When It Comes to the Fake News Scourge, Russia Doesn’t Hold a Candle to U.S. Conservative Media

The panic over Russian interference obscures the fact that fake news has always been with us—it’s just been pushed by the American Right.

Branko Marcetic February 22, 2018

Fox News has for the better part of two decades functioned as the country’s most noxious source of right-wing misinformation. (Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images)

On Feb­ru­ary 16, the Jus­tice Depart­ment announced that 13 Russ­ian nation­als and three Russ­ian groups are being charged with crim­i­nal wrong­do­ing for attempt­ing to inter­fere with U.S. elec­tions, includ­ing dur­ing the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. The charges include claims that these Russ­ian actors oper­at­ed social media accounts that attempt­ed to pro­mote dis­cord” in the elec­tion process in the Unit­ed States.

No serious discussion of “fake news” can possibly discount the role this homegrown disinformation campaign has played in subverting U.S. democracy and manipulating the American people.

In response, a num­ber of promi­nent Democ­rats deemed the Russ­ian effort act of war on par with Pearl Har­bor, while oth­ers have point­ed to the news as fur­ther proof that an online dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign run by the Krem­lin had sub­vert­ed Amer­i­can democ­ra­cy in 2016.

In recent months, Russ­ian-orig­i­nat­ed fake news” has been cit­ed by main­stream media out­lets and politi­cians as a cause for every­thing from Black Lives Mat­ter protests to frack­ing oppo­si­tion to the Dako­ta Access Pipeline protests. The mes­sage appar­ent­ly being that Amer­i­cans can’t get out­raged about dis­pro­por­tion­ate police killings of African Amer­i­cans or eco­log­i­cal destruc­tion with­out being tricked into it by Russ­ian agents.

Before the indict­ment, the pan­ic over for­eign fake news was inflamed by a Wash­ing­ton Post report detail­ing how Russ­ian oper­a­tives cre­at­ed more than 100 made-up events dur­ing the 2016 elec­tion on sen­si­tive social issues.” This comes on top of a series of reports from the Post and the New York Times about an alleged­ly Krem­lin-linked cam­paign to tar­get spe­cif­ic vot­ers with Face­book ads and fake social media iden­ti­ties, one that involved the Inter­net Research Agency — the com­pa­ny named in last week’s indictment.

Nev­er mind that no firm link has been estab­lished con­nect­ing a person’s inter­ac­tion with fake news to their vot­ing pat­terns, nor the fact that a num­ber of the cit­ed posts had neg­li­gi­ble reach. As researchers Dun­can J. Watts and David M. Roth­schild have point­ed out, the fake Face­book ads cit­ed by the Post and New York Times com­prised a mere 0.1 per­cent of Face­book’s dai­ly ad revenue.

Of course, for­eign inter­fer­ence in Amer­i­can democ­ra­cy is a seri­ous prob­lem. But the cur­rent media-inflamed pan­ic can serve to obscure that fact that fake news is not a new phe­nom­e­non. It’s always been with us — it’s just been home-grown.

Mis­in­for­ma­tion U.S.A.

In Novem­ber 2017, right-wing provo­ca­teur James O’Keefe made head­lines for hav­ing orga­nized a botched attempt to pub­licly embar­rass the Wash­ing­ton Post. His orga­ni­za­tion, Project Ver­i­tas, hired a woman named Jaime T. Phillips to feed the Post false alle­ga­tions against alleged child moles­ter and then-Alaba­ma Sen­ate can­di­date Roy Moore. The stunt back­fired when Post reporters dug into Phillips’ past, and she and O’Keefe’s efforts to manip­u­late the media were pub­licly exposed.

This gam­bit serves as a reminder that the Krem­lin and Mace­don­ian teenagers are sim­ply try­ing to mus­cle in on a mar­ket that the Amer­i­can right wing has long had a monop­oly on. One need only look back to the 2016 pres­i­den­tial campaign.

In Novem­ber 2015, while run­ning for the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion, Pres­i­dent Trump tweet­ed out a racist info­graph­ic from San Fran­cis­co’s Crime Sta­tis­tics Bureau, a made-up gov­ern­ment agency, pur­port­ing to show that African Amer­i­cans are respon­si­ble for most killings of whites — a bla­tant false­hood. That tweet was shared more than 7,500 times and rep­re­sents just one of a con­stant stream of ephemer­al fake images and sta­tis­tics cooked up by the far Right in recent years.

Of course, this isn’t the only time Trump has spread right-wing mis­in­for­ma­tion. Upon announc­ing his Mus­lim ban in Decem­ber 2015, Trump cit­ed a sta­tis­tic show­ing 25 per­cent of Mus­lims believed anti-Amer­i­can vio­lence was jus­ti­fied as part of the glob­al jihad.” The data was sourced from a shod­dy online poll of 600 self-select­ed respon­dents con­duct­ed by the U.S.-based Cen­ter for Secu­ri­ty Pol­i­cy (CSP), which the South­ern Pover­ty Law Cen­ter has des­ig­nat­ed as an anti-Mus­lim hate group.

Sim­i­lar­ly, Trump’s request to look at what’s hap­pen­ing in … Swe­den” in Feb­ru­ary 2017 was based on a decep­tive seg­ment on Tuck­er Carl­son Tonight” filmed by Ami Horowitz, a well-known U.S.-based xeno­pho­bic film­mak­er. The segment’s main con­ceit — that Swe­den is a crime-rid­den war­zone brought to ruin by swarms of (non-white) immi­grants — is a wide­ly held belief in con­ser­v­a­tive cir­cles, and one broad­cast by pop­u­lar right-wing out­lets such as the Fed­er­al­ist, the Dai­ly Mail and Fox News. It’s also entire­ly made-up, as the Swedish gov­ern­ment itself has out­lined.

No list of right-wing fab­ri­ca­tions pushed by Trump is com­plete with­out the biggest whop­per of them all: his repeat­ed claim that for­mer Pres­i­dent Obama’s U.S. birth cer­tifi­cate doesn’t exist, which helped to inspire the birtherism” movement. 

Trump wasn’t the only big-name U.S. con­ser­v­a­tive to push the bla­tant­ly false claim: Sarah Palin, Rick Per­ry and Mike Huck­abee all joined in. The issue was also tak­en up by World​Net​Dai​ly​.com, described by Poli­ti­fact as the con­duc­tor of the birther train.” While the claim that Oba­ma does­n’t have a U.S. birth cer­tifi­cate found its ori­gins in the online con­ser­v­a­tive rumor swamp, its broad­cast­ing by promi­nent con­ser­v­a­tives and wide­ly read, if dis­rep­utable, web­sites, helped the rumor take off.

Trump has con­tin­ued mak­ing untruth­ful claims, most recent­ly with a string of false­hoods about cli­mate change that have been long­time pop­u­lar con­ser­v­a­tive talk­ing points on the issue. His state­ment, for instance, that the polar ice caps are at a record lev­el” appears to be an exag­ger­a­tion of claims con­ser­v­a­tives have been mak­ing for years which down­play warm­ing in the Antarctic.

Also alarm­ing is Trump’s rela­tion­ship to the right-wing con­spir­a­cy show InfoWars, whose host, Alex Jones, claims to occa­sion­al­ly speak with Trump over the phone, and who, in Decem­ber 2015, inter­viewed the then-pres­i­den­tial can­di­date. Dur­ing the first year of his pres­i­den­cy, Trump used lan­guage and made a num­ber of false state­ments that appear to have been based on InfoWars seg­ments. Trump’s re-elec­tion cam­paign even sent out to sup­port­ers an InfoWars sto­ry defend­ing the administration’s deci­sion to pull out of the Paris cli­mate accord.

Out­foxed

When it comes to Fox News, the top-rat­ed cable news chan­nel has for the bet­ter part of two decades func­tioned as the country’s most nox­ious source of right-wing mis­in­for­ma­tion. Its role has been all the more per­ni­cious giv­en its per­ceived sta­tus as a legit­i­mate news source and its sub­stan­tial view­er­ship. Hav­ing dom­i­nat­ed the cable news scene over the past 16 years, the net­work has recent­ly expe­ri­enced a rat­ings renais­sance under Trump. In 2017, Fox News reached its high­est rat­ings ever.

A defin­i­tive list of all of Foxs mis­in­for­ma­tion would be too long to list. But high­lights of how the chan­nel has been ter­ri­fy­ing its view­ers over the decades include:

  • Relent­less broad­cast­ing of the Seth Rich con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry which false­ly sug­gest­ed that Rich, a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee staffer, leaked the hacked DNC emails dur­ing the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign and was mur­dered for doing so.
  • Dozens of sto­ries in the sum­mer of 2010 inflat­ing the threat of the so-called New Black Pan­ther Party. 
  • Copi­ous cov­er­age of what then-anchor Meg­yn Kel­ly cit­ed in 2010 as vot­er fraud on a mas­sive scale,” which has in fact nev­er exist­ed.
  • A seg­ment in 2015 that claimed the U.K. city of Birm­ing­ham was just one of numer­ous no-go zones” where non-Mus­lims just sim­ply don’t go in,” a lie the net­work was forced to cor­rect and apol­o­gize for.
  • Numer­ous seg­ments that false­ly claimed peo­ple would be put in prison for not buy­ing insur­ance due to Obamacare’s indi­vid­ual mandate.
  • Con­sis­tent­ly mis­lead­ing cli­mate sci­ence cov­er­age, only 28 per­cent of which was accu­rate, accord­ing to a 2014 analy­sis by the Union of Con­cerned Scientists.
  • Inac­cu­rate Iraq War cov­er­age, which left its view­ers sig­nif­i­cant­ly more mis­in­formed than those of oth­er net­works — a 2004 study found 67 per­cent of Fox view­ers believed Sad­dam Hus­sein was work­ing close­ly with al-Qae­da and 33 per­cent believed the Unit­ed States had found weapons of mass destruc­tion in Iraq. 

This is just a drop in the buck­et of the many false­hoods spread by the network.

This type of home-grown mis­in­for­ma­tion is far more influ­en­tial than for­eign-made, social media-based fake news.” While a 2017 Pew study found that 67 per­cent of adults get their news from social media, only 20 per­cent say they do so often.” Most say they only do so some­times” (27 per­cent) or hard­ly ever” (20 per­cent). A Stan­ford study on the impact of fake news released in 2017 found only 14 per­cent of adults con­sid­ered social media their most impor­tant source of news and infor­ma­tion about the 2016 election.”

By con­trast, Pew found that 50 per­cent of Amer­i­cans often” get news from TV, a num­ber that was sev­en points high­er dur­ing the 2016 elec­tion. The Stan­ford study found that 23.5 per­cent of Amer­i­cans con­sid­ered cable news their most impor­tant source of 2016 elec­tion news.”

A tan­gi­ble effect

It’s no won­der, then, that while the con­crete effect of social media-based fake news is yet to be deter­mined, right-wing dis­in­for­ma­tion has had a tan­gi­ble, mea­sur­able effect on pub­lic discourse.

As a result of the broad­cast­ing of birtherism,” the Hawaii Depart­ment of Health received around a dozen emails a day ask­ing about the legit­i­ma­cy of Obama’s birth cer­tifi­cate. By 2011, one in four Amer­i­cans thought Oba­ma was born out­side the coun­try. As of August 2016, 72 per­cent of reg­is­tered Repub­li­cans still had doubts about the for­mer president’s citizenship.

In 2015, the U.S.-based anti-abor­tion orga­ni­za­tion Cen­ter for Med­ical Progress cir­cu­lat­ed a series of mis­lead­ing and decep­tive­ly edit­ed videos on Planned Par­ent­hood, pur­port­ing to show the organization’s employ­ees dis­cussing sell­ing fetal tis­sue for prof­it. These videos set off a string of right-wing-led efforts to defund the orga­ni­za­tion and helped lead to an inves­ti­ga­tion into its prac­tices, which ulti­mate­ly found no wrong­do­ing.

This wasn’t the only time decep­tive­ly edit­ed videos were used by the Amer­i­can Right to attempt to bring down a pro­gres­sive orga­ni­za­tion. In 2009, con­ser­v­a­tive blog­ger Andrew Bre­it­bart pub­lished videos of James O’Keefe and his fel­low right-wing sabo­teur Han­nah Giles meet­ing with rep­re­sen­ta­tives at the com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing group ACORN. 

The videos appeared to show O’Keefe, dressed as a gaudy 70s-style pimp and accom­pa­nied by Giles, dressed as a sex work­er, get­ting advice from ACORN employ­ees on how to hide wages from the gov­ern­ment. The videos, edit­ed and in some cas­es over­dubbed, left out a lot, accord­ing to the Cal­i­for­nia Attor­ney Gen­er­al’s office and oth­ers who viewed the full tape: that O’Keefe was nev­er dressed as a pimp, that he claimed he was try­ing to res­cue the fake sex work­er from an abu­sive pimp, that ACORN employ­ees gave some advice based on their fear for the wom­an’s safe­ty, and that one employ­ee in San Diego even called the police over the incident.

The con­tro­ver­sy, fueled by Fox News and oth­er right-wing out­lets, dec­i­mat­ed ACORN, lead­ing to the organization’s dissolution.

Sim­i­lar was the case of Shirley Sher­rod, an Oba­ma-era Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture offi­cial who Andrew Bre­it­bart tried to paint as a racist by high­light­ing a video of a 2010 speech she had giv­en to the NAACP. In the video, Sher­rod dis­cussed not giv­ing a white farmer the full force” of what help she could, part­ly because of his con­de­scend­ing atti­tude toward her, and part­ly because of her knowl­edge that so many black Amer­i­cans had faced sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances. The Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion sub­se­quent­ly fired her.

In fact, Sher­rod’s speech had been trun­cat­ed to leave out the real point of her sto­ry: that she over­came her own prej­u­dice, and that, after wit­ness­ing the way the man had been cheat­ed by the sys­tem and by his own lawyer, she real­ized it’s real­ly about those who have ver­sus those who don’t.” She lat­er reached a set­tle­ment with Breitbart’s widow.

Mean­while, con­ser­v­a­tive media — includ­ing Fox News—cir­cu­lat­ed the myth that Oba­macare set up so-called death pan­els,” despite the fact that Poli­ti­Fact rat­ed it 2009’s Lie of the Year.” In part due to the broad­cast­ing of this false­hood, as of 2015, a stag­ger­ing­ly high per­cent­age of Repub­li­cans con­tin­ued to believe the lie. The con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry was even writ­ten into that year’s House GOP budget.

All of this fits into a pat­tern of inac­cu­rate and mis­lead­ing report­ing spewed out by con­ser­v­a­tive media in the Unit­ed States. No seri­ous dis­cus­sion of fake news” can pos­si­bly dis­count the role this home­grown dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign has played in sub­vert­ing U.S. democ­ra­cy and manip­u­lat­ing the Amer­i­can people.

We still don’t know the true mea­sur­able impact of Russ­ian-orig­i­nat­ed fake news on the 2016 elec­tion, espe­cial­ly giv­en the many, non-fake-news-relat­ed flaws of Hillary Clinton’s cam­paign. But we’ve had decades to study the per­ni­cious effects of right-wing mis­in­for­ma­tion. On this front, the Rus­sians don’t hold a can­dle to U.S. conservatives.

Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin mag­a­zine and a 2019 – 2020 Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing fel­low. He is work­ing on a forth­com­ing book about Joe Biden.
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