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  • How the murder of a DNC staffer turned into a right-wing conspiracy

    The story goes through nearly everyone in right-wing media: Sean Hannity, Roger Stone, Louise Mensch, Megyn Kelly, Jim Hoft, Julian Assange, and more

    Blog ››› ››› JOHN WHITEHOUSE


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    It started with a late night walk on July 10, 2016. Seth Rich was talking with his girlfriend while walking through the Bloomingdale neighborhood of Washington, D.C., when there was some sort of altercation. Rich was shot multiple times and died shortly thereafter.

    Nearly a year later, his death has become a cause célèbre among right-wing media and the fringiest elements of pro-Trump media, simply because he worked as a staffer for the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

    The conspiracy theories started immediately. The day after Rich was killed, a Twitter user connected the murder with a lawsuit filed by Bernie Sanders supporters against the DNC. (This lawsuit would later be the subject of right-wing conspiracy theories after the death of a process server that the coroner would later conclude was caused by accidental polypharmacy, or a combination of drugs.)

    The first right-wing version of the conspiracy theory was about confirming right-wing allegations against the Clinton Foundation. On July 13, conspiracy theory website WhatDoesItMean.com (previously cited by pro-Trump media) ran a piece, sourced to the Kremlin, claiming that Rich thought he was on his way to meet with the FBI about the Clinton Foundation when a “hit team” put in place by the Clintons killed him. The article also linked the conspiracy theory with two Russian diplomats who were expelled by the United States two days before Rich’s murder, and it concluded by claiming the hit team was captured on July 12 in Washington, D.C. The actual police events of July 12 had nothing to do with any of this. On July 14, Snopes debunked this conspiracy theory.


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    On July 22, WikiLeaks released 20,000 emails that had been stolen from the DNC, and Redditors immediately started guessing that Rich was the source of those emails. Heat Street, a News Corp. publication then run by Louise Mensch, ran a roundup of these rumors. In the post, Heat Street simply went through the “r/The_Donald” subreddit, listing different conspiracy theories that users had come up with, even comparing one theory to the work of mathematician John Nash and the movie A Beautiful Mind. Heat Street had also mentioned the FBI rumor in the bottom of a previous post about Rich’s murder, noting that there was no evidence to substantiate it.

    The one entity that did claim to be the WikiLeaks source was Guccifer 2.0. As The New York Times explained on July 27, while American intelligence services believed Guccifer 2.0 to be a front for Russian spies, the hacker claimed to be Romanian. In the report, the Times detailed evidence linking the emails to Russia, including “metadata hidden in the early documents indicating that they were edited on a computer with Russian language settings.”


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Notorious dirty trickster Roger Stone, a contributor to Alex Jones' conspiracy theory website Infowars, and WikiLeaks began pushing the conspiracy theory in earnest in August. In an August 8 tweet, Stone included Rich in a group of four murdered people for whom he blamed the Clintons, referencing the FBI version of the conspiracy theory. A day later, WikiLeaks announced that it was offering $20,000 for information, and founder Julian Assange himself brought up Rich unprompted on a Dutch TV program, implying that Rich was a source. The host was taken aback by Assange’s suggestion and tried to push him on what he was implying, but Assange did not clarify his remark:

    Pro-Trump media jumped on the interview. Mike Cernovich immediately promoted the interview while stating point-blank that Rich was the source -- something that even Assange never said. On August 10, Hannity discussed the interview on his radio show, saying that it wasn’t the Russians who gave WikiLeaks the information. Later in the show, he discussed the matter with Gateway Pundit’s Jim Hoft and Townhall’s Rachel Alexander. Hoft was befuddled as to why the Rich family would not want the matter politicized, saying that it could only increase the information about the murder.

    Also on August 10, Infowars’ Paul Joseph Watson published a video about Assange’s implication, expressing concern that Assange could be assassinated:

    Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich also jumped on Assange’s interview on the same day, telling Mike Gallagher on August 10 that the conspiracy theory was “worth talking about.”

    WikiLeaks also issued a similarly vague statement on August 10.

    On August 11, WikiLeaks started sowing distrust in Rich’s family when it tweeted that the family’s spokesperson was a “professional Democrat” -- even though the same could be said for Rich himself.

    In the days that followed, Infowars ramped up its coverage. Watson cited a “source close to the Democratic party” who said his reporting was “on the money.” Infowars dutifully picked up Gingrich’s interview and used it to confirm its own assertions. The conspiracy theory site was particularly incensed that the Rich family would hire a spokesperson to quash conspiracy theories. And it went on to publish multiple pieces about Rich that included accounts of WikiLeaks’ assertions and implications about Rich.

    Assange would resurface and again hint that Rich was his source on the August 25 edition of The Kelly File, again declaring his interest in the case without actually saying anything about Rich himself. While Laura Ingraham and some others ran with what Assange said to Kelly File host Megyn Kelly, Fox host Greg Gutfeld hit Assange for pushing the conspiracy theory -- to the distaste of fellow Fox host Eric Bolling:

    The conspiracy theory machine would turn away from Rich for most of September and October, though during this time Hannity frequently talked with Assange on his radio show, eager for new leaks that could be damaging to Clinton. In September, Rich’s girlfriend and his family spoke with Chris Hansen of Crime Watch Daily about the case, condemning the claims. GOP lobbyist Jack Burkman also began working with the Rich family at this time, offering more than $100,000 in rewards for information. Burkman would later say that he could “rule out attempted robbery” based on his canvassing of the neighborhood.

    On October 7, The Daily Beast reported that “Russia’s senior-most officials” ordered the DNC hack. On November 2, fake news purveyor DC Gazette published a post saying that WikiLeaks’ source was neither Russia nor Seth Rich, but instead dissatisfied government staffers. On December 9, The Washington Post reported on a CIA assessment that Russia was behind leaks targetting the DNC, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), and Clinton campaign manager John Podesta.

    This Post story would touch off a new round of conspiracy theories about Rich, and once again they began with Louise Mensch’s Heat Street. On December 14, the site aggregated comments on Twitter saying that it was Seth Rich and not Russia that provided WikiLeaks with the emails. The piece offered no theory as to how Rich could have gotten access to DCCC or Podesta emails; indeed, it’s unclear from the story if the author even understood that there were multiple hacks, even though Mensch herself turned up in the hacked Podesta emails (which the piece did not disclose). Weeks after this post, it was announced that Mensch had left Heat Street in “mid-December.” There is no indication if Mensch was still at Heat Street when this post was published.

    On December 15, Craig Murray, a “close associate” of Julian Assange, told the Daily Mail that he was a middleman for the leaks and that the handoff took place in D.C. in September. People immediately began tying Rich to Murray, even though Murray’s supposed handoff date (of which there was no evidence) took place months after Rich was murdered.

    Later that day on the radio, Hannity would cite Murray’s account as evidence that Russians were not behind the hacking. Later in the program, Hannity brought up Fox contributor John Bolton’s conspiracy theory from December 12 that if something looked like it was the Russians hacking, it might actually be a false flag in which someone made it look like it was the Russians. Assange agreed with the theory on Hannity’s show: 

    Hannity also called Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) an “idiot” for saying that Russians were involved in hacking:

    Weeks later, on January 3, Hannity returned to Rich, again saying that Rich may have been the source for Wikileaks:

    On January 6, U.S. officials released a report saying that Russians were behind the hacking. Suddenly, Hannity admitted that Russians have been hacking Americans for years:

    On January 12, Guccifer 2.0 denied the report that Russia was behind the hacking.

    Once again, the conspiracy mill died down, with occasional posts on 4chan and Reddit keeping the conspiracy theory alive.

    On February 27, Jack Burkman, the GOP lobbyist who at one point was allied with the Rich family, told the Daily Mail that he had evidence that the Russians killed Rich because Rich had evidence that they were the ones behind the hacking. Burkman’s only source was a “former U.S. intelligence officer” -- “an older man, 65-70 years old, who claims to have been a contractor in Iraq in the 1970s.” None of Rich’s friends or family members have given any indication that Rich had such an explosive secret.

    In mid-March, Stone admitted contact with Guccifer 2.0, but he claimed it was innocuous.

    On March 23, Burkman talked to Sinclair station WJLA in Washington, D.C., about launching a new investigation. Claiming that the investigation would be launched out of “the Seth Rich Center for Investigations” in Arlington, VA, Burkman now claimed to have a team including “a forensic physiologist, a security specialist and George Washington grad students.” But the piece also noted that the Rich family had no part in this effort.

    On April 8, a new conspiracy theory emerged alleging that Guccifer 2.0 was the middleman between RIch and WikiLeaks. Model Robbin Young published screenshots on her website of a purported direct message conversation she had with Guccifer 2.0 from August 25. In it, Guccifer 2.0 claimed that the DNC leak came from someone named “Seth” and responded affirmatively when Young talked about Rich’s murder. WikiLeaks, the subreddit “r/The Donald,” Gateway Pundit, Heat Street, and others immediately ran with the claim.


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    The conspiracy theory came to its most public stage on May 15. That was a week after Obama intelligence chief James Clapper and former acting attorney general Sally Yates testified before the Senate partially on issues relating to Russian hacking, days after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey as a result of the Russian investigation, and hours after The Washington Post reported that Trump gave highly classified information to Russian diplomats in the Oval Office that compromised a valuable intelligence source.

    On that day, Fox News contributor Rod Wheeler told Fox 5 DC, a station owned and operated by Fox News’ parent company, that he had evidence that Rich was in contact with WikiLeaks.

    Sean Hannity pushed the story on his Twitter account shortly after midnight, including by quote-tweeting a vague allegedly hacked email of Podesta’s:

    After retweeting a video of the Fox 5 segment, Hannity affirmatively quote-tweeted someone claiming that Assange had previously said that Rich was his source (which, again, Assange had never actually said).

    The story exploded as conservatives latched onto a tale that ostensibly showed that the focus on Russia was misplaced. Drudge put the story on the top of the site. The subreddit “r/The Donald” went crazy. Pro-Trump media pushed the story hard. Fox News joined in on Tuesday morning. By 10 a.m., Hannity was lashing out at CNN's Oliver Darcy for noticing the trend.

    Hannity then quote-tweeted Robbin Young, whose story about Seth Rich was different from the one Wheeler was pushing and that Hannity was touting. (Guccifer 2.0 claimed that they served as the middleman between Rich and Wikileaks; Assange had implied and Wheeler had stated that Rich was in touch with WikiLeaks directly.) At no point then or later did Hannity ever seem to notice the discrepancy.

    At one point, Infowars’ Paul Joseph Watson even claimed that the Washington Post story about Trump giving highly classified information to the Russians was a hoax intended to cover up the Rich story -- a claim based on Watson completely misreading time stamps on the stories (the Post’s went up before the Fox 5 piece did).

    But soon, the Rich story fell completely apart. The Fox station admitted on May 16 that D.C. police said that Wheeler’s claim was false. Wheeler’s contact with the Rich family turned out to be frequent Fox News guest and Breitbart author Ed Butowsky. Wheeler himself admitted to CNN that he actually had no evidence. Wheeler instead claimed that his comments were reflective of the FoxNews.com piece that ran. Fox News’ piece, by Malia Zimmerman, cited Wheeler as the source of the claim.

    And yet, the transparent bullshit was still enough for pro-Trump media. On May 16, echoing Benghazi conspiracy theories, Gateway Pundit claimed there was a “stand down” order given to police regarding the Rich investigation. An “alt-right” troll asked Trump himself about Rich in the White House, getting no response. Anonymous posts on 4chan linked Rich to Pizzagate, Antonin Scalia’s death, Michael Hastings’ death, and even Media Matters. An anonymous post on 8chan even suggested that Rich was illegally surveilled and then improperly unmasked by former national security adviser Susan Rice.

    Lou Dobbs on Fox Business picked up the line of attack on Rich’s family that had previously begun with WikiLeaks and Infowars, saying there was “a partisan shroud” on Rich’s family:

    Later on May 16, Hannity even declared that Rich’s murder “could become one of the biggest scandals in American history”:

    Later in the show, Hannity talked with American Center for Law and Justice’s Jay Sekulow and former Trump deputy campaign manager David Bossie, focusing on the media being wrong about Russia. Hannity continually brought Rich into the conversation:

    Hannity then had Wheeler himself on the show. Wheeler continued pushing the conspiracy theory, even while admitting that he never had seen the evidence.

    The next day, even more claims collapsed. Newsweek reported that the FBI is not investigating Rich’s death, contra Wheeler’s claims, and a family spokesperson confirmed that D.C. police found no evidence of stolen emails ever being on Rich’s laptop. Fox 5 added an editor’s note that Wheeler had backtracked from claims that he made, but it did not retract the story. The story was in shambles. The Rich family demanded full retractions from Fox 5 and Fox News.

    Still, conservative media persisted.

    On May 18, after Mediaite published a post highlighting people mocking Hannity, Hannity again tweeted his belief in the conspiracy.

    Hannity then discussed the case at length on his show, re-airing Assange’s Dutch TV interview and previous radio interviews.

    On May 19, the Rich family sent a cease-and-desist letter to Rod Wheeler.

    The Russian Embassy in the U.K. trolled everyone when it stated as a fact that Rich was WikiLeaks’ source. Meanwhile, Infowars claimed that The Washington Post was reporting on the Comey memos only as a distraction from the Rich story.

    May 19 is also when Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom inserted himself into the story. Dotcom alleged that he had bombshell information on the case. As Dotcom, who lives in New Zealand, is fighting extradition to the United States to avoid trial for charges including conspiracy to commit racketeering, nearly everyone on the planet saw through the ruse, save for Sean Hannity.

    Hannity brought up the conspiracy theory again that night on his show with Jay Sekulow, apparently just for the purpose of saying that it is important because if true, it would clear Russia entirely.

    Over the weekend, it got even stranger.

    Stone escalated attacks on Rich’s parents, claiming on his radio show Stone Cold Truth they were engaging in “suspicious” behavior.

    Stone also told obvious lies. For instance, he claimed that Craig Murray said Rich was his source. First, Murray did not mention Rich in his comments about serving as a middleman for the emails. Second, Murray said he met his source in September, months after Rich had already been murdered. Third, nothing about what Murray actually did say is credible in the least -- there’s no evidence and nothing has been corroborated. There were other factual errors as well, though “Roger Stone says something factually incorrect” is the rule, not the exception.

    “Dumbest man on the internet” Jim Hoft jumped head-first into the Dotcom conspiracy, even one-upping Hannity by picking up an anonymous 4chan poster whose only claim to knowledge is “I work in D.C.” The post claimed there’s a “panic” in D.C. over the Rich conspiracy theory that right-wing media had been pressing.

    The following day, Hannity would echo this post:

    Hannity even admitted that it was about the Russia story:

    Also on Sunday, Newt Gingrich joined Fox & Friends Sunday and stated outright that Rich was WikiLeaks’ source for DNC emails, even though he had avoided that conclusion in August. Pro-Trump media jumped to promote the interview.

    Another Gateway Pundit post took a video that the Rich family did thanking donors to a GoFundMe campaign and stated that it was actually done to thank conservative media for pushing the conspiracy.

    Elsewhere, self-described “rogue journalist” Caitlin Johnstone said that someone had edited Rich’s Reddit posts. Soon after, she added a “retraction” note to the post following a statement from the Pandas For Bernie Facebook group.

    Early on May 22, Assange was still playing coy about Rich and WikiLeaks

    But by this point, the story was getting attention in the mainstream media -- but only as a conspiracy theory run amok in right-wing media. As Hannity’s conspiracy-mongering had drawn attention, he became a focal point of criticism. The Daily Beast ran a story about Fox News personalities embarrassed by Hannity’s actions.

    Hannity was undeterred:

    On his radio show, Hannity said that he was right about Rich because he had been right about Trayvon Martin, the black teenager shot and killed while walking through a Florida neighborhood:

    (He wasn’t right about Trayvon Martin, by the way.)

    Geraldo Rivera, a perpetual gadfly when it comes to pushing terrible things, also jumped on the conspiracy.

    Elsewhere, the subreddit “r/The Donald” announced plans for a march on D.C. about Rich’s death on its anniversary, claiming 1.1 million people could show up.


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    On May 23, everything came to a head. Rich’s brother personally asked Hannity to stop pushing the conspiracy theories. Shortly thereafter, Fox News retracted its story about Rich, the one that Rod Wheeler originally cited as the basis for his story. A statement from Fox News said that the story did not meet the site’s editorial standards.

    And yet after all of this, Hannity continued to push the story on his radio show.

    On Twitter, Hannity ecstatically promoted Kim Dotcom’s “revelation,” which was a big nothingburger.

    The Rich family then published an op-ed in The Washington Post begging commentators to stop pushing conspiracy theories about their son.

    Hannity then tweeted about the op-ed as if it wasn’t just about him

    Shortly before his television show, Hannity tweeted that he still stood behind everything he had said on the topic, but also that he just was on a call with three of his attorneys:

    On his show, Hannity said that he was stopping talking about the matter “for now” at the request of the Rich family:

    And yet before his show was over, Hannity hinted on Twitter that he was still looking at the story.

    He even retweeted gratuitous praise from Kim Dotcom.

    Meanwhile, Oliver Darcy, who followed the story closely from the beginning, had a list of good unanswered questions for Fox News about Hannity’s despicable and ghoulish actions.

    Hannity then begged for fans to spread the conspiracy theory.

    By morning, a Republican congressman was echoing Hannity.

    Newt Gingrich, after pushing the conspiracy both in August and again on May 21, suddenly said that he didn’t know anything about it, telling The Washington Post, “I don’t know anything about it. … I know exactly what has been said on the various blog sites. ... I think it is worth looking at.”

    The retractions and hedging were much too little and far too late. In the bowels of pro-Trump media, Hannity had become a martyr and the Seth Rich conspiracy theory was gospel.

    The enduring tragedy of the episode is that the Rich family will likely have to live with this delusion bubbling up for a very long time. Even worse, pro-Trump media will say that they are part of it.

    No family deserves that.

    Research assistance provided by Bobby Lewis

  • Pro-Trump outlet runs Manchester bombing story contradicted by its sole source

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    The Gateway Pundit’s Jim Hoft published an article baselessly claiming that the suspect in the Manchester, England, bombing outside of an Ariana Grande concert on May 5, Salman Abedi, was “a Libyan refugee to England.” Hoft also tweeted the article. However, the article Hoft cites as his sole source is a report by The Telegraph that explains that Abedi was in fact “born in Manchester in 1994” and that his parents were “Libyan refugees who came to the UK to escape the Gaddafi regime.” From Hoft’s article:

    And Hoft’s tweet:

    From Hoft's piece:

    UPDATE: Hoft updated his headline to reflect that Abedi is the "son of refugee parents" and noted in the post that he was the "son of Libyan refugees to England" without mentioning the mistake.

  • “Alt-Right” Outlets And Fake News Purveyors Hype Fox Analyst's Claim That Obama Wiretapped The Supreme Court

    ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN

    “Alt-right” fringe outlets and fake news purveyors are hyping an unsubstantiated suggestion from Fox News senior judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano that the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia thought former President Barack Obama spied on the Supreme Court. Napolitano previously pushed the false claim that British intelligence spied on President Donald Trump on behalf of Obama.

  • For Right-Wing Media, The Big News From Trump's NBC Interview Is That Lester Holt Is Mean

    Boo Hoo.

    ››› ››› CRISTINA LóPEZ G.

    Right-wing and fringe media attacked NBC anchor Lester Holt for his May 11 interview with President Donald Trump, which dealt with Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey. They claimed Holt was “disrespectful” and a “rude Negro” who “interrupted” and “spoke over” Trump, calling the interview “an interrogation” during which the president was treated “like a damn criminal.”

  • Right-Wing Media Attack Rep. Maxine Waters After She Presented At The MTV Awards

    ››› ››› CHRISTOPHER LEWIS

    Conservative media figures, right-wing media outlets, and fake news purveyors attacked Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) after she appeared at the MTV Movie and TV Awards as a presenter and received a standing ovation, calling her “dumb as a brick,” attacking her for her age, and claiming that she “worships at the feet of totalitarian monsters.”

  • Right-Wing Media Outlets Echo Trump's Unfounded Smears Of Sally Yates

    ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN

    Right-wing media outlets are echoing smears from President Donald Trump and his administration against former acting Attorney General Sally Yates leading up to her Senate testimony regarding former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Their dubious claim that Yates is a Democratic partisan comes from a single disgraced Bush-era State Department official who resigned after “impeding ongoing criminal investigations in Iraq,” while their claim that she leaked classified information has not been independently substantiated by anyone with knowledge of the situation.

  • Gateway Pundit Threw A Gala For The "Alt-Right" And We Were There

    Move Over Nerd Prom; Troll Prom Is In Town.

    Blog ››› ››› CRISTINA LóPEZ G. & JARED HOLT

    On April 29, about a mile away from the annual White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, a little over a hundred members of a group who dubiously brand themselves as purveyors of the “real news” gathered in a downtown Washington cigar lounge to revel in their success. And the success is not insignificant - leveraging social media audiences to manufacture controversies and troll, they are now providing for their followers an increasingly expanding alternative to what they see as a hopelessly biased press.

    At first glance, The Gateway Pundit's ‘80s-themed “Real News Correspondents Gala” -- billed as an alternative to the simultaneous "establishment media" dinner of the White House press corps -- was indistinguishable from a stereotypical Washington affair: The audience consisted of high-profile figures, apparent benefactors, and an insatiable crowd eager to network with anyone seemingly important. However, the standard, “What do you do?” networking question often preceded the more cultish reference to a new alternative right-wing: “How did you arrive at the movement?”

    This movement has run rampant on new-media and is rapidly expanding throughout the internet. Its members have taken to social sites like Facebook, Twitter, Periscope, Reddit, and YouTube to promote far-right nationalist politics, conspiracy-laden worldviews, and fact-flexible rants to an audience it has isolated and now dominates, shoddy journalistic practices aside, as its preferred news source. Their increasing reach over online subscribers has turned them into an asset for the White House, which has compensated members of this new media circuit -- often eager to undermine media reporting negatively on the administration -- with access to bring their paranoia straight into White House press briefings.

    The event hosted and celebrated a handful of the most prominent members of the so-called “new right fam” (a transparent attempt at rebranding after their "alt-right" identification grew toxic) including “dumbest man on the internet” Jim Hoft, self-described “guerilla journalist” and fraud-peddling performance artist James O’Keefe, Rebel Media host Gavin McInnes, the White House’s favorite rape-denying troll, Mike Cernovich, Gateway Pundit White House correspondent and troll Lucian Wintrich, and “alt-right” figure Cassandra Fairbanks, who writes for the Russian state-sponsored outlet Sputnik.

    The night took off with Hoft, who had donned a retro white headband and a pair of reflective sunglasses, welcoming guests to the shindig, giving shoutouts to a roster of speakers from the “alt-right” including McInnes and Wintrich, and presenting O’Keefe and Cernovich with awards for their “work.” The people Hoft introduced then took the floor to acknowledge that without that digital echo chamber, many in their movement would be virtually unknown. Cernovich reminisced about “Hillary’s health thing,” referring to rumors he helped push that former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton was chronically ill, whose spread “only happened because of the amplification of social media.”

    But for a group that previously basked in its own isolation and claims to despise the Washington establishment media, the night was sharply punctuated by complaints that “the movement” -- shorthand many of its members now use in conversation to refer to these "alt-right" or “new right” online content creators and their acolytes -- and its message are not validated by mainstream reporting.

    “Not only do they not do the journalism,” O’Keefe told attendees as he accepted an award for his own so-called journalism, “but they’re too afraid. ... We really are the only ones left to actually do the job.” For the record, O’Keefe’s journalism has included creating misleading and doctored “undercover” videos as well as embarrassing himself while attempting sting operations targeting liberal organizations.

    In a self-aggrandizing speech, Wintrich claimed, “Many of the people in this room, we’re all the last bastions of free speech in America. We’ve had this old guard media who have been running with these stale narratives that are purely left-leaning for decades, and finally after ages we’re seeing this beautiful transition.”

    But the movement’s idea of journalism contains a clear premise: that their own right-wing bias is an advantage that allows their followers, who already think mainstream media cannot be trusted, to trust them. As described by The Washington Post when profiling Cernovich, “objectivity is less important than an impression of honesty." To gain the trust of their audiences, they actively attack and undermine mainstream media. As Wintrich admitted, he’ll “take the occasional jab at media, because” he “hate[s] them all," and “half of” his job as a White House correspondent is “fucking with people.” To members of this group, this approach validates their charade as legitimate news providers and lends authenticity to their work.

    Cernovich went so far as to suggest that many of the movement’s narratives are artificial and self-induced -- yet still journalism.

    “There’s this new form of media now which is part activism and part real journalism,” Cernovich said. “And the way I put it is if there’s nothing happening, make it happen, and a lot of people say, ‘Well, that’s not real journalism. Real journalism is observing things,’ and I don’t really believe that’s true, actually. If you can get on a microphone and say ‘Bill Clinton is a rapist’ -- if the crowd reacts, that’s news.”

    Despite the questionable journalistic premises the movement holds dear, like Cernovich’s method of provoking crowd reactions for “news,” or O’Keefe’s habit of presenting heavily edited videos as evidence or attempting to smear mainstream media, the night was full of recognition of attendees for their supposed journalistic merit. Along with presenting an award to O’Keefe, Hoft also honored Cernovich for being “one of the main individuals who helped [President] Donald Trump get across that finish line” and celebrated him as the person who “first started noticing” and “pushing” the idea that Clinton “looks a little sick.”

    This journalistic debauchery would be nothing more than bad theater if it hadn’t been legitimized by the White House by granting practitioners access to press briefings. Despite Gateway Pundit’s admission that its correspondent is “there to troll,” Wintrich was credentialed to attend White House press briefings. Cernovich was also approved for a press pass, and he used his access to cause a commotion in the briefing room by yelling at members of the press corps. He later uploaded a video of his outburst to his Periscope feed.

    The “Real News Correspondents Gala” also hosted many young people hoping to board the new-media train barreling out of the “new right” movement. One amateur media personality told us that he was there to network and make connections to expand his platform online. Media figures in attendance seemed receptive to the aspiring personalities and were eager to pose for pictures. As Cernovich gave his speech, he recounted the story a young woman in attendance told him about her college broadcast journalism professor telling her she would never make it in the industry.

    “Her dreams were killed in college, but you can live your dreams now,” Cernovich said. “Give her a hug. Tell her we love her.”

    And the movement may have good reason to entertain new media aspirants: Many prominent online personalities of the “alt-right” movement have talked publicly about expanding their media operations and hiring more people. Vanity Fair reported that “alt-right” poster boy Milo Yiannopoulos is planning to launch a new media operation “for libertarian and conservative comedians, writers, stand-up comics, intellectuals, you name it” and plans to hire 30 people. O’Keefe told the audience that his group Project Veritas would hire “dozens of full-time infiltrators who are going to work their way to the top” of progressive organizations.

    Cernovich also revealed that the movement’s leaders are considering hosting a TED talk-style conference over the summer and will continue to host happy hours and social events for their supporters.

    “Connection and community is what we have to focus more on because everybody on the internet feels isolated and alone, and then they come to an event and they go, ‘Wow, Mike. A lot of people come to your happy hours,’” Cernovich said. “Well, yeah. No shit, right? We’re popular. There’s a lot of us out there and you wouldn’t get that message if you only watched the news.”

    As its members enjoy their newfound popularity, the "new right" movement is also challenged with balancing the inflammatory rhetoric and “meme magic” that have been the foundation of its online success, against the backlash that results from deploying this rhetoric in the real world, which could threaten the long-lasting political capital and broader legitimacy they crave. That is what explains their attempts to rebrand themselves as “new right” and distance themselves from the most toxic figures of the “alt-right,” even despite their gaining notoriety and followers during the 2016 election by associating with and praising the “alt-right.”

    Online, these personalities behave like trolls, taking pleasure in triggering “social justice warriors” (the pejorative nickname given in online forums to those perceived as socially progressive) by, among other things, using inflammatory language, but claiming it’s in jest. As New York magazine’s Noreen Malone explains, the group uses irony as armor when their jokes get criticism: “If you take them seriously, they’ll claim you miss the joke.” Much of this ironic contrarianism permeates into their real life personas and makes them seem like walking memes. At the “gala,” as Mike Flynn Jr., son of Trump’s former national security advisor and one of the leading proponents of the pizzagate fake news story, generously positioned himself and his Golden Girls T-shirt into any and all pictures he was asked for, he couldn’t help but invite fellow partygoers to“trigger some snowflakes” by flashing the “OK” sign. Members of the “alt-right” have ironically appropriated the “OK” sign to represent their faction after a viral message board hoax pushed the idea that it had white nationalist connotations. The vocabulary of this “new right” group draws so much from the online forums its members frequent that it would be foreign to anyone who hasn’t spent time reading their digital output. Our female reporter was congratulated by a fellow partygoer for being “red-pilled” (someone who has been awakened to the real world) -- which he determined based simply on her being one of the few women in attendance (the male to female ratio was, by generous approximation, seven-to-three -- not counting the women on Flynn Jr.’s Golden Girls T-shirt).

    Again, all of this would seem just amusing anecdote were it not for the powerful connections that have legitimized their shoddy journalistic practices, employed in order to reach their growing audiences and leverage their support. President Donald Trump’s sons are allegedly serving as sources to Cernovich, and his media appearances have been publicized by Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president. And those connections suggest the possibility that some “new right” ideas could influence policy. But until it’s possible to assess how much of the movement’s digital output is meant as posturing to continue amassing followers that sustain their digital media enterprises, and how much represents actual positions with enough political support to make them executable, we are forced to keep taking them at their word, meant in jest or not.

    Images by Dayanita Ramesh

  • Fake News And The "Alt-Right" Are Pushing Forged Documents To Aid Marine Le Pen In France's Election

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN

    Forged documents originating on 4chan alleging that French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron was evading taxes spread online thanks to an ecosystem that includes social media, “alt-right” outlets, and fake news purveyors. The campaign was seemingly aided by Russian-linked entities, and it subsequently reached Macron’s opponent, who aired the claim in a public debate.

    Macron is competing in a May 7 runoff against far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. On May 3, hours before a scheduled debate between Macron and Le Pen, an anonymous user on 4chan posted documents purporting to show that Macron used a shell company to dodge taxes. Users on the forum responded that the documents should be sent to “independent journalists” and “the alternative media” like “Cernovic (sic), Breitbart, and so on,” and encouraged each other to “spam” the documents “on social media” such as Twitter to get “it trending.” They also said to “send it to Le Pen.” The documents soon spread on Twitter, with many of the Twitter accounts promoting them appearing to have connections to Russia, according to a Belgian researcher. The claim was promoted by “alt-right” media figures such as Mike Cernovich and Jack Posobiec.

    That these figures would attempt to smear Le Pen’s opponent is not surprising given that Le Pen is widely admired by much of the “alt-right” and closely tied with Russia.

    Along with Twitter, 4chan’s campaign was picked up by forums on 8chan and Reddit; “alt-right” fringe outlets The Gateway Pundit, Got News, Zero Hedge, and Daily Stormer; and fake news purveyor Before It’s News.

    The 4chan-based documents eventually reached Le Pen herself. During her debate with Macron, she said, “I hope that we will not find out that you have an offshore account in the Bahamas.” Le Pen later backed down on her claim, and Macron filed a legal complaint against her for the statement. Multiple outlets have reported that the documents were fake, with The Telegraph noting that they were “widely denounced as crude forgeries.” Additionally, following Le Pen's accusation, the French prosecutor's office has opened an investigation regarding “suspicions of fake news being spread to influence Sunday's presidential vote.”

    The case is yet another example of the way the misinformation ecosystem involving the “alt-right” and fake news purveyors amplifies fringe falsities and lies (and even Kremlin-connected conspiracy theories). The network has often succeeded in pushing those false claims into more traditional conservative and mainstream outlets and, thus, the public realm.

    Image by Dayanita Ramesh

  • Right-Wing Media Portray May Day Demonstrations As Violent Anarchy

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX MORASH

    Labor rights advocates and progressive political activists commemorated May Day with marches in the United States and around the world in solidarity with immigrants and workers, but their mostly peaceful demonstrations were smeared by right-wing outlets, which painted them as violent outbursts led by anarchists.

    May 1 or May Day has been commemorated internationally as a workers rights holiday for over 100 years and this year it happened to roughly coincide with the culmination of President Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office. Trump’s tenure thus far has been typified by toxic anti-immigrant rhetoric and aggressively anti-worker policies and hundreds of thousands of activists peacefully marched this May Day in Washington, D.C. and across the country demonstrating their opposition to his agenda. While clashes broke out in some cities, most marches in the U.S. and around the world were peaceful.

    In response to the demonstrations, fringe right-wing outlets like The Gateway Pundit, ZeroHedge, and Infowars, along with the Russian government propaganda outlet RT, used the few isolated instances of violence to paint a picture that all protesters were violent communists and anarchists. Right-wing conspiracy site WorldNetDaily warned, “Movements like this always end in death, poverty and misery.” Breitbart.com had a bevy of articles on May Day that claimed protesters were “radical left-wing activists,” alleged the crowd sizes at the protests did not live up to expectations, hyped violence that broke out in Portland as being endemic to other demonstrations and mocked Facebook for letting workers take the day off to join up with “communists and Black Bloc enforcers” at May Day protests.

    Fox News’ portrayals of the May Day rallies depicted a similar dystopia. On the May 2 edition of Fox News’ Fox & Friends, Fox Business host Stuart Varney discarded the notion that the demonstrations had anything to do with “workers, or workers rights, or trade unions” and claimed May Day had been hijacked by “the violent left” to protest Trump. Varney continued to lambast May Day protesters on his Fox Business program while guest Tom Sullivan claimed the demonstrators were actually communist agitators who “just changed their names” to blend in with progressivism. From the May 2 edition of Fox Business’ Varney & Co.:

  • After Enabling Trump, Right-Wing Media Campaign For Marine Le Pen

    ››› ››› BOBBY LEWIS

    United States right-wing media figures have rallied behind “far-right populist” Marine Le Pen in France’s presidential election by endorsing her, positively comparing her to President Donald Trump, and attacking her opponent Emmanuel Macron with anti-Semitic smears and comparisons to former President Barack Obama.

  • "Trash," "Scum," And "Spy": How The “Alt-Right”/Fake News Ecosystem Targets And Smears People They Think Are Muslim

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN

    A misinformation ecosystem made up of “alt-right”-connected outlets and forums and websites that spread fake news is repeatedly smearing and attacking people they believe are Muslims or of Middle Eastern descent. Not only have these sites and forums suggested that such people are destroying Western countries and are inherently violent, but they have also targeted specific people, yielding threats and harassment, potential economic harm, and harm to careers.

    One of the biggest smears this loose network has pushed is a persistent questioning of the loyalty of Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent, with outlets often suggesting that they are treasonous or spies. “Alt-right” outlet Breitbart repeatedly smeared a State Department staffer named Sahar Nowrouzzadeh as someone working on behalf of an Iran lobbying group. Fake news purveyors used the misleading smear, which reportedly played a role in Nowrouzzadeh's unwanted job reassignment, to call her “an Iranian agent,” a “Muslim spy,” “treasonous scum,” “an operative for the Iranian government,” and part of a supposed “Muslim infiltration of our government.” The ecosystem also recently targeted Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota state legislator, after she voted against a bill regarding insurance payments and the family of terrorists, claiming that she was “voting in favor of terrorists,” that her vote was “a troubling sign of a dangerous loyalty," and that she was a “piece of trash” who “does not care about the safety of our citizens.” Another figure, Women’s March activist Linda Sarsour, was falsely attacked by these groups for “sending” a “signal to ISIS" and labeled a “terrorist sympathizer.” Sarsour was subsequently harassed on Twitter.

    In conjunction with personal attacks, those attacked by fake news purveyors and the “alt-right” are often accused of trying to promote or impose Sharia law. Many right-wing media figures and anti-Muslim bigots have evoked Sharia law, claiming that it is being pushed by Muslims in America to overtake the United States system of government. Fringe blog The Gateway Pundit accused Sarsour of being “pro-Sharia law with ties to Hamas,” and fake news purveyors claimed she “wants Sharia law in America.” In another instance, former National Security Council staffer Rumana Ahmed was targeted by this ecosystem after she wrote a critical piece about President Donald Trump in The Atlantic. “Alt-right” forums such as certain sections of Reddit and fake news purveyors also accused her of “believ[ing] in sharia law,” along with being a “spy” for someone who once served as an aide to former President Barack Obama.

    Fake news purveyors and "alt-right" figures have also gone after companies and figures who have been supportive of Muslim refugees, falsely linking them to disease and assault. Following an assault of a young girl in Twin Falls, ID, fringe outlets such as Breitbart, various web forums, and fake news purveyors targeted Greek yogurt company Chobani and its founder, Hamdi Ulukaya, a Turkish immigrant, falsely connecting them to the assault and to an increase of tuberculosis in the area. One fake news purveyor alleged that officials ignored the assault because of “a Muslim” who “makes Chobani yogurt in the Twin Cities and who has a hankering for bringing in hundreds of these barbarians as worker bees.” The company and its founder subsequently faced death threats.

    Unfortunately, these examples are part of a larger pattern within this ecosystem of dubious claims, conspiracy theories, lies and various harassment campaigns

  • The White House’s Favorite Misogynistic Rape Denier Is Coming To Friday’s Press Briefing

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    Internet troll Mike Cernovich, who has previously been promoted by persons within and close to President Donald Trump’s administration, announced on Twitter on April 24 that he had been approved for a “press pass” to visit the White House on April 28.

    In a since-deleted tweet, self-proclaimed “new right” leader Cernovich sent a message to President Donald Trump telling him that “some very dishonest people” at the White House “pulled my press pass,” warning that the action “will not go over well.” Hours later, during a live broadcast on YouTube (which has subsequently been removed) in which he ranted against the administration for denying him access, he told his audience that he just discovered his press pass has been approved. Cernovich followed up with a tweet:

    Cernovich’s presence at the White House comes as no surprise given the praise and access to information given to fringe and far-right outlets by White House officials. For example, Cernovich seemingly received special access to information involving the widely debunked smear that Susan Rice improperly unmasked Trump campaign staff under investigation and advance information that Trump would strike Syria. In addition, Cernovich has received praise from those close to Trump including Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway and the president’s son Donald Trump Jr., who both amplified Cernovich.

    In this case, while it appears that Cernovich received a day pass, not a permanent press pass like the ones given to credentialed journalists, Cernovich’s appearance at the White House, and most likely at the press briefing, reflects a larger pattern of outspoken Trump supporters and defenders getting increased access.  A similar pass was given to The Rebel Media’s Lauren Southern, who grew to fame as an “alt-right” media personality who denied rape and demonized minorities. The Trump White House briefing room has also become a hotbed for fringe pro-Trump media writers such as The Gateway Pundit’s Jim Hoft and Lucian Wintrich, who flashed an “alt-right” hand signal inside the briefing.

  • A Look At The Incestuous Alternative-Media Echo Chamber Winning Over Online Audiences

    Blog ››› ››› JARED HOLT

    On the coattails of President Donald Trump’s successful election campaign and an anti-"political correctness" wave, an alternative right-wing media echo chamber successfully reverberated itself into virtual relevance on social media, where it now reaches millions of people every day. This new-media ecosystem exists outside of traditional newspapers and cable news networks, instead taking to social sites like Facebook, Twitter, Periscope, Reddit, and YouTube to promote its far-right nationalist politics and conspiracy-laden worldviews to an audience it has isolated and now dominates as its preferred news source.

    Key players in this circular far-right alt-media echo chamber, such as online troll Mike Cernovich and Infowars’ Alex Jones, have successfully crafted a false impression of credibility. They have synthesized a “new right” echo chamber from “alt-right” ideologies and orchestrated a media machine that disseminates content across multiple media platforms with extreme efficiency.

    Key voices in this ecosystem often work a redundant media circuit across allied platforms to reinforce each other’s worldviews and concepts of reality, cast doubt on mainstream media, and suggest widespread conspiracies along the way. Cernovich demonstrated this tactic as he circulated a faux scandal story that suggested Susan Rice, who served as national security adviser to former President Barack Obama, was responsible for improper unmasking of Trump officials caught in surveillance of foreign officials.

    Cernovich toured the Rice story around the alternative media sphere he occupies until it eventually broke into mainstream media. On April 2, Cernovich first tweeted the “breaking news” that Rice had ordered the unmasking. Later that day, Cernovich published his full story about the explosive allegations. On April 3, Cernovich promoted the story in a livestream broadcast to his tens of thousands of Periscope followers. The same day, “alt-right” thought leader Richard Spencer publicly slammed Cernovich in his own broadcast, granting the story a direct platform into the "alt-right" fanbase. On April 4, Cernovich took his story through the alternative media circuit, appearing on Infowars and Free Domain Radio and earning shoutouts from Stefan Molyneux, Lee Stranahan, and Donald Trump Jr. After riding the wave, Cernovich continued his self-promotion in a Reddit AMA thread and a post-story interview with Rebel Media.

    Members of the echo chamber attract and maintain a fan base by developing an abusive relationship with their audience members -- a process they label “redpilling.” They gaslight their audiences until readers and viewers feel unable to trust any media other than those particular outlets to deliver them “the truth.” As a result, these new-media companies have groomed rabid fan bases that turn to them as beacons of honesty in a media world that they believe is orchestrated to distract the public from this echo chamber’s version of “the truth.”

    Many media outlets disregard this new-media echo chamber, continuing to speak about the movement with the same blanket terms and condescension they used before the so-called “new right” distanced itself from “alt-right” leaders. But now, months later, this far-right alternative media apparatus is encroaching on its mainstream competition online. For example, Infowars recently surpassed CNN in its number of subscribers on YouTube, which marked a major milestone in far-right alternative media's encroachment on the video site’s news ecosystem.

    According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in early 2016, about half of people age 49 and under said they get their news online. And as cable news viewership declines and as Americans’ trust in news media sinks to an all-time low, alternative new-media stars have leveraged a unique opportunity to redefine right-wing media and reach mass audiences once loyal to established journalism outlets. The alternative media ecosystem has also benefited from attention from top government officials and those close to them; presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway recently elevated Cernovich on Twitter, Donald Trump Jr. pushed an Infowars conspiracy theory, and Michael Flynn Jr., the son of Trump’s former national security advisor, has promoted Infowars and conspiracy theories like “Pizzagate” sourced from the alternative media sphere.

    Graphics by Sarah Wasko

  • Right-Wing Outlets Falsely Claim Former CIA Director “Colluded” With Foreign Countries To Oppose Trump

    ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN

    Right-wing outlets and fake news purveyors are spinning a Guardian report to falsely claim that former CIA Director John Brennan “colluded” with foreign countries to target President Donald Trump. Communications between members of the Trump campaign and Russian officials was gathered incidentally by other countries by during routine monitoring of Russian activity. Many of these same outlets previously used this Guardian article to falsely suggest that Fox analyst Andrew Napolitano was vindicated in his claim about collusion between the British and former President Barack Obama.