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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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Similar Media Support Helped Enable Iraq War
After President Donald Trump launched airstrikes against Syria in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack in that country, media figures from across the political spectrum praised his “beautiful” attack, with many also linking the action to the growing threat that another country -- North Korea -- poses to the United States. Effusive media support of military conflict was a key precursor to the Iraq War; the danger of such uncritically hawkish commentary has multiplied under Trump, who sources policy ideas -- and defenses for his conduct -- directly from media.
The Washington Post reported that the FBI obtained a FISA warrant to investigate Trump associate Carter Page during the summer of 2016. The warrant was legally obtained through the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Court. Right-wing media outlets falsely claimed that the FBI investigation into Page is evidence that supports Donald Trump’s accusations that the Obama administration illegally wiretapped him, despite multiple intelligence experts and even GOP Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) calling Trump’s claim is false.
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Jones: “I’m One Of The Biggest Proponents Of Nonviolence [Along With] Mahatma Gandhi And Martin Luther King”
Alex Jones is defending himself from criticism about his violent remarks about a Democratic congressman by comparing himself to Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. and claiming his tirades are just “art performance.”
During a March 30 video originally flagged by Media Matters, Jones went on an angry, anti-gay tirade against Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA). Jones said Schiff “looks like the archetypal cocksucker” and a “fairy” and then said to him about any claims that Jones is colluding with the Russians: “You get in my face with that I’ll beat your goddamn ass, you son of a bitch. You piece of shit. ... Fill your hand”:
ROGER STONE: What we’re hearing from the Democrats both in the House and Senate is red-baiting --
ALEX JONES: That’s on Drudge.
STONE: -- fear-mongering -- It is well beyond the point of recklessness, whether it is [Rep.] Adam Schiff [D-CA] who has maligned me or whether it is Senator Mark Warner [D-VA] or whether it is Senator John McCain [R-AZ]. But let me tell you something, Alex, these guys are pussies. They talk a tough game. “We’re going to get Roger Stone in front of the committee.” Gentlemen, ladies, I am ready, I am more than ready --
JONES: In fact, let me say this right now. Let me tell -- I’m not against gay people. OK. I love them, they’re great folks. But Schiff looks like the archetypal cocksucker with those little deer-in-the-headlight eyes and all his stuff. And there’s something about this fairy, hopping around, bossing everybody around, trying to intimidate people like me and you, I want to tell Congressman Schiff and all the rest of them, “Hey listen asshole, quit saying Roger and I” -- and I’ve never used cussing in 22 years but the gloves are off -- “listen you son of a bitch, what the fuck’s your problem? You want to sit here and say that I’m a goddamn, fucking Russian. You get in my face with that I’ll beat your goddamn ass, you son of a bitch. You piece of shit. You fucking goddamn fucker. Listen fuckhead, you have fucking crossed a line. Get that through your goddamn fucking head. Stop pushing your shit. You’re the people that have fucked this country over and gangraped the shit out of it and lost an election. So stop shooting your mouth off claiming I’m the enemy. You got that you goddamn son of a bitch? Fill your hand.” I’m sorry, but I’m done. You start calling me a foreign agent, those are fucking fighting words. Excuse me.
STONE: Yeah, I don’t think I have ever been in a campaign in which we disparage the patriotism of our opponents. Now, I’m not going to go there. But I think Adam Schiff has acted irresponsibly and I think he needs to be confronted with his exact words.
JONES: He’s sucking globalist dick.
In an article posted April 5, Newsweek quoted an attorney who claimed Jones’ comments may constitute a felony. Jones subsequently posted a video attempting to clarify his remarks, claiming he’s actually a leading proponent of nonviolence like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.:
ALEX JONES: We’re going to lose this fight for America if we get violent. I’m one of the biggest proponents of nonviolence, and Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Everybody knows that.
Jones later claimed that his anti-Schiff remarks were “clearly tongue-in-cheek and basically art performance, as I do in my rants, which I admit I do, as a form of art. And they turn that into a premeditated plan that I’m trying to influence that chicken neck Schiff, who has made up all this crap about Trump and Russians, and has been caught lying. Saying that [Susan] Rice wasn’t spying. This guy is a loser. When I say, ‘I’m going to kick your ass,’ it’s the infowar. I say every day we’re going to destroy you with the truth.”
He later said:
ALEX JONES: I just want to be clear: I mean no violence against Mr. Schiff. I know the guy's a liar. I know that he is an attack dog of the Democrats. I know that he's really trying to hurt this country so I dislike him, but I wish no harm on him or his wife or his children or anybody else -- so this is not a retraction, this is a clarification. Yes, I don't want violence. You guys are openly calling for it everywhere so I think then you should ask yourselves what hypocrite planet you woke up on when I say 1/10th of what you said clearly jesting and then you take it as serious and call for my incarceration for six years in federal prison.
Jones also claimed that “everybody knows the compendium of my speech and what I stand for is nonviolent when it comes to offense. I’m all about defense, and everyone knows that. Everyone understands that.”
“Everyone” appears to not include self-described Jones listener Edgar Maddison Welch, who on December 4 entered Comet Ping Pong while wielding an assault weapon to “self-investigate” the false conspiracy theory that the restaurant was helping Hillary Clinton’s campaign traffic children. After patrons and employees fled, Welch fired several shots.
The New York Times interviewed Welch several days after the shooting, and he told the paper that he was a listener of Jones’ show and that Jones “touches on some issues that are viable,” but that sometimes Jones “goes off the deep end.” The criminal complaint against Welch alleged that he shared a YouTube video with the message “Watch PIZZAGATE: The Bigger Picture.” Alex Jones’ website Infowars published a December 1 article with the headline “Pizzagate: The Bigger Picture” which included an Infowars YouTube video. Welch “pleaded guilty [last month] to weapons and assault charges in a deal with U.S. prosecutors.” Jones was pressured to air an apology for his role in spreading the false “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory about Comet Ping Pong last month.
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Responding to controversy over claims he made about “the Jewish mafia,” conspiracy theorist Alex Jones attacked “the Jewish press” that reported on his claims, saying the outlets are “complicit in covering up the stuff that is going on.”
During the March 29 broadcast of The Alex Jones Show, Jones, a prominent media ally of President Donald Trump, responded to a caller pushing an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory by saying, “Well there is undoubtedly a Jewish mafia and the [Anti-Defamation League] will say you’re anti-Semitic. No, there’s an Italian mafia, Irish mafia, Jewish mafia, Jamaican mafia, and there’s mafias, there’s Dixie mafia. And absolutely, the Jewish mafia, then, if you criticize it, it says you’re anti-Semitic, but the Jewish mafia is a very powerful mafia.”
In his remarks, Jones also said that the Jewish mafia “worked with Hitler” and claimed that “the head of the Jewish mafia is [financier and philanthropist] George Soros; he’s out to get Jews.”
Several Jewish news outlets reported on Jones’ comments. Jones criticized these outlets, saying on his March 30 broadcast, “It really is disgusting what the sell-out media, whether it’s the Jewish press and all this, that always attacks people that expose this. I just have to ask The Forward and everybody else, what the hell, man? I mean, are you really want to be complicit in covering up the stuff that is going on when you know, when any Jews that I talk to that are educated know all about this.”
Throughout the segment, Jones’ largely focused on reporting from Jewish publication The Forward. Jones falsely claimed, “They don’t give all my quotes or all my comments where I said he was a Nazi that fed on Jews and rounded them up.” (The Forward’s article did include the relevant transcript posted by Media Matters that contextualized Jones’ claims, including quoting him as saying Soros is “out to get Jews.”)
During the segment, Jones singled out the author of the Forward article by name -- while showing an enlarged image of her face on the online broadcast of his show -- and said the reporter “looks like she’s 12 years old. I’m glad you’re there to expose the anti-Semites, sweetheart.”
Jones also revived the years-old smear that as a child, Soros, who is Jewish, was a Nazi collaborator and claimed that Soros “had a Hungarian handler and they would send him in when he was 13, 14, 15, 16 to ferret out where Jews were hidden and then they would rob all their stuff and sell them out to the Nazis.”
This version of history is incorrect, as Tablet has reported:
After his father made the agonizing decision to split up his family in the hopes of a better chance of its partial survival, Soros was given forged documents and sent to live in hiding with a Hungarian official charged with confiscating property from the country homes of deported Jews. This man occasionally brought the young Soros along, rather than leave him alone in a war-torn city that the retreated Germans were beginning to blow up. This official, who confiscated Jewish property yet also, at incredible personal risk, saved the life of a Jewish boy, is a human contradiction that [Glenn] Beck’s idiot Manicheanism is ill-equipped to handle.
Jones’ claim echoes comments made by conservative radio host Glenn Beck in 2010 when he said Soros “used to go around with this anti-Semite and deliver papers to the Jews and confiscate their property and then ship them off.” Then-Anti-Defamation League Executive Director Abraham Foxman called those claims “completely inappropriate, offensive,” and “horrific,” explaining that “to hold a young boy responsible for what was going on around him during the Holocaust as part of a larger effort to denigrate the man is repugnant.”
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Alex Jones, a conspiracy theorist radio host who is one of President Donald Trump’s media sycophants, appears to be monetizing his content as part of the YouTube Partner Program even though Infowars' content regularly violates the program’s policies and guidelines for advertising. Jones’ YouTube videos and other content feature extreme anti-LGBTQ and racist commentary, and Infowars promotes conspiracy theories that have encouraged harassment of families that lost children in the Sandy Hook massacre and led to a gunman firing shots in a Washington, D.C., pizzeria.
The YouTube Partner Program allows content creators to “monetize content on YouTube in many ways, including advertisements, paid subscriptions, and merchandise,” as long as their content is “advertiser-friendly” and meets YouTube’s “community guidelines.” Google, which owns YouTube, recently changed its advertising policies after major European corporations and the British government raised concerns over their ads being placed next to extremist content. In response, Google wrote that it was “raising the bar for our ad policies” and that it would “tighten safeguards to ensure that ads show up only against legitimate creators in our YouTube Partner Program”:
We know advertisers don't want their ads next to content that doesn’t align with their values. So starting today, we’re taking a tougher stance on hateful, offensive and derogatory content. This includes removing ads more effectively from content that is attacking or harassing people based on their race, religion, gender or similar categories. This change will enable us to take action, where appropriate, on a larger set of ads and sites.
We’ll also tighten safeguards to ensure that ads show up only against legitimate creators in our YouTube Partner Program—as opposed to those who impersonate other channels or violate our community guidelines. Finally, we won’t stop at taking down ads. The YouTube team is taking a hard look at our existing community guidelines to determine what content is allowed on the platform—not just what content can be monetized.
Google’s promise to better ensure that ads appear only alongside content of “legitimate creators in our YouTube Partner Program" indicates that Jones’ channel is a partner. An online post by the Houston Chronicle also explained that a YouTube partner can be identified by “look[ing] for advertisements on the user’s pages."
Jones’ videos, which often violate YouTube’s policies for its advertising partners, frequently appear with ads for brands such as Trivago, Playstation, and a corporation that is contracted by the state of Hawaii to promote tourism. These ads appear on a targeted, automated rotating system, so they may alternate or change.
On March 19, Jones claimed that his website “Infowars got knocked off of Google ads through AdRoll, their subsidiary company they work with.” AdRoll -- which is actually a Google competitor, though it does use some Google technology -- did in fact cut ties with Infowars, citing violations of its policies, which require that a website’s content be accurate and verifiable and that it not have “derogatory content” about a political candidate. But it appears that Google, through YouTube, has not taken any similar action.
YouTube’s community guidelines include banning content creators -- and not just their advertising -- for threats, including “harassment, intimidation, invading privacy, revealing other people's personal information, and inciting others to commit violent acts.” Infowars is no stranger to harassment and threats. In addition, YouTube’s content guidelines, which apply to pages hosting advertisements, say that videos with “inappropriate language, including harassment, profanity and vulgar language” are “inappropriate for advertising.” Jones, including on his YouTube page, regularly makes vulgar and harassing comments, and his role in spreading conspiracy theories has helped incite others to commit threatening and violent acts.
Jones played a crucial role in pushing the false “Pizzagate” conspiracy, which claimed that a Washington, D.C., pizzeria hid a pedophilia ring run by prominent Democratic politicians. Jones told his audience members in late November that they “have to go investigate" the conspiracy theory for themselves. Days later, a Jones listener fired his gun inside the pizzeria. After that incident, Jones scrubbed Pizzagate-related content from his YouTube page and elsewhere. In February, Jones uploaded a new video breaking down the “PizzaGate pedophile cult,” months after the shooting incident; an ad for LinkedIn appeared next to that video on March 23. On March 24, Jones apologized to the pizzeria and its owner for his attacks on them. An advertisement for TBS’ late night talk show Conan appeared before the video on March 27.
Jones also relentlessly pushed conspiracies about the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, in which 20 children and six adults were murdered during a shooting at an elementary school. Jones has attacked the families of the victims as “actors” who helped pull off a “hoax,” and family members have said that they have repeatedly faced harassment and threats and have criticized Jones for his smears. On March 23, an advertisement for FedEx appeared on a video exploring “false narratives vs. the reality” of Sandy Hook, and an ad for PNC showed up on another video alleging that Sandy Hook conspiracy theorist Wolfgang Halbig was “stonewalled and threatened” as he investigated the massacre.
Jones has made other threatening and violent comments. In a now-deleted YouTube video, Jones told conservative Washington Post columnist George Will to “put a .357 Magnum to your head, and blow what little is left of your brains out all over yourself.” Jones also asserted that Will is a “constitutional rapist” who is “literally mounting America, raping it in the ass, and telling us how great he is.”
Jones also recently challenged actor Alec Baldwin to a “bare knuckle” fight, saying, “I will break your jaw, I will knock your teeth out, I will break your nose, and I will break your neck.” During the 2016 Democratic primary, Jones suggested that supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) needed to have their "jaws broken" and their "moron heads" slapped (following criticism, Jones claimed he was speaking only “figuratively” about breaking their jaws).
YouTube’s advertising guidelines also note that content “is considered inappropriate for advertising” when it includes “controversial or sensitive subjects and events, including subjects related to war, political conflicts, natural disasters and tragedies, even if graphic imagery is not shown.”
Jones has made his name weighing in on controversial subjects and spreading conspiracy theories. He is an ardent 9/11 truther who calls the attacks an “inside job.” He has also spread conspiracy theories about the Oklahoma City bombing, Boston Marathon bombing, a number of mass shootings, and vaccinations. A Google AdChoices advertisement appeared next to a video calling 9/11 a “false flag”
Jones has also made numerous disparaging comments about LGBTQ people. After more than 40 people were killed at an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando, FL, Jones charged “the LGBT community in general with endangering America and with the blood of these 50-plus innocent men and women.” Many of Jones’ comments about the attack were uploaded to his YouTube channel. Jones also once claimed that the U.S. government is trying to “encourage homosexuality with chemicals so that people don’t have children,” adding that being gay is a “destructive lifestyle.” A static in-video advertisement and, separately, an advertisement for Wix.com appeared in a March 16 YouTube video on Jones’ page during which Infowars guest host Anthony Cumia mocked a 15-year-old transgender girl and compared her decision to transition to children deciding they want “to be a dinosaur.”
A sponsored Funny or Die video appeared before one of Jones’ YouTube videos in which he lamented the introduction of an autistic muppet to Sesame Street and pushed the dangerous, debunked myth that vaccines cause autism by claiming “it burns out their pancreas. It burns out their brain.” The video and the video’s summary asserted that the character’s inclusion was “an effort to normalize the epidemic of childhood mental disorders.”
Jones also frequently makes controversial comments on race and gender, such as when he went on a racist rant against former President Barack Obama on his YouTube channel, saying he was “elected on affirmative action” and “ain’t black, in my opinion.” Jones also accused Obama of having “some big old donkey dick hard-on.”
Jones has made other vulgar comments about politicians and their families, particularly about women. These statements include calling Obama’s mother a “sex operative” for the CIA on his radio show and calling Hillary Clinton a “lying whore” on his YouTube channel. He has also said that Chelsea Clinton looks like Mister Ed the Horse and made numerous other sexist comments about women and their looks.
Removing Jones’ channel from the YouTube Partner Program would hardly be unprecedented. The Independent reported in February that YouTube removed user “PewDiePie from its advertising platform after anti-Semitic videos were posted to his account.” PewDiePie has more than 53 million subscribers and has been called “by far YouTube’s biggest star.” The report noted that the videos could no longer “be monetised because they are in violation of YouTube’s ‘advertiser-friendly content guidelines’, which are stricter than the normal guidelines.” The report added that YouTube’s community guidelines “include restrictions on hate speech”:
The videos are no longer allowed to be monetised because they are in violation of YouTube's "advertiser-friendly content guidelines", which are stricter than the normal guidelines and require that people cannot feature "controversial or sensitive subjects and events, including subjects related to war, political conflicts, natural disasters and tragedies, even if graphic imagery is not shown".
But they are still available to view on the site, where they were posted in January.
Google requires that all videos uploaded to the site comply with its community guidelines, which include restrictions on hate speech. The guidelines specifically note that YouTube will consider the "intent of the uploader", and that videos may stay online if they are "intended to be humorous or satirical", "even if offensive or in poor taste".
It would appear to be consistent with YouTube’s existing policies to pull advertising from Jones’ videos. If YouTube fails to take action, advertisers can request to have their ads removed from videos appearing on Jones’ channel; Google has pledged to implement “account-level controls to make it easier for advertisers to exclude specific sites and channels.”
Conspiracy theorist radio host Alex Jones claimed that his site, Infowars, was “knocked off of Google Ads” by a Google “subsidiary.” But the advertising company that cut ties with Infowars, AdRoll, is not a Google subsidiary, and Google does in fact place ads on Infowars’ YouTube video pages, generating revenue for Jones’ site. In suspending Infowars, AdRoll cited violations of its policies, which require that content be accurate and verifiable and that content about political campaigns focus on the merits of a candidate, rather than being “derogatory.”