Fake News | Media Matters for America

Fake News

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  • A week-old Facebook page with foreign connections pushed a fake Kavanaugh story that went viral

    The video in question is really of a 2016 event in France

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    UPDATE (10/1/18): The page World against terrorism was removed from Facebook after the bikers hoax received more than 4 million views and 160,000 shares. It is unclear whether the page owners or Facebook removed it.

    A Facebook page that is little more than a week old and has connections to a Macedonian fake news network shared a video falsely claiming a group of bikers were coming to Washington, D.C., to rally for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. The mislabeled video has received hundreds of thousands of views and tens of thousands of shares.

    On September 24, the Facebook page World against terrorism posted a video of bikers on a highway with the caption: “OUTSTANDING!! Bikers for Trump on thier (sic) way to Washington DC to Support the Kavanaugh Confirmation Hearing and Demand Sen. [Dianne] Feinsten (sic) to resign! This is Amazing! Thank you Bikers for Trump!” The mislabeled video currently has around 50,000 shares and about 830,000 views. The Republican Party of Charlotte County, FL, also shared the video, writing, “Bikers for Trump on the way to Washington D.C. to support Kavanaugh and ask for resignation of Sen Feinstein!”

    The claim from the post is false -- the video actually appears to be from a 2016 demonstration in France, according to photos from Getty Images.

    This is not the first time a fake story about bikers coming to Washington, D.C., circulated on social media. Earlier this year, a fake story spread about bikers heading to the capital to demand an end to special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. And in early 2017, mislabeled videos and photos made rounds that exaggerated the number of bikers coming to Washington, D.C., for President Donald Trump’s inauguration -- a claim Trump later pushed.

    The page, World against terrorism, currently has slightly more than 10,000 followers. Since it was created on September 16, it has posted multiple anti-Muslim memes and videos. Beginning September 23, the page also started linking to articles from two sites -- weirdworldinfo.com and cukaminfo.com -- some of which are misleading or are fake news. Both sites are registered in Macedonia, and both were created just days before the Facebook page. According to the analytic tool Trendolizer, both sites also have the same Google AdSense ID as a previously discovered network of Macedonian fake news sites whose content was also being shared by fake Twitter accounts.

    Earlier in September, Facebook introduced a feature in the U.S. that allows users to see the countries of people running pages with a “large audience size.” This means that pages with a smaller audience that seem to mask their real purpose of driving clicks to fake news sites that carry ads will continue to fly under the radar.

    Facebook watchdog Sarah Thompson’s research was instrumental to this post.

  • A pro-Trump troll started a viral hoax about Christine Blasey Ford and Neil Gorsuch, and Rush Limbaugh ran with it

    Josh Cornett's Twitter feed is full of fake stories

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN

    A pro-President Donald Trump troll with a large Twitter following who has repeatedly tweeted fake “breaking” news stories smearing public figures has now tried to smear professor Christine Blasey Ford, who said Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were in high school. Some of the account’s false stories, including the tweet about Ford, have gone viral and spread throughout right-wing media.

    On September 18, Josh Cornett tweeted: “BREAKING: According to sources Diane Feinstein's reluctance to mention the Kavanaugh accuser's letter during confirmation session is because the accuser sent a similiar (sic) letter directed at Judge Gorsuch last year. The whereabouts of the earlier letter remain a mystery.developing.”

    The smear received thousands of retweets and likes, was pushed by Jim Hoft of far-right conspiracy blog The Gateway Pundit; Fox News contributor Kevin Jackson; former Infowars reporter Joe Biggs; columnist Matt Barber, a former attorney for the extreme anti-LGBTQ group Liberty Counsel; and former professional boxer-turned-lawyer Joey Gilbert. It was also shared on multiple subreddits. Radio host Rush Limbaugh also shared it on the air, saying it came from a “Twitter thread” and that he had "no idea of the veracity.”

    The smear was also shared by hosts on Texas talk radio station WBAP-AM, Pennsylvania’s WILK-AM, and Florida’s WFTL-AM. Cornett later tweeted that the claim was “forwarded” to him and he had “no idea” if it was true.

    Cornett has described himself to the conservative American Thinker as “an average hard working American” in his 30s, and his Twitter profile says he is “proudly blocked” by Fox News hosts Dana Perino, Bret Baier, Greg Gutfeld, and others. In 2017, The New York Times noted that Cornett, a “37-year-old Trump supporter in Cleveland,” urged his followers to boycott Nordstrom after the department store decided it would not sell the fashion line of the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump. The paper quoted Cornett as saying, “Anything that helps [Trump], I try to promote,” and that whenever Trump gets attacked, "I try to defend.”

    Cornett has followed through on that promise, using his Twitter account to support the president by smearing people he sees as Trump’s enemies and making up fake stories about them -- usually by tweeting without any evidence that he has “BREAKING” stories which are “developing.” Here are some of his fake stories that have gained traction:

    • In May, when ABC canceled pro-Trump comedian Roseanne Barr’s show after Barr made racist remarks, Cornett tweeted: “BREAKING: According to sources ABC President Channing Dungey had a long conversation via phone with former First Lady Michelle Obama before deciding to cancel the Roseanne show. Michelle Obama was reportedly enraged and insisted an apology was inadequate......developing.” Barr retweeted the post and asked Cornett, “Is this true?” Fox News mentioned the tweet in a story, calling Cornett a “right-wing activist.” YourNewsWire, one of the most popular fake news purveyors in the United States, pushed Cornett’s tweet in an article, and Cornett later tweeted the article to Barr as supposed proof of his claim. Cornett subsequently told American Thinker that he could not reveal his source, “but I stand by it and put my name on it.”

    • Earlier that month, Cornett tweeted without evidence: “BREAKING: Sources are confirming that former President Barack Obama has called Jay-Z several times over the past month pleading with Jay-Z to discourage fellow Hip Hop artists from meeting with President Trump.....developing.” The president’s son Donald Trump Jr. liked the tweet, and conspiracy theory outlet Infowars and The Drudge Report picked it up. Several radio hosts also shared it on air, including Boston radio host Jeff Kuhner, Tennessee host Dan Mandis, and a host on an Ohio talk station. The blog Gossip Cop fact-checked the story, reporting, “A source close to Jay-Z tells Gossip Cop on the condition of anonymity that Obama never asked him to tell other hip-hop artists not to support or meet with Trump.”

    • In June, Cornett also tweeted without evidence: “BREAKING: Senator Schumer has instructed fellow Democrats not to pass any legislation that could possibly help the children at the border, stating that ‘It will help voter turnout in the midterms’ and that CNN had agreed to help the Democrats with the storyline’... Developing.” The fake quote spread on social media, with some also adding MSNBC to the fake story, and multiple Facebook pages sharing a meme with Cornett’s false claim.

    • In July, after Fox News host Jeanine Pirro went on ABC’s The View, Cornett tweeted, “BREAKING: According to sources at ABC, after the taping of #TheView Thursday Whoopi Goldberg made the racist comment ‘I won't sit there and be lectured by Trump's Sand Nig*er’ the comment was made to Co-host Ana Navarro and overheard by several staff members......developing.” While ABC’s publicity director said the tweet “absolutely is false,” the hoax spread on social media. Some major followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory picked it up, a radio host pushed it on air, and a petition was launched calling for Goldberg’s firing.

    • In August, Cornett tweeted without evidence: “BREAKING: Prosecutors in the Southern District of New York have been briefing Governor Andrew Cuomo on a near daily basis about the investigation into the Trump Organization. Governor Cuomo has then been illegally feeding the info to his brother Chris Cuomo and CNN..developing.” That, too, was shared as a screenshot on social media.

    In addition to his numerous other baseless claims, Cornett has also tweeted fake claims to exploit the murder of Mollie Tibbetts (who was allegedly killed by an undocumented immigrant), smear football player Colin Kaepernick, and declare CNN was ordered by its president to ignore violence in Chicago (which was also picked up by YourNewsWire). So far, Twitter has taken no action as Cornett continues to tweet these fake stories.

  • Pro-Trump sycophants launch another smear of Christine Blasey Ford, trying to tie her to Fusion GPS

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ & ALEX KAPLAN


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Fringe conservatives are trying to undermine California professor Christine Blasey Ford’s account that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her by pointing to work her brother has done for a firm with connections to the Russia investigation. Right-wing websites and social media personalities are suggesting they’ve uncovered evidence of a potential conspiracy by noting that Ralph Blasey worked at a law firm that has done legal work for Fusion GPS, the private research firm that conservatives have attacked for its role in the probe. But Blasey’s work for that firm ended in 2004 -- six years before Fusion GPS was even founded -- according to the LinkedIn.com profile the critics are citing.

    The right-wing smear machine is engaged in a feverish effort to discredit Ford by any means necessary. That endeavor has included targeting the unflattering student reviews of a different Christine Ford in order to smear Kavanaugh’s accuser as “dark, mad, scary and troubled,” and misreading court documents to suggest that she holds a grudge against Kavanaugh because his mother presided over the foreclosure of her parents’ home in 1996.

    Another attack turns on the year-long conservative campaign against Fusion GPS, which in 2016 retained the former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, who compiled a dossier of reports on then-candidate Donald Trump’s ties to Russia. Republicans have sought to discredit the dossier, which contains salacious claims that have not been debunked, in order to undermine special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe.

    Now the fringe right is suggesting that Ford is not credible because her brother was once a litigation partner for Baker Hostetler, a law firm that retained Fusion GPS in 2016 to produce separate research. But according to the very LinkedIn.com profile they cite, Ralph Blasey worked for the firm between 1989 and 2004. Fusion GPS was not even founded until 2010.

    Even if Ralph Blasey had still been working there in 2016, that wouldn't mean he would be connected to Fusion GPS -- Baker Hostetler is a massive firm employing nearly a thousand lawyers, including a former chief counsel to the Republican National Committee and a former national political director for Trump’s presidential campaign. And of course, none of this has any bearing on Christine Blasey Ford's story.

    At times, those promoting the story have noted that Blasey left the firm long before it retained Fusion GPS, but they nonetheless suggested that the connection shows evidence of “enemy action in progress.”

    Here are some of the outlets and media personalities trying to discredit Ford by linking her to Fusion GPS.

    YourNewsWire, which has been one of the most heavily trafficked fake news sites in the United States:

    True Pundit, a major fake news site run by a disgruntled former journalist:

    Lionel Lebron, a YouTube conspiracy theorist best known for pushing “the QAnon conspiracy theory, which claims that top Democrats are part of a global pedophile cult.” He met with Trump in the Oval Office last month:

    Jacob Wohl, who writes for Gateway Pundit, a website that consistently pushes hoaxes and conspiracy theories, and has also contributed to YourNewsWire:

    Ann Vandersteel, president of the pro-Trump podcast company YourVoice America:

    And the extreme anti-abortion group Operation Rescue:

    The story was also shared on Tea Party, a private Facebook group with nearly 95,000 members that regularly circulates conspiracy theories and was moderated by several Republican political candidates until Media Matters exposed their role in the group last month.

    Radio stations in Texas, Illinois, and Ohio also pushed the story.

  • A Facebook group masquerading as an official Sean Hannity fan group is actually run by foreign spammers

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    UPDATE (9/19/18): The group has been deleted since the publication of this report.

    A private Facebook group masquerading as an official fan group for Fox News host Sean Hannity is actually run by Eastern Europeans using it to trick fans into clicking on fake news to bring in advertising revenue. The group is the only part remaining of a network of Kosovo groups and accounts previously identified by Media Matters that had also tricked Americans with fake stories for clicks.

    The closed group, called Sean Hannity Fans ( OFFICIAL ), has more than 33,000 members and describes itself as the “Official Group For Sean Hannity.” Many Americans in the group seem to take the group’s name at face value, posting laudatory messages about Hannity and clips from his show.

    But the group’s real purpose is not to promote Hannity. For one, none of the group’s administrators and moderators appear to be American -- one is from Eastern Europe, and others feature Eastern European activity on their accounts. One of the moderators also tagged himself with another moderator in Kosovo in 2017. All five of them also ran a now-deleted group called Sean Hannity FANS, part of a Facebook network based in Podujevo, Kosovo, that pushed fake news. It took Facebook nearly two months after Media Matters uncovered the network to take down most of the groups and pages in it, but the platform still left the Sean Hannity Fans ( OFFICIAL ) group untouched.

    All of the moderators’ accounts have also spammed the Sean Hannity Fans ( OFFICIAL ) group with numerous fake stories, including pieces targeting Muslims and a story about Hillary Clinton originating from fake news site True Pundit.

    Another account that appears to be from Eastern Europe has spammed the group with fake news, such as a debunked story about renaming Florida’s “Old Dixie Highway,” and another fake story about celebrities calling for a Hollywood strike until President Donald Trump resigns.

    The main site, dailygroup.pw, that this account has linked to recently carries Google AdSense (whose ads include the tag “AdChoices” at the top right), meaning the site earns money when group members click on these fake stories.

    Facebook groups continue to be a major problem for the platform. Users frequently employ them to push harassment and conspiracy theories -- and foreign spammers use them to spread hoaxes and smears -- all without much oversight. Facebook has said it is using machine learning to catch spammers sharing fake stories, but many still slip through. Facebook officials have also downplayed the key role groups play in spreading fake news.

  • Facebook has permitted political ads featuring fake news, bigotry, and conspiracy theories

    Blog ››› ››› NATALIE MARTINEZ


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Facebook’s archive of political ads is riddled with links to debunked fake news articles and headlines and content that pushes conspiracy theories.

    Based on Facebook’s advertising policies, “false content” is not permitted on landing pages for paid ads. However, none of the examples of prohibited content listed in the policy refer to false news.

    In addition, Facebook permitted white supremacist Paul Nehlen to run ads on its platform and allowed other pages to advertise posts that contain racist content.

    False content in Facebook ads

    A fake news Facebook network run by the website Right Wing News (rwnofficial.com) has posted multiple ads containing links with false news or misleading headlines to three Facebook pages: Daily Vine, Team President Donald J Trump, and America Rising. Daily Vine had false news in multiple ads, with five of them promoting debunked news headlines claiming George Soros was possibly facing prison, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) had called for John Kerry’s arrest, 412 Muslims in Michigan were arrested in a federal “bust,” Anthony Bourdain's death was related to Clinton operatives, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was “hauled out in handcuffs.”

    Other political ads paid for by Right Wing News contained fake news clickbait headlines which completely misrepresented stories. One headline stated that snipers stopped an attack on President Donald Trump during his July visit to Scotland. Another headline read “Hillary has hell to pay after Muslim fam found with secret info on 40 house members.” And an additional headline claimed that first lady Melania Trump had thrown out “Michelle [Obama]’s nasty bloated stash.” Examples of other headlines containing false information stated that Trump had to go to intensive care; that Trump banned reporters from the White House; that Bernie Sanders was “found guilty”; and that Trump “busted Obama’s entire administration in [a] massive coverup.” Facebook had previously removed four ads paid for by Right Wing News for violating the platform’s advertising policies, but it did not specify which policy was violated.

    A few political ads linked to the fake news site YourNewsWire. One ad featured a fake anti-LGBT story from YourNewsWire whose headline read “Pedophilia included as ‘sexual orientation’ on the new LGBT pride flag.” Another ad falsely claimed that an FBI official who “exposed Clinton’s ‘Fast & Furious’ cover up” was murdered.

    Conspiracy theories in Facebook ads

    Far-right conspiracy theories were also featured in some paid political ads. Facebook allowed multiple ads promoting pages dedicated to the QAnon conspiracy theory, some which were later taken down for running political content without a “paid for by” label. Other paid ads, including one from the Constitution Party of Florida, pushed QAnon claims. And two other pages promoted QAnon merchandise on political ads. Conspiracy theories related to Pizzagate and the murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich were also pushed through Facebook’s paid ads. One page affiliated with the 9/11 truth movement paid for five ads on Facebook (which were later taken down by Facebook for containing political content and not having a “paid for by” label), all five of which spread false conspiratorial claims about 9/11. Anti-vaccine conspiracy theories also run rampant on Facebook ads, posted by anti-vaxxer pages World Mercury Project, Stop Mandatory Vaccinations, and others.

    A white supremacist running Facebook ads

    Facebook has also permitted ads that promote white supremacists. The white supremacist Paul Nehlen, who was banned from Twitter and even the alt-right platform Gab, posted 18 paid political ads on Facebook boosting his primary challenge against Paul Ryan (R-WI). Most ads talked about his candidacy and campaign events. However, in one ad, Nehlen linked to the website of white supremacist and 2017 Unite The Right rally participant Christopher Cantwell and called Democrats the “champions” of “homosexuality” and “transgenderism.” Another advertisement attacked transgender people and included a meme from the anti-LGBT extremist The Activist Mommy.

    A Qanon political ad posted by the satire Facebook page The Levitical Society was originally included in this article. This post has been updated for clarity.​

  • How the Facebook right-wing propaganda machine works

    Blog ››› ››› NATALIE MARTINEZ


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    On Facebook, right-wing meme pages play a vital role in condensing and recycling far-right talking points and keeping the MAGA base engaged online. These pages regularly post extremist content, arguably violating Facebook’s hate speech content policy, and often exploit tragic events in the news cycle, images of veterans, and violent anti-immigrant rhetoric for likes and shares. Although these pages’ visibility and their content should have been downgraded by Facebook’s algorithm changes targeting media publishers and engagement bait, right-wing meme pages have actually been performing better and gaining more weekly interactions -- as measured by reactions, comments, and shares -- since Facebook implemented these changes.

    A recent Media Matters study of 463 prominent Facebook pages that regularly posted political content between January 1, 2018, and July 1, 2018, found that images posted by right-leaning pages were the highest performing content. A follow-up Media Matters study reviewing a sample of 26 right-wing meme pages found that on average, they earned more weekly interactions and saw a net increase in interaction numbers under Facebook’s algorithm changes.

    The continued success of these pages goes beyond a shoddy algorithm on Facebook’s part. Some of the most popular right-wing meme pages have set up pathways to make their content viral, engaging in a seemingly coordinated effort to promote memes and posts between networks of pages and Facebook groups.

    Media Matters reviewed hundreds of viral memes posted between January 1, 2018, and July 1, 2018, by both our initial sample of 26 right-wing meme pages and other right-wing Facebook pages that regularly post memes. In this new study, we tracked major narratives, found common meme sources for content, and mapped out how meme pages pushed their content through a network of Facebook pages and groups.

    What viral right-wing memes look like

    Where right-wing memes come from

    How right-wing memes go viral on Facebook

    What viral right-wing memes look like

    The three most popular meme narratives over our six-month review dealt with immigration, guns, and President Donald Trump. Other less prevalent but still notable narratives we tracked over the six-month period included race-baiting, voter-suppression, veteran, and nonpartisan content.

    Anti-immigrant memes went viral during virtually every week of our six-month study. These memes didn’t usually coincide directly with immigration-related events in the news cycle, but instead, they recycled common talking points about undocumented immigrants using government resources. Vague and sometimes false allegations against undocumented immigrants pushed the idea that, because of either limited government funding or actions by Democrats in Congress, resources provided for undocumented immigrants meant less were being provided for veterans and citizens.

    Anti-immigrant memes on Facebook spiked as the Trump administration's zero tolerance immigration policy dominated the news cycle. Some meme pages falsely claimed that the family separation policy originated with former President Bill Clinton and was enforced by former President Barack Obama’s administration. Others attacked asylum-seeking parents for attempting to enter the U.S. and smeared immigrant children as criminals.

    Some of the most disturbing anti-immigrant memes posted by these pages encouraged violence against undocumented immigrants. As of this writing, these six posts explicitly or implicitly calling for violence against undocumented immigrants had earned a total of over 446,000 interactions.

    Some of the top comments on these posts -- which attain top comment status as a result of earning the most views, reactions, or replies -- justified violence against immigrants, making arguments about immigrants using government resources and referring to immigration as a cultural invasion, echoing right-wing meme pages.

    Pro-gun memes did not regularly go viral over the course of our six-month study, but their popularity spiked in reaction to the news cycle. Pro-gun memes were some of the most popular memes on right-wing pages following shootings and gun violence prevention actions (such as the National Rifle Association boycott and March for Our Lives). The week of and the two weeks following the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, memes supporting the NRA and attacking gun violence prevention went viral on a daily basis. These memes argued against gun violence prevention, often by claiming that generational differences have led to an increase in shootings, and asserting that the left was politicizing shootings. A series of engagement-bait memes rallying support for the NRA and its partners in light of the online pressure campaign from gun violence prevention activists also went viral. Following the March for Our Lives, a slew of memes criticizing student activism and belittling protesters for their age went viral. And as has been previously documented, right-wing pages also used memes to attack and smear survivors of the Parkland shooting and their activism against the NRA.

    Pro-Trump posts were a staple of weekly meme narratives. Pro-Trump memes and engagement bait tactics were used to rally support for Trump and his family. These tactics -- which ask users to like, reply, or share -- are the type of content that Facebook claimed it was downgrading in its algorithm changes.

    Pro-Trump memes often included attacks against people who disagree with or oppose Trump, with an emphasis on the idea that he is unfairly criticized for cleaning up government corruption. These types of pro-Trump memes often defended or divert attention from Trump’s own scandals.

    Race-baiting memes covered in terms of their focus, a wide range of topics including attempts to dispute white privilege and deflect blame for slavery. Race-baiting and racist memes often suggested that racism doesn’t exist and claimed there is a double standard against white people. Race-baiting memes attacking people for wearing sagging pants reappeared throughout our six-month review. In one instance, a viral meme called for the support of racist laws banning sagging pants. Some race-baiting memes overlapped with other narratives, including pro-gun and anti-immigrant memes.

    The biggest call for policy change in meme narratives over the six-month period rallied support for voter suppression measures, like voter ID laws. False and baseless allegations of voter fraud often accompanied calls for voter suppression laws. Voter suppression measures disproportionately affect minorities, and pages pushing memes supporting these types of policies also posted content about voter fraud conspiracies, which specifically used anti-immigrant rhetoric.. Most viral memes called for or raised the possibility of creating new voter ID laws; others mentioned intimidation tactics, such as posting ICE agents at polling stations.

    Right-wing meme pages frequently exploited images of veterans for engagement-bait posts. Some of the most common and successful engagement-bait content posted by right-wing meme pages were recycled images of veterans with requests for likes and shares as a show of support. Some pages posted memes of the same veteran multiple times over months. Right-wing meme pages essentially used recycled images of veterans to earn interactions and increase page visibility under the veil of calls for shows of respect and appreciation for veterans. Memes aiming to exploit outrage by making false and unproven allegations about acts of disrespect toward veterans and military service members were also recycled as engagement bait.

    Although hyper-partisan content overwhelmingly dominated right-wing meme narratives, nonpartisan memes courting anti-establishment views periodically went viral. One of the most popular category of arguments in nonpartisan memes was support for pay cuts, benefit reductions, and elimination of pensions for members of Congress. They also called on Congress to repay Social Security funds. Another common type of nonpartisan meme touched on “American values” and often referenced a generational divide (along the same line as some aforementioned pro-gun memes). These memes tended to be patriotic, didn’t align with a specific political party or politician, and tended to go viral when gun violence was in the news cycle.

    Where right-wing memes come from

    Many right-wing memes that are circulated throughout Facebook on a daily basis aren’t original. Often, they’re memes or content originated on other social media accounts recycled through right-wing Facebook pages. Recycled meme content often comes from Facebook pages that produce branded meme content; other social media platforms like Twitter; Fox News and conservative media figures; and sometimes now-removed Russian propaganda accounts. Most popular right-wing meme pages share a combination of original and recycled content. By recycling content, right-wing meme pages are able to maintain consistent talking points between pages and reinforce uniform conservative messaging across media platforms.

    There’s a subset of right-wing meme pages which are either mostly or wholly dedicated to producing memes branded with their logos. Source meme pages disseminate a large portion of memes that spread on Facebook and are recycled on a weekly basis. While these pages are generally smaller and share less viral content than most other right-wing meme pages, their content is frequently taken by larger meme pages and right-wing personalities and circulated throughout Facebook. Images from source meme pages usually contain a logo with the page’s name or Facebook URL, giving credit to the original page. In general, content circulated from source meme pages does not directly react to the news cycle, making it possible for right-wing meme pages to recycle their content for months or even years.

    Some source meme pages are:

    The Patriot Federation

    PolitiPost

    The Sage Page

    Redneck Nation Clothing

    Prepare to Take Back America

    America First

    Conservative Humor Gone Awry

    Flyover Culture

    Conservative Post

    The Liberty Eagle

    The Common Sense Conservative

    Stop Hillary in 2016

    National Liberty Federation

    Content from other social media platforms, especially Twitter, often turns into memes on Facebook. Screenshots of tweets expressing conservative viewpoints go viral on a daily basis. Tweets come from far-right media personalities as well as unverified conservative accounts. Some popular social media accounts like Educating Liberals and conservative commentators like Mark Lutchman post screenshots of their own tweets, which sometimes get picked up and amplified by bigger right-wing meme pages. Some pages even copied text from tweets and converted them into memes.

    Right-wing meme pages regularly feature Fox News and other conservative media figures. Fox News’ official social media accounts frequently post images of political and media figures with quotes attached. Such images make it onto right-wing meme pages, usually in show of support for conservative politicians or commentators. Memes quoting conservative media figures like Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, and Rush Limbaugh also occasionally go viral on Facebook.

    Right-wing Russian propaganda from banned social media accounts is still circulating throughout Facebook. As previously covered by Media Matters, right-wing meme pages are still pushing Russian propaganda. Russian propaganda memes play into popular meme narratives, including anti-immigrant narratives related to government resources and voting rights, pro-gun content, and veteran engagement bait.

    How right-wing memes go viral on Facebook

    Some of the most successful right-wing Facebook pages have established networks with both other pages and Facebook groups (which are distinct from pages). They use those networks to create a pathway for content to circulate through conservative circles on the social media site. Facebook pages coordinate the spread of their content through these networks, which also help them garner more interactions than they would organically from just individual posts. In a case study of the spread of right-wing memes on Facebook, Media Matters tracked memes from May 29 to 31 related to the cancellation of Roseanne Barr’s show after she tweeted a racist attack against Valerie Jarrett, a former senior adviser to President Obama. We were able to trace content as it originated on Facebook, made its way through right-wing pages and groups, and even spread beyond conservative circles on Facebook.

    We chose this instance to track for two reasons. First, most content related to Barr was specifically made in reaction to ABC’s cancellation of her show, Roseanne. The timing of this corresponding news cycle event made memes related to Roseanne’s cancellation easier to track, because we were able to pinpoint their origin on Facebook. The second reason we tackled Roseanne cancellation memes is because they performed exceptionally well. These memes not only earned more interactions than memes from broader narratives, but they also went viral at a higher volume, making them a clear success for conservative meme pages.

    One way in which Facebook meme networks spread content is by posting a meme on their highest performing page and sharing that post throughout the network. Less than an hour after news broke that ABC had cancelled Roseanne, two major networks of right-wing meme pages began pushing posts defending Barr. The blue badge-verified Facebook page affiliated with far-right clickbait website The Political Insider was the first to post a meme attacking Jarrett and proclaiming “I stand with Roseanne!” The meme included a watermark of The Political Insider’s website on the bottom corner. Within five minutes, the post, which linked to an article from The Political Insider, was shared by four other Facebook pages, one of which appears to be run by The Political Insider, and three that are run by the conservative clickbait sites Headline Politics and Tell Me Now. The Political Insider, Headline Politics, and Tell Me Now’s pages are all part of the same Facebook network: they all seem to exclusively post links to thepoliticalinsider.com and tmn.today; they share memes and videos originally posted by The Political Insider’s official Facebook page; and all three sites use the same Google Analytics ID, which suggests they’re all likely managed by the same person or organization. Between these five coordinated pages, this meme earned over 154,000 interactions, of which 120,700 came from the original post. From there, the meme spread to other conservative circles. The Political Insider post was shared by at least one more major pro-Trump page, and it was also shared to the pro-Trump Facebook group The Deplorables. Two other popular posts in pro-Trump Facebook groups featured the meme. And CNN right-wing commentator Ben Ferguson’s official Facebook page, which frequently posts right-wing memes, posted a version of the meme which cropped out the bottom portion where The Political Insider’s watermark would have been located.

    Another network affiliated with the fake news site America’s Freedom Fighters spread its engagement-bait meme showing support for Roseanne and her show in a similar manner as The Political Insider did. The network’s most popular Facebook page, Nation In Distress, posted the meme first, with the watermark “Nation In Distress.” In the following 10 minutes, eight other pages run by America’s Freedom Fighters shared the post. The original Nation In Distress post earned 208,000d interactions, and the meme earned an additional 14,800 interactions from the eight network shares. The post was also shared by another page tied to another Facebook network, where it earned over 12,000 interactions, and was posted to a popular pro-Trump Facebook group. Two pages belonging to a Facebook network run by the fake news site Mad World News also posted the meme with Nation In Distress’ logo ; those posts earned about 20,000 interactions.

    One Facebook network used pro-Trump groups run by fake news sites to push its content through right-wing circles. Five pages tied to the far-right website Right Wing News (rwnofficial.com) each posted the exact same engagement-bait meme, calling for the cancellation of the TV show The View in light of Roseanne’s cancellation, within about an hour of each other. The most popular post in this batch had over 700,000 interactions. Between the five page posts, the meme earned almost 1.3 million interactions. Three pages in the same network shared the most popular post from Trump Republic later that night and earned an additional 41,700 interactions.

    Right Wing News also pushed this meme through its Facebook group. In a now-deleted post, the personal account of Amanda Shea, who runs two of Right Wing News’ pages, shared the most popular post from the Right Wing News’ batch of memes into the group “President Donald Trump OFFICIAL LLC” with the status text calling for a boycott of ABC. The post got over 8,400 interactions before it was deleted.

    The group “President Donald Trump OFFICIAL LLC” was originally started by Right Wing News’ official Facebook page; six of the group’s 12 administrators are pages that are part of Right Wing News’ networks. Amanda Shea’s personal account, along with the personal accounts of administrators and moderators of the group, regularly pushes posts from Right Wing News’ network of pages to the President Donald Trump OFFICIAL LLC group’s 183,000-plus members. Right-wing meme pages and fake news sites are often behind some of these big pro-Trump Facebook groups: The 94,000-member group Tea Party has administrators and moderators tied to Big League Politics, Jews News, and Conservative Firing Line; the page Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children runs its own 100,000-plus member group; and the personal account of the meme source page The Sage Page is an admin for the groups Tea Party and President Donald Trump OFFICIAL LLC.

    Among the memes related to Roseanne, the one that originated with Right Wing News’ network was by far the most popular. After the network initially posted it, the meme made rounds on other networks. Pages from America’s Freedom Fighters’ network helped spread it, beginning with Nation in Distress sharing Trump Republic’s meme. About 10 minutes later, four other pages in the network individually posted the meme, and two days later, Nation in Distress shared one of those posts. The America’s Freedom Fighter’s network earned nearly 170,000 interactions from this meme. A page tied to the fake news site TruthFeed posted the meme, and TruthFeed’s official page shared it; the two posts combined earned over 38,000 interactions. A few other individual conservative pages also picked up the meme. And Right Wing News’ meme also made it beyond conservative circles: A Facebook page connected to a Richmond journalist posted it as well.

    In total, this one Roseanne-related meme earned nearly 1.6 million interactions solely from its circulation through coordinated right-wing networks and conservative circles on Facebook.

    Media Matters tracked over 40 other memes posted in reaction to Roseanne’s cancellation. The most popular and successful content was pushed by various networks. The aforementioned Facebook networks we tracked produced a few other viral memes in the days following Roseanne’s cancellation. One meme from America’s Freedom Fighters earned about 95,000 interactions within the network and an additional 44,800 interactions from other pages. A meme posted by The Political Insider and pushed through its network earned almost 53,000 interactions. And another engagement-bait post from the Right Wing News network earned more than 96,000 interactions between two of its pages, and nearly 60,000 interactions from three other conservative pages.

    Meme source pages also demonstrated an array of tactics to push their content through conservative pages. Some pages, like Conservative Comedy Today, individually posted their content and it was then picked up by individual conservative pages. The meme source page The Sage Page coordinated the spread of its content by having a user account tied to the page share a meme to three pro-Trump groups. But the most aggressive tactic came from the popular meme source Facebook page The Newly Press (whose page was recently taken down), which posted 14 different -- but all seemingly related -- memes the day Barr’s show was canceled. Some of these memes were similar to each other, with slight tweaks in language but making the same claim. And all of them consistent messaging, arguing either that there is a double standard for holding conservative and liberal celebrities accountable for their comments, or that there’s a double standard for what comments white and Black comedians can make about race.

    The virality of right-wing memes in this instance was logistically possible because of coordinated page and group networks; it was successful because of consistent messaging across Facebook’s landscape. All the memes we reviewed related to Roseanne’s cancellation rallied support for Barr and smeared her critics by making the argument that Barr was for being a white conservative. As the weekly meme narratives demonstrate, there is clear and consistent messaging shared across right-wing Facebook pages. They focus in the same topics, push the same memes, and recycle and amplify each others’ content, as well as content from other conservative media and social media. And as a result of this coordination in content and messaging, a direct impact on followers is evident, as they are also recycling the same messaging and feeding it back to meme pages through comments, shares, and other interactions.

    Graphics by Melissa Joskow and Sarah Wasko. This post has been updated for clarity.

  • 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.

  • Radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh ran with a false far-right claim about the Jacksonville shooter

    “Pizzagate” conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich and serially inaccurate site Gateway Pundit were among the first to push the bogus claim

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Radio stations and talk hosts around the country, including syndicated radio host Rush Limbaugh, ran with a false far-right claim that the Jacksonville, FL, mass shooter was a Reddit user with a history of critical posts against President Donald Trump.

    On August 26, a man opened fire during a video game tournament in Jacksonville, FL, killing two people and injuring 10 others before turning the gun on himself. After the shooting, far-right conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich baselessly tweeted that the shooter “was a member of the Resistance who referred to Trump supporters as ‘trumptards’” citing what he claimed was his Reddit history. Ian Miles Cheong, formerly a self-described contributor for The Daily Caller who was involved (as was Cernovich) in the misogynistic online movement known as Gamergate, tweeted an image of anti-Trump comments posted by a Reddit account named “Ravenchamps,” which he claimed belonged to the shooter.

    Gateway Pundit, a serially inaccurate far-right site that consistently gets things wrong during breaking news events (and is now facing lawsuits for it), subsequently elevated both tweets and pushed the story. Conspiracy theory outlet Infowars also picked up the claim, along with fake news-churning sites like YourNewsWire, Neon Nettle, and True Pundit. The claim was also turned into memes and put on Facebook, where thousands of users shared the posts.

    The claim turned out to be false, as the user “Ravenchamps” -- whose name is Pavel -- subsequently clarified on Reddit that he was not the shooter, sharing the harassment he was receiving as a consequence of the far-right’s irresponsible claim. Pavel, who is from Minnesota, told BuzzFeed that he was “call[ing] out the idiots” who blamed him for the shooting and told NBC News, “There are a lot of idiots on the internet who come to conclusions over no factual evidence.”

    The baseless claim that “Ravenchamps” was the shooter jumped to multiple radio stations, a medium with a history of pushing false stories that originated online (including some from fake news sites in places like Africa and Macedonia). The radio shows pushing the bogus claim include:

    • The nationally syndicated The Rush Limbaugh Show, where host Rush Limbaugh claimed that “you might not hear very much about this Jacksonville shooting ... because it appears the shooter was part of the Trump resistance. Limbaugh said that the shooter was apparently “very, anti-Trump” on a Reddit thread. Limbaugh claimed as a result the “drive-bys [media] are not going to want to want to make a vast, vast move on this guy” because “people that hate Trump are supposed to hate guns”;

    • Maryland talk station WCBM-AM’s Morning Show With Sean and Frank, where hosts said the alleged shooter’s Reddit page was “littered with anti-Trump garbage” and, in a later segment, reiterated that he was “part of the Trump resistance”;

    • Nebraska talk station KFAM-AM’s Chris Baker, who asserted that “according to all reports,” the alleged shooter was a “Trump resistor” based on his “Reddit page; and

    • The Steve Kane Show on Florida talk station WSBR-AM, where the host shamefully lauded Cernovich as “awesome” and read his tweet about the Reddit account. He added that it showed the shooter was “another liberal, just like the guy that shot up the baseball team,” referring to the 2017 shooting at the Republican congressional baseball practice.

  • Multiple fake news sites are using PayPal to raise money, violating its terms of service

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Multiple fake news sites are using PayPal to raise money in violation of the payment system’s terms of service.

    The Daily Beast reported on August 21 that PayPal and credit card companies have been cracking down on some far-right figures who use its services while violating its terms (though not all). In its user agreement, PayPal requires users to not “provide false, inaccurate or misleading information” or to not “act in a manner that is defamatory, trade libelous, threatening or harassing” in connection with their use of the PayPal account and its services.

    Nonetheless, fake news sites YourNewsWire, Neon Nettle, True Pundit, and Puppet String News -- which have all regularly published false and potentially defamatory information -- are still using the service.

    YourNewsWire has been one of the most heavily trafficked fake news sites in the United States. The site has published so many fabrications that Facebook’s third-party fact-checkers have debunked its stories more than 80 times. Those falsehoods include:

    • fake stories claiming the flu shot led to an epidemic of flu-related deaths and that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) murdered a CDC official who warned about the shot. The claim became so widespread that the Atlanta police and the official's family had to debunk it.

    • numerous fake stories smearing public figures, including claiming that Pope Francis ordered white women to “breed” with Muslims and that an actress “sold children to [the] Rothschilds and Clintons.”

    • playing a major role in spreading the false Pizzagate conspiracy theory in 2016, which resulted in a man opening fire inside a Washington, D.C. pizzeria, and the site continues to push the conspiracy theory.

    Currently, YourNewsWire articles carry a request to readers at the bottom asking for donations via a “donate now” button linking to PayPal. The accompanying text claims the site’s content is “being silenced on social media and demonetized by mega-corporations who want to eliminate competition.”

    Neon Nettle is known for its numerous fabrications, including:

    In June, the site wrote that its Facebook page had been taken down and that Facebook officials said the site had been deceiving its readers and spreading “hateful content” and had violated Facebook’s terms of service. YourNewsWire and Neon Nettle have also been part of the far-right ecosystem, and have been prominent boosters of the QAnon conspiracy theory. Neon Nettle currently features a “subscribe” button on its “Support Us” page to donate to the site through PayPal.

    True Pundit has made up numerous stories, including:

    • a recent fake story that former FBI attorney Lisa Page told Congress that China, not Russia, was responsible for hacking during the 2016 election.

    • the baseless theory that the Clintons murdered a conspiracy theorist who was “investigating Clinton sex crimes.”

    • playing a major role spreading Pizzagate in 2016; the site still pushes the conspiracy theory.

    True Pundit links to PayPal on its sponsor page.

    Another fake news site, Puppet String News, helped spread True Pundit’s fake Lisa Page story and pushed fake stories about the far-right Charlottesville rally and the Las Vegas shooting, a fake story about the Clintons, and the false claim that two Russian government officials connected to the Steele dossier and the Uranium One pseudo-scandal were killed in a plane crash. Puppet String News features a “donate” button linking to PayPal on its front page.

  • Pro-Trump site with link to Katrina Pierson shared content from Russia's IRA -- and IRA accounts shared its content too

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    In 2017, Twitter accounts run by the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) repeatedly spread content that originated on TruthFeed, a pro-Trump site that has pushed fake news and has a major Facebook presence. TruthFeed also shared IRA content for its own purposes. Meanwhile, a senior adviser to President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, Katrina Pierson, has connections to TruthFeed -- more than previously reported.

    English-language IRA accounts did not just spread TruthFeed content, they relied on it. On August 15, Bloomberg’s Ben Elgin reported that between July and October 2017, publically known IRA Twitter accounts repeatedly shared content from a site (likely also run by the IRA) that copied stories from TruthFeed. By that October, content originating from TruthFeed “accounted for about 95 percent of the accounts’ English-language activity,” according to the article. A Clemson University communications professor told Bloomberg, “For a period of time, Truthfeed was central to their entire effort.” On August 10, BuzzFeed reported that IRA accounts shared content originating from TruthFeed to help fan the flames during last year's far-right gathering in Charlottesville, VA.

    The relationship between the IRA and TruthFeed appears to have been mutual: During 2016 and 2017, the site regularly promoted content from IRA Twitter accounts to push numerous narratives. The site thus indirectly assisted Russia’s goal of sowing discord in the United States. That included TruthFeed sharing Russian account @TEN_GOP’s tweets to rebut claims of collusion between Russia and Trump’s campaign and to hype claims of voter fraud in Broward County, FL, before the 2016 election. Special counsel Robert Mueller directly cited the tweet about Broward County in his February indictment of several IRA employees. TruthFeed also embedded content from IRA accounts in an effort to:

    • laud Trump’s campaign rallies (citing @TEN_GOP);

    • claim Muslims in Minnesota wanted “sharia law” (citing Russian account @Pamela_Moore13);

    • call for a boycott of Starbucks because the chain pledged to hire refugees (citing @Pamela_Moore13);

    • claim Trump “was right” and that “Islamic refugees riot[ed] in Paris” (citing @TEN_GOP);

    • attack CNN as “fake news” and claim MSNBC was pushing “propaganda” (citing @TEN_GOP);

    • promote calls for Fox News host Shepard Smith to be fired (citing @Pamela_Moore13);

    • attack former FBI Director James Comey (citing @TEN_GOP and @Pamela_Moore13);

    • defend Trump’s response to Hurricane Maria (citing Russian account @10_GOP); 

    • claim former national security adviser Susan Rice “committed 3 felonies for [former President Barack] Obama” (citing @Pamela_Moore13); and

    • provide “proof” that “Poland loves” Trump (citing Russian account @USA_Gunslinger).

    Even after many of the IRA accounts were discovered and Twitter and Facebook took them down, TruthFeed continued to push their content: In April, the site’s designated Facebook page shared a meme from the Russian Facebook page “Being Patriotic.”

    TruthFeed has frequently shared fake news: The site pushed the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, pushed a fake story that the Sutherland Springs, TX, mass shooter was a member of antifa, and claimed that the Parkland, FL, mass shooting survivors were being “coached.” The site also has links to extremists: Bloomberg's Elgin noted in November 2017 that Amy Moreno, TruthFeed’s main writer, has supported far-right and white nationalist figures.

    Elgin’s initial TruthFeed investigation also found that the personal website of Katrina Pierson, who was a national Trump 2016 campaign spokesperson, shared a web hosting company, IP address, and MailChimp account with TruthFeed. Pierson’s attorney sent a letter to Bloomberg claiming Pierson “has no affiliation or connection with Truthfeed, save that her website formerly shared the same web platform.”

    Yet there is evidence suggesting that there are more links between Pierson and TruthFeed than her attorney acknowledged: TruthFeed’s Facebook page and another page with more than 1.8 million followers, USA Patriots for Donald Trump, have repeatedly shared content from Pierson’s site and Facebook page, often with the same text at the same time (with TruthFeed’s page sometimes directly sharing posts from USA Patriots for Donald Trump), suggesting they are controlled by the same entity.

    USA Patriots for Donald Trump has also repeatedly linked to TruthFeed’s content, using the same language and posting at the same time as TruthFeed’s page did.

    Both pages have also repeatedly linked to a site called patriotbeat.com. That site shares two Amazon Affiliate IDs, a Google AdSense ID, and an Outbrain Template ID with TruthFeed, according to the analytic tool Trendolizer.

    USA Patriots for Donald Trump also shared the same Russian meme in April as TruthFeed’s page, posting it at the same time. And both pages tried to run Facebook advertisements with some similar wording within a day of each other (USA Patriots for Donald Trump is currently running a similarly worded Facebook advertisement). In addition, USA Patriots for Donald Trump co-runs a group called Team Trump 2020 with Moreno, the TruthFeed writer.

    These links suggest that there are further connections between Pierson and TruthFeed than what she or her attorney told Bloomberg.

  • The Gateway Pundit's Jacob Wohl is now writing for fake news site YourNewsWire

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Jacob Wohl, a notorious pro-Trump Twitter troll who is also a contributor for The Gateway Pundit, is now writing for YourNewsWire, one of the most notorious fake news sites in the United States.

    Wohl is a staunchly pro-Trump commentator and hedge fund owner known for regularly tweeting at President Donald Trump (who has retweeted some of his tweets), for plagiarism, and for his propagandist claims, such as writing, “[Russian President] Vladimir Putin does a lot for his country considering he’s only paid the measly salary of $112,000 a year — He could easily make millions of dollars a year from public speaking alone, but after 20 years in the spotlight, he presses on,” and, “I hope Vladimir Putin gives President Trump a lesson on how to (sic) they deal with Fake News in Russia.” On June 12, Wohl announced that he would be writing for The Gateway Pundit, a notoriously terrible far-right blog that has received White House press credentials from the Trump administration.

    On August 4, Wohl wrote a piece for YourNewsWire headlined “EXCLUSIVE: Deep State Planning System Similar to AMBER Alerts to Influence Mid-Terms.” In the article, Wohl claimed that the Department of Justice was “creating a system similar to to (sic) the AMBER Alert system, to alert Americans that they may be subject to Russian meddling,” which could “exert undue influence on American voters.”

    YourNewsWire is one of the most heavily trafficked fake news sites. The website played a major role in spreading Pizzagate and published pieces attacking the legitimacy of the flu shot, even claiming the Centers for Disease Control murdered a doctor who warned about the shot. The site has also pushed the QAnon conspiracy theory (a conspiracy theory Wohl has called “complete and utter nonsense”). At one point, the prime minister of New Zealand was even forced to respond to one of its fake stories. All in all, YourNewsWire’s posts have been debunked by Facebook’s third-party fact-checkers more than 80 times.

    Additionally, the site has gotten higher Facebook engagement than Infowars, which was recently removed from the social media network. Its Facebook pages have more than 800,000 followers combined, and the pages of its co-founder and one of its lead writers have nearly 120,000 followers combined. The site has also been accused of acting as a proxy for Russia.

    Since October 2017, Wohl has tweeted more than 25 articles from YourNewsWire, 23 of which he shared since he announced he joined The Gateway Pundit, and some of which he has tweeted at Trump. Wohl has also linked to the site in at least two of his Gateway Pundit articles.

    In July, Wohl also encouraged the site to not speak to “Soros stooges” at Poynter.

    The Gateway Pundit’s founder, Jim Hoft, has also cited YourNewsWire. In May, Hoft defended YourNewsWire after it claimed fact-checker Snopes worked for the CIA.

  • Facebook ads and Instant Articles are monetizing a page that's pushed plagiarized content and false news

    Facebook has said this sort of thing would no longer occur. It's still happening.

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Last year, in response to scrutiny over fake news spreading on the platform during the 2016 campaign, Facebook announced that it would crack down on “instances of Pages using Facebook ads to build their audiences in order to distribute false news more broadly” but may allow pages to run ads again if they stop promoting false news. (Some have called for the ban to be permanent.) That action has become a talking point for Facebook. During his testimony before Congress, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that “the way to fight” people who are “trying to write the most sensational thing they can, in order to get people to click on it so they can make money on ads” is that “we make it so they can't run our ads, they can't make money.”

    Yet a page called Proud to Be Deplorable that has promoted several false stories and an overwhelming amount of plagiarized, hyperpartisan content has run an ad multiple times since at least March. The page has more than 350,000 followers, and the ad has garnered between 20,000 and 100,000 impressions (or the number of times an ad was on screen) in total, according to Facebook’s ads archive. While the page pushed many of the false stories before it started running ads in March, it has posted some after and has continued to post plagiarized content throughout.

    Some of the false and misleading stories the page has pushed are:

    • Stories that push the Pizzagate narrative by claiming that “elite pedophilia [is] rife in Washinton (sic) D.C.,” that a journalist “testifies DC elite pedo ring is 100% real,” that Trump initiated “pedophile raids” and “first Democrat leader pleads guilty,” or that “evidence suggests [Andrew] Breitbart was assassinated because he threatened to expose Clinton pedo ring”

    Additionally, the page has posted articles while calling for the “arrest” of Parkland, FL mass shooting survivor David Hogg and claiming a federal judge “mandate[d] American submission to [an] Islamic takeover.”

    The sites that the page links to for these stories are nearly all registered to a Sourabh Pal. Someone with the same name is a web developer based in California. Some of these sites link to the Proud to be Deplorable page in their “Follow us on Facebook” widget. That page and an account with Pal's name also run a Facebook group where the Proud to Be Deplorable page regularly posts content from thedeplorablearmy.com, a site the Deplorable page says it’s connected to. A smaller page, True Patriot Nation, also has almost exclusively posted content from sites that have apparent links to Pal and the Proud to Be Deplorable page.

    Besides featuring false stories, most of thedeplorablearmy’s content is plagiarized, often copied from The Gateway Pundit, a far-right blog that regularly posts wildly inaccurate pieces. The site also uses the ad networks Revcontent and Google AdSense (whose ads include the tag “AdChoices” at the top right). AdSense policies prohibit its ads from being placed on pages that feature copyright infringement and/or “entic[e] users to engage with content under false or unclear pretenses.” Revcontent also has policies prohibiting “fake news” and copyright infringement. These articles are then posted to the Deplorable Facebook page, which means Facebook is giving advertising space to a page that mainly monetizes off of plagiarized content.

    Additionally, Facebook has allowed the page to use Instant Articles, a mobile web format that enables articles (identifiable via a lightning bolt icon) to load more quickly on the Facebook app. That means both Facebook and the page are making money via ads on false articles and smear pieces that also violate Facebook’s Instant Article policy on intellectual property. Though Facebook pledged to stop the misuse of its Instant Articles feature earlier this year, it is clear that the platform is still struggling to fix the problem.

  • Conspiracy theorists gamed celebrities’ YouTube search results to accuse them of pedophilia

    For a brief time, searching for Tom Hanks or Steven Spielberg on the video site brought up baseless accusations

    Blog ››› ››› TALIA LAVIN


    Media Matters/Melissa Joskow

    On the morning of July 30, if you were searching YouTube for Tom Hanks or Steven Spielberg -- wanting to learn a little about Hollywood royalty, or just to find that funny clip from Big you loved years ago -- you would have been in for an unpleasant surprise.

    As NBC’s Ben Collins first pointed out on Twitter, the search results for Hanks and Spielberg were dominated by conspiracy theories, alleging that both Spielberg and Hanks -- along with other celebrities including like Seth Green and Macaulay Culkin -- were pedophiles and, a part of a nefarious ring of Hollywood child predators that online conspiracy theorists had dubbedentitled #Pedowood.

    The videos that popped up upon searching for Spielberg and Hanks were low-quality-fi, rambling, close-up shots, several made  by a man named Isaac Kappy, a minor actor who has spent the last week posting video-recorded rants on YouTube with titles like “Famous Actor Exposes Hollywood Pedophiles! Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks And More! #Pizzagate.” Thanks to rapid dissemination on message boards Reddit and 4chan, the videos garnered hundreds of thousands of views and shot up in the YouTube rankings, eclipsing interviews and movie clips featuring the stars.

    The hashtag #Pizzagate included in the title of Kappy’s video is a reference to the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which posits that prominent Democrats are running a child sex-slave ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant. The conspiracy theory culminated in one adherent firing an automatic weapon inside the pizzeria. According to BuzzFeed, the newfound allegations of pedophilia against Hanks can be traced back to Twitter user Sarah Ruth Ashcraft, a prominent member of the QAnon conspiracy theory community, which grew out of Pizzagate and has mushroomed into baroque complexity. The ever-growing QAnon conspiracy theory, which is flexible enough to accommodate a wide range of events, asserts that a broad array of prominent figures with liberal leanings are part of an international child sex-slavery operation. The theory has hundreds of thousands of devotees on Reddit, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter and countless dedicated blogs. (Roseanne Barr is a prominent believer in QAnon.) People are even showing up to Trump rallies dressed in "Q" apparel.

    Ashcraft, who frequently uses the hashtag #QAnon, has over 45,000 Twitter followers and uses her page to decry “Ritual Abuse, Mind Control, Child Porn, and Sex Trafficking,” focusing her ire on the alleged wrongdoings of celebrities like Hanks. (Since Ashcraft’s accusations against Hanks made headlines, and after BuzzFeed pointedly reached out to the social media company, her Twitter page has been restricted.)

    After NBC’s Collins reached out to YouTube for comment, some of the conspiracy-theory videos dropped in search rankings for the celebrities. A spokesperson for YouTube told Buzzfeed, “We’re continuously working to better surface and promote news and authoritative sources to make the best possible information available to YouTube viewers.”

    The hyperconnectivity of social media can make constructive messages spread fast -- and destructive falsehoods spread even faster. This latest incident is another powerful illustration of the ways in which social media can be gamed by conspiracy theorists. It’s an issue social networks have struggled to fully grasp; any suppression of conspiracy theorists’ pages, after all, lends credence to the notion that they are oppressed keepers of vital truths. Infowars’ Alex Jones was recently personally banned from Facebook for 30 days after the platform determined that several videos he shared were determined to have violated community standards; Jones and his fanbase reacted with predictable opprobrium and claims of censorship.  But Facebook did not assert that Jones’ penchant for spreading baseless conspiracy theories was part of the rationale for the ban; instead, it focused on policies regarding hate speech and bullying. That, in turn, raised questions of why Infowars as a whole did not receive a ban.

    Social media platforms that purport to be concerned with the spread of "fake news" must consider -- and contain -- conspiracy theories proactively, not just when journalists point them out. Left unchecked, those conspiracy theories have a direct connection to subsequent harassment and worse.