Trump supporters lobbed vile, racist threats at a Democratic official. Then right-wing media distorted her response.

Right-wing media deceptively edited Michigan lawmaker Cynthia Johnson’s response to harassment, to make it look like she was the one making threats

Michigan state Rep. Cynthia Johnson, a Black woman and Democratic lawmaker, responded this week to racist threats she’s receiving over her public opposition to the Trump campaign's effort to throw out the election result in her state. In response, she is now the target of a further disinformation campaign in right-wing social media.

Johnson spoke bluntly at last week’s state legislative hearing, telling House Oversight Chairman Matt Hall that the witnesses presented by Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani should’ve been sworn in: “You’re allowing people to come in here and lie. And I know they’re lying.”

Following that hearing, she became the target of almost 100 racist and threatening phone calls, with multiple callers saying that she would be lynched and one woman telling her, “You should be swinging from a f------ rope, you Democrat.”

Johnson responded with a video posted Tuesday on Facebook, announcing that a woman who threatened her had been tracked down by the FBI and state police: “So, this is just a warning to you Trumpers — be careful, walk lightly. We ain’t playing with you. Enough of the shenanigans. Enough is enough.”

But right-wing media figures and outlets often omitted in video clips and articles the section in which Johnson described threats against her and said that she had responded by contacting the proper authorities.

This sort of misrepresentation has real consequences. Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R) announced Wednesday afternoon on Facebook: “As a result of the video posted on social media by Rep. Cynthia Johnson, I have taken action to remove her from committee assignments in the House of Representatives, and we are looking into further disciplinary action as the proper authorities conduct their own investigations.

“Threats to either Democrats or Republicans are unacceptable and un-American,” Chatfield added. “They’re even more unbecoming of an elected official.”

But as watching Johnson’s full video makes clear, she was discussing threats against herself — not making them against others.

Video file

Citation State Rep. Cynthia Johnson (D-MI) via Facebook, December 8, 2020

STATE REP. CYNTHIA JOHNSON (D-MI): First, I want to say thank you to everybody who is supporting our efforts — and when I say “our efforts,” I'm talking about doing things right and in order. There’s a good way to do it and a fucked-up way to do it. 

Always provide proof. Nobody cares what your mouth is saying. Provide proof. Don’t get upset with folks and start cussing them out and all that. Don't — it never works. I wish I could be talking to y'all in a private room, because — I just wish I could. But we're public, so.

Be smart. You don’t have to yell. You don’t have to curse anybody out. You don’t have to call people names. Hit their asses in the pocketbook. Hit them in the pocketbook.

For instance, one of our bright citizens of our country, in Illinois, who happened to voicemail me — unknown, but guess what? FBI, state police, they found her.

So, this is just a warning to you Trumpers — be careful, walk lightly. We ain’t playing with you. Enough of the shenanigans. Enough is enough. And for those of you who are soldiers, you know how to do it. Do it right. Be in order. Make them pay.

I love y'all. Bye bye.

In another video posted Wednesday, Johnson spoke to her supporters, dubbing them “soldiers” in a figurative sense: “But I wanted to share something with the soldiers — all you soldiers, soldiers of Christ, soldiers against racism, soldiers against misogyny, soldiers against domestic violence and domestic terrorism. Soldiers, rise. It's time for you to rise.”

As examples of the dishonest coverage of her original comments in right-wing media:

  • Conspiracy theorist Ron Watkins and talk radio host Larry Elder both tweeted a video clip that truncated all context, beginning with Johnson saying, “This is just a warning to you Trumpers.” Former Fox host Bill O’Reilly also posted a similar link on Facebook.
  • The Daily Caller ran a headline, “‘Make Them Pay’: Michigan Democratic State Rep. Cynthia Jones Threatens Trump Supporters,” and the article did not mention that Johnson was responding to threats.
  • The Gateway Pundit ran a similar headline, “‘Make Them Pay!’ – Michigan Democrat Cynthia Johnson Issues Threat – Calls Out ‘Soldiers’ to Take Care of Trumpers (VIDEO),” also with no mention that Johnson was responding to threats, and that she discussed calling the authorities.
  • The Washington Times and The Daily Wire acted in a more sly fashion, running headlines that merely stated that Johnson had threatened Trump supporters. Though both articles included the context, a person just seeing the headlines on social media would not know that Johnson was responding to threats.

In short, a Black female public official delivered a response to violent, racist threats coming from Trump supporters, and in response, bad-faith actors removed her comments from any crucial context to drive further harassment and even punishment against her.

By contrast, Republican officials have been able to engage in public incitement of violence over the election, and so far have not faced any repercussions. Twitter, for example, has not removed threatening messages from the Arizona Republican Party, urging the public to be willing to fight to the death. (The state party deleted only one tweet over a possible copyright concern about using a scene from one of the Rambo movies.)