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.
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.
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 WorldNetDaily.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.
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 Fox’s 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 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.
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Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine and a 2019 – 2020 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting fellow. He is the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden.