Media Structures & Regulations

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  • Of Course People Are Turning To Women's Magazines For Quality Political Coverage

    Blog ››› ››› PAM VOGEL

    In the small world of politics and media Twitter, one of a few tropes emerged this year: astonishment -- isolated and seemingly brand-new each time -- when woman-centered outlets published high-quality political reporting and opinion pieces.

    When Teen Vogue ran a December 10 op-ed from weekend editor Lauren Duca headlined “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America,” this small, homogenous media world seemed shocked that a young woman could aptly write about both makeup and the psychological tactics of a dangerously deceptive political figure. It was as though young women and the stories they crave, or the whole of American life for that matter, cannot contain multitudes.

    As many women writers -- and especially women of color -- quickly pointed out, the Teen Vogue piece shouldn’t surprise anyone. Neither should it be shocking that, in September, Cosmopolitan set the standard for Ivanka Trump interviews when reporter Prachi Gupta asked Ivanka, who ostensibly spearheaded Donald Trump’s child care proposal, substantive questions about that policy and in the process revealed its many weaknesses. The “real” media figures who were surprised by the Teen Vogue opinion piece also might not have known that President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama have given multiple exclusive interviews to Essence, Ebony, Latina, and Teen Vogue over the years.

    What (mostly male) critics fail to recognize is that their reasons for dismissing women’s magazines actually form the foundation of those publications’ success. Magazines created by and for women audiences -- not to mention exclusively online outlets like Broadly, Refinery 29, The Establishment, and Jezebel -- inherently do things differently, and that’s their strength. They’re helmed by people who wouldn’t normally see their experiences depicted on the pages of papers of record. They’re also answering to an audience of women, especially young women and women of color, by finding ways to inject otherwise untold perspectives into the political discourse.

    This emphasis on giving platforms to those commonly excluded by dominant media narratives explains why Teen Vogue -- run by Editor-in-Chief Elaine Welteroth, a millennial black woman, and digital editorial director Phillip Picardi, a 25-year-old gay man -- produces consistently dynamic reporting on the realities of the white supremacist and misogynist movement that calls itself the “alt-right.” It also explains why it reaches millions with personal stories of transgender teens affected by North Carolina’s discriminatory HB 2 law, a young woman who got an abortion in Ohio, girls from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota, and young female Muslim activists. (Teen Vogue also owes much to Rookie magazine, founded and edited by the 20-year-old Tavi Gevinson, which regularly publishes political stories focused on personal narrative, and earlier this year ran an exclusive reader Q&A with Hillary Clinton.)

    It explains why Latina magazine’s politics and culture editor, Raquel Reichard, has curated a strikingly personal collection of first-hand, narrative-driven accounts explaining how this year’s threats to abortion rights uniquely harm Latina communities.

    Essence and Ebony have been doing this work for decades, no doubt serving as critical models for the more recently developed political voices of traditionally whiter magazines like Cosmopolitan or Marie Claire. In the weeks since Trump’s election, Essence has consistently called out his cabinet picks for their connections to the racist “alt-right” movement and their histories of racist remarks. An Ebony opinion piece labeled the “alt-right” “white supremacy by any other name” and examined what Trump has said -- or refused to say -- about racial intimidation.

    Essence has also challenged mainstream praise of female conservative media figures who have benefited from white feminism, describing right-wing pundit Tomi Lahren as a “white supremacist fave” and warning of the media’s uncritical embrace of “repugnant and unapologetic racists” like Lahren and Fox’s Megyn Kelly, who the magazine says are “dangerous for black women.” What’s more, women’s magazine writers are not afraid to correctly identify rape culture, white supremacy, or outright lies when they see them. And Elle unequivocally stated that Ivanka Trump, who has been touted as the champion of women in her father’s administration, “will not fix ‘women’s issues’” and called out her “exceptionalist white womanhood.”

    In a year when women have been repeatedly attacked through legislation, on social media, and even by the president-elect of the United States, Cosmopolitan was unafraid to call the Twitter harassment of black actress Leslie Jones -- organized by bigoted, misogynist Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos -- a hate crime. Gupta’s October take-down of Donald Trump’s history of sexual harassment concluded, “Trump doesn’t seem to understand what harassment is or how it works.”

    This is the essential difference between women’s magazines and what are seen as more traditional outlets for political reporting: Women’s magazines are designed to speak -- directly and above all -- to women, particularly young women and women of color.

    As a collective group that frequently feels the impact of new state and federal policies before others and in highly magnified form, these women are craving the truth about how such policies come to be. And by and large, they aren’t finding it in mainstream political press outlets largely helmed by and written for white men, who forcibly construct a “both sides” argument where often one, frankly, does not exist.

    The success of women’s magazines underscores the fact that newsroom diversity -- in its most intersectional meaning -- is, in the words of CNN’s Tanzina Vega, “imperative to make sure your coverage is better, more nuanced and more accurate.” As Washington Post deputy general assignment editor Swati Sharma explained recently for Neiman Journalism Lab:

    A new administration is at foot, and with it nascent movements are growing across the country. How will those sentiments be accurately covered with empathy, nuance, and authenticity? We need people in those communities to capture the messages, the angst, the people who make up the groups.

    As we prepare for a new presidential administration that promises to be infinitely more hostile to both members of the press and the women who make up these magazines’ newsrooms and audience, the media figures who have expressed shock over high-quality political reporting by such publications might consider instead turning to them for a lesson in telling the full story.

    Graphic created by Dayanita Ramesh.

  • Media Are Watching The Trump Transition From The Sidelines

    Blog ››› ››› TYLER CHERRY

    The Fourth Estate is an institution whose power and influence, while not officially recognized, provide a critical role in the checks and balances of political power. With Washington, D.C., entirely under Republican control, the media stands as the best available check against a White House that has signaled its resolve to gaslight its way through the next four years. But if political journalists’ post-election inertia is a harbinger of what role the press will play during a Trump administration, then the Fourth Estate is seemingly shaping up to roll over for the Trump White House.

    In the weeks since Election Day, political journalism has largely fallen short both in style and substance. Journalists watching from the sidelines have been reduced to parroting Trump’s publicly available tweets -- allowing him to drive the news cycle -- and have bungled one of the most important roles the press plays during a transition period: the vetting of President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet nominations and appointments.

    Possibly the most glaring example of the press’s passive Trump coverage has been its coverage of Trump’s tweets. The new era of political journalism is seemingly being played out in the Twittersphere. Faced with a president-elect who is adept at using his Twitter feed to drive news coverage and who has refused to hold a post-election press conference and repeatedly ditched his traveling press pool, reporters have been suckered into relying on his vague, false, or dangerous tweets, frequently reporting his 140-character riffs without context or pushback. The political press is trading in its historical role as antagonistic investigators for the retweet button, letting Trump himself dictate what news is covered (and what isn’t) and how, without any follow-up questions. Trump has essentially reduced political reporters on Twitter to play-by-play commentators who narrate his every tweet.

    When Trump falsely tweeted that “he won the popular vote over Clinton ‘if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,'" reporters "raced to their computers to file stories on Trump's latest outlandish claim, and many of the headlines and tweets that resulted neglected to make clear that he was peddling an erroneous conspiracy theory,” CNN reported

    When Trump vaguely tweeted that he would be leaving his businesses to avoid conflicts of interest, but offered no details of the arrangements, media headlines simply echoed Trump’s tweets, allowing him to drive news coverage with little pushback and no immediate follow-up. Trump ultimately canceled the press conference where he said he would announce these details -- but got the positive news cycle nonetheless. And in fact, American journalists have had to rely on foreign outlets for many of the stories that have emerged since the election about Trump potentially using his new role to further his business interests.

    Likewise, precisely because Trump has starved out the press, his false or misleading tweets about saving jobs at the Indiana-based Carrier facility, keeping a Ford plant from moving to Mexico, threatening Boeing for its contract to update Air Force One, and taking credit for a $2 billion investment from SoftBank have been mindlessly amplified by the press, driving uncritical news coverage on Trump’s terms.

    So far, media outlets have lazily elevated Trump’s Twitter claims with minimal pushback, and often reporters who fact-check a false Trump tweet do so hours, if not days, after Trump’s lie has already spread. Journalists retreating to Twitter for political journalism owe the public aggressive fact-checking not only in accompanying tweets, but also in the print and on-air reports that follow. Anything less, as has happened thus far, amounts to the media failing to do their job.

    Reporting on Trump’s cabinet picks and other top-level appointees has not fared any better. A pattern has emerged in which Trump fills his cabinet with appointees whose personal and professional ideologies are largely antithetical to the agency they could soon be running -- a climate-denier at the Environmental Protection Agency, an anti-worker CEO heading the Labor Department, an Energy Department secretary who has previously suggested shutting down that department, a Putin pal at the helm of the State Department. Tough public vetting is perhaps the most important job the press has during a presidential transition, and yet journalists have stumbled when reporting on Trump’s troubling picks. 

    After Trump announced ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as his pick for secretary of state, morning news shows and newspapers noted that prominent figures including James Baker III, Robert M. Gates, and Condoleezza Rice had expressed support for Tillerson, with some mentioning that such support adds credibility to the pick. But those outlets failed to disclose that all three figures have considerable financial ties through their businesses to Tillerson, ExxonMobil, and the oil company’s Russian business ventures.

    Likewise, several media outlets reporting on Trump’s selection of Tillerson have uncritically described Tillerson as accepting of climate change and supportive of a carbon tax. But these reports ignored scientifically inaccurate claims Tillerson has made about climate change, Exxon’s continued financial support of groups that deny climate science, inconsistencies by both Tillerson and Exxon on whether they truly support a carbon tax, and fierce opposition to Tillerson’s nomination from leading environmental groups -- not to mention the fact that Exxon is under investigation in several states for possibly violating state laws by deceiving shareholders and the public about climate change.

    The media’s lackluster vetting efforts didn’t stop with Tillerson. CNN’s Alisyn Camerota whitewashed Trump’s choice for EPA administrator, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, by falsely claiming he “hasn’t denied global warming.” And some of the nation’s most prominent newspapers glossed over the discredited economic arguments peddled by Andy Puzder, Trump’s Labor Department pick, to justify opposition to raising the minimum wage, expanding overtime protections, and extending the scope of the Affordable Care Act.

    The public deserves a tough and thorough vetting of Trump’s cabinet picks, especially given that the Republican-held Senate will presumably confirm most, if not all, of his picks with minimal scrutiny. But if the media is idle during this critical time, the question becomes: At what point will they come off the sidelines?

    The media establishment is perhaps one of the last standing checks on the incoming Trump administration, and that role should be taken seriously. After all, if history is any lesson, an indolent press corps that allows a White House to run roughshod over reporters presents a very real danger to the American public at large.

    As detailed by Media Matters’ Eric Boehlert in Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush, “the mainstream media completely lost their bearings during the Bush years and abdicated their Fourth Estate responsibility to report without fear or favor and to ask uncomfortable questions to people in power." Motivated by promises of access and by fear of being painted as “liberal,” political journalists, argued Boehlert, rolled over for the Bush White House time and again, helping to spin, justify, and normalize the administration’s actions regarding the run-up to the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, the “Swift Boat” campaign against John Kerry, and Bush’s military record.

    Working for CNN at the time, now-Fox News host Howard Kurtz wrote in March 2013 that “the media's greatest failure in modern times” was that they “aided and abetted the Bush administration's march to war on what turned out to be faulty premises. All too often, skepticism was checked at the door, and the shaky claims of top officials and unnamed sources were trumpeted as fact.”

    The parallels between the Bush White House’ treatment of the press and the signals of how Trump will (continue to) treat the media are striking. In a PBS interview, New Yorker columnist Ken Auletta noted that “the Bush administration [did] not accept that the press has a legitimate public interest role." He said administration officials wanted “to figure out a way to deliver their message” without engaging the press and they worked to justify “having so few press conferences.” He added that because Bush was “angry at the press,” the White House decided “to aggressively go after reporters.”

    Accordingly, Auletta concedes, “the press went through a period of time where their coverage was too soft on Bush and [had] not enough skepticism.”

    Trump seems similarly poised to continue icing out the press, in turn creating dangerous barriers to solid, aggressive reporting and, alternatively, incentives for favorable, pulled-punches coverage. He has yet to hold a post-election press conference, has spent the last month attacking the media, and is toying with the idea of eliminating White House press briefings. These assaults on the media, combined with an ongoing noneffort by the media to cover Trump vigorously, portend great trouble for the media's ability to serve as an institutional check on a Trump White House.

  • Misinformer Of The Year: The Ecosystem Of Fake News And The "Alt-Right"

    Blog ››› ››› JOHN WHITEHOUSE

    An anti-intellectual alliance of misogynists and white nationalists is using cult tactics to harass and abuse Americans. They systematically attempt to discredit reputable sources. They replace logic with paranoia. They horrifically harass perceived political opponents. And this campaign, which has dangerous historical precedents, has been empowered by a fake news ecosystem and a tech industry that profits off the phenomenon.

    I. Fake News

    While reporting real news requires a newsroom and some sort of process that can be critiqued and examined, “fake news” is built to obfuscate and hide sources. Its creators are varied, from a random American making $10,000 a month from his fabricated Facebook posts to a group of teenagers in Macedonia running more than a hundred pro-Trump websites. The business model is simple: identify the news that people want to read, and give it to them, regardless of the truth and with no effort whatsoever put into actual reporting.

    There is no question that fake news got lots of attention in 2016, in part because the president-elect himself -- and several people close to him -- pushed fabricated information. That’s deeply concerning, because data shows that not only do Americans believe lies they see on Facebook, but also that Americans across party lines say fake news is a real problem.

    No one is more responsible for the rise of fake news than Facebook. It was Facebook’s platform that allowed fake news to spread far and wide. In fairness, the basic nature of the social media giant ensures that users will share lies to some extent. But the structures that Facebook built also made it easy to game. All content looks the same on Facebook, and the name of the source shows up in a small and almost unreadable font. The pages look nearly identical, regardless of their purpose or who is operating them. Of course, these factors have been in place since Facebook’s inception, but in 2016, other factors changed as well.

    In its own way, fake news is more sophisticated than real news. Sure, real news actually examines complexities that exist in the real world while fake news just makes stuff up. But fake news can be targeted to appeal to exactly what people want to see. On Facebook in particular, content can be fine-tuned to target exactly what people are likely to click on. Many private companies do this: It is called advertising. Whereas real news outlets generally post a piece once and people either read it or not, fake news can be tweaked again and again until it finally breaks through and becomes viral. And fake news outlets sometimes do have the data to go viral: Breitbart.com and Trump political benefactor the Mercer family has a company, Cambridge Analytica, that conveniently owns a lot of data on private citizens. And sitting on the board of Cambridge Analytica is Trump’s chief adviser, and the former CEO of Breitbart, Stephen Bannon.

    Facebook’s algorithm has always been extremely prone to confirmation bias, but changes in recent years seem to have allowed fake news to rise much more easily (as the algorithm is proprietary, no one outside Facebook can know for certain). In the past, at the very least, there were human editors who could manually prevent outright lies from making it onto the site’s list of trending topics. But when Facebook fired them after conservatives complained this summer, fake news really took off.

    As John Herrman explained in The New York Times:

    This year, political content has become more popular all across the platform: on homegrown Facebook pages, through media companies with a growing Facebook presence and through the sharing habits of users in general. But truly Facebook-native political pages have begun to create and refine a new approach to political news: cherry-picking and reconstituting the most effective tactics and tropes from activism, advocacy and journalism into a potent new mixture. This strange new class of media organization slots seamlessly into the news feed and is especially notable in what it asks, or doesn’t ask, of its readers. The point is not to get them to click on more stories or to engage further with a brand. The point is to get them to share the post that’s right in front of them. Everything else is secondary.

    While web publishers have struggled to figure out how to take advantage of Facebook’s audience, these pages have thrived. Unburdened of any allegiance to old forms of news media and the practice, or performance, of any sort of ideological balance, native Facebook page publishers have a freedom that more traditional publishers don’t: to engage with Facebook purely on its terms. These are professional Facebook users straining to build media companies, in other words, not the other way around.

    Google is also responsible for this burgeoning fake news empire. Google’s third-party advertising platform, AdSense, is driving mass profitability on many of these websites. When pressure started to rise about fake news, Google said it would be taking action to remove these actors from its advertising network, eliminating their ability to generate revenue. Our review showed that the company still has much work to do.

    II. The “Alt-Right”

    While some fake news is created simply for profit (think of the Macedonian teens who just see their sites as an easy way to make money), the misogynist and white nationalist “alt-right” embraces it for a more dangerous purpose: to encourage fake news readers into harassing individuals and discouraging people from taking part in public life. The fake news ecosystem is broader than just lies; many of these lies are purposeful.

    The “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory proved this link. A fake news story emerged from the depths of the internet claiming that a D.C. pizzeria with ties to certain political figures was running an underground child sex-trafficking ring. It was patently untrue. And yet mainstream reports on the story, even great in-depth reporting from truly credible sources, treated the fake news as separate from the harassment that pizzerias across the country endured from believers of the bogus claims as they spread to include other restaurants.

    Harassment is a deeply entrenched aspect of the “alt-right” community. It came to prominence with Gamergate, and then there was a wretched, bigoted campaign against black actress Leslie Jones. “Alt-right” figure Milo Yiannopoulos has now taken his harassment tactics with him on a college tour. Another example is the recent smear campaign against satirist Vic Berger by “alt-right” figure Mike Cernovich. Cernovich is no stranger to such tactics, having bragged previously about his ability to game Google to get other outlets to pick up on his smears, spreading the lies to more false headlines and more viewers. Comedian and producer Tim Heidecker has also spoken out about abuse he has received, including death-threats, as a result of "alt-right" criticism.

    The New York Times’ John Herrman took special note of commenters on pro-Trump Facebook pages:

    Nearly every page operator I spoke to was astonished by the tone their commenters took, comparing them to things like torch-wielding mobs and sharks in a feeding frenzy. No doubt because of the [Make America Great] page’s name, some Trump supporters even mistake [operator Adam] Nicoloff’s page for an official organ of the campaign. Nicoloff says that he receives dozens of messages a day from Trump supporters, expecting or hoping to reach the man himself. Many, he says, are simply asking for money.

    It is not clear to what extent this vitriol on Facebook overlaps with the “alt-right” proper (to whatever extent there even is an “alt-right” proper). But Facebook crowd-sourced virulence is at least overtly reminiscent of what is seen from the “alt-right.”

    A particular hub for the “alt-right” is Reddit’s “r/The_Donald” subreddit. As Bryan Menegus explained for Gizmodo:

    Reddit’s The_Donald subreddit was founded a year ago as the premier online meeting place for Trump supporters. It has since sought to—in CEO and co-founder Steve Huffman’s words—“dominate the conversation” on the site. Its members spread coded hate speech, openly antagonize other Redditors, and break the site’s most basic rules with impunity while moderators feel the brunt of the abuse, and Reddit leadership fail to adequately address the problem.

    This is abuse, and it is abuse for a particular political purpose. Whether it is under the guise of news or commentary, the fabricated stories bouncing around r/The_Donald, often cloaked in shockingly venomous rhetoric, do not adhere to and cannot be judged by traditional journalistic standards. This type of fake news needs to be understood in tandem with its context and purpose. Some of it is just for profit. But other pieces are intended to serve as weaponized propaganda meant to inspire harassment or even worse.

    The “alt-right” movement has been equated to white supremacy and neo-Nazis. That is broadly accurate, but the reality is a bit more complicated. More often than not, the gateway drug for this movement is sexism -- "extreme misogyny evolving from male bonding gone haywire,” as Aja Romano put it for Vox. White nationalism and neo-Nazism often come later.

    This framework also explains why the “alt-right” tilts at so many cultural windmills. Whether with boycotts against Star Wars this year, or boycotts against Star Wars last year, or boycotts against Ghostbusters or Hamilton or other notable events that women and people of color are involved in, the intent of the “alt-right” is not necessarily to be successful in the short run: The protests are intended as a statement of white patriarchy. Anyone talking about the boycott is surreptitiously sharing the message of white, male-centric cultural identity.

    Jason Wilson perfectly characterized the misogyny and bigotry of the "alt-right" when describing Yiannopoulos and his tactics:

    Yiannopoulos and the alt right certainly shared a couple of traits. First, there was a willingness to dispense with the American right’s trusty dog whistle and offer frank views on race (all the while disparaging those conservatives who were more attuned to euphemism and conciliation as ‘cucks’). Second, they shared a desire to restore white masculinity to its position as the central, reigning political identity.

    In Eugene, [OH], Yiannopoulos endorsed Trump’s call to end Muslim immigration on the grounds that fundamentalists ‘want to kill people like me’ – a preview of the full-throated Islamophobic appeal that he and others made to the LGBT community after the Pulse nightclub shooting the next month.

    But the meat of his address was a repetition of a claim he has made repeatedly in his writings and on social media: that white men, especially the working class, are being oppressed with an elitist doctrine of political correctness.

    Referring to lesbians as ‘horrendous, quivering masses of horror’ and feminism as ‘cancer’, Yiannopoulos generally castigated the ‘awful, awful, terrible, diseased and damaged people lecturing and hectoring the working class’ – those he sees as the enforcers of ‘the oppressive hegemony of social justice’. The only solution, he said, is a Trump administration.

    Members of the "alt-right" don't just preach this hatred. They mobilize it. Jesse Singal examined the many similarities the “alt-right”/fake news ecosystem shares with cults, and the role misogyny plays in attracting new members:

    But it’s the alt-right concept of so-called red-pilling where this subculture appears more similar to “traditional” cults and extremist groups. Adapted from The Matrix, “taking the red pill” or “getting red-pilled” simply means seeing the world as it really is. In the online subcultures that gave rise to the alt-right, its most famous meaning is in reference to feminism: After you take the red pill, the scales fall from your eyes and you can see that feminism is really just an attempt to emasculate and bully men, to allow social-justice warriors to run rampant over masculine (and traditional) values and ideals in favor of a shrill and judgmental far-left radicalism. Recently, the definition has expanded a bit — these days, in an alt-right context “getting red-pilled” probably means something more like “understanding that progressivism is a lie and part of a large-scale effort to hurt you and people like you.” But the basic point is the same: This is the moment at which you start to see things as they really are.

    This is exactly the sort of transformative experience offered by cults and extremist movements: After this, things won’t ever be the same for you. After this, you will have a role to play in an important battle that will determine the fate of the world. Your life will take on an enhanced meaning.

    At its core, the “alt-right” is just a bunch of men who feel powerless and resent women because of it. That’s why Gamergate is so crucial to understanding the movement; it truly was a galvanizing political event for a fringe movement that far too many mainstream people had overlooked because they were not the ones being harassed.

    III. Historical Precedent

    The “alt-right” weaponizes fake news stories that others drum up to harass and abuse opponents. Its members attack women, people of color, and the poor -- and their allies and advocates -- from “Gamergate” to Leslie Jones, to “Pizzagate” and now to Vic Berger (also see Megyn Kelly below). Radio host Alex Jones ties the conspiracy theories together and gives everything a common language. Reddit allows the herd to self-organize and quickly pivot from one harassment campaign to another. The Drudge Report tries to push these things into the mainstream. And tying the whole enterprise together is Breitbart, which was up until recently run by Bannon, now President-elect Donald Trump’s chief strategist. Breitbart is now even admitting that it will take on any Republicans who try to hurt Trump, again neatly echoing oppressive regimes of the past. Meanwhile, Trump is deliberately trying to undermine the reliability of truth itself, in a hope to push as many people as possible toward this ecosystem.

    It is possible that this abuse and harassment could escalate in the near future. While the digital tactics of pushing fake news and harassing people via social media are new, there is a precedent for this type of behavior: the “struggle sessions” in Mao’s China.

    Max Fisher explained how struggle sessions worked in The Washington Post:

    During Mao Zedong's totalitarian and often ruthless rule over China, from the early 1950s through 1976, one of the Communist Party's most unpleasant tactics for maintaining control was something called a "struggle session." On the surface, the idea was that everyone had to suss out "class enemies" and try to better their own commitment to the Communist revolution by attending regular "struggle session" meetings where they'd admit their own revolutionary failures and try to do better as individuals and communities. In practice, though, it was a form of self-reinforcing terror, a means of purging political enemies real and imagined, a tactic for working people into ideological fervor, sometimes in mass "sessions" with thousands of people.

    The systematic harassment campaign that the “alt-right” has waged through the guise of journalism is remarkably similar. Like the struggle sessions, the harassment is meant to create a sense of terror among political enemies while building a feeling of community among allies. It spreads extreme fear through communities across the country, deterring any theoretical political resistance. This abuse is meant to crush meaning in society. The more you discuss whether pizzerias have established a secret child sex ring, the more real it becomes. The more outlandish the accusation, the more effective it becomes. For both the struggle sessions and the “alt-right,” truth is no defense: You will be forced to submit. As long as members use the fake news to harass, then it is worthwhile. Engagement is not the means; engagement is the end.

    The next logical step would be something akin to book burning, which The Daily Beast says is “a peculiar form of censorship in that the act itself is intended to send a message. This is why book burning is a public spectacle. It is designed to express outrage and contains within it the notion that the ideas contained in the books or other works of art should be obliterated entirely.”

    Among American pundits, Walter Lippman alone understood the significance of what was happening when books were burned in the 1930s in Germany:

    The Nazis deliberately and systematically mean to turn the minds of the German people to war. These acts symbolize the moral and intellectual character of the Nazi regime. For these bonfires are not the work of schoolboys or mobs but of the present German Government acting through its Minister of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment.... For example ... they burn with conspicuous zeal ... Erich Maria Remarque's [anti-war book] All Quiet on the Western Front. The ominous symbolism of [this burning and] these bonfires is that there is a Government in Germany which means to teach its people that their salvation lies in violence.

    The only thing standing in the way of the “alt-right” is that it is not yet big enough to take on the entirety of American culture so directly. And yet it seems entirely possible that the movement could do something like that soon, especially if it grows emboldened by having allies in the White House. After an ISIS attack under President Trump, one can imagine the “alt-right” organizing some kind of book burning. Breitbart may even promote it.

    IV. Complicity Of Others

    The “alt-right” is the engine driving this harassment, and fake news is the tool. But it’s clear that failure of others in the media landscape helped the perverse movement get this far.

    For one, the tech industry is profiting from this activity every step of the way. Twitter’s failure to stop harassment is legendary. The Trump subreddit has grown completely out of hand. Facebook’s complicity in the spread of fake news is clear. The tech industry is so concerned with engagement that companies have been reluctant to act even when it is clear that some of that engagement is outright abuse and harassment.

    While mainstream media outlets seem to realize that fake news is a problem, they largely raise concerns only to the extent that fake news is a competitor or when the abuse is big enough that they can easily see it. There is surely fake news of every political stripe, and it should all be disincentivized. But there is no built-out ecosystem to weaponize it anywhere like there is with Breitbart, Alex Jones, Reddit, and the “alt-right.” That’s what mainstream media’s scolding about fake news and “both sides” gets wrong, time and again. In their reluctance to show the unique damage that fake news has on the right, mainstream media are continuing their biggest mistake of the Bush and Obama years: ignoring the growing radicalization of the right in America.

    And this ecosystem of fake news and the “alt-right” is entirely different from the previous right-wing media ecosystem. The previous model involved moving the audience from mainstream news to Fox News and then to the deeper trenches of talk radio and online email lists, where right-wing operators can often bilk their recipients financially. Now, things are different. Fox News’ brand of right-wing misinformation is pervasive, and over recent decades fewer people are watching mainstream news networks.

    The independence of the fake news/“alt-right” ecosystem has interesting consequences. First, members feel empowered to attack Fox News, framing it as part of the establishment media rather than an alternative to traditional sources. Aside from “Pizzagate,” the clearest example of this ecosystem is the harassment directed at Fox anchor Megyn Kelly. The first fake news story to trend on Facebook after the company fired its editors was about Kelly, falsely claiming that Fox fired her for being “‘a closet liberal who actually wants Hillary to win,’” according to CBS. Versions of this fake story featured language like “Megyn Kelly has gotten into a lot of hot water for her many attempts to smear Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump.” Another fake news story called her a “traitor” for her behavior toward Trump. As Kelly has now recently explained, she also was the recipient of torrents of online abuse from Trump supporters. The harassment may not have begun with the fake news story, but their connection seems clear. And the attacks on Fox News are not limited to Kelly -- Alex Jones attacks the network regularly.

    Secondly, traditional figures like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly are functionally irrelevant to the "alt-right." They may support Trump on a given day or they may not, but the “alt-right” operates independently of anything they say or do. Alex Jones or Breitbart issuing a call to action will move people, while Limbaugh and O’Reilly are now glorified book salesmen.

    And yet, right-wing media are still allied with and permissive of the “alt-right,” continuing to train their focus on mainstream media. Rather than concerning themselves with the issue of fake news, right-wing media use the term to attack mainstream outlets.

    In fact, right-wing media go out of their way to give space for the “alt-right” to operate. Fox News dramatically undercovered “Pizzagate” compared to other mainstream outlets. Fox News reporters (not just pundits) have dismissed the concept of “fake news” and defended the “alt-right” on air. When Facebook announced its plan to alleviate its fake news infestation, the most aghast were right-wing pundits.

    It is unclear where the phenomenon is going, but one clue may be Fox’s newest host. Tucker Carlson, Fox News’ Elf on the Shelf, is a huge favorite of “alt-right” trolls. If Carlson’s show is a success, Fox News in the future could drift more toward the “alt-right” model. (Worth noting is that Rupert Murdoch is reportedly a fan of Carlson's.) And the biggest glue tying together traditional right-wing media and the fake news ecosystem are the NRA and The Drudge Report, both of which were undoubtedly further empowered this election season.

    V. What’s To Come

    Many of the proposed solutions to fake news ring exceptionally hollow. Noting that the fake news ecosystem pushes lies will not stop the abuse; merely calling out the lies is like pointing out that rain originates in the clouds. The objective now is to protect people from the lies.

    It is long past the time for mainstream outlets to realize that the yoke of false balance empowers this ecosystem even more. The “alt-right” will turn any journalistic mistake into propaganda the very moment it occurs. A factual error will become an accidental truth. A correction will become censorship.

    There’s never been such a challenging time to be an informed citizen. Independent media are struggling financially, and mainstream media are obsessed with making everything about both sides, lest they lose a small portion of their audience. Right-wing media are telling all the traditional sorts of lies. Now a fake news ecosystem is feeding into the worst instincts of humanity while punishing anyone who dares stand up against them.

    And soon there will be a president who will validate those feelings.

  • The 2016 Election Emboldened Dangerous “Citizen Journalist” Vigilantes

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    Unaccountable so-called “citizen journalism” is on the rise, with vigilantes peddling private citizens’ personal information and engaging in illegal recording and harassment in an effort to practice what they call undercover reporting. And these tactics are actively endorsed by President-elect Donald Trump.

    Trump’s campaign rhetoric and behavior, and his allies in the media, fueled virulent conservative distrust of established media outlets -- regardless of their individual successes and failures -- leaving a patchwork of fragmented, and often disreputable, news sources to fill that void.

    Anonymous internet vigilantes and so-called “citizen journalists” like discredited video artist James O’Keefe are capitalizing on this moment of distrust to push their dangerous “reporting” tactics. O'Keefe is getting help from his supporters, such as Trump allies and media conspiracy theorists Alex Jones and Roger Stone, and the anonymous internet users O’Keefe and others have tried to incite as “agents of truth.” And these self-styled journalists have been directly validated -- and even funded -- by our next president.

    Trump specifically cited distortions from O’Keefe’s latest round of heavily edited videos on the campaign trail, and his charitable foundation gave at least $20,000 to O’Keefe’s nonprofit, Project Veritas, in 2015. Trump also personally validated and encouraged “new media” to combat “the total dishonesty of the press” on Reddit. In July, Trump hosted an AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) forum in July in the popular “r/The_Donald” pro-Trump subreddit, a community that combs through hacked personal emails, pushes hateful memes, and promotes conspiracy theories under the guise of “journalism.” Shortly before the election, Trump posted a brief missive to the subreddit declaring that “MAINSTREAM MEDIA is rigged!” and encouraging followers to “stop the RIGGED mainstream media” by watching a presidential debate on his website instead of on any news channel.

    Throughout the election season, Trump and his allies tweeted unvetted nuggets of misinformation from anonymous social media users, sometimes originating from the Trump subreddit. In the final weeks before Election Day, the Trump campaign seized on context-less soundbites from discredited video artist O’Keefe to push conspiracy theories at rallies and on air, stoking fear and further distrust of the government among his supporters. 

    GOP presidential candidates like Carly Fiorina and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R) also elevated the work of another wannabe journalist: Media Matters’ 2015 misinformer of the year, David Daleiden, who created a series of  deceptively edited “investigative journalism” videos smearing Planned Parenthood. In a September CNN debate, Fiorina infamously delivered an impassioned -- and completely factually inaccurate -- speech describing a “video” in which she claimed to have seen a “fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.” No such video exists, but media praised Fiorina for her “fiery” remarks.

    The danger lies in the stakes: Partisan activists who pose as “citizen journalists” have no stake in getting it right. They are not beholden to editors or to upholding any publication’s reputation for accuracy. With minimal name recognition and a clearly political agenda, though, these operatives do have an incentive to get media and public attention by any means.

    These operators willfully misrepresent their findings with deceptive editing and refuse to release full footage. They follow trails of misinformation -- without the benefit of a fact-checker to guide the way -- to private citizens’ doorsteps and church vans transporting people to the polls. They produce extreme headlines that don’t reflect reality but do confirm polarized beliefs -- enough for lawmakers and presidential candidates to cite them, at least. They delight in collecting “scalps” -- people who have lost their jobs because of deceptively edited undercover footage -- even as the truth later vindicates many of these individuals.

    They also call to action anonymous internet users who have even less to lose and the time to pore through obscure data or tail random members of the public, looking to find and publicize the personal information of individuals they perceive as unethical. In December, this danger culminated in a man shooting a rifle at a D.C. pizzeria as he attempted to “self-investigate” a conspiracy-laden fake news story propped up by anonymous, self-styled citizen journalists who accused the restaurant of operating a child sex-trafficking ring. The early stages of this collective internet investigation, too, were encouraged by conspiracy-loving Trump allies like 9/11 truther Alex Jones, and Michael Flynn Jr., a former Trump transition team member whose father is Trump's pick for national security adviser.

    This work is irresponsible, dangerous, and sometimes illegal; it is not journalism.

    Responsible, independent journalism is a hallmark of the American free press, and it’s a critical tool for holding leaders accountable for the decisions they make. It makes sense that some of the bright spots of 2016 stemmed from quality investigative reporting, but it also makes sense that a twisted view of the journalism field has elevated the worst in people this year.

    In the wake of Trump’s victory, right-wing activists styling themselves as “citizen journalists” are growing bolder. Since Election Day, they’ve been fearmongering and fundraising among their new supporters, congratulating each other on their journalistic chops, and touting “serious journalism being done onFacebook (sic) and YouTube.”

    O’Keefe’s post-election fundraising email included categorical threats of surveillance aimed at Attorney General Loretta Lynch, interim Democratic National Committee chair Donna Brazile, CNN reporter Wolf Blitzer, and President Barack Obama. “The tide has turned,” the email stated, “and we have them on the run.” 

    Additionally, O’Keefe uploaded a video to YouTube the day after the election titled “Main Stream (sic) Media Is Now Powerless,” in which he described receiving “thousands of tips about fraud” and encountering “hundreds of people who seek to become undercover journalists.” O’Keefe also thanked “truth-seekers and Internet sleuths” who “crowd-sourced the investigative journalism” on Reddit and promised viewers they would hear more from him soon.

    When we do, let’s be prepared.

  • Trump's Son-In-Law Reportedly Moving To Sell The Observer After Using It As A Campaign Weapon for Trump

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    President-elect Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is reportedly trying to sell The New York Observer, the media outlet which he used during the presidential campaign to give Trump positive coverage throughout the 2016 election.

    Reuters reported that Kushner, who owned The Observer while simultaneously advising Trump during his presidential bid, is hoping to sell the news site “so that he can focus on his budding political career.”

    Although The Observer did not officially endorse Trump during the presidential campaign, the editorial board did endorse him during the primary campaign. The Observer staff was involved in advising and even writing speeches for candidate Trump, while the outlet itself pedaled pro-Trump content. This only confirmed the outlet’s cozy relationship with the Republican candidate, which led one staffer to resign.

    While Kushner’s role in the Trump campaign has raised concerns, this is another signal that Kushner is using his father-in-law’s election for financial gain and to gain political clout. From the December 21 Reuters report: 

    President-elect Donald Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is looking to sell his newspaper, The New York Observer, the trade newspaper Women's Wear Daily reported on Wednesday.

    [...]

    Kushner may be selling the Observer to focus on his political career, according to the report. His wife, Ivanka Trump, is the president-elect's eldest daughter. Both he and his wife advised Trump during his successful presidential campaign. 

  • INFOGRAPHIC: How Total Lies Thrive On Facebook

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    Facebook’s fake news ecosystem empowers false information to spread beyond fringe blogs and websites -- which often have little to no independent readership -- to achieve viral success on affiliated Facebook pages, in turn sending users back to websites and generating revenue. Facebook pages, meanwhile, also generate engagement through likes, shares, and comments, which causes Facebook algorithms to spread the fabrications to a much wider audience than they may reach on their own. Fake news purveyors generate revenue from clicks through advertising services such as Google AdSense, incentivizing them to spread more fabrications and starting the cycle all over again. To learn more about how fake news stories use Facebook to spread in practice, read our analysis of the Facebook fake news ecosystem, and for more on the fake news universe, check out the Media Matters guide to fake news terminology.

    Image by Sarah Wasko.

  • How Facebook’s Fake News Ecosystem Empowers Total Lies

    How Fake News Purveyors Used Facebook To Create The Notorious “Pizzagate” Conspiracy Theory

    Blog ››› ››› JARED HOLT & TYLER CHERRY

    Step One: A Lie Is Born

    Step Two: Fringe Blogs And Websites "Report" Baseless Claims As News

    Step Three: Fringe Sites Promote The Story On Affiliated Facebook Pages

    Step Four: Facebook Users Share Stories On Group Pages And Personal Timelines

    Step Five: Other Fake News Purveyors Copy The Story And Promote It Again On Facebook

    Step Six: Fake News Stories Become "Trending Topics" Which Makes Them Even More Viral

    Step Seven: The Lie Is Noticed And Validated By Public Figures

    Step Eight: Fake News Creators And Purveyors Make Money And Sites Repeat The Cycle

    Facebook never set out to be a hotbed of bogus conspiracy theories. But its information ecosystem and news feed algorithm proved ripe for bad actors, and purveyors of fake news have gamed the system to deceive and misinform the public -- with incredibly dangerous consequences.

    On October 30, a white supremacist-linked Twitter account posted a tweet that would develop into a national fake news story, one claiming Hillary Clinton and her allies were involved in a widespread child sex-trafficking ring. After fake news stories spread the baseless claim through Facebook, conspiracy theorists on message boards Reddit and 4Chan named a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor as a central hub in the supposed operation. The story gained further traction on Facebook from there. Weeks later, an armed man entered the restaurant and endangered the lives of patrons and employees while he attempted to “self-investigate” the conspiracy claims that Facebook’s fake news ecosystem had artificially legitimized.

    According to Media Matters’ definition of the fake news universe, fake news is information that is clearly and demonstrably fabricated and that has been packaged and distributed to appear as legitimate news. Incentivized by ad revenue or potential political gain, fake news purveyors (websites, social media pages and accounts, or individuals who share or aggregate fake news stories) have figured out how to exploit Facebook’s algorithmic curation of news -- which relies on user engagement in determining what stories to promote -- to launch outlandish fabrications into the mainstream. Fake news purveyors’ efforts to push fake news on Facebook were also made easier after the social media giant fired its human editors in August following conservative outcry over allegations of suppressing conservative news. Fake news purveyors have largely found success peddling fake news stories on Facebook by modeling the following formula, and it is with this formula that fake news purveyors used Facebook to catalyze Pizzagate’s journey from a random tweet to international infamy:

    Fake news can sprout from multiple types of content, including clickbait, conspiracy theories, propaganda, and simply made-up lies on random internet platforms. A solitary lie might not have much of an impact, but a lie weaponized in the form of a packaged “news” article to achieve political gain can have serious consequences.

    In the case of Pizzagate, a white supremacist-linked Twitter account tweeted a screenshot of a seemingly random Facebook comment that claimed an “NYPD source” said Hillary Clinton was involved in an “international child enslavement and sex ring.” The Twitter account, which BuzzFeed noted uses a profile image found on white supremacist message boards, posted the comment as fact, stating that the “rumors stirring in the NYPD” indicated a “pedophila ring” (sic) with Clinton at the center. As of December 15, the tweet had been retweeted 6,516 times and liked 5,303 times.

    Although the tweet was retweeted thousands of times, its initial reach was limited by Twitter's platform, which is smaller than that of other social media sites. According to a Pew Research Center report, only 24 percent of adult internet users said they use Twitter -- which ranks it slightly lower than LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Instagram -- versus 79 percent who said they use Facebook.

    Fake news stories born in the fever swamps of the internet, specifically, are breathed into life when fringe websites with no regard for the source or veracity of claims package the fabricated claims as legitimate news.

    A user on the fringe web forum Godlike Productions (GLP) echoed the original neo-Nazi’s tweet, claiming that he or she had “inside sources” that confirmed at least six “members of Congress, several top leadership from federal agencies, and others” were involved in a “massive child trafficking and pedophile sex ring” fronted by the Clinton Foundation. The user claimed that members of Clinton’s inner circle of influencers “were active participants” and that the FBI and Department of Justice feared “a complete loss of public support for the federal government.”

    Fake news purveyor and conspiracy website Your News Wire published a news-style article (listed in the news section of its site) that alleged that an “FBI insider” confirmed the Clinton Foundation was a front for a “political pedophile sex ring.” Marking the point at which a lie becomes weaponized into fake news, Your News Wire cited only the GLP message board, the original tweet, and an archived thread on 4Chan’s “/pol/” (“Politically Incorrect”) message board containing a self-described “person with intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the Clinton case” as supposed evidence that “a massive child trafficking and pedophile sex ring operates in Washington.”

    Fringe websites that would not otherwise gather traffic on their own then push the fake news story to their affiliated Facebook pages. This serves both to maximize user engagement with the story (often aided by clickbait headlines) and to redirect users to their website (which is the main source of revenue for fake news purveyors, mostly because of advertising).

    Your News Wire posted its article alleging Clinton confidants were orchestrating a pedophile sex ring to the site’s affiliated Facebook page, where it has received more than 28,000 engagements -- likes, comments or shares -- since the story was first posted on October 31 through publication of this post, according to social media analytics service BuzzSumo.

    Facebook’s platform offers digital publishers access to more people than any other platform does.

    After fake information is placed into the Facebook news ecosystem and served up on users’ timelines, users recycle and share content. Because of Facebook’s algorithmic curation of news stories, the more that users engage with a story, the more of their friends see it, and so on. Users can repost fake news stories to their own or their friends’ timelines, share to another group, or cross-post to other sites like Reddit and Twitter to increase traffic to the story.

    Once a fake news story posted to Facebook starts to generate more user engagement, other fake news purveyors will often adapt the stories on their own websites. Then, after publishing the fake news to their own site, either by copying the story verbatim or by adding new, baseless details to spice up the “report,” these other fake news purveyors follow the same step as the original fake news creator: push to Facebook. As more and more fake news purveyors publish the same story on Facebook, a wider audience sees and engages with the fake story, making it go viral.

    AnonNews, a news blog claiming to be associated with hacking group Anonymous, regurgitated Your News Wire’s story verbatim in an article and in a Facebook post that has since been deleted. BuzzFeed reported that the fake news purveyor Subject Politics “introduced new, baseless claims” to the original conspiracy theory and used “an unrelated image of officers carrying seized property to create the impression the NYPD ‘raided’ something belonging to the Clintons.” Subject Politics has since deleted the article and corresponding Facebook post (which is not archived online), which had generated 113,500 engagements before the article's deletion, according to BuzzSumo. Fake news purveyor True Pundit next introduced new criminal claims to accuse Clinton of money laundering, child exploitation, pay-to-play at the State Department, and perjury. The corresponding Facebook post for the True Pundit article has since been deleted, but it generated over 164,000 engagements from when the story was posted on November 2 until publication.

    Other platforms including Reddit and 4Chan also facilitate the spread of fake news, partly by serving as a platform for fake news purveyors to post their bogus stories, but also because their users create more fabrications that fake news purveyors then package into updated fake news reports.

    After widely shared fake news stories alleging a child sex-trafficking operation in Washington, D.C., spread on Facebook for days, a Reddit user posted an elaborate conspiracy manifesto on the subreddit “r/The_Donald” that named Washington pizza restaurant Comet Ping Pong as a central location for the imaginary pedophilia sex ring. Moderators on the site have since removed the post, though discussion about it remains.

    After the user created more false claims about the pizzeria, more fake news purveyors adopted the lies into their own fake news, which in turn ended up back on Facebook. Western Sentinel uncritically published claims made on the Reddit forum as if they were fact, using the manifesto as an indication that “some form of pedophile ring that involves quite a few public figures” is operating from the Washington pizza parlor. According to BuzzSumo, in an article and Facebook post that has been since deleted and is not archived, The Vigilant Citizen published an article crediting 4Chan users for having “uncovered” the conspiracy theory.

    As fake news stories gain traction among an array of Facebook pages that traffic in hyperpartisan misinformation, more and more users see and engage with them. Then, as a story is increasingly shared, mentioned, and liked by Facebook users, its “engagement” level skyrockets. Facebook, which relies largely on algorithmic curation to determine what stories appear in its “trending” box after having fired its human editors, prioritizes engagement and rewards highly engaged stories -- those with “a high volume of mentions and a sharp increase in mentions over a short period of time” -- by making them visible to even more users. Of course, as more users see a story (precisely because it is boosted by engagement), its engagement level continues to grow, feeding a cycle of increasing engagement.

    Facebook employees cited by Quartz said “engagement is the overriding priority” for determining how the site’s algorithm curates news, more so than “avoid[ing] prioritizing misleading stories.” As more users share fake news stories, more of their friends see them; as an exponential number of users engage with a fake news story, it becomes viral; and as a fake news story becomes viral, there’s a high likelihood it could pierce into the Facebook “trending” section, where of course, it lends itself to maximum visibility. Facebook’s algorithmic prioritization of engagement ultimately ends up amplifying fake news stories.

    As BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman reported of Pizzagate, “Thanks to just a few tweets, a couple of message board posts, and the help of some pro-Trump sites eager for traffic, this conspiracy theory generated hundreds of thousands of engagements on Facebook, reaching potentially tens or hundreds of thousands of people.”

    As fake news stories go viral on Facebook, their chance for entering into the mainstream increases. Both because right-wing political influencers have a propensity for believing and peddling bogus stories and because the viral nature of fake news stories arguably offers them a veneer of credibility (see step six), these fabrications disguised as news -- including Pizzagate -- can and often do find their way into the mouths of public figures.

    Michael Flynn Jr., son of Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for national security adviser, and a former member of the Trump transition team, for example, tweeted about Pizzagate the same day that a gunman entered the D.C. pizzeria to “self-investigate” the claims:

    When fake news-purveying sites are successful in stimulating Facebook user engagement for their content, and in turn receive traffic to their affiliated web pages, advertisements and data trackers placed on their websites can earn the site owners a lot of money. This revenue stream enables the sites to continue operation and incentivizes them to continue presenting unsubstantiated sensational claims as fact.

    Many hyperpartisan sites peddling fake news stories rely on Google AdSense to generate wealth. Online publishers can earn money through Google’s AdSense program by hosting advertisements on their websites while Google serves as a middleman between publishers and advertisers. On November 14, Google announced that it would “ban websites that peddle fake news from using its online advertising service” in order to target fake news purveyors’ revenue sources. Despite this announcement, a Media Matters analysis found that one month later, Google AdSense-linked ads still appeared on many sites that blast fake news across social media platforms. The same methodology also reveals that Your News Wire, the first site to package the Pizzagate conspiracy theory into a fake news story, is still hosting AdSense ads today alongside its original “article” about the imaginary child trafficking ring.

    Other sources of revenue for sites can come in the form of paid-to-publish articles advertising products, other ad services like Taboola, and pop-up advertisements.

    Fake News Has Real Consequences

    Fake news stories can have lasting -- and sometimes dangerous -- consequences.

    According to a Pew Research Center report, 64 percent of Americans -- including a majority in both political parties -- said fake news has caused “a great deal” of confusion about the basic facts of current events. The report states that about a third of Americans said they often see “completely made-up” political news while online and more than half said they see news that is “not fully accurate.” Fake news has the potential to undercut the public’s belief that the information they receive, even from legitimate sources of news, can be trusted.

    The power of fake news and the social media ecosystem that enables it are not inconsequential and cannot be easily dismissed. In the case of Pizzagate, what started as a random online conspiracy theory morphed into a widely shared international news story. According to a search of the term "Pizzagate" on BuzzSumo, ranging from October 30 -- the date of the initial neo-Nazi tweet that kickstarted the fake news story -- through December 19, social media users have shared web articles (including both real and fake news stories) related to the conspiracy theory more than 5.2 million times across different platforms since the lie's birth. (Buzzsumo allows users to “discover the most shared content across all social networks and run detailed analysis reports.”)

    BuzzSumo data also showed that Facebook specifically drove an overwhelming amount of traffic to Pizzagate-related articles from October 30 through November 21, when the Pizzagate rumors were officially debunked for the first time by The New York Times.

    But the debunking of the lie did not stop it. At Pizzagate's climax, police arrested a North Carolina man after he walked into Comet Ping Pong pizza parlor with an assault rifle and fired at least one shot. The Washington Post reported that the man told police he traveled to the restaurant to “self-investigate” the fake news reports alleging that the eatery was the center in a Clinton-run pedophilia sex-trafficking operation.

    Pizzagate-like tactics -- publishing a baseless smear in a news-style article format and distributing it to an eager fan base -- have also been adopted to target not just establishments like Comet Ping Pong, but also individual people. Alt-right social media personality Mike Cernovich has now used the same method of attack that made Pizzagate dangerous to attack video editor and satirist Vic Berger, urging his followers to “monitor” Berger and his Twitter followers to “find out what is going on, who these people are, what their connections are” because “they might be harming children.” By spreading the false rumor that Berger and his Twitter followers may be involved in a child sex ring, Cernovich’s “pizzagate” tactics have resulted in a flood of online harassment and death threats aimed at Berger from “alt-right” Twitter users.

    Fake news, beginning in the form of a baseless Facebook comment and eventually becoming weaponized by a cohesive machine of fake news creators and purveyors, has had and will continue to have real-life consequences unless Facebook tightens its rules for how it is allowed to thrive on its platform.

    Graphics by Sarah Wasko

  • Breitbart Admits Role As Trump Enforcer, Showing Why It Should Be Denied Congressional Press Credentials

    Breitbart Editor Says Republicans Should Fear The Website If They Cross Trump

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    In a Politico article detailing how President-elect Donald Trump’s “horde of enforcers” -- Breitbart.com listed prominently among them -- are scaring Republican lawmakers away from criticizing him, a Breitbart editor said Republicans are right to fear the right-wing website, which was previously run by Trump senior counselor Stephen Bannon. This admission from Breitbart that the outlet plans to support Trump, rather than objectively cover his incoming administration, further demonstrates that the website is not editorially independent enough to warrant permanent Capitol Hill press credentials.

    Breitbart applied for permanent Capitol Hill press credentials in November. Media Matters has objected to the request, urging members of the Standing Committee of the Senate Press Gallery in an open letter to reject the request based on Breitbart’s disqualifying inability to demonstrate editorial independence from the Trump team as required by the committee's rules. Breitbart fails this standard in several ways, as several former members of the committee have acknowledged. In a December 21 Politico report headlined “Trump posse browbeats Hill Republicans,” Breitbart further demonstrates why the site must be disqualified from obtaining a permanent press pass by admitting that it will go after Trump’s Republican critics.

    From the Politico article (emphasis added):

    In early December, Rep. Bill Flores made what seemed like an obvious observation to a roomful of conservatives at a conference in Washington. Some of Donald Trump’s proposals, the Texas Republican cautioned, “are not going to line up very well with our conservative policies," though he quickly added that there was plenty the incoming president and GOP Congress could accomplish together. Little did Flores realize the hell that would soon rain down from Trump's throng of enforcers.

    Breitbart seized on Flores' remarks a few days later, calling them proof that House Republicans planned to “isolate and block President Donald Trump’s populist campaign promises.”

    [...]

    It’s little wonder that Capitol Hill Republicans have papered over their not-insignificant policy differences with Trump, shying away from any statement about the president-elect that might possibly be construed as critical. They’re terrified of arousing the ire of their tempestuous new leader — or being labeled a turncoat by his army of followers.

    It's a novel form of party message discipline that stems from Trump but doesn't necessarily require the president-elect to speak or tweet himself. Plenty of others are willing to do it for him. Since the election, numerous congressional Republicans have refused to publicly weigh in on any Trump proposal at odds with Republican orthodoxy, from his border wall to his massive infrastructure package. The most common reason, stated repeatedly but always privately: They're afraid of being attacked by Breitbart or other big-name Trump supporters. "Nobody wants to go first," said Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), who received nasty phone calls, letters and tweets after he penned an August op-ed in The New York Times, calling on Trump to release his tax returns. "People are naturally reticent to be the first out of the block for fear of Sean Hannity, for fear of Breitbart, for fear of local folks."

    An editor at Breitbart, formerly run by senior Trump adviser Steve Bannon, said that fear is well-founded.

    “If any politician in either party veers from what the voters clearly voted for in a landslide election … we stand at the ready to call them out on it and hold them accountable,” the person said.

  • Trump Campaign Made A Deal With Media Organization For “Straighter Coverage” During Election

    Trump’s Son-In-Law Admits Trump Team “Struck A Deal With Sinclair Broadcast Group”

    Blog ››› ››› BOBBY LEWIS

    Donald Trump’s campaign made a deal with Sinclair Broadcasting Group for more favorable media coverage during the election, adding to the growing lists of conflicts between Trump and the media.

    President-elect Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, a key member of his transition team, “struck a deal with Sinclair Broadcast Group during the campaign to try and secure better media coverage” for Trump in exchange for “more access to Trump and the campaign,” according to Politico.

    On December 16 Politico reported Sinclair Broadcast Group promised Kushner they “would broadcast their Trump interviews across the country without commentary” using their “television stations across the country in many swing states.” Scott Livingston, vice president of news at Sinclair, claimed the deal was aimed at “hear[ing] more directly from candidate on the issue instead of hearing all the spin and all the rhetoric”:

    Donald Trump's campaign struck a deal with Sinclair Broadcast Group during the campaign to try and secure better media coverage, his son-in-law Jared Kushner told business executives Friday in Manhattan.

    Kushner said the agreement with Sinclair, which owns television stations across the country in many swing states and often packages news for their affiliates to run, gave them more access to Trump and the campaign, according to six people who heard his remarks.

    In exchange, Sinclair would broadcast their Trump interviews across the country without commentary, Kushner said. Kushner highlighted that Sinclair, in states like Ohio, reaches a much wider audience — around 250,000 listeners — than networks like CNN, which reach somewhere around 30,000.

    [...]

    “Our promise was to give all candidates an opportunity to voice their position share their position with our viewers. Certainly we presented an opportunity so that Mr. Trump could clearly state his position on the key issues,” Livingston said. “Our commitment to our viewers is to go beyond podium, beyond the rhetoric. We’re all about tracking the truth and telling the truth and that’s typically missing in most political coverage.”

    A Trump spokesman said the deal included the interviews running across every affiliate but that no money was exchanged between the network and the campaign. The spokesman said the campaign also worked with other media outlets that had affiliates, like Hearst, to try and spread their message.

    “It was a standard package, but an extended package, extended story where you’d hear more directly from candidate on the issue instead of hearing all the spin and all the rhetoric,” Livingston said.

    [...]

    Sinclair, a Maryland based company, has been labeled in some reports as a conservative leaning local news network. Local stations in the past have been directed to air “must run” stories produced by Sinclair’s Washington bureau that were generally critical of the Barack Obama administration and offered perspectives primarily from conservative think tanks, the Washington Post reported in 2014.

    During the campaign, Donald Trump’s campaign treated the press with unprecedented hostility. As president-elect, he is using media allies like Fox’s Sean Hannity to build support for keeping the mainstream press out of Trump’s way.

    Kushner’s deal with Sinclair Broadcasting Group, an organization with proven right-wing leanings, reveals yet another way the Trump campaign manipulated national and local media to stem the tide of disastrous coverage from Trump’s myriad scandals.

  • Alex Jones Threatens To Sue Facebook Over New Initiative To Fight Fake News, Which He Claims Is A CIA Plot

    Blog ››› ››› OLIVER WILLIS

    Alex Jones

    Conspiracy theorist and Donald Trump ally Alex Jones, who was one of the major proponents of the false “pizzagate” conspiracy theory, threatened to sue Facebook after the company announced new efforts to fight fake news.

    BuzzFeed reported that Facebook will partner with organizations that have signed on with the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) fact-checkers’ code of principles to label false news stories on its network. The Associated Press, PolitiFact, FactCheck.org, Snopes, The Washington Post, and ABC News are the first organizations based in the United States that have agreed to the principles.

    Jones, who has promoted numerous conspiracies and false stories including the claim that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were perpetrated by the U.S. government and the allegation that the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre was a hoax done with actors, attacked the announcement on his December 15 internet/radio show.

    Running through several New York Times stories which he described as “fake news,” Jones threatened “to sue” Facebook if it allowed certain Times articles to remain active while “censoring” stories from Jones’ website Infowars. Jones also threatened to sue the fact-checking site Snopes for “their treacherous, tortuous interference and all the rest of it.” Snopes has repeatedly criticized Infowars for publishing false stories.

    Jones described the initiative as a “blacklist” that would involve “burying news, like the communist Chinese do.” He said the announcement heralded “the end of free internet.”

    Referencing the IFCN, Jones said international involvement meant “the U.N.’s involved now.” Jones also bizarrely claimed that the CIA is behind the Facebook decision and called on Trump to “unfund the CIA trying to run this.”

    Business Insider reported that the program will begin with “a test with a small percentage of [Facebook] users” Jones responded by instructing his followers to "go on” and “create a fake liberal network” so Jones and his company can label outlets like CNN and MSNBC as “fake news.”

    Jones was recently caught by Media Matters scrubbing his website of content promoting the false and dangerous conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton’s campaign trafficked children through a D.C. pizzeria (numerous pizzagate posts still remain on his website). The criminal complaint filed after a man fired an assault rifle in the pizzeria indicated that the suspect had recently shared a video created by Jones about the conspiracy.