Fake News

Tags ››› Fake News
  • Fringe media target new Minneapolis hate crime hotline as imposing “Shariah” and “fascism”

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    “Alt-right”-affiliated outlets and fake news purveyors are targeting Minneapolis, MN, after the city installed a hotline for residents to report possible hate crimes, baselessly claiming it is imposing "Shariah" law, that the move amounts to "fascism," and that it’s related to a United Nations resolution.

    On June 19, the Star Tribune reported that Minneapolis had “set up a hot line for residents to report hate-crime incidents and other acts of intolerance.” Though the report mentioned that the hotline “comes amid signs of a recent surge of such incidents affecting Muslims and Jews across the country, many of which go unreported,” neither the news report nor the city’s press release suggested that the hotline is meant for people who subscribe to a specific religion.

    Nonetheless, “alt-right”-affiliated outlets and fake news purveyors jumped on the announcement to suggest the hotline was a front for a Muslim takeover. WorldNetDaily published a piece, which Infowars cross-posted, calling it a “Shariah hotline” for “snitches,” and The Gateway Pundit alleged that the hotline was set up in response to “false stories.” Fake news purveyor Freedom Daily called it the “anti-blasphemy hotline,” comparing it to blasphemy laws in other countries which “followers of Islam” can use to “have people who speak out or criticize their religion thrown into prison.” It said that the hotline was “only the beginning of Democrats’ plans for full-blown fascism in our country,” and also suggested that it is connected to a U.N. resolution pushed by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “that encouraged nations to criminalize a person who defames or criticizes a person’s religious views,” a claim also suggested by WND.

    In addition, fake news purveyor USA Newsflash also claimed the new hotline is “fascism” against “opinions deemed forbidden by the state,” and fake news purveyor Conservative Daily Post called the hotline “Gestapo-like.” Fake news purveyor The Washington Feed accused the city’s “loony” mayor of “embrac[ing] … Islamic culture” at the expense of the First Amendment, and fake news purveyor TruthFeed criticized the idea of “taxpayer dollars and energy being wasted on this hateful, foreign religion.” A contributor for fake news purveyor Before It’s News accused the city of “surrender[ing] to the supremacism” of Muslims.

    The WorldNetDaily, Infowars, Gateway Pundit, Freedom Daily, Conservative Daily Post, and TruthFeed articles have drawn numerous Facebook engagements, according to social media analytics website BuzzSumo. There were at least 2,200 engagements with WorldNetDaily's article, 140 with Infowars' article, 319 with Gateway Pundit's article, 65,400 with Freedom Daily's article, 7,200 with Conservative Daily Post's article, and 1,100 with TruthFeed's article.

    The absurd attacks come as the “alt-right”/fake news ecosystem continues to push Islamophobic smears against anyone associated with Islam. This ecosystem has also repeatedly targeted brands and public figures who seek to promote unity, and it has amplified other dubious claims, baseless conspiracy theories, and lies.

  • Pro-Trump media push conspiracy theory that acting FBI director is a “ringleader” in plot to take down Trump

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    An “alt-right”-affiliated outlet and fake news purveyors are pushing a highly dubious conspiracy theory from a fringe blog that acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe is a “ringleader” in a plot against President Donald Trump.

    Big League Politics, a fringe blog founded by former Daily Caller writer Patrick Howley, cited an “inside source” to claim that McCabe was the “ringleader” behind a collaboration “against” Trump by McCabe, former FBI Director James Comey, and Russia probe special counsel Robert Mueller. According to Howley, the source also called the three men “creatures of the swamp.” The blog also employs “alt-right” figure Cassandra Fairbanks, and it previously helped revive a fringe smear that Comey was biased in his investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s email server due to his brother’s supposed connections to the Clintons. The McCabe article has drawn slightly more than 100 Facebook engagements so far, according to social media analytics website BuzzSumo.

    Soon after it was published, the report was picked up by “alt-right”-affiliated blog The Gateway Pundit, which wrote that the revelations showed that Mueller is “in bed” with McCabe and Comey, that the three are working to “undermine” Trump, and that McCabe is the “real treat” of this “swamp fiasco.” Though The Gateway Pundit regularly pushes false stories, Fox News and Trump have regularly cited its content, the White House has given its correspondent press credentials, and the site is currently trying to get congressional press credentials. The Gateway Pundit’s McCabe article has received at least 6,200 Facebook engagements, according to BuzzSumo.

    Thanks to the Gateway Pundit article, fake news purveyors then spread this dubious claim. Before It’s News wrote that the report meant “FBI directors past and present apparently have it in for” Trump, and The Political Insider said that it showed “the deep state is preparing for war.” Mad World News and Washington Feed wrote that McCabe was “execut[ing]” Comey’s “treacherous” “backup plan” and that Trump needs to “get rid of” these “deep state hacks.” Freedom Daily called the report a “bombshell” that showed a “treasonous plot” that “shady” McCabe was “execut[ing]," and that Trump needed to “act quickly” to “get rid of” him. The Political Insider, Mad World News, and Freedom Daily articles have received at least 2,000, 1,600, and 5,500 Facebook engagements, respectively, according to BuzzSumo.

    The “alt-right”/fake news ecosystem pushing this dubious new charge has essentially been a propaganda machine for Trump, and the network continues to target Comey and Mueller as they become potential threats to the president. Mueller is leading the investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign in the 2016 election, and Comey has testified that he believes Trump fired him due to the probe. The new claim also comes as Trump tweeted that he is “being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director” and that he is the target of a “witch hunt.”

  • Seven ways pro-Trump media and fake news purveyors have smeared James Comey and Robert Mueller

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Over the past month, fake news purveyors and “alt-right”-affiliated figures and outlets have been smearing former FBI Director James Comey and special counsel for the Russia probe, Robert Mueller. The two men have been smeared by this media ecosystem, which has essentially been a propaganda machine for President Donald Trump and which perceives the two investigators as a potential threat to the president. Following Comey’s firing by Trump in May, Mueller’s appointment as special counsel, and Comey’s statement that Trump fired him over the Russia probe, this ecosystem has worked to discredit both and to assist Trump. These are five smears they have pushed.

    Fake news purveyors pushed dubious “alt-right” claim that Comey was imperiled by supposed probe into Susan Rice

    “Alt-right” troll Jack Posobiec claimed Comey dropped a probe of Susan Rice (there’s no evidence any such probe existed) to avoid implicating himself. Shortly after former FBI Director James Comey was fired, Jack Posobiec, an “alt-right” troll with a history of pushing conspiracy theories and misinformation, claimed that an “FBI source” told him that “Comey dropped the Susan Rice unmasking investigation [because] it would have implicated himself.” The tweet was in reference to the dubious claim that former national security adviser Susan Rice violated the law by unmasking Trump aides caught up in surveillance of foreign officials. There has been no corroboration outside of the right-wing fringe that Rice was ever under FBI investigation.

    Fake news purveyors ran with Posobiec’s claim. Fake news purveyors ran with Posobiec’s dubious claim, with TruthFeed claiming it “does logically make sense.” Angry Patriot wrote that it “will only affirm Trump’s decision in giving [Comey] the boot,” and Conservative Daily Post and The Washington Feed published the same article claiming that it showed Comey “was an extremely corrupt individual.” The TruthFeed, Angry Patriot, and Conservative Daily Post articles received at least 1,700, 9,300, and 6,800 Facebook engagements, respectively, according to BuzzSumo, a social media analytics site.

    Fake news purveyors and “alt-right” outlets used Judicial Watch report to claim Mueller “conspired with radical Islamic groups” and should be concerning to Americans

    Judicial Watch claimed Mueller, as FBI director, “caved” to “Islamist groups.” Following Mueller’s appointment as special counsel, right-wing group Judicial Watch published a report claiming that “as FBI director, Mueller bent over backwards to please radical Islamist groups and caved into their demands.” Judicial Watch alleged that the FBI under Mueller “eliminated the valuable anti-terrorism training material and curricula after Mueller met with various Islamist organizations, including those with documented ties too (sic) terrorism.” According to Wired, the FBI had removed those materials because “they were inaccurate or over-broad” or “because they were offensive.”

    “Alt-right” outlet and fake news purveyors used Judicial Watch report to attack Mueller. “Alt-right”-affiliated outlet The Gateway Pundit used the Judicial Watch report to claim Mueller “conspired with radical Islamic groups.” Fake news purveyors joined in; Conservative Fighters and Angry Patriot wrote that it showed “the media’s glowing portrayal of Mueller” was “not true,” The Washington Feed claimed that it showed “the real picture” of Mueller, and Tell Me Now wrote that Mueller “thought it was more offensive than jihadists killing Americans” and that the report “will likely have some Americans concerned” about him being special counsel. The Gateway Pundit, Conservative Fighters, Angry Patriot, and Tell Me Now articles received at least 1,200, 9,500, 13,800, and 231 Facebook engagements, respectively, according to BuzzSumo.

    “Alt-right” outlets and fake news purveyors suggested Comey was biased against Trump because his brother worked at a law firm used by the Clinton Foundation

    Fringe blog Big League Politics suggested Comey was “protecting [Hillary] Clinton” because his brother worked at law firm connected to the Clinton Foundation. After Comey’s firing, fringe blog Big League Politics revived a claim, originating from “alt-right”-promoting outlet Breitbart, that Comey “was clearly protecting [Hillary] Clinton from … espionage and corruption charges” because his brother worked for a law firm that “does the Clinton Foundation’s taxes.”

    “Alt-right” outlet and fake news purveyors ran with charge to discredit Comey. The Gateway Pundit claimed Big League Politics showed Comey’s “ties to the Clinton Foundation and the conflicts of interest that lie there are too close to not raise red flags.” From there it was revived by fake news purveyors, with Angry Patriot writing that it showed “Comey was compromised, so it is a good thing that Donald Trump removed him from office.” TruthFeed wrote that it showed Comey’s “crooked Clinton ties” meant Trump “was 100% correct to remove this shill,” USA Politics Today wondered how “Comey [was] not removed from the Hillary Clinton email investigation,” and Conservative Patriot wrote that it showed Comey was “involved in shady activities with [the] Clinton Foundation.” The Gateway Pundit, Angry Patriot, TruthFeed, USA Politics Today, and Conservative Patriot articles received at least 24,400, 5,800, 2,100, 2,700, and 4,800 Facebook engagements, respectively, according to BuzzSumo.

    “Alt-right” and fake news-purveying outlets used 2009 Wikileaks cable to mislead about Mueller working with Russia

    The Gateway Pundit, via Wikileaks, revived a 2009 cable showing Mueller, with authorization, transported uranium to Russia. After Mueller was named special counsel, The Gateway Pundit pointed to a 2009 cable published by Wikileaks revealing that Mueller delivered a sample of highly enriched uranium -- seized from the nation of Georgia and held in U.S. custody -- to Russia, with authorization from the Georgian government, for forensic analysis. The uranium was referred to by both Wikileaks and The Gateway Pundit as “stolen,” and The Gateway Pundit used the story to suggest that Democrats should be “up in arms over Mueller’s visit to Russia” because “according to the deranged Democrats, any contact with the Russians creates a cloud of suspicion and must lead to an investigation.”

    “Alt-right” outlet and fake news purveyors claimed Mueller “has [a] connection to Russia.” Infowars, a conspiracy theorist website, wrote that the cable showed Mueller “has [a] past connection with [the] Kremlin.” Fake news purveyor USA Politics Today wrote that Mueller “is not … innocent” because he “oversaw the transfer of stolen highly enriched uranium” to Russia. And The Federalist Tribune asked, “Since Obama was president than (sic), does this mean he was acting in a treasonous manner in trying to stop the flow of stolen nuclear materials by cooperating with Russia?” The Gateway Pundit, Infowars, USA Politics Today, and The Federalist Tribune articles received at least 2,300, 206, 832, and 569 Facebook engagements, respectively, according to BuzzSumo.

    “Alt-right” and fake news purveyors used 2015 AP article to falsely claim Comey covered up for Chattanooga shooting

    Gateway Pundit spun a 2015 article on the shootings in Chattanooga, TN, to claim that “Comey colluded with Obama on radical Islamic murder of US marines.” The Gateway Pundit claimed that in 2015, “the FBI under Comey was completely baffled” about the motivation of a man who killed U.S. marines at a military recruiting center and at a naval base in Chattanooga, TN, in July of that year. The fringe website claimed, “No doubt this was the conclusion Obama wanted” and spun a November 2015 Associated Press article that quoted Comey saying, “We’re still trying to make sure we understand Abdulazeez, his motivations and associations, in a really good way.” Later, in December 2015, Comey told reporters that the shooter “was inspired by a foreign terrorist organization's propaganda.”

    Fake news purveyors run with Gateway Pundit’s claim. Fake news purveyors ran with The Gateway Pundit’s claim, with some additionally lying that the report was new. The Washington Feed called it “Comey’s sickest secret,” while USA News Flash said it was “sickening” because “the public record will never be revealed.” Freedom Daily claimed Comey did a “sickening thing” to “cover up the murder.” Red Rock Daily News claimed it showed “Comey and Obama are criminals.” The Gateway Pundit, USA News Flash, and Freedom Daily articles received at least 1,900, 12,400, and 16,800 Facebook engagements, respectively, according to BuzzSumo.

    “Alt-right”-affiliated outlet and fake news purveyors falsely claim Mueller intentionally lied about spying on antiwar groups

    “Alt-right”-affiliated outlet GotNews alleged Mueller misled Congress about spying on antiwar groups. GotNews, an “alt-right”-affiliated outlet, claimed in May that a Justice Department inspector general report showed Mueller “misled Congress in 2006 about FBI surveillance of peaceful anti-Iraq War groups.” However, as the inspector general report noted, Mueller did not know at the time the information was incorrect.

    Fake news purveyors used report to falsely claim Mueller is “a liar.” Fake news purveyors used the GotNews report to falsely claim Mueller lied to Congress. Angry Patriot and Conservative Fighters both wrongly wrote that Mueller “falsified testimony about the bureau’s surveillance on an anti-war protest in 2002” and that he is “a liar who illegally spied on Americans.” The GotNews, Angry Patriot, and Conservative Fighters articles received at least 637, 6,200, and 4,700 Facebook engagements, respectively, according to BuzzSumo.

    “Alt-right”-affiliated outlets and fake news purveyors claim Mueller is connected to Democratic organization Civis Analytics

    GotNews reported Mueller worked with law firm representing a “big Democrat group.” GotNews in June alleged that Mueller was “partnered” with a law firm, WilmerHale, that represented the “leftist analytics firm Civis Analytics,” which it also described as a “big Democrat group.” The GotNews report ignored the fact that WilmerHale also represents three Trump affiliates: former campaign manager Paul Manafort, daughter Ivanka Trump, and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

    The Gateway Pundit and fake news purveyors ran with the report to question Mueller's "impartiality." The Gateway Pundit wrote that GotNews showed Mueller had “ties to a particularly dangerous DNC megadonor.” Fake news purveyors also ran with the report, with Angry Patriot and Conservative Fighters writing that “Mueller’s bipartisanship seems doubtful given that his law firm worked with the Left-wing Civis Analytics,” and a Before It's News contributor wrote that the report was “raising questions about Mueller’s impartiality in his so-called ‘Russia probe’ into President Donald J. Trump’s campaign.” The GotNews, Gateway Pundit,  Angry Patriot, and Conservative Fighters articles received at least 55, 3,200, 6,200, and 4,700 Facebook engagements, respectively, according to BuzzSumo.

    This piece has been updated.

  • RNC's false talking point about Comey came from “alt-right” trolls

    Lie that Comey said Trump didn't pressure him on Russia-related investigations came from an “alt-right” troll and then was picked up by fake news purveyors

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    The Republican National Committee (RNC) pushed a false talking point that originated from the “alt-right”/fake news ecosystem to try to discredit former FBI Director James Comey’s June 8 testimony to the Senate intelligence committee.

    During his testimony, Comey said that he believed President Donald Trump fired him due to the FBI’s Russia probe, saying, “I know I was fired because of something about the way I was conducting the Russia investigation was in some way putting pressure on him, in some way irritating him, and he decided to fire me because of that.” He discussed a number of other issues as well, including saying that Trump directed him to end an investigation into his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and that he wrote memos on his one-on-one interactions with the president because he feared Trump might lie about the exchanges.

    Responding to the testimony, the RNC tweeted, “#BigLeagueTruth: Comey testified under oath that @POTUS never asked him or anyone else to end any investigation. #ComeyHearing.” The tweet included a video of Comey’s previous testimony before the Senate intelligence committee -- on May 3 -- in which Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) asked him if “the attorney general or senior officials at the Department of Justice” tried to block an FBI investigation, to which Comey replied, “Not in my experience.”

    Contrary to the RNC’s implication, Comey did not contradict himself. On May 3, he was talking specifically about the Department of Justice, not the president. The RNC’s false claim was pushed early on by “alt-right” trolls Jack Posobiec and Nick Short, and was then repeated by fake news purveyors and other “alt-right” outlets before more traditional right-wing media figures and outlets, such as Fox & Friends and Rush Limbaugh, picked it up. Since then, Republican politicians such as Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) have also repeated the false assertion. The false claim even impacted the stock market.

    In a statement to Media Matters, Sen. Hirono criticized the RNC for taking “a far-right conspiracy theory as fact,” and noted that she “only asked former Director Comey about pressure from officials at the Department of Justice”:

    “If you listen to the exchange, it’s clear that I only asked former Director Comey about pressure from officials at the Department of Justice, but the RNC chose to move forward and take a far-right conspiracy theory as fact. This sends a clear message that Republicans are willing to share fake news and dangerous narratives in their quest to deny Russian interference in our elections. Unfortunately, we’ve come to expect no less from the mouthpiece of an Administration that deals in alternative facts.”

    The RNC’s incorrect claim is yet another example of how the “alt-right”/fake news ecosystem has been able to amplify its misinformation out of the fringe, pushing forged documents, baseless conspiracy theories, and smear campaigns into more of the mainstream.

  • New study finds that one in 10 news sources shared online before the UK election was “junk news”

    Researchers accessed available data from Twitter for the study; Facebook has repeatedly refused to share data with researchers

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    A new Oxford University study found that around 11 percent of content shared on Twitter that was related to the upcoming June 8 U.K. election was “junk news.” The study was based on data from Twitter, which "provides free access to a sample of public tweets posted on the platform." By contrast, Facebook does not to share data with researchers trying to investigate fake news.

    Fake news has become recognized as an international problem following the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign; according to one analysis, it outperformed real news on Facebook toward the end of the 2016 campaign. Many of the websites that carry fake news have, along with the “alt-right," become part of an ecosystem that is able to mobilize to spread misinformation in election campaigns. Social media and online platforms such as Facebook and Google took some steps after the U.S. election in response to mounting public pressure, including working with fact-checking organizations to try to tamp down the problem for elections in France and Germany, although questions have been raised about the efficacy of those steps. 

    The Oxford study examined nearly 2.5 million tweets sent from the U.K. between May 27 and June 2. It found that during that time frame, “junk news accounts for over a third of other political news and information and accounts for 11.4% of the relevant content shared.” That amount showed that “UK users were not sharing as much junk news in their political conversations as” was shared during the 2016 U.S. election, “where the level of junk news shared was significantly higher.” But the study also found that it was a “higher percentage of junk news content than social media users who were actively discussing German politics and French politics during election periods” shared. From the June 5 study:

    Table 3 explains the distribution of content shared by UK Twitter users and reveals that the largest proportion of content being shared by Twitter users interested in UK politics comes from professional news organizations, which accounts for 53.6% of the relevant content shared. Relevant content is calculated after non-political content, spam, irrelevant social media, language and inaccessible content have been removed.

    Junk news accounts for over a third of other political news and information and accounts for 11.4% of the relevant content shared. Within the professional news content that was shared, the BBC was most popular, with 22.7% of professional news coming from this source. This was followed by The Guardian with 17.7% of links directing to the newspaper’s website. A high percentage of other political content that was shared comes from citizen-generated sources like personal blogs or civil society organizations. The number of links to such sources was higher than the number of links to junk news. Like in our earlier UK election study, Russian sources did not feature prominently in the sample, and no content was shared that could be attributed to WikiLeaks. This was in contrast to our project’s previous memos on the US and French elections.

    [...]

    Earlier in the election campaign, UK social media users shared a higher percentage of junk news content than social media users who were actively discussing German politics and French politics during election periods. In the second sampling period, the proportion of relevant content shared on UK social media identified as junk news was 11.4%, compared to 12.6% during the first UK sampling period, 12.5% in Germany and 5.1% and 7.6% respectively in the two election rounds in France. We also found that UK users were not sharing as much junk news in their political conversations as US users in the lead up to the 2016 elections, where the level of junk news shared was significantly higher. In the days leading up to the US election, we did a close study of junk news consumption among Michigan voters and found users were sharing as much junk news as professional news content at around 33% of total content each.

    Substantive differences between the qualities of political conversations are evident in other ways. In the US sample, 33.5% of relevant links being shared led to professional news content. In Germany this was 55.3%, and in France this was between 49.4% and 57% of relevant links across both election rounds. Similarly, in the current UK-based study we show that 53.6% of relevant links being shared led to professional news content. In the initial UK sampling period this was almost identical at 53.4%. Having compared the content shared by UK users across two sampling periods, we can show that the quality of information shared did not differ substantially over time. This is different to the other countries we had investigated, where the quality of information shared deteriorated as the election drew closer. We are also able to show that individuals discussing politics over social media in the European countries sampled tend to share more high quality information sources than US users.

    [...]

    Content about the Labour Party strongly dominated traffic on Twitter in the second sampling period, showing a substantial increase from the earlier in the campaign. Social media users in the UK shared five links to professional news and information for every one link to junk news.

    CNET, in a write-up of the study, noted that researchers “turned to Twitter, which allows access to 1 percent of its global daily data for free” but that Facebook “doesn't allow for its data to be viewed.” Multiple experts have called on social media organizations to share their data to help understand how fake news spreads about how it can be addressed. That includes one of the Oxford study’s authors, who told CNET that “a good starting part” to fight fake news “would be sharing more data” among academics, nonprofits and tech companies. Yet Facebook has refused to share its data on fake news with experts and analysts, and Facebook’s shareholders and board members, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg, recently rejected a proposal to publish a report on how fake news impacts the social media giant.

  • Fake news purveyors push debunked claim that Londoners were chanting for Trump after the terror attack

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Multiple fake news purveyors -- many of which have served as propaganda outlets for President Donald Trump -- pushed a debunked claim that London residents chanted in support of Trump after the June 4 terrorist attack in the city.

    On June 4, Trump rebuked London Mayor Sadiq Khan by falsely claiming that Khan said there was “no reason to be alarmed” after the attack in the city, and then attacked the “pathetic excuse” he said Khan offered for his statement. In fact, Khan had said that there was “no reason to be alarmed” about the increased police presence following the attack. Far-right figures and fringe outlets posted a video supposedly showing that “Londoners took the streets” after the attack and chanted Trump’s name and said they “love” him. Fact-checking website Snopes debunked the claim, saying that the video “had nothing to do with” the attack, and instead was from a March “counter-protest at a much larger anti-racism rally in London.”

    Nonetheless, multiple fake news purveyors -- which regularly function as pro-Trump propaganda outlets -- pushed the false allegation, and many appeared to publish their articles after Snopes had already debunked the claim. They claimed that the video came “the day after the attacks” and that it showed that not all Europeans “stand against Trump … regarding his Muslim ban” and made “it clear whose policies they prefer.” They also claimed that the video shows “that those who live in London are mad at” Khan, urged people to “notice: They weren’t chanting their mayor’s name,” and said the media are “ignoring this.”

  • Fake news purveyors boost Putin’s claims to dismiss allegations of Russian interference in 2016 election

    Fake news purveyors have regularly functioned as pro-Trump propaganda outlets

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN

    Fake news purveyors are citing Russian President Vladimir Putin to claim that, contrary to the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusions, Russia did not interfere in the 2016 election.

    On June 4, NBC aired Putin’s interview with new host Megyn Kelly, in which he claimed he hadn’t seen “any direct proof of Russian interference in the presidential election.” He also suggested that American intelligence agencies could have fabricated evidence of hacking, saying, “There’s a theory that [President John F.] Kennedy’s assassination was arranged by the United States intelligence services.” Putin made similar remarks two days earlier during a panel discussion, which Kelly moderated, at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, saying, “There is no specific evidence, no facts, just assumptions, allegations and conclusions based on those allegations nothing more.” However, U.S. intelligence agencies have all concluded “with high confidence” that Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election to help President Donald Trump win, in part by hacking Democratic groups and individuals and by using bots to spread fake news and pro-Trump stories on social media.

    Fake news purveyors jumped on the interviews, praising Putin and calling the idea that Russia interfered in the election “a nonsensical theory” and “allegations that are continuously being spewed out of the mouths of the Left.” Others cited Putin to call the intelligence community’s conclusions, noted by Kelly in the interview, “absurd Russian hacking claims,” “stupid talking points,” a “clearly bogus narrative,” “Hillary Clinton campaign talking points,” and “a line of questioning that sounded as though it came straight out of the Democrat-media complex conspiracy handbook.”

    This praise for Putin’s remarks follows the repeated denial by these outlets -- which regularly function as pro-Trump propaganda outlets -- that there could be any connection between Trump’s campaign and Russia. Their framing of the issue is similar to reporting from Russian outlets RT and Sputnik, which simply parroted Putin’s highly dubious claims.

  • NY Times' Farhad Manjoo shows how disinformation moves from message boards through Twitter and ends up on Hannity

    Blog ››› ››› BRENNAN SUEN

    The New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo reported on the ecosystem that allows disinformation to spread through Twitter and to mainstream and right-wing media, including a conspiracy theory surrounding the murder of a Democratic National Committee (DNC) staffer that was cooked up in message boards and eventually promoted by Fox News host Sean Hannity.

    Though Facebook has enabled a fake news ecosystem that empowers total lies, anonymous Twitter bots have also played a part in undermining discourse and truth. Former FBI agent Clint Watts testified in front of the Senate intelligence committee in March about “how Russians used armies of Twitter bots to spread fake news using accounts that seem to be Midwestern swing-voter Republicans,” as NPR described it. And according to a McClatchy report, the FBI is investigating Russian operatives and far-right news websites for their use of bots to spread misinformation.

    In a May 31 report, the Times’ Manjoo detailed the role of Twitter in spreading disinformation, fake news, and conspiracy theories, using the story of murdered DNC staffer Seth Rich as one example. The report noted that though “Hannity pushed the theory the loudest, … it was groups on Twitter -- or more specifically, bots on Twitter -- that were first to the story and helped make it huge”:

    [T]he biggest problem with Twitter’s place in the news is its role in the production and dissemination of propaganda and misinformation. It keeps pushing conspiracy theories — and because lots of people in the media, not to mention many news consumers, don’t quite understand how it works, the precise mechanism is worth digging into.

    We recently saw the mechanism in action when another baseless conspiracy theory rose to the top of the news: The idea that the murder last year of Seth Rich, a staff member at the Democratic National Committee, was linked, somehow, to the leaking of Clinton campaign emails. The Fox News host Sean Hannity pushed the theory the loudest, but it was groups on Twitter — or, more specifically, bots on Twitter — that were first to the story and helped make it huge.

    Hannity’s obsession with Rich’s murder is a strong example of how this ecosystem shapes media narratives. Hannity has come under fire and lost a number of his advertisers for his relentless promotion of a conspiracy theory alleging that Rich’s 2016 murder was a result of his leaking DNC emails to WikiLeaks. Hannity’s promotion of the theory continued after Fox News retracted an online story making similar claims and after Rich’s family requested that Hannity stop pushing the story. Hannity has a long history of pushing conspiracy theories.

    Manjoo quotes an expert on internet propaganda who said Twitter bots amplify groups’ messages and allow them to “use Twitter as a megaphone” and eventually “manufactur[e] consensus” for ideas. Manjoo contextualized how that works for conspiracy theories. First, groups take to message boards like Reddit or 4chan or Facebook groups to “decide on a particular message to push.” Then bots “flood the network, tweeting and retweeting thousands or hundreds of thousands of messages in support of the story.” These tweets often include a “branding hashtag” such as #sethrich. The report noted that “the initial aim isn’t to convince or persuade, but simply to overwhelm,” and that as stories become Trending Topics, reporters are forced to respond, thereby aiding the propagandists’ spread of the story even as media outlets debunk it. Others, like Hannity, pick up the weaponized disinformation, attempt to legitimize it, and put it on a larger platform like his prime-time Fox News show or radio program:

    “Bots allow groups to speak much more loudly than they would be able to on any other social media platforms — it lets them use Twitter as a megaphone,” said Samuel Woolley, the director for research at Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project. “It’s doing something that I call ‘manufacturing consensus,’ or building the illusion of popularity for a candidate or a particular idea.”

    How this works for conspiracy theories is relatively straightforward. Outside of Twitter — in message boards or Facebook groups — a group will decide on a particular message to push. Then the deluge begins. Bots flood the network, tweeting and retweeting thousands or hundreds of thousands of messages in support of the story, often accompanied by a branding hashtag — #pizzagate, or, a few weeks ago, #sethrich.

    The initial aim isn’t to convince or persuade, but simply to overwhelm — to so completely saturate the network that it seems as if people are talking about a particular story. The biggest prize is to get on Twitter’s Trending Topics list, which is often used as an assignment sheet for the rest of the internet.

    I witnessed this in mid-May, just after the Fox affiliate in Washington reported that a private investigator for Mr. Rich’s family had bombshell evidence in the case. The story later fell apart, but that night, Twitter bots went with it.

    Hundreds of accounts with few or no followers began tweeting links to the story. By the next morning, #SethRich was trending nationally on Twitter — and the conspiracy theory was getting wide coverage across the right, including, in time, Mr. Hannity.

    [...]

    Because they operate unseen, bots catalyze the news: They speed up the process of discovery and dissemination of particular stories, turning an unknown hashtag into the next big thing. A trending hashtag creates a trap for journalists who cover the internet: Even if they cover a conspiracy theory only to debunk it, they’re most likely playing into what the propagandists’ want.

  • How a 2014 story about Russia went from a fringe blog to Fox News in just a few days

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    A 2014 article about then-President Barack Obama’s behind-the-scenes efforts to work with Russia has been widely disseminated among right-wing media in the past 48 hours in an attempt to defend President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, who allegedly asked for back-channel communications with Russia during Trump’s transition. The article seems to have initially re-emerged on fringe blogs and two Twitter accounts that could be bots.

    Trump and his administration have come under scrutiny after The Washington Post on May 26 reported that in December 2016, Kushner had discussed setting up a secret communications channel between Trump’s presidential transition team and the Kremlin. Former intelligence and national security officials have called the move naive, “bizarre,” “very concerning,” “indicative of espionage activity,” and “possibly even illegal.”

    In the early morning hours of May 27, the day after the Post ran the story, Twitter account TheTruthIsOutThere posted, “#BROMANCE Inside Obama’s secret outreach to Russia, including a Kissinger offensive.” The tweet linked to a 2014 article from Josh Rogin, then of Bloomberg, reporting that Obama was “working behind the scenes for months to forge a new working relationship with Russia.” Seemingly hours later, fake news purveyor Before It’s News published a link to a fringe blog highlighting the Bloomberg article. The following evening, slightly before 9:30 p.m., a second Twitter account linked to the article. About two hours later, at around 11:46 p.m., the Drudge Report highlighted the article at the top of its page. About an hour later, many Twitter accounts started to highlight the Bloomberg article without adding much accompanying text. Rogin, the author of the 2014 Bloomberg piece, noted the Twitter activity, writing, “This article of mine from 2014 has been tweeted hundreds of times today, all exactly the same way. #bots.”

    Meanwhile, likely thanks to Drudge, the article exploded into fringe right-wing media, eventually making its way to Fox News on May 29 and on Trump’s favorite morning show, Fox & Friends, on May 30, which cited the article to suggest hypocrisy by the “fake, left-leaning, mainstream” media for focusing on Kushner. This despite the fact that Obama’s effort came during his presidency, not during his presidential transition.

    If a fake news purveyor and bots did play a role in disseminating this claim into more traditional right-wing and mainstream media, it would not be the first time. Former FBI official Clint Watts testified before the Senate in March that Russian bots spread fake news during the 2016 election and beyond, and the FBI is investigating Russian bots pushing pro-Trump articles from conservative websites. The fake news outlet involved in this recent incident, Before It’s News, has also repeatedly pushed claims that support the Kremlin's agenda, such as spreading the dubious charge that the Syrian chemical attack in April was a “false flag” operation and pushing a fake news story from Russian state media. The site is part of the “alt-right”/fake news ecosystem that has disseminated misinformation to the public before.

  • Pro-Trump media attack Katy Perry’s call for unity after Manchester attack

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Pro-Trump media are attacking pop singer Katy Perry for urging people to “unite” following the May 22 terrorist bombing in Manchester, calling her a “half-brained” “idiot” who “thinks life is a bumper sticker.”

    In a May 23 interview, Perry said she was “devastated” by the attack, adding, “I think the greatest thing we can do is just unite … no barriers, no borders, we all need to just coexist.”

    In response, fake news purveyors, many of which serve as propaganda outlets for President Donald Trump, lashed out at Perry, writing that she is “as shallow as the gene pool on the left" and a “half-brained” celebrity who has a “globalist dream of a world government and a border-less society.” Fake news purveyors also called her an “idiot” who “thinks life is a bumper sticker,” and claimed her “idiocy” shows she should “stick to singing.”

    Fox News also bashed Perry, mocking her “no borders” remarks and hosting a guest who said, “The next time we welcome Muslim refugees from Syria or Yemen into this country, that we should send them to her house.”

    UPDATE:

    Conspiracy theorist radio host Alex Jones of Infowars also attacked Perry during his program, saying she was “shoot[ing] her mouth off about no barriers” and was a “sick” “cuck” who has a “big fat pathetic satanic ass.”

  • Facebook could have data relevant to the Trump/Russia investigation, but it’s not releasing it (yet)

    Experts call for Facebook to release its data to help the fight against fake news

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    An Oxford professor and researcher are calling on Facebook to cooperate with scientists and share its data on fake news and fake accounts in part because of its relevancy to the Trump/Russia investigation.

    During the 2016 presidential election, a considerable amount of fake news and misinformation was pushed on social media via artificial computer programs called "bots." The FBI is currently investigating how Russian bots used social media platforms during the elections to spread pro-Trump articles from Russian outlets and outlets affiliated with the “alt-right.” Meanwhile, bots continue to push misinformation to influence President Donald Trump’s administration. Due to these concerns surrounding fake accounts and fake news, multiple experts have previously called on Facebook to share its data, as its efforts to combat fake news have thus far failed.

    Oxford professor Philip Howard and Oxford researcher Robert Gorwa noted in a March 20 Washington Post op-ed that Facebook’s refusal to share data on fake news and fake accounts “has made it difficult to know how many voters are affected or where this election interference comes from.” They wrote that Facebook “has the metadata to identify precisely which accounts were created, where they operated and what kinds of things those users were up to during the U.S. election.” That could also mean that Facebook could help determine if “there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian influence operations” and could “prevent interference with democratic deliberation” going forward. From the op-ed:

    Facebook deployed a “cross functional team of engineers, analysts and data scientists” as part of a detailed investigation into possible foreign involvement in the U.S. election. They found fake groups, fake likes and comments, and automated posting across the network by unnamed malicious actors. The report’s authors claim that their investigation “does not contradict” the findings made in the U.S. Director of National Intelligence report published in January, which blamed Russia for a sweeping online influence campaign conducted in the lead-up to the election.

    Essentially, this confirms what researchers have suspected for several years: Large numbers of fake accounts have been used to strategically disseminate political propaganda and mislead voters. These accounts draw everyday users into “astroturf” political groups disguised as legitimate grass-roots movements. Unfortunately, Facebook’s refusal to collaborate with scientists and share data has made it difficult to know how many voters are affected or where this election interference comes from.

    [...]

    Facebook, of course, does not have the same issues with data access. It has the metadata to identify precisely which accounts were created, where they operated and what kinds of things those users were up to during the U.S. election. Their data scientists could probably provide some insights that the intelligence services cannot.

    [...]

    If there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian influence operations, Facebook may be able to spot that, too. In many ways, massive coordinated propaganda campaigns are just another form of election interference. If Facebook has data on this, it needs to share it. The House Intelligence Committee should call Facebook to testify as part of its investigation.

    While the outcome of the U.S. election is settled, major elections are coming up around the world. Facebook needs to tell us what it knows and demonstrate that it can prevent interference with democratic deliberation.