Fake News

Tags ››› Fake News
  • Fake News Purveyors Cheer On, Echo Trump Team's Lies About Inauguration Crowd Size

    Many Of These Sites Use Google's Advertising Network

    ››› ››› BRENNAN SUEN

    Following demonstrably false statements made by President Trump and White House press secretary Sean Spicer that Trump's inauguration ceremony had “the largest audience to witness an inauguration," numerous websites that Media Matters has identified as purveyors of fake news cheered on Spicer for his comments or attempted to verify his false claims. Nearly all of these websites are still supported, in part, by revenue from Google’s advertising service and many attempted to brand mainstream media reporting about the crowds as “fake news.”

  • How Media Outlets Helped Trump Push A Fake News Story About Bikers And His Inauguration

    ››› ››› BRENNAN SUEN

    Media outlets uncritically quoted President-elect Donald Trump’s claim that he saw a “scene” of “thousands” of the group Bikers for Trump traveling to Washington, D.C., for his inauguration, even though BuzzFeed had reported hours before that the photos being shared online were recycled, having been taken years ago. As is well-established, media run the risk of accidentally enabling lies if they repeat Trump's unsubstantiated or false claims without including context or a rebuttal.

  • CBS Atlanta Affiliate Gives Credibility To Debunked Pizzagate Conspiracy

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN

    A CBS affiliate in Atlanta gave credibility to the dangerous conspiracy theory known as Pizzagate, which falsely claimed that Hillary Clinton’s campaign trafficked children through a Washington, D.C. pizzeria, with an anchor reporting that it’s wrong to say “there’s nothing to this story.”

    The conspiracy, which started on fringe and fake news-purveying websites before conspiracy theorists like radio host Alex Jones and the son of Donald Trump’s national security adviser promoted it, alleged that hacked emails from Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta showed that Washington, D.C., restaurant Comet Ping Pong was involved in a pedophilia ring. The baseless claim spurred at least one death threat for the restaurant’s owner, and in December a gunman opened fire inside the pizzeria in order to “self-investigate” the conspiracy.

    During the January 17 edition of CBS Atlanta affiliate WGCL’s evening news program, anchor Ben Swann said that while “not one single email in the Podesta emails discusses child sex-trafficking or pedophilia, … there are dozens of what seem to be strangely worded emails dealing with pizza and handkerchiefs.” Swann claimed “self-described online investigators say that those words in the emails … is code language used by pedophiles.” Swann also claimed there were “some very strange connections” between Comet Ping Pong and another pizzeria nearby, comparing that pizzeria’s logo to an alleged FBI report on pedophile signals. Swann concluded by saying, “Investigators have already proven there's nothing to the story, right? Well actually, no,” and questioning why police were not investigating.

    The segment has since been hyped on 4chan, 8chan, and Reddit -- which were among the websites that first pushed the conspiracy theory -- with users calling Swann’s commentary “fucking amazing” and an “unbiased report about Pizzagate.”

    Swann has a history of pushing conspiracy theories. In 2013, he questioned the “official narrative” of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School and the 2012 Aurora, CO, shooting. According to The New York Times, he has also “raised questions about the collapse of one of the buildings at the World Trade Center.”

  • Trump Speaks With Foreign Diplomats, Regales Them With Fake News Story

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    During the Chairman’s Global Dinner pre-inauguration event, President-elect Donald Trump bragged about the “record crowds coming” to celebrate his inauguration, including a group called “bikers for Trump.” Trump regaled his audience with tales of photos showing thousands of bikers purportedly making their way to Washington D.C., a fake news story uncovered by BuzzFeed hours before Trump went on stage. 

    Trump's comments were made during the event dubbed the "most exclusive event" preceding the inauguration which gives nearly 200 foreign diplomats the opportunity to meet the president-elect and his team. Footage of the event aired on the January 17 edition of CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 which included Trump's remarks to the diplomats and guests at the dinner (emphasis added):

    DONALD TRUMP: I also want to tell you, you know, so many people are talking about what's going on and now they’ve just announced we're going to have record crowds coming. I saw the bikers for Trump. Boy, they had a scene today. I don't know if I'd want to ride one of those, but they do like me. That's like additional security with those guys. They're rough when they get on that Harley, usually a Harley, made right here in America. And they had a scene today where they had helicopters flying over a highway someplace in this country and they had thousands of those guys coming into town. And let me tell you they are great people. And we are getting -- I think I must have gotten 100% of their votes between the military and the police.

    CNN host Anderson Cooper did not comment on Trump's remarks during the dinner due to technical difficulties with the video, but according to a BuzzFeed report, the photo Trump claimed purportedly showed a group of 5,000 motorcyclists on their way to Washington D.C. among various other photos, were actually photos taken years ago. BuzzFeed’s report explains that “several pro-Trump accounts on social media are using pictures and videos that falsely claim to show large groups of bikers on their way to the inauguration in Washington” and that, although pro-Trump bikers have requested a permit to attend the inauguration, no permit has been granted to date. 

    Trump has a history of sharing false claims or fake news that originate from fringe right-wing media sites

  • Meet The Mysterious, Facebook-Verified Page Pushing Fake News To Nearly 5 Million Followers

    American News Is Perhaps The Largest Facebook Page Regularly Pushing Fake News

    Blog ››› ››› BRENNAN SUEN & PAM VOGEL

    The verified Facebook page for American News (also known as The Patriot Review), with its more than 4.7 million followers, is perhaps the largest page regularly pushing fake news on the social media platform and is emblematic of the problem Facebook must address immediately. It shares dozens of posts each day, often topped with false, clickbait headlines that confirm biases and stoke fear in readers.

    American News also has no publicly listed writers, editors, or owners, nor a business address or phone number. That lack of disclosure helps hyperpartisan websites like American News to publish patently false information without accountability. The page’s opacity and role as a fake news purveyor also demonstrate the murkiness of Facebook’s “verification” guidelines, which require that pages have a publicly listed phone number or business documents showing an official name and address that “matches public records.” 

    Fake News Purveyors Like American News Share Both Hyperpartisan And Fake Content, Often Designed To Stoke Fear

    The American News Facebook page exclusively shares content from the AmericanNews.com website, which pushes a combination of fake news stories -- information that is clearly and demonstrably fabricated and that has been packaged and distributed to appear as legitimate news -- and other hyperpartisan, right-wing content. Stories from American News have been repeatedly debunked as totally “false,” most notably the “100% made up” lie that Denzel Washington had switched from supporting Hillary Clinton to backing Donald Trump in the 2016 election, which was shared hundreds of thousands of times. American News also pushed a fake news story in April claiming that President Barack Obama had issued an executive order to have his likeness added to Mount Rushmore and a 2014 story alleging Congress had approved a bill offering free cars to welfare recipients. The Facebook page for Proud To Be Conservative, with more than 1.5 million followers, also exclusively shares content from the AmericanNews.com website.

    American News posts -- whether sharing fake news or pushing highly partisan and heavily spun content -- have several traits that are common to the content pushed by fake news purveyors: They use classic clickbait headlines, actively seek to confirm far-right ideology, and exploit bigotry and biases. Social media analytics site BuzzSumo, which tracks social media engagement levels for websites, shows that half of American News' 10 most shared stories -- which collectively boasted more than 4 million Facebook engagements -- featured fearmongering about Muslims. Among these was an anti-Muslim fake news story claiming that a Texas man was forced to remove the U.S. flag from his house because it was a "threat to Muslims."

    Here are a few posts the page has shared just in the first days of January:

    This January 5 post pushes a fake story on the American News website claiming that a “Government-backed study” found that teachers were choosing not to teach students about the Holocaust in order to avoid offending Muslims. This story is fabricated; it originated with a 2007 email chain letter spinning false information from a report on schools in the U.K.

    This post, from January 2, shared an American News story alleging that a school had demanded “all must wear hijabs.” This story was also false; a student group at the Wisconsin college in question hosted one event in which students were invited to voluntarily wear hijabs for one day.

    This January 8 post pushed a fake news story that Michelle Obama "accidentally expos[ed] that her husband was born in Kenya." The video attached to the story came from a 2010 post on Alex Jones' Infowars.com and showed Michelle Obama calling Kenya her husband's "home country." Barack Obama was born in the United States.

    American News’ content has also been shared on Twitter by a number of right-wing figures, including Trump-supporting Great America Super PAC spokesman Carl Higbie, who shared a “mostly false” story that Muslims demanded the “army change its dress code to include turbans and beards.” Higbie rose to national attention in November when he suggested that the Japanese internment camps of World War II provide “precedent” for a Muslim registry. American News stories have also been shared by Fox News correspondent Mike Tobin and right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party Deputy Chair Suzanne Evans.

    Fake News Purveyors Such As American News Are Often Totally Anonymous, Leaving Them Unaccountable For What They Post

    Right-wing figures have repeatedly attempted to distort and rebrand the term “fake news” to attack credible news they don’t agree with, but the distinct problem of fake news has several unique symptoms, including a startling level of opacity, which is exemplified by American News. Legitimate news outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, and conservative outlets ranging from Fox News to hyperpartisan websites like The Blaze and The Daily Caller -- and even "alt-right" site Breitbart.com -- have accessible public information about their owners and staff. Hyperpartisan pages that push fake news stories, though, like American News, often make it nearly impossible to find any information about the people contributing to their pages or the entities operating them -- even as they rake in tens of thousands of dollars in advertising revenue. This secrecy allows them to remain unaccountable for the content they share, which often includes copied or plagiarized content from other such sites, shared to further spread patently false information.

    On December 15, Facebook announced steps it was taking to combat the epidemic of fake news enabled by its platform, but it did not include any guidelines about verified pages that push fake news stories. Its own verification steps for local businesses, companies, and organizations require that they use either a “publicly listed phone number for your business” or a “business document” that shows “your business’s name and address,” which is then reviewed “to confirm that it matches public records.” There is no publicly available and easily accessible business address or phone number for American News, nor are there any listed staff members for the website.

    A detailed search of articles on AmericanNews.com revealed no posts with a byline other than “by American News” or first names such as "Hank" or "Jeff." The "author" pages linked to these names reveal no details about the alleged writers, including last name, and the URLs for these pages do not match the author names (the URL for Hank's page indicates it is for a writer named "Kyle," and the URL for Jeff's page indicates it is for a writer named "Spencer"). Futhermore, there is no listing of the site's staff or reporters. A search of the online identity database WhoIs shows that whoever registered American News’ domain used a service to mask its street address, owner, and phone number. The only contact information on the website is on its privacy policy page, which says visitors can report violations of the policy to americannewscontact@gmail.com, as well as an inquiries form. American News did not respond to inquiries made through either method. Media Matters additionally consulted a representative from an accredited nationwide business record search engine who was unable to find any additional information about American News or its operations and said it would be nearly impossible given the lack of publicly available information on its website or Facebook page, which do not mention the state where the business is located or a business name other than the domain name.

    Either Facebook has information about American News that is not available for the average user who may encounter the page or Facebook has deviated from its current, perhaps inadequate verification procedure. Whatever the case, the social media giant clearly has more work to do in addressing its fake news problem; without action, it remains complicit in American News’ deceptive fake news tactics.

  • Internet Trolls Unleash Attacks On Washington Post Reporter Following Completely Made Up Right-Wing Media Smear

    Blog ››› ››› ANDREW LAWRENCE

    A false right-wing media report targeting The Washington Post’s Doris Truong has resulted in what she described as her “own personal Pizzagate” in which she was erroneously identified as being at Rex Tillerson’s confirmation hearing and surreptitiously taking photos of pieces of paper he left behind.

    Following Tillerson’s January 11 confirmation hearing for his nomination to serve as the next secretary of state, a photo of an unidentified woman seemingly taking photos of notes left behind at Tillerson’s empty seat began circulating on Twitter. Notoriously dishonest, and consistently wrong, right-wing blogger Jim Hoft then posted the photo and a video of the incident identifying the woman as Truong. Hoft has since updated his post and admitted that the woman pictured was not Truong, but the URL still reads “sick-wapo-reporter-caught-sneaking-photos,” a reference to Hoft’s original misleading headline. From there, the false claim was pushed by other right-wing media personalities like former Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin and linked to by The Drudge Report, driving even more traffic to the story and leading to widespread harassment of Truong at the hands of internet trolls.

    From Truong’s January 12 account of the episode published by The Washington Post:

    By the time I woke up, trolls had commented on social media channels besides Twitter. My Facebook feed had dozens of angry messages from people I didn’t know, as did comments on my Instagram account. Even my rarely used YouTube channel attracted attention. My emails and my voicemail included messages calling me “pathetic” and a “sneaky thief.”

    A lot of the comments also focused on my Chinese heritage, implying — or outright stating — that I must be spying for China. Some called for an FBI investigation of what they deemed illegal behavior.

    […]

    Even more bizarrely, one Twitter user insisted that “facial software on the video” led to the “almost positive” conclusion that the woman was me.

    But even if people believed that the person at the hearing wasn’t me, they wanted to know who she was. And that’s what’s particularly alarming about this time in our society: Why are people so quick to look for someone to condemn? And during the confusion about the woman’s identity, why is it presumed that she is a journalist? Or that taking pictures of notes in an open hearing is illegal? Or, for that matter, that she was even taking pictures of Tillerson’s notes?

    Despite his admission that he has no idea who the woman is, Hoft is still identifying her as a “reporter” and pushing the unsubstantiated claim that she was “sneaking photos” without any supporting evidence.

    Truong’s encounter with the far-right online fringe shares startling similarities with so-called “Pizzagate,” a fake news conspiracy theory perpetuated by Trump ally and right-wing radio host Alex Jones that eventually led one alt-right adherent to shoot inside a pizzeria in Washington, D.C. and engage in an armed standoff with police. In fact, Jim Hoft credited one of the leaders of the “pizzagate” fake news conspiracy in his original attack on Truong; right-wing blogger and sexual assault apologist Mike Cernovich, who recently directed an online harassment campaign against political satirist and video editor Vic Berger.

    As was the case with “pizzagate,” wherein an armed conspiracy theorist held up a pizza parlor while he “investigated” the veracity of absurd claims he read online, many of Truong’s online harassers are demanding that she get to the bottom of this story, and identify the woman herself, before they’ll accept that it wasn’t her.

  • Google Quietly Removes “Fake News” Language From Its Advertising Policy

    Blog ››› ››› BRENNAN SUEN & TYLER CHERRY

    UPDATE: See below for Google’s response.

    Google has removed language referencing fake news from its “prohibited content” policy for websites that use its advertising network. The policy previously stated that these sites cannot engage in “deceptively presenting fake news articles as real.”

    As of January 10, at least 20 of the 24 fake news-purveying websites flagged by Media Matters in December were still using Google’s advertising network, Google AdSense, despite Google’s November 14 announcement that it would restrict websites from using the network if they feature misrepresentative content. That announcement drew a wave of positive press saying Google was combating fake news, but it appears not to have led to the promised changes. 

    In December, Media Matters shared its findings directly with Google and asked the company to enforce its new policy. A Google spokesperson initially took issue with the characterization that it has a policy on “fake news,” stating that the company had “no policy specific to fake news.” Media Matters responded with a screenshot of Google’s policy page that explicitly cited “fake news” as an example of unacceptable content and offered additional evidence demonstrating that the flagged sites were in violation of Google’s policy.

    Google proceeded to leave the ads on the misrepresentative sites, instead quietly removing the reference to “fake news” from its much-lauded "fake news" policy.

    On December 14, Media Matters flagged 24 fake news-purveying websites -- websites that share or aggregate demonstrably fabricated stories packaged to appear as legitimate news -- using Google’s advertising service exactly one month after Google announced its ban. A January 10 review of these websites found that at least 20 of those pages are still running ads supported by Google AdSense (at least one of the websites, Observatorial, is now essentially defunct). The hyperlinked list of images at the bottom of this post shows screenshots of the sites that were still running ads that utilized Google's advertising service, which are marked with a blue triangle icon that reveals the words “AdChoices” when scrolled over and redirect to a Google ads page when clicked.

    At the time that Media Matters flagged the fake news-purveying websites for hosting Google ads, Google AdSense’s official policy on “prohibited content” included language explicitly noting that websites “deceptively presenting fake news articles as real” were prohibited from hosting Google ads. That language has since been removed from the policy page without explanation (click image to enlarge):

    Both Google and these websites benefit financially when the sites use the advertising network, which no doubt incentivizes the sites' creation of popular fake news content.

    With Google’s original announcement saying it would ban misrepresentative content from using its advertising services and the explicit reference to “fake news” in its prohibited-content policies, the company seemed to be taking concrete steps to combat the epidemic of fake news. Its public announcement drew positive press from major news outlets like The New York Times, The Atlantic, Reuters, and The Wall Street Journal, all of which hailed the restriction as applying to websites that put out fake news. But Google’s refusal to take action against websites in violation of its announced decision about misrepresentative content -- and its removal of explicit “fake news” language from its policy -- indicates that the promise to ban these problematic operators might have just been a public relations move.

    Websites Still Running Google Ads

    UPDATE:

    After publication of this post, a Google Spokesperson reached out to offer reassurance and reassert that Google remains committed to enforcing its policy against misrepresentative and deceptive content, stating:

    "We have not changed our misrepresentative content policy in any way. The policy language remains the same and we are continuing to enforce it vigilantly, just as when we launched it a few months ago. We've removed a large number of misleading and deceptive sites from our network as a result."

    Media Matters president Angelo Carusone issued the following statement in response to Google:

    While it’s reassuring to hear the revision we highlighted does not signal any wavering of Google's public commitment to addressing misrepresentative and deceptive content, we won’t be satisfied until Google enforces its policy against chronic violators, including the ones that Media Matters identified.

    Make no mistake, Media Matters is concerned with the growing ambiguity around the “fake news” terminology, which is why we published a glossary last month to clarify much of the conflation we saw in the media as the issue got more attention. Regardless of the terminology Google wants to use, the fact remains that more than a month ago Media Matters flagged 24 well-documented violators of Google’s policy for their attention and review — and 20 of them are still part of Google’s ad network, despite continuing to violate the policy.

  • Why We Should Keep Using The Term "Fake News"

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    Fake NewsThe Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan uses her latest column to call for journalists to stop using the phrase “fake news,” a term reporters and activists have used over the past few months to describe a form of politicized misinformation that had at least some impact on the 2016 presidential election. She reasons that “though the term hasn’t been around long, its meaning already is lost” in the wake of a deliberate effort by conservatives to co-opt the term.

    Sullivan is one of the best media critics currently working, with a keen sense of the media’s responsibility for calling out lies and a well-earned wide following. That’s what makes her missive so troubling.

    If conservatives succeed in their effort to dilute the meaning of “fake news,” the result will not be the clearer discourse that Sullivan hopes to inspire. Instead, critics will lose a common term used to identify and accurately describe a real and specific problem, while conservatives will take that victory and apply the strategy behind it to other fights, making it even harder to describe the challenges in a “post-truth” news environment.

    “Fake news” describes a unique phenomenon. Sullivan’s definition is “deliberately constructed lies, in the form of news articles, meant to mislead the public.” This largely mirrors Media Matters’ own description: “information that is clearly and demonstrably fabricated and that has been packaged and distributed to appear as legitimate news.”

    The term gained prominence after conservative and “alt-right” social media accounts and Russian intelligence services weaponized fake news during the 2016 presidential election, leading to an extensive discussion in the press over fake news content, its purveyors and beneficiaries, and the information ecosystem that allows it to flourish.

    Some conservatives have been trying to delegitimize the term by broadening it to encompass virtually all information with which they disagree. Breitbart, the right-wing, white nationalist website run by top Trump aide Stephen Bannon, was among the first to adopt that formula; it has deployed it dozens of times since to criticize stories by a litany of legitimate news outlets like CNN and The New York Times as “fake news.”

    For Sullivan, the term has been so “tainted” by these conservative efforts that it’s no longer of value. “Let’s get out the hook and pull that baby off stage. Yes: Simply stop using it,” she writes. “Instead, call a lie a lie. Call a hoax a hoax. Call a conspiracy theory by its rightful name.”

    Sullivan is right that conservative efforts to redefine “fake news” in order to delegitimize the press are a real problem. But her solution is to let the conservatives win.

    What would happen next? As she notes, fake news has a “real meaning” and identifies a pernicious form of discourse. No other term currently encapsulates its parameters. If we want to be able to reduce fake news’ influence, we need to be able to identify what it is and how it differs from different, better-known types of misinformation, such as lies, propaganda and conspiracy theories -- or from run-of-the-mill errors in reporting.

    The term “fake news” may be “imprecise,” as Sullivan writes. But that is because it describes an immensely complex ecosystem of actors.

    Moreover, Sullivan errs in assuming that taking “fake news” off the table will allow the press to operate on more favorable lexical battlefields. There is little evidence that the conservatives who deliberately distorted the meaning of “fake news” will simply move on if the term is dropped.

    Why would they? As Sullivan has correctly assessed, Donald Trump’s supporters are engaged in an unprecedented effort to create a “post-truth world.” If they can blow up the term “fake news” with such ease, won’t they learn that similar efforts may be similarly rewarded? Won’t they seek to redefine the very terms Sullivan urges journalists to use instead?

    For a glimpse of where conservatives could move next after spiking “fake news,” I’d recommend “10 Conspiracy Theories That Came True,” an Infowars piece co-authored by Alex Jones. Jones, a Trump ally who has said that the government perpetrated the 9/11 attacks and the tragedies at Columbine, Oklahoma City, Sandy Hook, and the Boston Marathon, has been widely and accurately derided as a conspiracy theorist.

    And so in his 2014 article, he redefines “conspiracy theory” as a term “weaponized by the establishment as a perjorative (sic) slur against anyone who questions the official narrative of any government pronouncement.” He includes the U.S. role in the 1953 coup in Iran and the Gulf of Tonkin among their numbers.

    It’s not only in the interest of conspiracy theorists like Jones to tarnish that phrase -- the Trump administration will also benefit from stretching the term to encompass any criticism of the incoming president.

    Trump himself responded to December reports that the CIA had identified Russian intelligence efforts to bolster his campaign by terming the finding a “conspiracy theory.”

    Sullivan is right that journalists need to be willing to call out lies, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories.

    But “fake news” has a place on that list as well. Let’s defend it rather than folding under the first wave of conservative pressure.

  • Daily Beast Exposes Racist Alt-Right Conspiracy Theory About Fort Lauderdale Shooter

    Right-Wing Fringe Falsely Accused CNN Of Doctoring Photo Of Shooting Suspect To Make Him Look More White

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    Daily Beast exposed how fake news purveyors pushed a race baiting alt-right conspiracy theory about accused Ft Lauderdale shooter, Esteban Santiago, which alleged that CNN doctored a photo of Santiago. In reality, CNN has not shown a picture of Santiago, and right-wing media outlets that ran with the racist conspiracy theory, namely Gateway Pundit, have had to repudiate their own false claims.

    Santiago is accused of opening fire at the Fort Lauderdale airport on January 6, killing five people and injuring multiple others. Santiago was apprehended at the scene and is currently being interviewed to determine the motive of the shooting.

    The Daily Beast detailed how “alt-right” fringe sites like InfoWars and Gateway Pundit falsely claimed CNN published a doctored photo of Santiago that made the person in the picture appear to be lighter in complexion “to make the suspect look more white.” The article noted that “in reality, CNN had yet to air a picture of Santiago, let alone lightened a picture of him.” Gateway Pundit’s Jim Hoft wrote up the story and linked to “alt-right Twitter accounts,” before being forced to admit the mistake and retracting the post:

    Far rightwing figureheads immediately invented an elaborate and racist conspiracy theory that CNN had lightened a photo of alleged Fort Lauderdale airport shooter Esteban Santiago shortly after the Friday attack.

    In reality, CNN had yet to air a picture of Santiago, let alone lightened a picture of him. The conspiracy also used a picture of an entirely different man named Esteban Santiago—not the alleged shooter.

    Still, writers at websites like InfoWars and Gateway Pundit tweeted about CNN’s nonexistent Photoshop job. Former Republican Florida Congressman Allen West, who represented Fort Lauderdale itself, even tweeted about the conspiracy and linked to an article about it on his own website.

    [...]

    Alt-right Twitter accounts appear to have helped create the confusion. After media personality Tariq Nasheed tweeted, “there are reports that the identity of one of the Ft. Lauderdale shooting suspects is a white Hispanic named Esteban Santiago,” verified alt-right Twitter user @BakedAlaska tweeted a screenshot of Nasheed’s tweet, along with a picture of the wrong Santiago.

    [...]

    Hoft’s story links to a tweet by the user @alphakangz, whose account has only existed since November.

    “UNDOCTORED PHOTO vs. photo @CNN USED PHOTO of Esteban Santiago, the alleged FLL airport shooter #FortLauderdale pray for the victims,” the account tweeted.

    Minutes later, a copy of the lightened photo of the 39-year-old Santiago, falsely claiming CNN attribution, appeared on Watson’s Twitter feed.

    Update 6:31 p.m.: Gateway Pundit's Jim Hoft emailed The Daily Beast about an hour after this story's initial publication.

    "I pulled the post," he said.

    "UPDATE — THIS MAY BE A DIFFERENT ESTEBAN SANTIAGO," the story now reads.

    The Daily Beast reached out to both Watson for comment. His tweet is still visible on his account.

    The ecosystem of fake news and the alt-right, dubbed the ‘Misinformer of the Year,’ continues to evolve and expand. Media Matters has created a glossary to help understand what fake news is and the ecosystem underpinning the phenomenon. Episodes like Pizzagate show how social media platforms like Facebook help to empower total lies, and conservative media outlets like Gateway Pundit help to mainstream these lies.

  • Lindy West Leaves Twitter: “Get Back To Me When Your Website Isn’t A Roiling Rat-King Of Nazis” 

    Writer Denounces Platform’s Refusal To Protect Users From “Alt-Right” Harassment

    Blog ››› ››› PAM VOGEL

    Writer Lindy West, who spent years cultivating a reputation for engaging with (and frequently demolishing) social media trolls, has announced she’s leaving Twitter because of the “global repercussions” of the platform’s “refusal to stop” harassment campaigns launched by the white supremacist, misogynist “alt-right” movement.

    In a January 3 opinion piece at The Guardian, West explained that she had deactivated her Twitter account after “half a decade of troubleshooting” to curb personal harassment and threats from anonymous users trolling her on the social media platform. West, who regularly engaged with her tormentors on Twitter and even confronted a user who harassed her while posing as her dead father, concluded that Twitter was “unusable for anyone but trolls, robots and dictators.”

    West explained that her decision to leave Twitter didn’t stem from simply reaching a breaking point when it came to trolls, but rather that it represented her disgust with Twitter’s “refusal” to “intervene and start protecting its users” from coordinated harassment campaigns led by members of the so-called “alt-right.” As West pointed out, “Twitter executives did nothing” for years in which the “alt-right” was “beta-testing its propaganda and intimidation machine on marginalised Twitter communities.” This harassment included the deeply racist and misogynist campaign against black actress Leslie Jones last summer, led by “alt-right” Breitbart.com editor and serial harasser Milo Yiannopoulos, and the similarly misogynist Gamergate “hate-storm” in 2014.

    Recent “alt-right” manipulation of Twitter represents a dangerous escalation of the sort of Twitter harassment, abuse, and disinformation West has fought for years. A combination of trolls (e.g., anonymous users goaded and led by the ideologically hateful “alt-right”), robots (bot and spam accounts created specifically, often by the trolls, to amplify the abuse or disinformation), and dictators (or at least leaders with authoritarian tendencies) are using the platform to rile users with fake news stories and general misinformation, confirming and encouraging harmful views that justify the abuse of others. It’s created an ecosystem that’s “feeding into the worst instincts of humanity,” and Twitter’s inaction has amounted to a stamp of approval that West said she can longer accept.

    From West’s January 3 op-ed (emphasis added):

    I hate to disappoint anyone, but the breaking point for me wasn’t the trolls themselves (if I have learned anything from the dark side of Twitter, it is how to feel nothing when a frog calls you a cunt) – it was the global repercussions of Twitter’s refusal to stop them. The white supremacist, anti-feminist, isolationist, transphobic “alt-right” movement has been beta-testing its propaganda and intimidation machine on marginalised Twitter communities for years now – how much hate speech will bystanders ignore? When will Twitter intervene and start protecting its users? – and discovered, to its leering delight, that the limit did not exist. No one cared. Twitter abuse was a grand-scale normalisation project, disseminating libel and disinformation, muddying long-held cultural givens such as “racism is bad” and “sexual assault is bad” and “lying is bad” and “authoritarianism is bad”, and ultimately greasing the wheels for Donald Trump’s ascendance to the US presidency. Twitter executives did nothing.

    On 29 December, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted: “What’s the most important thing you want to see Twitter improve or create in 2017?” One user responded: “Comprehensive plan for getting rid of the Nazis.”

    “We’ve been working on our policies and controls,” Dorsey replied. “What’s the next most critical thing?” Oh, what’s our second-highest priority after Nazis? I’d say No 2 is also Nazis. And No 3. In fact, you can just go ahead and slide “Nazis” into the top 100 spots. Get back to me when your website isn’t a roiling rat-king of Nazis. Nazis are bad, you see?

    Trump uses his Twitter account to set hate mobs on private citizens, attempt to silence journalists who write unfavourably about him, lie to the American people and bulldoze complex diplomatic relationships with other world powers. I quit Twitter because it feels unconscionable to be a part of it – to generate revenue for it, participate in its profoundly broken culture and lend my name to its legitimacy.

  • 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.

  • Anti-LGBTQ Junk Science And Fake News Are Poised To Harm the Future of LGBTQ Equality

    Blog ››› ››› RACHEL PERCELAY

    Pseudoscience and lies have long been the favorite tactics of anti-LGBTQ extremists, but now that the incoming U.S. president is highly influenced by hate groups, fake news purveyors, and far-right publications that peddle such misinformation, these smoke and mirror tactics are well-positioned to harm LGBTQ equality.

    Right-Wing Sites Regularly Peddle Anti-LGBTQ Junk Science

    For decades, junk science has been used to attack LGBTQ people as unhealthy and dangerous. Longtime LGBTQ advocate and journalist Claude Summers recently defined the purpose of anti-LGBTQ junk science as “not to persuade the scholarly community, which will immediately note its sloppy methodology,” but to “provide naïve readers some quasi-respectable justifications for their prejudices and to fuel social conservative political chatter.”

    After scientific consensus rejected the “sickness theories” of homosexuality in the 1970s, “anti-LGBT professionals retreated from mainstream scientific organizations and formed their own groups,” Summers explained. These fringe splinter groups, like the deceptively named American College of Pediatricians (ACPeds) -- an anti-LGBTQ hate group with about 500 members whose name is meant to be confused with the 60,000-member American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) -- funnel debunked “research” to anti-LGBTQ extremist organizations like the Family Research Council (FRC), also a designated hate group. FRC and its allies peddle this misinformation as widely as possible to be used as ammunition in the fight against equality.

    Right-wing outlets like Breitbart and The Daily Caller are the go-to platforms for anti-LGBTQ activists looking to push hateful lies and myths. Breitbart in particular regularly pushes pseudoscientific attacks on transgender people. Since March 2016, Breitbart authors have cited ACPeds to falsely claim that affirming transgender youths’ gender identity is a “form of child abuse” in at least 19 different articles. The talking point originated from an American College of Pediatricians “report,” which was quickly touted in other right-wing outlets like The Blaze and The Daily Caller. As The Daily Beast’s Samantha Allen highlighted, right-wing journalists published ACPed’s “child abuse” claim “without contrasting their primary source with the AAP.”

    This type of anti-LGBTQ pseudoscience isn’t confined to right-wing web outlets. On Fox News, “Medical A Team” member Dr. Keith Ablow frequently pushes harmful anti-transgender misinformation. In April, Ablow speculated wildly about medical care for transgender youth, and proposed his own harmful “treatments,” akin to conversion therapy, that go against scientific evidence and professional standards from mainstream medical associations.

    Even mainstream outlets like The Associated Press and NPR have allowed well-known purveyors of junk science to attack LGBTQ people.

    Fake News Reinforces Myths Pushed By Anti-LGBTQ Hate Groups

    The potential real-life impact of fake news was starting to become apparent several months before it took center stage in the 2016 election. In May, BuzzFeed spotlighted a slew of anti-transgender fake news stories that had gone viral. These fake news stories spiked largely in response to increased media coverage of so-called “bathroom bills” and North Carolina’s anti-LGBTQ law (HB 2). The measure broadly bans transgender people from using bathrooms that align with their gender identity in publicly run facilities and schools.

    Many of the fake stories BuzzFeed profiled -- like an “article” about a transgender women getting caught taking pictures of underage girls at Target -- stem from the anti-LGBTQ “bathroom predator” myth, which purports that sexual predators will pretend to be transgender in order to exploit nondiscrimination laws and sneak into women’s restrooms. Fake news preys on long-standing misconceptions and stereotypes and exploits them to confirm unsubstantiated fears. BuzzFeed interviewed the owner of several fake news sites, who said the stories are a way to make “easy money” by capitalizing off of “the political polarization and anti-LGBT stance at the heart of HB 2.”

    In the past, anti-LGBTQ hate groups were the ones spreading fake “bathroom predator” stories -- and outlets like Fox News fell for it. But now, the sheer profitability of clickbait fake news means that even if hate groups aren’t peddling these stories themselves, fake news is helping to buttress anti-LGBTQ talking points by relying on misconceptions and controversy for their content. A recent BuzzFeed News survey found that fake news headlines “fool American adults about 75% of the time” --meaning that all of these fabricated stories and fact-free science could have a real-life impact on public opinion about LGBTQ people.

    Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, voiced her concern that these lies -- one of which ended with a vigilante shooting a transgender woman -- could fuel anti-transgender violence. Whether because of these fake news stories or not, 2016 has been the deadliest year on record for transgender people.

    The Trump Administration Is Stocked With Purveyors Of Right-Wing Media’s Anti-LGBTQ Myths And Pseudoscience

    While pseudoscience and lies have long been staple tools of anti-LGBTQ extremist organization, the two tactics are now more likely than ever to be employed to justify anti-LGBTQ policies, given the incoming Trump administration. FRC -- the hate group with years of experience peddling anti-LGBTQ junk science -- has a growing influence on Trump’s transition team.

    FRC president Tony Perkins played a pivotal role in Trump’s campaign and helped shape the Republican Party platform. During the Republican National Convention, he was successful in adding support for “ex-gay” conversion therapy, a discredited, harmful practice that falsely claims to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, and has been denounced by every major medical organization. Since the election, some of Perkins’ FRC affiliates have won spots in Trump’s transition team. Wired’s Emma Ellis spotlighted the hate group’s growing influence on the Trump administration, which includes the following members affiliated with FRC:

    In addition to FRC’s influence on the administration, Breitbart’s brand of anti-LGBTQ pseudoscience has a champion in Stephen Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and senior counselor. Bannon led Breitbart from 2012 through August of this year, when he became the chief executive of Trump’s campaign. In addition to peddling anti-gay junk science, under Bannon’s leadership the site made a “noticeable shift toward embracing ideas on the extremist fringe of the conservative right. Racist ideas. Anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant ideas -- all key tenets making up an emerging racist ideology known as the ‘Alt-Right,’” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

    Trump’s nominees for cabinet positions also have a history of pushing harmful myths about LGBTQ people. Combined with FRC and Breitbart, individual anti-LGBTQ extremists are well-poised to gin up junk science attacks and use them to influence policy making throughout the Trump administration. LGBTQ advocates and journalists have already documented some of their fears about the potential consequences of the resurgence of anti-LGBTQ pseudoscience, including:

    • a comeback of “ex-gay” conversion therapy programs;
    • revocation of the Obama administration’s recommendation to treat transgender students in accordance with their gender identity;
    • repeal of the Affordable Care Act and its health care protections for LGBTQ people; and
    • passage of the so-called “First Amendment Defense Act,” federal “religious freedom” legislation that would permit discrimination against LGBTQ people.

    Junk science can be easily debunked, as long as reporters are armed with the facts. Journalists should be prepared to counter the false narratives behind the coming attacks on LGBTQ equality.

  • 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.

  • 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.