National Security & Foreign Policy

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  • The Susan Rice Unmasking Story Is A Perfect Case Study Of The New Pro-Trump Propaganda Ecosystem

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN

    For most of the last decade, the flow of misinformation was often easy to track in media, with right-wing media often forcing mainstream outlets to follow the stories and tone they favored. Now, a couple of months into President Donald Trump’s administration, this pattern has changed and new players have entered the ecosystem. Groups that used to be contained to their own bubble have been able to insert themselves into the food chain and been able to spread not just misleading, but patently false information to right-wing outlets and sometimes even in turn to mainstream media. A new dubious allegation regarding Susan Rice, former national security adviser to President Barack Obama, illustrates how this new pattern can spread pro-Trump misinformation and propaganda from fringe sources into mainstream media outlets.

    Recently, fake news and the white nationalist “alt-right” movement have become two of the country’s biggest problems in terms of fighting misinformation. Both government officials and websites like Facebook and Google are trying to lessen the harmful impact as websites that share fake news continue to mislead news consumers. And the “alt-right” is growing in prominence thanks in part to President Donald Trump’s choice of Stephen Bannon, the former chairman of “alt-right” website Breitbart News, as his chief strategist. Fringe “alt-right” forums, on sites like Reddit, 4chan, and 8chan, exercise influence by pushing conspiracy theories and leading harassment campaigns.

    These different groups do not operate in a vacuum. Repeatedly, they have come together to spread and amplify their misinformation and claims. Often, a claim will start on a fringe outlet or forum, and other such sites will amplify the misinformation, then fake news purveyors will push it, and then the claim will jump into more traditional right-wing media before sometimes spreading into mainstream media. Trump aides and other people connected to Trump have even promoted some of those stories, crucially helping them break through at times.

    And that brings us to Rice.

    On April 2, Mike Cernovich, a self-described member of the “alt-right,” claimed in a post on Medium that the “White House Counsel’s office identified Rice as the person responsible for the unmasking” of Trump officials caught in surveillance of foreign officials “after examining Rice’s document log requests.” The claim then spread among fringe outlets such as The Gateway Pundit -- which said the unmasking “was purely for political purposes” -- and Infowars, and spread via posts on 4chan and Reddit.

    As the claim started getting pickup on Twitter, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, promoted Cernovich with a tweet linking to the main page of his Medium blog (the next day, Donald Trump. Jr praised Cernovich for “breaking the #SusanRice story”).

    The claim was then echoed by Bloomberg’s Eli Lake, who added a layer of credibility to the attempted smear, writing that Rice “requested the identities of U.S. persons in raw intelligence reports on dozens of occasions that connect to the Donald Trump transition and campaign.” Meanwhile, multiple fake news purveyors hyped the allegations, dubiously claiming that Rice “could be headed to jail” for “absolute treason.”

    Lake conceded in his piece, however, that Rice’s requests “were likely within the law.” Legal and national security experts echoed that conclusion, saying Rice’s actions weren’t “odd or wrong,” did not indicate “anything improper whatsoever,” and were “within the scope of the job of a national security advisor like Rice.” Lake's caveats did not prevent him from going on both Sean Hannity's radio and Fox News show, where the right-wing host described the story as "worse than Watergate."

    As the claim spread into the mainstream, some in right-wing media criticized mainstream outlets for not giving the story enough attention or for not presenting it the way they would. Although some mainstream figures have echoed the consensus of experts, others have also suggested that Rice could be guilty of some kind of wrongdoing. Fox News in particular insisted that something must be improper if not illegal about Rice's actions, and in their scramble to claim they may have had the story before Cernovich, likely outed themselves as another outlet that the White House used as a puppet for the Rice leak.

    Right-wing criticism of mainstream media’s coverage will likely ramp up, spurring some mainstream outlets to defend their coverage or possibly tweak some of their framing under pressure.

    This is the new media ecosystem in the Trump era. No longer are these false claims all originating in traditional right-wing media before mainstream outlets give in to pressure to cover them. Now they can start from these fringe pro-Trump propaganda outlets, with right-wing media picking them up. Meanwhile, members of the “alt-right” continue to gain more prominence and acceptance in traditional conservative and conservative media circles. Indeed, radio host Rush Limbaugh, while hyping the Rice story, bragged that mainstream media outlets are “not the arbiters anymore”; whitewashed the original source of the story, Cernovich, as simply a “pro-Trump blogger,” and said CBS’ 60 Minutes “tried to destroy him”; and criticized mainstream outlets for dismissing the story because it was pushed by right-wing media.

    This is not the first example of misinformation following such a trajectory. In March, after a federal judge in Hawaii placed a hold on Trump’s revised Muslim ban, fringe “alt-right” outlets such as Infowars and Gateway Pundit pushed a conspiracy theory that appeared to have started on Reddit alleging that Obama conspired with the judge. The claim then spread among fake news purveyors and was pushed by Donald Trump Jr. before breaking through to more traditional conservative media figures and outlets like Hannity and the Independent Journal Review. Later that month, in order to back up Trump’s false claim that Obama wiretapped Trump Tower, Infowars dubiously claimed it had National Security Agency documents that provided proof. The claim made its way around other “alt-right” outlets and fake news purveyors and wound up being pushed at the top of the Drudge Report.

    This is the danger that the new media environment presents. The fringe is no longer being siloed; it has actively been raised into the mainstream by pro-Trump forces both known and unknown, and has been repeatedly validated by both mainstream reporters and especially an administration that has no hesitation about lying to the world. It’s crucial that mainstream media outlets understand this new environment and the kind of claims and conspiracy theories it puts forth. It is one thing to share the mainstream with extremist cranks, propagandists, and liars. It's another thing to succumb and do their pro-Trump misinforming for them. 

  • The Latest Wiretap "Bombshell" Turns Out To Be Another Dud

    Right-Wing Media Scandalize Report That Susan Rice Allegedly Asked For Legal Unmasking Of Trump Officials Found In Intel Reports About Russians

    ››› ››› NICK FERNANDEZ

    On April 2, alt-right media figure Mike Cernovich reported that former national security adviser Susan Rice requested the unmasking of Trump officials. The next day, Bloomberg’s Eli Lake confirmed that Trump administration lawyers accused Rice of requesting “the identities of U.S. persons in raw intelligence reports on dozens of occasions that connect to the Donald Trump transition and campaign.” Right-wing media figures quickly ran with the report as a “BOMBSHELL,” but according to numerous legal and national security experts, “Rice’s actions are likely legal.”

  • As Senate Investigates Russia's Role In Proliferation Of Fake News, Fake News Purveyors Deny Any Trump-Russia Connection

    Many Fake News Purveyors Also Push Debunked Claim About Clinton And Russia

    ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN

    As the Senate Intelligence Committee holds a hearing on the role Russia played in trying to influence the 2016 election in favor of President Donald Trump -- and its use of fake news to do so -- fake news purveyors in recent days have been dismissing any possible connection between Trump and Russia. They are calling allegations about Trump’s connections to Russia “bogus,” “fake news,” and “slander[ous],” because there is “zero evidence” behind them. At the same time, many of them are pushing a debunked conspiracy theory that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, while in office, gave 20 percent of American uranium to Russia in exchange for favors.

  • Right-Wing Media Misinterpret Weeks-Old Interview To Justify Trump’s Wiretap Lie

    ››› ››› NINA MAST

    Right-wing media figures and fringe outlets are taking a weeks-old interview with Evelyn Farkas, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia under President Barack Obama, out of context to claim she “admitted” that the Obama administration surveilled President Donald Trump’s campaign and that it proves Trump was right when he claimed Obama wiretapped Trump Tower. But Farkas did not mention surveillance in the interview; instead, she discussed a New York Times article about preserving intelligence related to Trump and Russia. The claims are yet another attempt by right-wing and fringe media to bolster Trump’s allegation that Obama wiretapped him, which the intelligence community and government officials have repeatedly debunked.

  • Trump Tweets Congress Should Investigate Clintons After Hannity Promotes Uranium One Conspiracy

    Blog ››› ››› BOBBY LEWIS

    President Donald Trump tweeted that Congress should investigate Bill and Hillary Clinton for a “deal that allowed big Uranium to go to Russia,” hours after Fox News host Sean Hannity promoted the story on his radio show.

    On the March 27 edition of The Sean Hannity Show, Hannity revived the long-debunked conservative claim from discredited Clinton Cash author Peter Schweizer that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton allegedly sold “20 percent” of American uranium to the Russian government in exchange for Clinton Foundation donations. Hannity and guest Pat Buchanan argued that the “whole Uranium One fiasco” involved Bill and Hillary Clinton, with the former president “giving speeches in Russia, getting paid twice what he normally gets paid.” Hannity also mentioned “John Podesta’s connections to the Russians” as something that is a “bigger crime” than Trump and Russia:

    SEAN HANNITY (HOST): We already know a bigger crime, and what about John Podesta's connections to the Russians during the campaign, number one. Number two, look at this whole Uranium One fiasco, while Bill Clinton -- Hillary Clinton’s secretary of state, he's giving speeches in Russia, getting paid twice what he normally gets paid. They get -- for the Clinton Foundation -- literally millions and millions of dollars sent to the Clinton Foundation, Hillary herself has to sign off on the Uranium One deal, where Russia literally controls 20 percent of American uranium?

    PAT BUCHANAN: Well exactly, all of these things were revealed, but the question is who will investigate the investigators? I mean, I saw, I think it was in the Post this morning or one of the papers, they're said, "Look at these -- they're trying to divert the attention away from the Russia connection to the WikiLeaks and to the getting into the DNC and Podesta files to this other thing." But look, I’m not against doing that, going into the Russian connection, if it's fair, but after eight months of investigating and you’ve turned up -- you can't even say who talked to who?

    A few hours later, Trump, who has pushed the smear before, parroted Hannity’s comments on Twitter, asking, “Why isn't the House Intelligence Committee looking into the Bill & Hillary deal that allowed big Uranium to go to Russia.” Trump also said Congress should investigate the “Russian speech" and the "money to Bill,” as well as the “Podesta Russia Company.”

    This appears to be the latest public example of Trump responding to segments from Fox News figures. In January, Trump responded to a segment on Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor about crime in Chicago, tweeting, “If Chicago doesn’t fix the horrible ‘carnage’ … I will send in the Feds!” Trump has also responded directly to Fox & Friends at least half a dozen times in March. On March 17, Trump blamed Fox News as the reason for his false claim that former President Barack Obama used British intelligence agencies to spy on him. Even after causing an international incident by citing a Fox figure, Trump continues to follow their lead, this time by resurrecting the repeatedly debunked Uranium One smear.

  • Birthers And Fringe Outlets Claim NSA Documents Back Up Trump’s Wiretap Lie

    ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN

    In order to back President Donald Trump’s false allegation that former President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower, fringe outlets and fake news purveyors -- along with some right-wing media -- are hyping a claim from Infowars’ Jerome Corsi and Alex Jones that supposedly reveals National Security Agency (NSA) documents that show Trump was spied on for years. Corsi and the “sources” he and Jones rely on have been major proponents of the debunked myth that Obama’s birth certificate is fake.

  • FBI Director Puts To Rest Two Weeks Of Fox Lies About Trump's False Wiretap Claim

    ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    Since March 4, President Donald Trump and Fox News have been feeding each other evidence and defenses to back up Trump’s false claim that his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, ordered a “wiretap” at Trump Tower. Fox figures, including Andrew Napolitano, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly, have been backing up Trump’s claim, and Trump and White House press secretary Sean Spicer have in turn recycled their comments in their attempts to substantiate the original claim. On March 20, FBI Director James Comey debunked Trump’s original tweet accusing Obama of wiretapping, unequivocally stating, “I have no information that supports those tweets. … The Department [of Justice] has no information that supports those tweets.”