claimed YouTube started censoring RSBN’s videos in the search results and marking videos as “not suitable for most advertisers.” RSBN, according to Howell, was born in reaction to then-candidate Trump’s (false) narrative that mainstream media never showed the crowds at his rallies and twisted his statements out of context. RSBN is also the same network that was once comfortable hiring former Infowars reporter Joe Biggs to host one of its shows, despite Biggs’ awful history of trivializing date rape or encouraging violence against transgender people.

    Both Michelle Malkin and Pamela Geller accused social media companies of censoring their platforms, which they’ve used to post anti-Muslim content. Malkin and Geller frequently appear on Fox News to malign entire Muslim communities or demean undocumented immigrants. Geller also accused media and tech companies of removing content critical of Islam because Sharia law, according to her, mandates that Islam not be criticized.

    Another panelist, Marlene Jaeckel, a software engineer and self-proclaimed “anti-feminist,” claimed to have been ostracized from Silicon Valley’s female tech groups because of her outspoken support for former Google software engineer James Damore. Damore was fired for writing a 10-page internal memo that Google’s CEO said “advanc[ed] harmful gender stereotypes.” She warned against the dangers of the biases Amazon’s Alexa and other home digital assistants could be giving to children, a theme that has occupied the minds of others on the far-right.

    As evident by some speakers’ remarks at the panel, at least some of these right-wing figures are breaking their loyalty to free market capitalism to call for government regulations to stop the companies from removing their content when it violates the companies’ terms of service. However, what they see as the unbridled exercise of their opinions is also what has made it necessary for Twitter, Facebook, and Google to update and revise their terms of service in order to combat fake news and protect its users against extremism, hate speech, and online harassment.

    Political allies of these far-right personalities are also helping them advance their conservative victimhood narrative. For example, in January, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) seemingly used O’Keefe’s undercover videos against Twitter (apparently ignoring his long history of deceptive editing and pathetic self-own episodes) to make serious accusations against the social media platform of banning conservatives (Cruz spent most of his time during a 2017 Senate hearing questioning social media companies about political bias).

    But these social media companies aren’t censoring conservative voices; they are taking action to combat fake news, Russian propaganda, hate speech, and online harassment and not always succeeding. Twitter has vowed to become “more aggressive” in monitoring racism and hate speech in its platform, but has admitted to making mistakes that often continue to enable extremists to smear immigrants and Muslims. YouTube -- which is owned by Google -- is struggling in its campaign to stop allowing content creators who spew hateful views from profiting from the platform, as it has allowed white supremacists to spread their messaging. And it was pressure from right-wing figures that reportedly pushed Facebook to “pull back from human oversight” of its Trending section and “delegate more power to shoddy algorithms,” which could have facilitated the flourishing of fake news and Russian propaganda. Similar right-wing pressure has also pushed Google to end a fact check display in its searches.

    While social media companies need to do a better job in crafting and enforcing policies that adequately respond to the challenges that harassment and misinformation present, ceding to the pressure of known harassers and proven misinformers should not be a path they follow.

  • Meet Peter Imanuelsen, aka Peter Sweden, the bigoted conspiracy theorist who is a frequent source for the American "alt-right" on Europe

    Imanuelsen is a xenophobic pseudo-journalist who has denied the Holocaust, called the moon landing a "hoax," and suggested that LGBTQ people be sent to camps

    Blog ››› ››› NINA MAST


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Peter Imanuelsen (aka Peter Sweden), a bigoted conspiracy theorist and self-professed “Swedish journalist” who made a name for himself by reporting on so-called migrant crime in Sweden, was recently banned from PayPal. Far-right trolls consider getting banned from such platforms a badge of honor, and Imanuelsen’s ban is a stepping stone for him as he seeks their acceptance.

    Imanuelsen is a far-right vlogger who has worked to carve out a niche for himself at the intersection of pro-Trump trolls and the European far-right movement. Despite his Swedish persona, Imanuelsen is a British national born in Norway, who has spent time living in Sweden but has lived more than half of his life in the U.K. An August 2017 profile of Imanuelsen by the U.K. anti-extremism research group Hope Not Hate suggested that his family’s business appears to have committed tax evasion, which may explain their move from Sweden to the U.K.

    Though a relatively obscure figure during his first year on Twitter, Imanuelsen’s notoriety was boosted around August 2017, a month after he participated in a wildly unsuccessful “alt-right” stunt to disrupt refugee rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea (ironically, the group's ship itself had to be rescued on one occasion by a refugee rescue ship). And, recently, he managed to draw the ire of the current curator of the official Swedish Twitter account.

    Though Imanuelsen’s social media activity is now predominantly focused on blaming immigrants in Sweden for crime and complaining about “the left,” his older tweets, many of which have since been deleted, reveal an array of false, conspiracist, and bigoted beliefs. He has said he doesn’t believe in evolution, that feminism “goes against God’s order,” that people should get “capital punishment” as a “consequence” of “being homo,” that Jews are a “seperate (sic) race from Europeans,” that the Holocaust never occurred (though he claims he has revised his views on the Holocaust), and that the moon landing was a hoax perpetrated by freemasons.

    Since Hope Not Hate’s profile, Imanuelsen has pushed the types of stories, often misleading or outright fabricated ones, that serve as fodder for narratives about Sweden among American “alt-right” Twitter personalities and pro-Trump trolls. His Swedish persona affords him a measure of credibility and gives xenophobic comments a sense of legitimacy (whether or not his conclusions are valid), and he understands the American media landscape -- particularly narratives about President Donald Trump -- well enough to exploit them for his own benefit. In fact, two days ago, he appeared on a list of the 20 most retweeted accounts tweeting about antifa. 

    Imanuelsen regularly tweets unsourced or unsubstantiated claims that allege Sweden’s immigrants are responsible for sexual violence, bombings, gang activity, and other criminality, and that such activity is underreported or covered up by the Swedish police. It’s a two-pronged tactic: It provides a foundation for him to advance his ethno-nationalist arguments against immigrants, and it promotes a sense of distrust of mainstream institutions necessary for the continued relevance of Imanuelsen and people like him.


    Screenshot from Peter Imanuelsen's Twitter account

    More recently, Imanuelsen has promoted himself by fearmongering about government censorship and harassment to a level that could reasonably be considered paranoia. Since October, Imanuelsen, who now purportedly resides in Norway, has been claiming the police have visited his parents many times looking for him and have swarmed his house in the U.K. “probably looking” to arrest him for “hate speech.” On January 10, he also claimed (without evidence) that a “country” reported his January 8 tweet claiming (also without evidence) that Sweden is giving immigrants housing priority over native Swedes, writing, “I would guess it is Germany with their new ‘hate speech’ law that has reported me" to Twitter.

    Imanuelsen has, for months, been ingratiating himself into far-right and pro-Trump Twitter circles -- he once tweeted four times in response to a Breitbart article lamenting the lack of Christian symbolism in a supermarket holiday ad -- and it appears that his efforts have begun to pay off. Imanuelsen now has over 85 thousand Twitter followers, 24 thousand YouTube subscribers, and his Periscope videos regularly draw tens of thousands of viewers.

    Imanuelsen’s relationship with Paul Joseph Watson, an Infowars conspiracy theorist who is obsessed with the canard of Swedish migrant crime, illustrates his rise. Their Twitter relationship seems to have started in February 2017, when Watson quote-tweeted Imanuelsen’s tweet about an explosion in Malmo, which Imanuelsen later deleted. He started quote-tweeting Watson aggressively in March and started tweeting directly at him a few months later. Watson has quote-tweeted Imanuelsen many times and has interviewed him on Infowars. Most recently, Infowars.com reprinted a post Imanuelsen wrote for the anti-immigrant European news blog Voice of Europe. Imanuelsen’s* tweets parallel the content of several prominent far-right outlets that report on the subject of crime in Sweden, and an October 2017 post by the far-right Gateway Pundit was based entirely on his tweets. In November 2017, Imanuelsen was cited as a "journalist" who "keeps track of bombings in the country" in an article on the website of RT, a Russian media outlet which U.S. intelligence officials and experts have said is a propaganda arm for the Kremlin.

    Two days ago, PayPal permanently suspended Imanuelsen for violating the company’s user agreement, a veritable badge of honor for white supremacists since the August 2017 events in Charlottesville, VA. Though PayPal didn’t specify which part of the user agreement he had violated, the company has previously frozen the account of far-right group Defend Europe (with which Sweden was associated). Paypal also told a French outlet that it was the company's policy “to prohibit that our services are used to accept payments or donations for organizations whose activities promote hatred, violence or racial intolerance.” Since the ban, Imanuelsen has joined the trend of soliciting donations via bitcoin, a cryptocurrency white nationalist Richard Spencer calls “the currency of the alt-right.”

    Pamela Geller, America’s most notorious anti-Muslim extremist who has recently gravitated toward the “alt-right” in an attempt to maintain her own fading relevance, ran to his defense. Jihad Watch Director Robert Spencer, another vocal anti-Muslim propagandist, retweeted him.

    But Imanuelsen isn’t content with Infowars-level infamy. He is desperate for an invitation to Fox News prime-time shows (he has pitched stories to their hosts via Twitter), some of which have been increasingly friendly to white supremacists, conspiracy theorists, internet trolls, and the European far-right, leaving open the very real possibility that a bigoted, racist, anti-Muslim, internet conspiracy theorist masquerading as a journalist could be mainstreamed to Americans by a major cable news network.

    * This name has been updated with its correct spelling.

  • In urban Sweden and heartland America, xenophobic fake news looks the same

    Parallels, lessons learned, and enduring challenges for 2018

    Blog ››› ››› NINA MAST


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    In 2016, the story of a juvenile sex crime in an Idaho town swept through the national right-wing media ecosystem, picking up fabricated and lurid details along the way; several months later, the newly inaugurated President Donald Trump falsely suggested that a terrorist attack had recently taken place in Sweden, baffling the country. The two incidents, though seemingly unrelated, were spurred by the same sentiment: rabid anti-immigrant bias fueled by a sensationalistic, right-wing fake news ecosystem.

    In the global culture wars being waged online and in real life -- from Twin Falls, Idaho, to Malmo, Sweden -- influencers successfully mobilize anti-Muslim extremists, far-right media, and fake news websites in coordinated campaigns to promote misinformation. Their motivation may stem from an ideological agenda, the desire to create chaos, the intention to profit from emotionally resonant website content, or a combination of all three. And though misinformation is usually later debunked, the truth generally fails to travel as far or penetrate as deep as the original story, allowing a steady drumbeat of misinformation to continue. In the cases of Twin Falls and Sweden, this misinformation was fueled by xenophobia and sought to manipulate people into associating immigration and violent crime.

    The case of Twin Falls

    What's happening in Sweden?

    Lessons learned

    Response and enduring challenges

    The case of Twin Falls

    The Twin Falls, Idaho, case was the perfect story for anti-immigrant activists and far-right media. For the rest of us, it was the perfect example of how these anti-immigrant (and, specifically, anti-Muslim) activists and media seize on a story, elevating it, and twisting the facts to push their agenda.

    In June 2016, two refugee boys, ages 7 and 10, and a white 5-year-old girl were discovered partly clothed in the laundry room of an apartment complex. The incident was filmed on a cell phone borrowed from one of the boys’ older brother. A year later, the two boys and the older brother whose phone they used, were charged, pleaded guilty, and were sentenced.

    The incident had all the hallmarks of a crime story fit for the far-right echo chamber: sex crimes committed by refugees against white children in a historically white town with a growing Muslim population; a lack of sustained national media attention, creating an opening for accusations of a media cover-up; local politicians unable to get ahead of the narrative; and the backdrop of a highly politicized presidential election.

    Misinformation about the case was initially spurred by anti-Muslim activist groups, such as ACT for America and Refugee Resettlement Watch, as well as anti-Muslim media figures and various white nationalists who had been seemingly preparing for an incident to exploit in Twin Falls since a local paper reported in early 2015 that the city would soon be accepting Syrian refugees. After the incident, far-right websites including Breitbart, Infowars, The Drudge Report, The Rebel Media, WorldNetDaily, and fake news website MadWorldNews ran with the story, fabricating new details for which there was no evidence, including that the young boys were Syrian (they weren’t), held the girl at knifepoint (they didn’t), and their families celebrated afterward (they didn’t).

    In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, Breitbart produced daily content on the story and sent its lead investigative reporter, Lee Stranahan, to investigate the “Muslim takeover” of the town. Infowars attempted to link the assault to Chobani, an immigrant-owned yogurt company that employs several hundred refugees, in a report headlined “Idaho Yogurt Maker Caught Importing Migrant Rapists.” Chobani sued Jones over the claim, and eventually settled; Jones issued an apology and a retraction. The story also bled into mainstream conservative news. Former Fox host Bill O’Reilly claimed the national media chose to not cover the local crime story because they “want[ed] to protect the refugee community.” O’Reilly pushed the narrative that sexual assault is committed frequently by Muslim refugees, saying, “the cultural aspect of the story is valid” in response to a Fox News contributor claiming that “we're seeing sexual assaults happen across the world from refugee populations” in Germany and Norway.

    The story showed how a local crime story can become a breeding ground for right-wing fabulation in service of pushing an anti-Muslim agenda. And, when repeated frequently enough, these narratives become coded, so that a single word or phrase can conjure a version of reality that may not exist at all.

    In the case of Twin Falls, many commenters explicitly extrapolated the mythical migrant crime wave of Europe to the American heartland. The Times quoted one American woman writing, “My girl is blond and blue-eyed. ... I am extremely worried about her safety.” It is therefore not surprising that the vast majority of Trump voters think illegal immigration is a very serious problem for the country, particularly in the context of crime. And thanks to “alt-right” outlets like Breitbart, which consistently use crime in Europe to fearmonger about immigration into the U.S., local crime can have policy implications across continents. As the so-called “alt-right” attempts to expand its reach internationally, these high-profile crime stories are powerful fodder.

    What's happening in Sweden?

    In February, Trump told rally attendees in Florida to “look at what’s happening last night in Sweden” while talking about cities where terror attacks have occurred. The statement baffled most Americans, as no terror attack had occurred in Sweden the night before; Trump later clarified that his comment was in reference to a Fox News segment about “immigrants & Sweden.” The segment, according to The Washington Post, was likely an interview with an American filmmaker who “has blamed refugees for what he says is a crime wave in Sweden.” His “documentary,” part of which was aired during the Fox segment, was deceptively edited and pushed debunked claims of a surge of refugee violence.

    If you gleaned your news about Sweden from far-right or conspiratorial websites, as many Americans do, Trump’s dog-whistle would have resonated clearly. The far-right sites have created a narrative that Sweden is the “rape capital of the world,” is in the throes of a cultural civil war, and that there are areas of the country so dangerous that even police don’t dare enter. As Media Matters and others have documented, influential far-right websites, white nationalists, right-leaning tabloids, fake news websites, and even more mainstream conservative outlets have cultivated an obsession with the mythical migrant crime wave in Sweden, publishing nearly daily content on the subject.

    What is happening in Sweden is, actually, nothing close to the hellscape far-right media attempts to portray. The country’s crime rate pales in comparison to the United States’, and while high levels of immigration have created social and economic anxieties for native Swedes and immigrants alike (anxieties driven in no small part by anti-Muslim activists), no data shows that immigration is causing such problems in the country.

    But these anti-immigrant narratives have created space for fabricated claims to fester. And in this ecosystem, as in the Twin Falls case, real stories can take on a life of their own. In December 2016, for example, Swedish local news outlet Kristianstadbladet reported that “new clientele” had been frequenting a church often visited by those experiencing homelessness and some people had desecrated the church pews. Despite a lack of information about who the new clientele were, Swedish hate site Fria Tider leapt to claim that it was a reference to refugees and they were the ones urinating, defecating, and masturbating in the church’s pews. MadWorld News, an American fake news website known for its anti-Muslim content, amplified the story in the United States, adding claims that “migrants scream Islamic chants and smash liquor bottles on the floor in an attempt to silence Christian worshippers from praying to God” and that “a migrant even tried to kidnap a child from a baptism ceremony.” The article was shared over 4,700 times. The story was also published on Focus News, a fake news website run by a 25-year-old Macedonian, and from there shared thousands of times in Macedonia, Georgia, and Kosovo. The story was fact-checked and debunked but by then the claim had already spread.

    Stories like these, driven by far-right media and anti-Muslim activists, helped lay the narrative foundation for Trump’s Sweden reference. After his statement, right-wing media, fake news websites, and at least one neo-Nazi website clamored to defend him, using his comment to amplify a crime narrative that, up until then, had sparked limited interest outside the far-right media landscape. And while online attention to the country peaked after Trump’s claim, his amplification of the contrived and bigoted narrative took it from the fringe to the mainstream and effectively primed a larger audience to believe that, even if nothing has happened in Sweden, it could.

    Sweden’s commitment to an open, democratic society is also a vulnerability. According to a late 2015 internal memo, Swedish police were instructed not to report externally the ethnic or national origin of suspected criminals. The decision, while an admirable attempt not to stoke racial tensions, has raised suspicion. Many far-right outlets perceived the move as an attempt to cover up what they deemed a migrant crime wave, and the controversy became so salient that the Swedish government had to respond. Now these same websites are targeting the Swedish government over its proposal to restrict the accessibility and distribution of personal sensitive data related to criminal offenses. Sweden’s open and progressive crime reporting practices that discourage unnecessary emphasis on people’s ethnicity or religion allow fake news purveyors to speculate on a suspected criminal’s ethnic background with impunity, as well as manufacture an inflated perception of criminality.

    Lessons learned

    These examples illustrate that in a politically and culturally charged media environment, completely fabricated stories packaged to look as if they were published by a reputable news agency and partially true stories sensationalized by ideological or bad-faith actors alike can spread with such a degree of virality that by the time the truth is reported and the fake news fact-checked, the damage is already done. The articles themselves are left uncorrected and continue to be shared and referred back to as cautionary tales of the supposed crime wave and general societal degradation spurred by Muslim immigration and refugee resettlement. They are exceedingly easy to manufacture and disseminate, but difficult to disprove until all facts are available, which can be months or years later.

    There is also evidence that Russian actors are attempting to sow political discord offline. In March, in the wake of Trump’s comments about alleged crime in Sweden, a Russian TV crew reportedly tried to pay young people in Sweden to riot on camera with the intention of portraying a nation roiled by violence. And a Facebook event called “Citizens before refugees,” which was created by what is now known to be a Russian actor, attempted to organize an anti-refugee rally in the town of Twin Falls, Idaho.

    It’s easy for mainstream news consumers to dismiss these reports as misinformation-filled rants by white supremacists and various far-right ideologues (which they are), but in the aggregate, they act as a powerful rallying cry for an entire swath of Americans who yearn to see their deep-seated cultural and economic anxieties rationalized, their biases validated.

    What's happening in Sweden is what's happening in sleepy towns in the United States. The ideologies, tactics, and goals are all the same. There will be another case like the Twin Falls assault and another story like that of the Swedish church, and in the context of a media landscape eager to exploit these situations and a presidential administration that encourages xenophobia and has deep ties to the far-right and a burgeoning fake news ecosystem, the impact of the next viral story could be much worse.

    Responses and enduring challenges

    In order to confront the problem of anti-immigrant sentiment flamed by misinformation and fake news, mainstream media and governments alike need to be realistic about the challenges and possible solutions. In a recent report released by the Swedish government, the authors noted, “One important question is where the limit is for which expressions are harmful to society in large and its citizens.” It’s a question that may never have a perfect answer, but seeking to understand the ecosystem and its players, ideologies, relationships, and methods is a good start.

    In that report, which focused on “white hatred,” experts outlined several far-right commentators and websites (many of which are American), suggesting that these groups be researched further in an effort to counter their racist, anti-immigrant, anti-feminist ideology. The report also detailed the role of tech companies like Facebook and Google in limiting distribution of their content online. Sweden has also ramped up its efforts to fight fake news through elementary school media literacy programs, news outlet initiatives, and bilateral law enforcement partnerships, including with the country’s Scandinavian neighbors.  

    In the United States, the commitment to identifying and solving the problem has been far less sustained. Trump himself has regularly pushed anti-Muslim sentiment and misinformation, and he’s known to get his information from the types of outlets that push bigoted misinformation. The administration has also decided that fake news is actually news that is unfavorable to it, and it’s officials have on multiple occasions pushed fabricated stories, and Trump himself has told over 100 lies in less than one year in office.

    The antagonistic attitude that this administration has taken means the burden for combating anti-immigrant sentiment and fake news largely falls on media, local authorities, and other institutions. For example, fake news in Twin Falls may have been better combatted had the local authorities been more engaged in getting out accurate information. A local Twin Falls newspaper editor told The New York Times’ Caitlin Dickerson that, while local reporters attempted to correct falsehoods about the story, city officials refused to write guest editorials doing the same out of fear of political backlash:

    “Behind closed doors, they would all tell you they were pro-refugee, and we wanted them to step forward and make that declaration in a public arena, and it just never really happened,” he told me. “That was frustrating to us especially at the beginning because it really felt like the newspaper was out there all alone.” He continued: “There were days where we felt like, Godammit, what are we doing here? We write a story and it’s going to reach 50,000 people. Breitbart writes a story and it’s going to reach 2, 3, 4, 5, 10 million people. What kind of a voice do we have in this debate?”

    In the era of “alternative facts,” American news outlets and their fact-checking arms have stepped up their game, but the U.S. would be smart to develop interdisciplinary domestic and international partnerships, as Sweden has. This year, four states passed bills mandating media literacy be integrated into school curricula, and others are considering following suit. It would be worth considering Sweden’s dedicated media literacy program, taught to teens and young adults, as a model.

    A translation in this post has been updated for accuracy.

  • After NYC attack, Fox News prime time turned up the anti-Muslim sentiment (again)

    Blog ››› ››› NICK FERNANDEZ

    In the wake of a vehicle attack in New York City that left at least eight dead and 11 injured, Fox News’ prime-time shows dusted off their playbook for analyzing apparent terror incidents by turning to a series of renowned anti-Muslim activists for commentary and insight.

    According to The New York Times, on October 31, a man driving a rented pickup truck sped down a designated bike path in lower Manhattan, killing at least eight people and injuring at least 11 others. After striking a school bus, the driver of the vehicle was shot and apprehended by authorities.

    In its virtually wall-to-wall coverage of the attack, Fox News hosted a series of hate group leaders and disreputable guests who have histories of making inflammatory and anti-Muslim comments, including Brigitte Gabriel, Pamela Geller, Sebastian Gorka, and Zuhdi Jasser. Viewers who tuned in to Fox to learn about what happened in New York City saw self-described “terrorism analyst” Gabriel scapegoating refugees as a threat to national security:

    Meanwhile, Geller said on Hannity that “a rational response” to such an attack would be to “stop certain Muslim immigration from jihad nations”:

    Gorka, who was also a guest on Hannityclaimed that the phrase “lone wolf” was “invented” and “made popular by the Obama administration to make Americans disconnect the dots” on terrorism:

    And Jasser asserted on Tucker Carlson Tonight that Americans “are in denial if we don’t believe that nonviolent Islamism is a precursor to militant Islamism”:

    Fox has a long history of providing untrustworthy coverage of terror incidents in part by following a pattern of hosting anti-Muslim hate group leaders or other controversial guests to further the network’s political agenda.

  • The conspiracy theories being spread about the Las Vegas massacre

    ››› ››› BOBBY LEWIS

    After a mass shooting in Las Vegas, NV, left at least 58 people dead and more than 500 injured, far-right media, fake news purveyors, and fringe sources including 4chan and 8chan engaged in and spread many conspiracy theories about the shooting including that the gunman may have had an accomplice and was connected to ISIS, antifa, and/or former President Barack Obama.