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Media Matters executive vice president Angelo Carusone explained how conspiracy theories travel “directly” from Trump ally Alex Jones’ radio show to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in an interview with the Austin American-Statesman.
Jones, the host of the nationally radio program The Alex Jones Show, is a self-identified founder of the 9/11 Truth movement and promotes numerous conspiracy theories, including claiming that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and other national tragedies were events staged by the government.
Despite this background, Trump has appeared on Jones’ program and praised his “amazing” reputation. Jones has taken credit for policy positions advanced by Trump and has marveled at how “it is surreal to talk about issues here on air and then word-for-word hear Trump say it two days later.”
Conspiracy theories and attacks that have jumped from Jones’ show to the Trump campaign include claims that election will be rigged, calls for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton to be jailed, conspiracy theories about Clinton’s health, and the claim Clinton used an earpiece during a debate.
A profile of Jones in the Austin American-Statesman explained how many conspiracy theories prevalent in the 2016 election make their way from Jones to the Trump campaign. Describing the phenomenon, Carusone told the American-Statesman that there used to be “two, three, four, five steps” between Jones and Trump, but in part because of the promotion of Jones by conservative website The Drudge Report, “It’s not working its way up the food chain any more. Donald Trump is consuming it directly.”
From the American-Statesman’s October 21 article:
But, as the 2016 campaign draws to a close, it’s becoming plain that Austin’s Alex Jones -- a right-wing broadcast personality and conspiracy theorist extraordinaire who until recently flew under the mainstream radar -- might as well be the voice in Donald Trump’s head.
Hillary for Prison. That’s Alex Jones. Obama founded ISIS. That’s Jones. The election is rigged. Again from Jones. Hillary Clinton is at death’s doorstep. Jones. And only drugs keep her going. Jones. Bill Clinton as rapist and Hillary his enabling enforcer. Jones.
[Trump adviser Roger] Stone saw how ripe Jones’ anti-globalist audience was for Trump’s nationalist appeal.
“The majority of them are under 50, and they are all engaged. They are part of this digital sharing economy. They are willing to get out on the streets and do stuff,” said Angelo Carusone, executive vice president of Media Matters for America, a not-for-profit progressive media watchdog group.
What few saw coming was a Republican presidential candidate with a weakness for conspiratorial thinking who prized the reporting of the National Enquirer and had his news consumption curated by Matt Drudge, who in the last five years switched his allegiance for political news of the weird from Glenn Beck to Jones.
“Drudge gave Jones a whole new audience and access to a whole new group of thought leaders, like Donald Trump,” Carusone said.
It used to be that there were “two, three, four, five steps” between Jones spinning a conspiracy theory and it gaining broader traction. But now, Carusone said, “It’s not working its way up the food chain any more. Donald Trump is consuming it directly.”
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Though the presidential election is barreling toward its end, the “axis of furious conservative activists and hard-right media that spawned Trump’s nationalist and conspiratorial campaign is determined to complete its hostile takeover of the GOP, win or lose,” writes The Washington Post’s Robert Costa. According to Costa, conservative media figures like Breitbart News’ Stephen Bannon, InfoWars’ Alex Jones, and Fox News’ Sean Hannity have spawned a “grievance movement” seeking “to claim the [GOP’s] future as its own,” whose likely “first post-election target” will be House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI).
Trump and far-right media have been in lockstep throughout his presidential campaign: Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News, is Trump’s campaign chairman; Jones, a 9/11 truther who leads the conspiracy website InfoWars, feeds Trump conspiracy theories for campaign speeches; and Hannity, the far-right prime-time pundit on Fox, has gone to all lengths possible to defend and praise Trump. Trump’s engagement with hard-right, conspiratorial media figures has elevated and mainstreamed them, offering them a platform that has long been out of reach.
On October 20, Costa reported in the Post that “the fringes of the GOP [are] now managing the Republican nominee” and that the party’s “Donald Trump-driven divisions will not cease on election night.” Costa wrote that the conservative media network -- which has seen “high-minded journals and Fox News … supplanted by a galaxy of websites such as Infowars” -- “stands ready to claim the party’s future as its own,” setting the stage for an intra-party showdown “that will haunt Republicans for months and years to come.” From the October 20 Washington Post article:
The axis of furious conservative activists and hard-right media that spawned Trump’s nationalist and conspiratorial campaign is determined to complete its hostile takeover of the GOP, win or lose.
The first post-election target for the grievance movement is likely to be House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who has drawn Trump’s wrath for not supporting him more fully. Trump’s backers, both inside the House Republican caucus and out, are already talking about a takedown.
Fox News host and Trump ally Sean Hannity said in an interview after the debate that Ryan was a “saboteur” and “needed to be called out and replaced.” Hannity said he would actively urge hard-line conservatives to launch bids against Ryan.
At the fore of this conglomeration is Stephen K. Bannon, the former head of Breitbart who has become Trump’s most influential confidant. Bannon encouraged the candidate’s claims of voter fraud and references to a deeply corrupt global conspiracy of international banks and corporate-friendly politicians.
Bannon has been a prominent backer of political assaults against Ryan and other Republican leaders over the past decade from the party’s fringes — boosting primary challengers against Ryan and others, and warning against compromise on hot-button issues such as immigration. But with the fringes of the GOP now managing the Republican nominee, a retreat is far from likely.
Bannon’s friends say that he has become emboldened during his time with Trump, and that they expect him to work with his network of allies, super PACs and websites to battle Ryan and the Republican establishment throughout 2017 as that wing of the party tries to rebuild the GOP brand.
It is not just Breitbart that stands ready to claim the party’s future as its own. The conservative media, once dominated by high-minded journals and Fox News, has been supplanted by a galaxy of websites such as Infowars, which is led by Alex Jones, who calls the 9/11 terrorists attacks an inside job.
Articles on those outlets have found their way into Trump’s speeches and been spread widely across platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, often building into a frenzy that leaves traditional GOP messengers unable to shape the consensus within their own party.
Conspiracy theorist and prominent Donald Trump ally Alex Jones ranted throughout his livestream of the third presidential debate, calling Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton a “lying whore” and “monstrous pig” and claiming that he is mentally “synced” with Trump.
After a Trump attack line on Clinton during the debate, Jones said he was “about to say that” and then claimed, “we’re like synced, there isn’t any wires in our ears, literally, to each other, but we’re synced with common sense.” His rant then devolved into screaming at Clinton, “You’re a criminal monster. We have the emails. You want our guns. You lie about everything. You’re a monstrous pig picked by the globalists to curse this country”:
During another Clinton answer, Jones called Clinton an “evil wicked witch” who is planning to “steal” the election and began screaming, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no!”
During a Clinton answer about the Second Amendment, Jones called Clinton a “lying whore” and a “goddamn liar”:
Trump previously praised Jones and his “amazing” reputation during an appearance on Jones’ radio show. Jones is a self-identified founder of the 9/11 Truth movement and promotes numerous conspiracy theories, including claiming that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and other national tragedies were events staged by the government. He has previously marveled at how “it is surreal to talk about issues here on air and then word-for-word hear Trump say it two days later.”
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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s October 13 speech pushed the conspiracy theory that the media, corporations, and “global financial powers” such as banks are, in concert, harming America and working with Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton to defeat him. This claim -- which several journalists noted was an anti-Semitic dog whistle -- comes from the white nationalist “alt-right” movement, which includes the website of Trump’s campaign CEO, Breitbart News, and radio host conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
During the speech at a rally in West Palm Beach, FL, Trump claimed that there was a “global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.” He also claimed that Clinton “meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers” and that the election may be “in fact controlled by a small handful of global special interests rigging the system.”
Multiple journalists noted that the speech played on old anti-Semitic tropes. As Politico’s Eli Stokols explained, “The hints of anti-Semitism were strong.” Jonathan Greenblatt, the president of the Anti-Defamation League, tweeted, “.@TeamTrump should avoid rhetoric&tropes that historically have been used [against] Jews & still spur #antisemitism. Lets keep hate out of [campaign].”
The speech was reportedly co-written by Stephen Bannon, the chairman of Breitbart News who took a leave of absence to work as Trump’s campaign CEO. Bannon has bragged that Breitbart News is “the platform for the alt-right” -- a rebranded white nationalist movement that is opposed to immigration and embraces racism, sexism, anti-Muslim bigotry, and anti-Semitism.
With Bannon at the helm, Breitbart News has peddled anti-Semitic rhetoric, which has continued since he left. In May, contributor David Horowitz wrote a piece calling The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol a “renegade Jew.” In September, Breitbart writer Matthew Tyrmand called Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum a “political revisionist” who was “on the warpath against the rising populist forces doing electoral damage to her establishment friends and allies across the world,” adding, “hell hath no fury like a Polish, Jewish, American elitist scorned.” In August, former Breitbart writer Ben Shapiro accused the website of embracing “a movement shot through with racism and anti-Semitism.” And as The Daily Beast noted, Bannon, through Breitbart, “did a lot to normalize the racist, anti-Semitic world of the alt right.”
Bannon has also personally been accused of anti-Semitism. His ex-wife claimed that while they were looking for schools to send their children to, Bannon asked the director of one “why there were so many Chanukah books in the library,” claimed he asked her if it “bothered” her that another school they visited “used to be in a Temple,” and claimed he did not like another school because of “the number of Jews that attend.” She added that Bannon “doesn't like Jews and that he doesn't like the way they raise their kids to be 'whiney brats' and that he didn't want the girls going to school with Jews.”
Trump has also enjoyed the staunch support of white nationalists, who have celebrated his stance on immigration and rhetoric against Muslims and Hispanics. In July, they lauded his tweet that appeared to show an anti-Semitic image featuring, as described by The Huffington Post, a picture of Clinton “over a backdrop of $100 bills with a six-pointed star — the Jewish Star of David — next to her face,” with the words “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” on the star. White nationalists claimed “The Leader” Trump was “dog-whistling” with the tweet and that he was exposing “filthy Jew terrorists.” They also praised Trump’s hiring of Bannon, saying that “Breitbart has elective affinities with the Alt Right.”
Trump’s speech also paid a homage to the language of radio host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. Jones frequently invokes “globalists” as the villains behind the various conspiracy theories he discusses on his radio show. He believes that a New World Order of global elites is working behind the scenes to rule the world through an authoritarian government and eliminate 80 percent of the world’s population. Trump has courted Jones and his audience, appearing on Jones’ show in December and praising his “amazing” reputation. Trump also pushed a “globalist” dog whistle at his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. The Washington Post’s Robert Costa in August noted that the Republican Party base is increasingly under the belief that “the Republican establishment” and Hillary Clinton are “globalist[s].”
Trump’s Use Of “Sock Puppet Websites” And Constant Spread Of Disinformation Echoes “Russian Information Warfare”
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s public flirtation with Russian President Vladimir Putin throughout the 2016 campaign has been met with extensive public interest, skepticism, and criticism. Whether definitive ties exist between Trump and the Kremlin remains to be seen, but the degree to which Trump has seemingly co-opted the Kremlin’s propaganda playbook, and the extent to which conservative media has helped Trump execute a Russian-style media strategy built upon the spread of disinformation, is unnerving and portends trouble for the state of objective truth in American democracy.
Red flags have been raised about Trump’s alleged relationship with Russia and Putin: Trump has effusively praised Putin; publicly invited the Russian government to hack Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s emails; deliberately lied that Russia was not involved in hacking attempts aimed at interfering with the U.S. election; recited Russian state-sponsored misinformation; and allegedly has Russian investments in his businesses.
Further, Trump has managed to exploit the fragmented state of American media to seemingly execute the Russian model of “information warfare,” as outlined by NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence’s Keir Giles. The parallels between the Kremlin’s strategy for planting and spreading disinformation -- with the ultimate goal of “undermining the notion of objective truth” -- and Trump’s use of conservative media to spread lies and delegitimize traditional news sources are striking and play out in these ways:
Russian disinformation strategy, which rests on “‘undermin[ing] the very fundamentals of information and credibility that informed debate are supposed to rest upon,’” begins by “placing disinformation” on “sock puppet websites which appear to provide or aggregate news” and “can achieve substantial reach and penetration,” according to Giles.
The primary “sock puppet website” at the heart of Trump’s Kremlin-style media campaign is The Drudge Report, the conservative media news aggregator that traffics in conspiracy theories, lies, and anti-Clinton smears. The Drudge Report has been a stalwart Trump cheerleader and a launching pad for a series of smear campaigns and conspiratorial claims meant to undermine Clinton, including long-running conspiracies about her health.
Drudge frequently aggregates stories from notoriously right-wing fringe and conspiratorial websites including WorldNetDaily (WND), Zero Hedge, and Gateway Pundit. At its height in July, Drudge had 1.47 billion page views.
As The Washington Post notes:
Drudge is an ideal landing place for hard-hitting opposition research on one of your political opponents. He's more likely to simply take it and post it rather than looking for where the holes are — as a more mainstream site would do. And, because of Drudge's traffic, which isn't just big but also influential (think reporters, cable TV bookers and other campaigns), everyone you want or need to see it will see it.
To underscore The Drudge Report’s jolting parity to Russian “sock puppet websites,” the website has openly embraced Putin himself and has linked to Russian propaganda sites at least 91 times thus far in 2016.
InfoWars, a fringe conspiracy website led by 9/11 truther Alex Jones, has also been the birthplace of nonsense claims and anti-Clinton attacks.
Trump has praised Drudge and InfoWars and repeated their conspiracy theories on the campaign trail, effectively mainstreaming the reputation of otherwise unsound sources and giving widespread credence to a variety of baseless claims. Jones himself once announced on his radio show that it has been “surreal to talk about issues here on air and then word-for-word hear [Donald] Trump say it two days later. It is amazing.”
In his report, Giles notes that “pro-Russian trolls and bots” also “exploit specific features of the relationship between traditional and social media in order to both plant, disseminate and lend credibility to disinformation.” They utilize “a range of fora including online discussion boards, Twitter and more” to “act as a force multiplier for driving home the Russian message.”
New and non-traditional online forums like Reddit, 4Chan, and Twitter have served as effective tools for Trump supporters to coalesce and subsequently blast out conspiracy theories and anti-Clinton attacks in unison.
As The New York Times highlighted:
[I]f major social media platforms are where Mr. Trump amplifies his pronouncements, sites like Reddit and 4chan have become a sort of proving ground, where an extreme, Internet-amped version of Mr. Trump’s message is shared and refined.
[Reddit] users promote favorable stories, feud with foes and rally support through phone-banking or “Facebanking” — campaigning to Facebook friends. On The Donald, the message is relentless — as are the insults. Opponents are referred to as “cucks,” which is short for “cuckservative,” as in “cuckold” — now used as a derisive term for liberals and moderate Republicans recently popularized by far-right online commentators and white nationalists, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The group shares content and tone with parts of 4chan, the infamous and anonymous message board that traffics in shock, and where Mr. Trump — who regularly scorns “political correctness” — has found substantial, if oblique, support.
Bogus anti-Clinton attacks, like the claim that the Clintons did “the same thing” with their taxes as Trump -- who “used a $916 million loss that he reported on his 1995 income tax returns to avoid paying personal federal income taxes for years” -- by claiming a “$700,000 loss” on their 2015 tax return, originated on the pro-Trump reddit page “The_Donald” and subsequently rocketed through right-wing media.
After Russian propaganda is placed on aggregate sites and gains traction among these "pro-Russian trolls and bots," writes Giles, the disinformation is then “fed into the mainstream news flow” and “picked up and reported by reputable traditional media.”
Similarly, disinformation in the American media track often jumps from fringe websites like Drudge and InfoWars (frequently after and precisely because Trump cites them) to Fox News, the unabashedly pro-Trump cable network that nonetheless brands itself as “fair and balanced,” and other right-wing media outlets.
Seemingly attempting to stay in sync with Trump, Fox has mainstreamed fringe right-wing conspiracies and elevated anti-Clinton smears about Clinton’s health (which Trump has promoted), character, and leadership style (which Trump has echoed) -- while also promoting fringe claims of a “rigged” election (which Trump is hyping), “garbage” online polls that favor Trump (which he loves to cite), allegations that Clinton has her foes murdered (which Trump nodded to), and claims regarding the Clintons’ personal marriage (which Trump has floated), all sourced from the fever-swamps of conservative fringe websites.
As Trump’s own campaign manager Kellyanne Conway once said, “You can draw a straight line from a Drudge link to what gets covered on cable that night.”
Once disinformation pierces the mainstream news flow “at one or more points,” “others will follow,” Giles notes. “Even in the new climate of awareness, major news media do not wish to be left behind on a story which has made it to the news agenda.”
Credible mainstream American outlets and journalists, perhaps concerned “they will be labeled ‘biased,’” as claims John A. Tures, adopt stories that often are cultivated in the right-wing echo chamber and given life by Trump. After Clinton’s September pneumonia diagnoses, several mainstream outlets went all-in on hyping how “talk of Clinton's health [is] no longer just the stuff of conspiracy theorists.” Media outlets have time and time and time again parroted right-wing pseudo-scandals about Clinton’s use of a private email server and about the Clinton Foundation (stories that were also hyped by right-wing outlets like Drudge and Fox News).
Conservative shaming of the “liberal media” also is often intended to induce mainstream coverage of an otherwise fringe or unsubstantiated story. Speaking about hacked emails from Clinton campaign manager John Podesta, Fox host Ainsley Earhardt exclaimed, "Do you think the mainstream media will talk about it?" Co-host Steve Doocy added, "Or at least Donald Trump?" Guest Steve Hilton replied, "I don't think so, so that's why [Trump] needs to talk about it. Because otherwise, it's just going to disappear into the ether."
In his assessment of “Russian objectives” behind the Kremlin’s “information warfare” strategy, Giles writes, “it has as one aim undermining the notion of objective truth and reporting being possible at all,” which ultimately “‘undermines the very fundamentals of information and credibility that informed debate are supposed to rest upon.’”
In executing a similar media strategy, Trump and the conservative media have worked to discredit historically legitimate sources of truth. Both by planting, cultivating, and bolstering disinformation and through an unprecedented war on the press, Trump and right-wing media have ushered in an era of post-truth politics where voters have “been successfully persuaded that everything is a lie, so the only political choice you have is to select the fiction that most fits your self-conception,” as explained by journalist Ned Resnikoff.*
Just as how “credibility is not always a metric of success for Russian information warfare campaigns” and that Russian disinformation thrives despite its “lack of plausibility,” as Giles writes, Trump’s promotion of lies and conspiracies are not depressed by the overwhelming number of fact-checks he receives, precisely because truth may not be the measure of success he is seeking.
Indeed, as CNN’s Brian Stelter warned, “Trump and his supporters ... are delegitimizing institutions the United States holds dear” -- which, frighteningly, is exactly what Giles notes was the goal of Soviet propaganda campaigns that the current Kremlin “information warfare strategy” is emulating.
* Resnikoff is a former employee of Media Matters. Image by Sarah Wasko.
Donald Trump allies Roger Stone and Alex Jones have repeatedly claimed that the Democrats will rig the election to ensure a win for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. The theme has been picked up by the Republican nominee and been a campaign talking point.
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