Oversize laminated press pass, rumpled shirttail, yarmulke askew. In Borough Park, Brooklyn—a Haredi, traditional Orthodox, Jewish enclave that exists a world apart from secular New York—Harold “Heshy” Tischler is a media sensation. The host of The Just Enough Heshy Show, which airs on WSNR AM, he also posts frequently on Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. His audience on those platforms isn’t all that large (his followings number in the low thousands), but what he lacks in social media reach he makes up for in close connection with his community, where people tend to get their news and information via WhatsApp; his posts are circulated widely there. Tischler holds Borough Park’s attention through his particular brand of stagecraft: sensational sound bites and over-the-top photo ops, designed to keep his base rapt. In June, calling himself “Uncle Heshy,” he posted Instagram videos of young Haredi boys chanting his name as he took bolt cutters to closed playgrounds. “You are my soldiers!” he called out to onlookers at a recent Sukkot celebration. “We are at war!”
During the pandemic, Tischler, a failed city council candidate, has been the loudest voice in the neighborhood; when local rabbis are reluctant to confront authorities about rules that interfere with their religious practice, Tischler sees an opportunity. “I don’t understand, why only the Jews?” he said in an interview this fall. “We contribute to this country more than anybody else, so you will respect us.” In September, he interrupted a press conference on rising covid-19 rates in areas with significant Haredi populations. “He’s lying,” Tischler shouted at Michael Katz, the president of NYC Health + Hospitals. “You do not lie. Get the hell out of my community, you filthy animal.”
By October, nine New York City zip codes had at least double the infection rate of the rest of the city, which held at 1.7 percent. Some were eight times as high; just north, in Orange County, the Haredi enclave of Kiryas Joel tested 30 percent positive. (“Those are not real tests,” Tischler told The Forward, a Jewish news outlet. “Let me do the testing. My tests are negative.”) Governor Andrew Cuomo announced new restrictions on places of worship, schools, restaurants, and nonessential businesses. Members of the Haredi community, led by Tischler, took to the streets in protest.
On October 7, Tischler posted a video on Twitter that was disseminated across Haredi WhatsApp groups. He announced a “peaceful protest” that night, then held up a photo of Jacob Kornbluh, a Hasidic Borough Park resident and a national politics reporter for Jewish Insider. Kornbluh had been in Tischler’s sights for months, since he started covering Haredi violations of social-distancing rules. “He calls the mayor and he rats on us,” Tischler said. “He’s a murderer.” He went on to call Kornbluh “a kapo and a moser”—the former referring to prisoners of Nazi camps assigned to supervise their fellow captives, the latter to someone who hands a fellow Jew over to the jurisdiction of a secular government. Both are rarely used slurs, and they were followed up with violence: That night, Tischler led a rally that danced down 13th Avenue in Borough Park, setting masks alight, and surrounded Kornbluh, who had come to cover the scene. “You’re a moser,” Tischler shouted in Kornbluh’s face. “Everybody scream, ‘Moser!’ ” The throng echoed him. By Kornbluh’s account, the group swarmed, hitting him in the head, kicking him, and calling him a Nazi.
Tischler had chosen a strategic target: as a reporter, Kornbluh represents the competition in a battle to claim the narrative of the pandemic, the city, the state, the country, the world. Kornbluh, a diligent member of the reality-based press, had challenged the unsubstantiated proclamations of Borough Park’s most engaging media star. On the night of the attack, Tischler catered to the worst impulses of his audience, at once fueling their rage and their fandom.
Tischler’s appeal might defy logic to those outside the small wedge of Brooklyn’s Haredi community. But in recent years, outlying groups with conflicting views have found common ground in their opposition to establishment power and the “mainstream media,” forming a mismatched alliance of insular thinkers drawn out by the rise of social media and Donald Trump. (After Tischler’s playground gambit, Ted Cruz tweeted, “Bravo.”) A recent New Yorker piece observed that “Trump is wildly popular in the Haredi community,” leading Joe Biden in a recent poll by seventy points, and found that “the animating political forces for Haredim are conservative Justices, school choice, ‘law and order,’ and opposition to same-sex marriage.” That makes for some strange bedfellows: On October 21, a man identifying himself as “David from the Proud Boys” called in to Tischler’s radio show. “We have a lot in common, Heshy,” the man said. “We both got arrested by the governor of New York for expressing our constitutional right to assemble in public.” The Proud Boys are a violent far-right group founded by Gavin McInnes, an established anti-Semite who once published a video defending Holocaust denial. Yet Tischler welcomed him. “I’m going to talk to Proud Boys to come to Borough Park,” he said.
Ideology, in this context, is ultimately not the point. Rather, we can see that people are brought together by their paranoia about—and repudiation of—establishment institutions and norms. The attack in Borough Park is just one instance of many in which members of a small group, isolated from reality-based media, have grown increasingly violent as covid-19 has driven the United States into crisis, and many lives to a standstill. As a Hasidic mother told The Forward on the night Kornbluh was beaten: “The boys are bored. They didn’t have camp, they’re off from school now. This is all they have.”
“The mainstream media is the prime target of their invective because its narrative is diametrically opposed to theirs,” Kevin Arceneaux, a political scientist at Temple University, said of people like Tischler and David from the Proud Boys. “The mainstream media needs to be part of the plot they imagine against them.” In a recent study, “A ‘Need for Chaos’ and the Sharing of Hostile Political Rumors in Advanced Democracies,” Arceneaux and his coauthors identified a need to foment chaos as a measurable trait, found predominantly among young, middle- or upper-class white males. In spite of their privilege, Arceneaux told me this spring, “They feel abandoned by society, like they’ve lost out.”
Using data collected from across the United States, the study established that a sense of social marginalization can encourage aggressive political tactics—including the sharing of conspiracy theories, the support of violence, and the urge to “burn down established societal structures.” The study measured “thoughts and behaviors that people are motivated to entertain when they sit alone (and, perhaps, lonely) in front of the computer,” Arceneaux explained; when we spoke again recently, he observed parallels to Tischler and his followers, who live almost entirely offline. “The Orthodox community often feels discriminated against because they’re different, so they already feel they’re marked,” Arceneaux said. New covid-19 restrictions have fallen particularly hard on Haredi communities, where many have resisted the guidelines set by the secular government. “It’s a recipe for everybody trying to do the right thing and still thinking that the other side is a horrible evil,” he told me.
Members of Orthodox groups, white supremacist cliques, and any lonely people seeking solace can meet online or in messaging apps that form a vast network of alternative media, where “reality” is something entirely different from that of vetted press outlets. Outlandish theories meet racism, anti-Semitism, and pedophilia, in a misinformation web that’s spun by suspicion of authority and decorated by violence. On message boards, “media personalities” belonging to the most horrific subcultures are free to make extreme, bigoted claims that contradict fact. Newcomers who have the time to spend lurking—during a pandemic, say—begin to experience a displacement of reality with the conspiracies in which they’re immersed. “They’re driving people completely insane,” Alexander Reid Ross, a doctoral fellow at the Center for Analysis of the Radical Right, told me. “Intellectually speaking, it’s a return to the kind of hysteria I imagine in the Weimar Republic days, during hyperinflation. I can’t stress enough what a toxic cultural phenomenon this is and how it turns people away from a rational system of governance.” Ross described a network of eighty similar sites on the Dark Web that have no prohibitions—many have message boards dedicated to lewd pictures of children. “4chan and 8chan are just seen as originators of this broader ecosystem, which is steeped in a swamp of pedophilia,” he said. “The fact that this is the central claim of the [QAnon] conspiracy theory that emerges from 8chan, and in fact has been connected to the guy who runs 8chan, is absolutely mind-boggling.”
The arrival of the novel coronavirus not only gave people greater opportunity to explore these message boards, it also presented a new injustice for the paranoid-media world to decipher; when shelter-in-place orders went into effect, some believed it to be a hoax proffered by the government and the mainstream press. The resulting rise in unemployment exacerbated feelings of angst and anger. Michael Bang Petersen—Arceneaux’s coauthor on the “Need for Chaos” research and a political scientist at Aarhus University, in Denmark—began collecting data on how the pandemic affected political attitudes and behavior for a new study, “The psychological burden of the covid-19 pandemic drives anti-systemic attitudes and political violence.” He watched as the pandemic eroded social relationships, undermined physical and mental health, and induced disease-related fears—all of which are predictors of aggression.
Then, in late May, police officers in Minneapolis killed George Floyd. “I’ve never seen conspiracy theories this widely touted before,” Ross told me. Two days after Floyd died, sparking an uprising for racial justice across America and the world, Ross started gathering data on violence against Black Lives Matter protesters. He’s since counted sixty-eight “unsafe gun incidents” directed at demonstrators; twenty-one instances of guns being fired at them; and ten shootings, four of them fatal. There have been ninety-five attacks on protesters by counterprotesters using cars as weapons, and a hundred and twenty-seven other instances of physical assault. What spurred the attacks, Ross believes, was a collision of racism, conspiracy, and boredom. “The people who are spreading conspiracies like QAnon know they’re based on nothing,” he said. “They don’t have anything better to do, and they’ve lost sense of reality. covid-19 rescinded the norm. Some have lost jobs. People are losing their minds without patterns to follow.” Still, there was a routine, in that alternative-reality media was consistently driving violence, as evidenced in chat logs and on Facebook. “Conspiracy is directly fueling these attacks,” Ross said.
A confident political leader, one who projects what Arceneaux calls “anxious optimism,” can temper the apocalyptic fantasies that drive antiestablishment hysteria. Instead, Americans have Trump, who retweets QAnon fallacies and mocks science. Conspiracy theories filter up into his speeches, then into his policy, and back down to the whole of the country. Ideology seems to matter less to Trump nearly than taking a stand against a liberal-establishment straw man. “He is pulling the world into his orbit, and that orbit includes QAnon, Holocaust denial, fascism—all these syncretic currents, specifically aimed towards elimination of the left,” Ross said. “He’s a sheltered pampered rich guy who was raised in a tradition of abject hatred for the left wing and fear of the power of social justice.”
The trouble with awful, paranoid falsehoods is that they’re at once fascinating and dangerous; the more attention they accrue, the more important they seem. “If we had two responsible political parties, this would be a curiosity; there would be a Time article about these weird people,” Arceneaux told me. “But this is so big now, we have conspiracy theorists running for Congress.” In spite of his city council run, Heshy Tischler was barely mentioned by the press until he marched with children of the Haredi community in early June; he gave rambling quotes to amNY and Hamodia. On COLlive.com, an Orthodox Jewish community outlet, he taunted Bill de Blasio, New York’s mayor, to “come and get him.” From there, he surfaced as a “community activist” in a PIX11 piece. Soon, he became a regular source of colorful quotes in Jewish papers. In early September, the Jewish Star and The Forward quoted him vowing to attend “a wedding every night” in response to growing restrictions from Cuomo and de Blasio. By early October, he was a go-to: the New York Post covered a dustup with the city over a religious play attended by hundreds of Haredi children. By the time Tischler instigated his attack against Kornbluh—leading, a few days later, to his arrest on charges of inciting a riot—he was covered by national outlets including the Washington Post, CNN, and Newsweek. New York magazine published a Tischler profile; then came the New Yorker story.
“They never actually started listening to me until you guys started giving me the promotion,” Tischler told Shira Hanau, who wrote the piece for New York. His media rise fits a pattern—particularly common among members of the alt-right. Joan Donovan, the research director of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School and a scholar of misinformation, warns journalists against falling into traps in her recently published Media Manipulation Casebook, the result of a three-year study aiming in part to make sense of “the tactics of manipulators and the communication strategies they employ to hoax the public.” Donovan writes that, once a misinformation campaign has been seeded, it is usually those with cultural power—she lists politicians, government agencies, celebrities, influencers, civil society organizations, and journalists—whose reactions elevate the falsehood to its most visible state. “Media manipulators crave attention,” she writes. “Sometimes it is not in the public interest to report on nascent campaigns.” In Tischler’s case, reporters took the bait of an easy, eagerly available source who was willing to speak (in colorful language) for a notoriously closed-off community. By doing so, they granted him far greater authority than he’d ever had.
Then again, Joseph Uscinski, an associate professor of political science who studies conspiracy theories and the media at the University of Miami, thinks the press gives itself too much credit for—and worries too much about—influencing people’s perception of reality. Despite popular opinion, he told me, there is no evidence that more people now buy into conspiracy theories and other misinformation than they did in the past. “It’s true that social media use is correlated with belief in more conspiracy theories,” he said. “But people who are already disposed to believing in conspiracy theories use social media to get more of what they want.” Those who log in to Dark Web message boards, in his view, would have found their way there regardless of the news coverage—which conspiracists are disinclined to read anyway. “It’s not a causal effect,” he added. “Someone already was a conspiracy crank before they got on the internet.”
In covering the awful network of paranoid media, Uscinski added, journalists tend to place adherents on a political spectrum. But that forgets the “Need for Chaos” factor. “Most people aren’t left-right ideologues,” he said. “They might have some partisan attachment, but it’s more of an attachment to a group label than it is to a set of policy prescriptions.” (Take Trump, for instance.) These days, of course, at the intersection of a pandemic, a plague of racist violence, climate change, and a corrupt White House, no one is without antiestablishment angst. No one is immune from boredom, anger, and resentful scrolling.
Journalists have to weigh their options and be thoughtful about the consequences of what they do. On an individual basis, however, the effects are hardly as dramatic as they are in sum—when news outlets and platforms take responsibility for themselves. Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, could curb the influence of Heshy, David from the Proud Boys, and many others. (For weeks, Tischler and his followers disseminated lies about Kornbluh—calling him names, claiming that he committed suicide.) But confronting the problem at scale would run against revenue goals, and there has yet to be evidence of Silicon Valley’s willingness to do that.
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