Trump Ally And Former Breitbart Contributor Nigel Farage Whitewashes Marine Le Pen's Unapologetic Xenophobia
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Reports On Ossoff’s Fundraising Ignore Advantage Republicans Have From Outside Spending
Following the special election primary for a vacant House seat in Georgia, media figures are repeating President Donald Trump’s spin highlighting out-of-state donations that helped Democrat Jon Ossoff. The focus on Ossoff’s fundraising, however, ignores the disproportionate advantage the Republican Party and Republican candidates got from outside groups in the race.
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A report by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab found that a claim that recent airstrikes in Syria were a “false flag” operation -- an operation that either didn't really occur or that were conducted by a party other than the Syrian government -- which went viral among the "alt-right" actually originated with a Syrian propaganda outlet that supports the current regime and spread to a series of pro-Kremlin conspiracy websites and fake news purveyors before being promoted by “alt-right” figures including Infowars’ Alex Jones and Mike Cernovich.
The report showed that key claims, quotes, and images that were initially reported by Al-Masdar, the outlet that supports Syrian President Bashar Assad, were used in reports on pro-Kremlin sites, fake news sites, and on Infowars.
In addition, the report noted that, after the "false flag" claim was promoted by Jones and Cernovich, Twitter accounts that appear to be bots accelerated the use of hashtags about the attack, which led to the hashtag #SyriaHoax going viral. The report concluded, “The Syrian regime’s reaction to the chemical attack is no surprise,” but “what is noteworthy is the way in which the regime’s response … was translated rapidly and directly into coverage on alt-right websites, most obviously Infowars.” From the report:
The chemical attack came at dawn, local time, on April 4. It was widely reported and provoked outrage and condemnation, triggering immediate calls for an investigation. Photographs and videos from the scene showed hideous images of dead children and footage of rescuers, including the White Helmets group, washing down victims.
The same day, website Al-Masdar News, which supports the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, published an article claiming that the story was a “false flag” operation.
Over the next two days, the al-Masdar piece was picked up by a number of pro-Kremlin and anti-Western sites.
It was reproduced verbatim by at least three conspiracy sites: globalresearch.ca, informationclearinghouse.info and The Lifeboat News. A number of pro-Kremlin sites known for their use of false reporting quoted it at length. These included The Duran and The Russophile (also known as Russia News Now), together with conspiracy site Investment Watch Blog.
A third group of sites wrote their own reports, but very largely followed the Al-Masdar arguments. These included 21st Century Wire and Before It’s News, both of which ran a video repeating the claims and using the same imagery.
The most influential pickup came on April 5, when US-based conspiracy site Infowars ran its version of the story. Infowars is a highly influential site among the “alt-right” movement in the US; its leading light, Alex Jones, has over 600,000 Twitter followers.
The Syrian regime’s reaction to the chemical attack is no surprise. It has consistently denied all accusations of atrocities, and accused its critics of false claims, as documented in the Atlantic Council’s report “Breaking Aleppo”.
What is noteworthy is the way in which the regime’s response, launched on a site which has repeatedly amplified Assad’s messaging, was translated rapidly and directly into coverage on alt-right websites, most obviously Infowars.
Conspiracy website Infowars and its proprietor, Alex Jones, have heavily praised Russian President Vladimir Putin in recent months, with Jones previously bragging about praise from “top Putin advisers” and even Putin himself in regards to his pro-Trump coverage. Jones also claims to have “talked to folks very close to the president” about Trump’s Syria policy. Both Jones and Cernovich, a member of the so-called “alt-right,” have helped popularize numerous conspiracy theories, including the “Pizzagate” story that falsely claimed an underground child sex trafficking ring was run out of a pizzeria in Washington, D.C.
In March, the FBI opened an investigation into Russian operatives’ use of “bots” to push pro-Trump news from far-right outlets to social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and the Senate Intelligence Committee opened an investigation into Russia’s use of fake news to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Before It’s News, one of the pro-Trump propaganda outlets mentioned in the report, and a site that Media Matters has identified as a fake news purveyor, has denied any connection between Trump and the Russian government.
Graphics by The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab
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Stephen Bannon has led an itinerant life -- living at various points in either Southern California or Florida or New York or Washington, D.C., or London. But one address -- 8383 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 1000 in Beverly Hills, CA -- has been a fixture in Bannon’s business and financial transactions.
According to California public records and media reports, the white nationalist website Breitbart was at one point registered at that address. So, too, was Glittering Steel, a film production company helmed by Bannon. As were Freemark Financial, a business management firm that handled Bannon’s financials; the Government Accountability Institute, a Bannon-tied right-wing group that purports to investigate government corruption; and a handful of other Bannon-connected companies, including Bannon Strategic Advisors Inc., and Bannon Film Industries Inc.
According to The Daily Beast, Freemark Financial, run in part by Steves Rodriguez, “is managing the money of” Bannon and has also worked for Breitbart, as well as the London-based data modeling firm Cambridge Analytica (on whose board Bannon once sat) and Glittering Steel. Bannon has reportedly told utility officials in the past to mail “bills to the office of his business manager on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills,” according to The Washington Post.
Seemingly, all Bannon-connected companies are currently -- or were, until recently -- registered to the same Beverly Hills address, and the financials are managed by Rodriguez and his partners at Freemark Financial.
Federal Election Commission (FEC) reports also show Make America Number 1 -- a pro-Trump super PAC ran by Bannon and Trump confidante Rebekah Mercer -- paid millions of dollars both to Glittering Steel and to Cambridge Analytica, which was also used by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. And though Cambridge Analytica has no publicly listed address in California, the super PAC payments were curiously sent to the Bannon-centered Beverly Hills address, prompting legal complaints of campaign finance violations. Newly amended FEC reports show Make America Number 1 continued to pay Cambridge Analytica at the Wilshire Boulevard address throughout the fall, raising a host of questions about whether financial transactions centered around Bannon's office are all above board.
Rebekah Mercer is a multimillionaire GOP mega-donor with ties to Bannon and several other allies in Trump’s inner circle, including Kellyanne Conway, David Bossie, and Trump himself. She and her father Robert are major investors in Breitbart News (to the tune of $10 million) and the Government Accountability Institute, and they’ve employed Glittering Steel -- all Bannon-affiliated groups.
Robert Mercer is also the principal owner of Cambridge Analytica, which specializes in “political microtargeting,” and Rebekah Mercer reportedly “used her influence in Trump’s circle to ensure that Cambridge Analytica … would be brought on board by Trump’s campaign team.” The Trump campaign ultimately utilized Cambridge Analytica’s services directly.
Rebekah Mercer in September assumed all control of the pro-Trump Make America Number 1 super PAC, which was previously run by Kellyanne Conway and later David Bossie, before each joined the Trump campaign. The super PAC’s biggest donor was Robert Mercer.
FEC filings for June, August, September, and October from the Make America Number 1 super PAC (run by Rebekah Mercer and largely funded by Robert Mercer) show millions of dollars going to Cambridge Analytica (owned and invested in by the Mercers) for “survey research,” “data acquisition,” “media” and “campaign management consulting [services].” These filings also show Make America Number 1 made regular payments to Glittering Steel for “video production.”
Cambridge Analytica’s website lists U.S.-based addresses in Washington, D.C., and New York. A California business public records search returns no results for Cambridge Analytica, and a Delaware business public records search (that lists Cambridge Analytica’s registration) does not provide address registration. Yet, the FEC filings show the Mercer super PAC’s payments to Cambridge Analytica were all sent to the Bannon-centered 8383 Wilshire Boulevard address. It is unclear where or if Cambridge Analytica publicly lists this Beverly Hills address as its own.
According to The New York Times, Bannon sat on Cambridge Analytica’s board until last August, “when he joined the Trump campaign.” Bannon’s spokesperson told the Times that Bannon no longer has “‘financial involvement’” with the firm.
So, why were Mercer-approved payments for a Mercer-invested company sent to an address that’s affiliated with Bannon -- and has seemingly no public connections to Cambridge Analytica itself? Were the payments (especially the ones made after August) earmarked for Bannon, though his own spokesperson said he stepped away from Cambridge’s board in August? The shady web of connections among the Make America Number 1 super PAC, Cambridge Analytica, and Stephen Bannon prompted an FEC complaint that raises more questions than answers.
On October 6, the campaign finance watchdog Campaign Legal Center (CLC) filed a complaint with the FEC alleging that the Make America Number 1 super PAC violated FEC laws by making illegal “in-kind contributions to Donald J. Trump for President, Inc. in the form of compensation for personal services rendered to the campaign ... and ‘coordinated communications.’” The complaint also noted:
- The individuals who formed, fund and lead Make America Number 1 were
responsible for Trump hiring as campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, previous
president of the super PAC; hiring Stephen K. Bannon as campaign CEO, whose
projects have long been funded by the individuals who formed, fund and lead
Make America Number 1; and Make America Number 1 appears to have covered
the salaries for both Conway and Bannon as they work for the Trump campaign.
- At the request of Make America Number 1’s founders and funders, the Trump
campaign has begun contracting with a data firm owned by Make America
Number 1’s founders and funders and whose board includes Bannon, running
afoul of the “common vendor” rule designed to preserve the independence of
campaigns and political committees.
Then, in December, the CLC “presented new evidence to the Federal Election Commission alleging that the super PAC Make America Number 1 illegally compensated Steve Bannon’s work as Donald Trump’s campaign CEO.” Specifically, the CLC’s new evidence claimed that the super PAC’s payments to Cambridge Analytica were meant as payment for Bannon, not the company at large.
"If a Mercer-backed super PAC subsidized Bannon’s work for the Trump campaign," the complaint notes, "it violates federal campaign finance law."
Importantly, before the October CLC complaint was filed, Make America Number 1’s July monthly and August monthly FEC filings showed that payments to Cambridge Analytica were sent to the Wilshire Boulevard address. Then, after the CLC filed its initial complaint, the super PAC’s payments to Cambridge Analytica (and Glittering Steel) in its September monthly, October monthly, and pre-general election filings started going to new addresses in Virginia. But when the Make America Number 1 super PAC later amended those reports after the presidential election, it changed the Virginia addresses back to the Wilshire Boulevard address.
In line with the Campaign Legal Center’s FEC complaint, the Make America Number 1 payments to Cambridge Analytica increasingly look like (potentially illegal) payments to Bannon.
When considering that the FEC reports were amended (as recently as February 21, no less), more questions arise: Why did the super PAC start sending Cambridge Analytica payments to a Virginia address (after the CLC complaint), only to change them back later to Bannon's address? If those payments were earmarked for Bannon, as the CLC alleges, did they continue after he stepped down from the board, given that the amended FEC reports show payments to Cambridge Analytica (at the Wilshire Boulevard address) well past August? What business ties, if any, does Bannon still have with Mercer-backed companies, and if so, do conflict-of-interest laws apply, given that he is a senior White House official?
Though it’s been documented that Bannon has “lived as a virtual nomad … with no fixed address,” as described by The Washington Post, questions abound about what, if any, legal violations may be looming over the millions of dollars coming into his shady Beverly Hills address.
Hannity Has A History Of Courting WikiLeaks To Support His Trump Defenses
Following Fox host Sean Hannity's March 8 conspiracy theory that the CIA framed the Russian government for election interference, Hannity tweeted at WikiLeaks on March 9 asking them to confirm his suspicion. This tweet is just the latest example of Hannity’s increasingly far-fetched attempts to defend President Donald Trump against any and all Russia-related allegations follows his months-long courting of WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange.
On March 9, Hannity tweeted at WikiLeaks, asking “Is it possible, likely or can you confirm instances where the CIA used Malware to ‘Attribute’ cyberattacks to other nations? Possibly Russia”:
This is just the latest example of Hannity's embrace of WikiLeaks. Throughout the 2016 election, Hannity and WikiLeaks developed a relationship of mutual admiration and promotion of one another. Hannity, who called for Assange’s arrest in 2010, had a change of heart once WikiLeaks started attacking Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Hannity went on to host Assange for multiple interviews on his radio and television shows, and the Fox host has described Assange as “the modern day Woodward and Bernstein,” a reference to the Washington Post reporters who broke the Watergate story. Hannity’s newfound love for WikiLeaks led him to defend the organization’s conduct, even after it was confirmed that the documents they published originated from Russian-backed hacking intended to interfere in the 2016 election, because WikiLeaks “reveal[ed] how corrupt the liberal media is.” WikiLeaks, in turn, has promoted Hannity’s Assange interviews several times and has twice recently tweeted a Hannity segment featuring right-wing talk radio host Laura Ingraham talking about the “deep state.”
Though Hannity has always fervently defended Trump and lashed out at the president’s critics -- including accusing the media of “purposefully distorting” Trump’s request that the Russian government “find the 30,000 emails that are missing” -- Hannity’s Trump defenses have become increasingly conspiratorial. Hannity decried the entire story of alleged ties between Trump and Russia as “politically motivated” “liberal fake news.” He also called the consensus of 17 U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia attempted to disrupt the election “fake news,” claiming that there are not 17 intelligence agencies (there are.) So far, Hannity’s conspiratorial navel-gazing has culminated (in addition to the aforementioned CIA conspiracy theory) in the absurd allegation that former President Barack Obama’s campaign database is proof of “a shadow government” undermining the Trump administration, a claim also made by several fake news purveyors.
Trump’s Misleading Carrier Deal Was A Dominant Narrative During 2016 Coverage Of The Job Market
Media Matters research for the fourth quarter of the year found that broadcast evening news fixated on then President-elect Donald Trump’s misleading announcement that he was responsible for saving hundreds of jobs at an American manufacturer while largely ignoring the roughly 2.1 million jobs gained by the U.S. economy in 2016.
Television news fawned over Trump’s late-November participation in negotiations between state authorities and Indiana-based appliance manufacturer Carrier in which the company decided to move only half of its jobs to Mexico in exchange for tax subsidies. The same outlets continued to fall head over heels for Trump when he misleadingly declared on December 6 that he had brokered a deal with Japanese technology giant SoftBank to create “50,000 new jobs” in the United States. Some journalists were quick to point out that the media may be getting “bamboozled by these announcements,” and the Carrier deal was blasted as nothing more than “crony capitalism” -- a concept that even Sarah Palin understood.
New research from Media Matters revealed that overall coverage of the economy during the fourth quarter of the year spiked after Election Day, in large part driven not by consistently positive economic indicators or discussions of the future of health care reform, but by Trump’s self-serving boasts about his alleged role as a job creator. Of the 275 qualifying economic news segments aired by cable and broadcast programs from October through December, 56 featured a significant discussion of Trump’s supposed deal making with Carrier and Softbank. The media obsession with Trump’s Carrier and Softbank announcements accounted for an absurd 47 percent of evening news segments on the economy for the final 32 days of 2016.
Television news obsessed over Trump’s claims of saving 700 jobs at one plant and practically ignored the roughly 2.1 million jobs that had been created in 2016 as part the longest stretch of job growth on record. Media Matters identified 119 segments on the economy -- some discussing more than one issue -- from November 30 through December 31; of those, 56 discussed deals supposedly brokered by Trump to save or create jobs via Carrier and Softbank. Broadcast and cable evening news coverage of these deals eclipsed all other economic reporting during this time frame: 41 segments discussed tax policy, 30 segments discussed all other news surrounding economic growth or job creation, 26 segments focused on health care policy, 18 segments explored minimum wage policies, and 16 segments discussed economic inequality.
Media all but ignored the big picture by staying so focused on Trump’s pronouncements, falling prey to what ThinkProgress editor-in-chief Judd Legum described as Trump’s “formula for manipulating the public.” News outlets have repeatedly learned the hard way not to trust Trump’s proclamations and “nonsense” supply-side economic proposals. Yet television news still gives Trump an exhaustive amount of attention -- the same type of attention that research found played a role in Trump’s political rise. Now, it could influence public perception of his presidency.
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In November, then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) called on the sitting attorney general to recuse herself and appoint a special counsel to investigate allegations related to Hillary Clinton's use of private email. Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle are now demanding that now-Attorney General Sessions do the same thing amid reporting that he failed to acknowledge during his confirmation hearing that he met with Russia’s ambassador as a Donald Trump surrogate during the 2016 presidential campaign season.
In a November 5 letter posted on FoxNews.com that was signed by Sessions, he berated then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch for not recusing herself from the Clinton email investigation, and called for the appointment of a special counsel to investigate instead:
Attorney General Lynch and former President Clinton met on the Phoenix, Arizona tarmac days before Secretary Clinton was to be interviewed by the FBI for possible criminal activity. It has been reported that her staff ordered witnesses not to take pictures and no one was present during their 39-minute conversation. General Lynch never recused herself from decisions on the Clinton investigation after her self-admitted “mistake,” as it has also been reported that she continues to deny the FBI the authority to convene a Grand Jury, which is necessary for any meaningful investigation.
It has also been reported that General Lynch opposed Director Comey from fulfilling his obligation to Congress by informing members of the discovery of 650,000 emails on Anthony Weiner’s and Huma Abedin’s computer, the existence of which had been concealed from government authorities.
Recusal is a formal process. It is a written document specifically describing the scope of the recusal and designating the official in charge of the recused matter. If General Lynch went through the proper procedure for recusal, she has not publicly shared it.
In 1991-1992, a Special Counsel was appointed for three separate matters: House Bank, Iraqgate, and Inslaw. It was also done in 2003 in the Valerie Plame matter.
Instead of moving with dispatch to ensure a vigorous investigation of Secretary Clinton, it appears that the Justice Department, along with State, have enabled the Clinton campaign to “slow roll” the inquiry.
General Lynch continues to exert control of a matter that she should have assigned to another official.
We are distressed by widespread and credible reports that FBI agents have been hindered by the Justice Department’s withholding of basic investigative tools, such as grand jury subpoenas, which are fundamental in a complex investigation.
It is time to do what should have been done long ago – appoint a Special Counsel.
Sessions doubled down on this claim during a November 6 interview on Fox News’ Sunday Morning Futures, saying “We need an independent person, person that's not politically connected, that people in America can have confidence in to take over this investigation and make sure it's done correctly, to bring charges if need. Hopefully not charges. Hopefully they're not needed. But there are some serious allegations here that the American people need to know are fully investigated”:
MARIA BARTIROMO (HOST): I want to talk about this letter that you penned along with others like Rudy Giuliani, Frank Keating, Victoria Toensing and Henry McMaster. This is a letter basically saying, look, it is time for Loretta Lynch to appoint a special counsel because this brings me to the question of the morning after. Regardless who wins, Senator, you're going to have the next day and you're going to have real issues on the table. Will Hillary Clinton be able to make important decisions when she's got these investigations overhanging? What does the morning after look like for Trump? And what do you want to see in terms of this special counsel?
SESSIONS: Well, you should never politicize criminal investigations or prosecutions. We should never do that. But the situation is such and the facts are such that we have an investigation going now, and there's a lack of confidence, in fact, zero confidence really that the attorney general is doing anything other than delaying this investigation and not pursuing it effectively. It's been ongoing for over a year. A special prosecutor would have been the appropriate thing to do to take it out of politics and maybe would already have been completed, but the rumors we hear are that the FBI is being obstructed and delayed and blocked by the Department of Justice, Attorney General Lynch. So, I think this is a serious matter. We've just got to have integrity in our criminal justice system. Everybody deserves a fair day in court, but we need a fair investigation, too, and I'm afraid that's not happening.
BARTIROMO: Well, in the letter, you and your colleagues write, look, the Department of Justice has been thwarted by top officials' refusal to conduct a proper investigation of former Secretary [Hillary] Clinton's unsecured email server and the pay-for-play accusations. So if Donald Trump were to win the presidency, is he going to move to remove Loretta Lynch?
SESSIONS: Well, of course, there will be a change in the attorney general, as well in every cabinet position. Remember, Loretta Lynch serves at the pleasure of President Obama. She doesn't have a termed office. She knows who appointed her and she knows whose pleasure she serves at. So we need an independent person, a person that's not politically connected that people in America can have confidence in to take over this investigation and make sure it's done correctly, to bring charges if need -- hopefully not charges. Hopefully they're not needed. But there are some serious allegations here that the American people need to know are fully investigated. You know, FBI Director Comey did the right thing when he found new evidence. He had no choice but to report to the American Congress where he had under oath testified the investigation was over. He had to correct that and say, this investigation is ongoing now. I'm sure it's significant or he wouldn't have announced that.
BARTIROMO: Right, which is the question I'm trying to get at in terms of Hillary Clinton. Should she win the presidency, what is she going to do in terms of governance? Can she govern effectively if she's got these investigations going on? Will she have to change FBI directors knowing that Jim Comey is pursuing this? Or are we going to have four years of, you can't get anything done because of these investigations and the challenge from the Republicans like naming new Supreme Court justices?
SESSIONS: Well, it is a dangerous thing, no doubt. It puts a cloud over her tenure as president. What is she going to do about the attorney general? Who will she appoint? Will it be an utter loyalist, as it appears Loretta Lynch is and Eric Holder was during his tenure, or will it be someone that has the respect of the American people who can handle a complex matter and do it right with confidence. To me, at this point, it's so off track and so badly handled that an independent counsel is the right thing, I have no doubt about that.
Sessions is now facing demands from even Republican members of Congress that he recuse himself from the Department of Justice investigation into ties between President Trump’s associates and Russian officials, following revelations that Sessions met with the Russian ambassador but told his confirmation committee, under oath, that he had not met with any Russian officials. From The Washington Post:
Top Republicans said Thursday that Attorney General Jeff Sessions should recuse himself from federal investigations of whether Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) tweeted early Thursday that “AG Sessions should clarify his testimony and recuse himself.”
Later, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said in a statement, “Jeff Sessions is a former colleague and a friend, but I think it would be best for him and for the country to recuse himself from the DOJ Russia probe.”
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is also demanding a special counsel to investigate the Trump administration for ties to Russia, “given AG Sessions’ false statements about contacts with Russia.”
The ongoing saga surrounding reported entanglements between President Donald Trump, his current and former aides, and the Russian government was a leading topic of discussion for hosts and guests during the February 26 editions of the Sunday morning news shows -- except for Fox News Sunday, where the controversy was barely mentioned.
The Trump administration has been dogged for months by rumors and allegations that members of the president’s inner circle had improper or compromising interactions with agents of the Russian government during the campaign. Michael Flynn was recently forced to resign as national security adviser after details became public about his possibly illegal discussions about lifting U.S. sanctions on Russia with a Russian ambassador before Trump’s inauguration. Trump himself has been briefed by American intelligence authorities about reports that Russian operatives may have “compromising personal and financial information” about him in their possession.
In the past several days, outlets including CNN, The Associated Press, and The Washington Post reported that White House chief of staff Reince Priebus had reached out to members of the intelligence community and Republican congressional leaders for help in tamping down stories regarding the Trump administration and Russia. In response to those reports, Trump has lashed out at news outlets, falsely calling the stories “FAKE NEWS,” and White House press secretary Sean Spicer blacklisted several news outlets from taking part in a February 24 press briefing. The commotion last Friday surrounding Trump’s potential relationships with Russia and his administration’s handling of the situation led one Republican member of Congress -- Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) -- to call for a full investigation by an independent special prosecutor.
For most of the Sunday shows this week, the continuing story was a major part of the day's conversation. NBC Meet the Press host Chuck Todd, summarizing the most recent news on Trump and Russia, even pointed out that Trump’s war on the press always “seems to escalate” whenever new developments arise in the story about his ties to Russia. All told, four of the major Sunday shows -- ABC’s This Week, CBS’s Face the Nation, CNN’s State of the Union, and NBC’s Meet the Press -- dedicated a total of more than 49 minutes to the topic, with at least two full segments on the scandal on each. In contrast, Fox News Sunday barely covered it, featuring only a single question and response on Russia that added up to barely more than a minute.
Along with mostly ignoring the most recent Russia scandal, the Fox show featured a guest defending Trump’s attacks on the media. The network, which was previously instrumental in helping normalize Trump’s cozy relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, seems bent on helping Trump normalize his crusade against media outlets that are trying to get to the bottom of these connections.
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A study reported in The Washington Post found that voter ID laws disenfranchise minority voters disproportionately, an allegation right-wing media have dismissed while advocating for those types of laws in several states. Courts and other studies have come to the same conclusion.
The weaponized fake news stories that have emerged of late are certainly not confined to just one end of the political spectrum and are dangerous to political discourse regardless of partisan tilt. But a recent spate of articles trumpeting the so-called “rise of progressive ‘fake news’” omits the context necessary to understanding why the right-wing fake news ecosystem is so uniquely destructive, and in doing so collapses the collective understanding of fake news into a trite and distracting argument about “both sides.”
During the presidential campaign, fake news purveyors -- by and large right-wing, hyperpartisan fringe websites -- unleashed a blizzard of politically motivated lies packaged as legitimate news largely designed to undermine Hillary Clinton and boost Donald Trump. The onslaught of fabrications was effective: Fake news stories outperformed real ones on Facebook in the final campaign stretch, and most Americans who saw fake news during the election believed it.
But as it becomes clearer how and why right-wing fake news stories proliferated and succeeded, media outlets are now beginning to document an ostensible “uptick in fake news … with a distinctly liberal bent,” as The Guardian’s Sam Levin describes it, and to compare it to the flood of conservative fake news stories shared during the election.
The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer similarly writes that progressives have recently embraced fake news just like “conservative Facebook users [shared] stories that had nothing to do with reality” during the election, in what Meyer calls a “funny reversal of the situation from November.” And a BuzzFeed article claims that progressive “alarm, paranoia, and genuine outrage” are ushering in an increase in “ the left’s own distinct brand of the online phenomenon known as fake news.”
Some examples these outlets point to indeed fit the mold of weaponized fake news and are cause for concern. There are also other recent cases of unsubstantiated claims rocketing through the liberal blogosphere. Yes, fake news-purveying websites that cater to progressive audiences do exist and do, as BuzzFeed contends, “undermin[e] legitimate causes for outrage on the left.”
But these and other outlets hyping the rise of progressive fake news point to what The Atlantic calls a liberal “panoply of wishful thinking” as evidence of the nascent trend of fake news on the left. Included in their examples is the famous bunch of “rogue,” anti-Trump Twitter accounts and a series of conspiratorial Medium posts about an impending coup d'etat; neither of which fits within Media Matters’ operational understanding of fake news, which is clearly and demonstrably fabricated information deceptively packaged as legitimate news, and is either motivated by profit or ideology. BuzzFeed highlights a parodical story about Trump’s “plan to turn the USS Enterprise into a floating casino,” which comes from an explicitly satirical website. Satire, though damaging when weaponized politically, is in its most basic sense also not fake news. The Guardian points to several-months-old fake news stories as evidence that progressive fake news is a post-election phenomenon.
But weak examples notwithstanding, this all-too-common lunge toward “both sides do it” analysis not only muddies the understanding of what fake news actually is, but also more critically ignores or even whitewashes how and why fake news on the right thrives in a way that it never could on the left.
Essentially, there is a larger conversation here than “the rise of progressive ‘fake news’” -- one in which the story isn’t how the fake news universes on the left and right are the same, but rather how they are different. Conflating right-wing, hyperpartisan fake news with left-wing “wishful thinking” glosses over both the vast infrastructure of fake news on the right and the audience pool that cultivates, enables and validates it.
Conservative fake news flourishes because of the right-wing media infrastructure -- both mainstream and fringe -- that has been cultivated for over a decade. A vast constellation of fake news-purveying websites have long lived in the dark corners of the internet, and mainstream conservative news outlets have fomented a toxic alternate reality in which venomous lies can and do thrive -- neither of which the left has.
Fake news is fertile on the right because of the sea of lies that have been fed to conservative audiences all throughout President Barack Obama’s administration. Years of misleading, out-of-context, unjustified, racist, Islamophobic, hypocritical, and outright false attacks on Obama and the left by the right-wing noise machine have, naturally, paved the way for weaponized conservative fake news to take hold.
That’s why a fake news story about Obama banning the pledge of allegiance in public schools can take off -- because in the context of Fox News and other conservative media outlets bellowing for years that Obama was anti-American, that story simply makes sense to the conservative masses. The left has no such equivalent to the might of the right’s loudest conservative voices or the warped worldview they have sold their audiences.
Moreover, the coalition of extreme right-wing websites like Infowars, Drudge Report, The Gateway Pundit, LifeZette, and Breitbart that serve as bridges between the radical fringes of the internet and the conservative mainstream media are long- and well-established, which consequently helped facilitate the spread of fake news into the mainstream during the election. These direct pipelines by which lies slide from obscurity into the mainstream also do not exist on the left.
The sophisticated level of coordination among right-wing fake news purveyors also enables fake news -- and the left does not have a similar set of complex and coordinated pathways. Fake news stories on the right typically don’t grow organically; rather, fake news purveyors create a facade of credibility by all publishing the same untrue stories on their sites. Thus, when a dozen right-wing sites are reporting the same lie, its chance of going viral, piercing the mainstream, and being noticed by public figures grows.
This far-reaching, enduring infrastructure that both creates and boosts conservative fake news took years to build and has credibility in the eyes of millions of political observers. It would be misguided to suggest that progressives have created a similar ecosystem at all, let alone in the last three months.
Comparisons between left- and right-wing fake news that fail to examine the media consumption habits of the Republican base and those (including the president of the United States) who enable fake news on the right are also insufficient.
Trump is a serial liar. But more than that, he is one of the loudest, most powerful purveyors of fake news around, who both feeds into and draws from the fake news universe. Democrats have no such validating figure.
Since his election, Trump has peddled false claims about widespread voter fraud; an immigration ban instituted by Kuwait; and thousands of bikers traveling to D.C. for his inauguration. Before November 8, Trump came to be known as the “King of Whoppers” for his unmatched, unrestrained, and disturbing penchant for lying about any issue, great or small. Not to mention that Trump sources his lies regularly and terrifyingly from disreputable fake news purveyors like Alex Jones, Roger Stone, and Russian state-sponsored media.
Supported by a cadre of aides who also propagate fake news, including social media director Dan Scavino and Brad Parscale, Trump himself has become one of the greatest validators of fake news and, relatedly, a prominent catalyst in the breakdown of objective truth. As debunking site Snopes’ editor Brooke Binkowski emphasized in The Atlantic:
[T]here’s no equivalence between the falsehoods coming from the American left and the right in the past two weeks. Individual Democrats on Facebook may cling to pleasant stories and wishful thinking, but the Republican White House press secretary spouts off lies beneath the presidential seal.
Additionally, by repeatedly attacking credible news outlets as “fake news,” Trump is attempting to redefine “fake news” in his own terms. Conflating honest mistakes in reporting with fake news (which, to be sure, are clearly distinct issues) helps Trump degrade the Fourth Estate, which, in effect, helps chip away at the biggest barrier to his efforts to gaslight his way through his presidency. Trump’s appropriation of the term “fake news” also effectively validates the worst fake news purveyors out there -- because if The New York Times is fake news, then who isn’t?
So, when the person carrying the mantle of the Republican Party unabashedly spouts nonsense and bullshit, the idea that “both sides do it” becomes moot.
Trump’s success in peddling fake news largely stems from the way that conservatives seek out and digest their news. With a greater tendency than liberals to believe false information that plays into their own confirmation biases (facilitated, as aforementioned, by the bitterly hostile alternate reality the right-wing media has created for its base), conservatives are essentially primed to receive fake news in a way that liberals are not.
As documented by The Washington Post, psychologist John Jost of New York University found that liberals are “slightly more predisposed to think critically than conservatives,” and Stefan Pfattheicher of Ulm University “found that individuals who identified as more conservative were more likely to be duped by nonsense than liberals.” As the Post explains:
Conservatives may be perfectly able to do the kind of critical thinking and cognitive exploration that would lead them to be more skeptical of nonsense and fake news -- they just choose not to, preferring instead to seek out information that allows them to make quick decisions that reinforce their existing views.
Take it from one of the most prolific fake news creators, Paul Horner, who claims that “Donald Trump is in the White House because of me”: “Nobody fact-checks anything anymore — I mean, that’s how Trump got elected. He just said whatever he wanted, and people believed everything, and when the things he said turned out not to be true, people didn’t care because they’d already accepted it.”
And, as conservative commentator Charlie Sykes wrote in The New York Times, conservatives have been “conditioned to reject reporting from news sites outside of the conservative media ecosystem,” which in turn “essentially destroy[ed] much of the right’s immunity to false information.”
So yes, fake news does exist on the left. Progressive fake news is dangerous and misguided, and Democrats should absolutely not try to build a parallel fake news universe for the sake of electoral success. But the burgeoning media hype about “lefty” fake news is being oversold, and it’s glossing over the reality of the multifaceted conservative media ecosystem at large, which is unique and unmatched in the way it encourages and rewards right-wing fake news. Myopic, one-to-one comparisons of left- and right-wing fake news stories are leading us to miss the forest for the trees.
Current False Accusations Of Paid Protesters Don’t Match Up With Tea Party Adoration
Many right-wing media figures have accused anti-Trump protesters of being “paid” on a widespread basis to demonstrate against President Donald Trump. Not only do these allegations lack any evidence of a systematic effort, they also ignore the fact that the conservative tea party protests of the early 2010s were “astroturfed” -- heavily supported and organized by large, outside groups.
Evidence-free claims and suggestions of paid protesters driving anti-Trump sentiment have circulated throughout right-wing media for years but have increased since the inauguration of Donald Trump. Both Trump himself and White House press secretary Sean Spicer have repeated the claim that anti-Trump protests are, in Spicer’s words, a “very paid astroturf-type movement.” Rush Limbaugh warned that the airport protests against Trump’s Muslim ban were “bought and paid for by George Soros, prearranged. … and waiting for the moment to be cued to action.” The Daily Caller wrote that protests directed against a vocal Trump supporter at the University of California, Berkeley were “backed by a progressive charity that is in turn funded by George Soros, the city of Tucson, a major labor union and several large companies.” The claims have also circulated among fake news purveyors and state-owned Russian propaganda.
Despite the charge being leveled at nearly every anti-Trump protest, there is no proof that they protesters were systematically paid by any group. Recently, claims that a group called Demand Protest was paying people $2,500 a month to protest Trump nationwide were exposed as a hoax, much like a viral claim during the election season of craigslist ads offering $3,500 to protest Trump, which ended up being a lie created by a fake news writer to generate profit.
Right-wing media’s concerns about supposed liberal paid protesters also conveniently forgets times when they were enamored by protesters who were financially supported by outside groups.
During the 2016 presidential race, Trump ally Alex Jones’ website offered a cash reward to protesters that interrupted Hillary Clinton rallies, an open attempt to pay protesters. Even more significant, right-wing media was also an ally of the Tea Party movement during the first term of former President Barack Obama, which was widely documented to be backed by big money donors.
The Tea Party, described as “the biggest Astroturf operation in history,” was heavily financed and supported by billionaires, most prominently Charles and David Koch. In addition to financial support from conservative billionaires, the Tea Party enjoyed glowing coverage across right-wing media, most prominently on Fox News, which encouraged its viewers to head to the “conservative Woodstock.” “Party on!” Fox hosts, such as Sean Hannity, attached themselves to and tried to boost the protests, and Tea Party activists even thanked the network for its assistance in spreading their message.