In January, when the story of four Chicago teens using Facebook Live to film themselves torturing a mentally disabled man was receiving widespread media attention, alt-right media personality Mike Cernovich and his followers decided—falsely—to link the kidnappers to Black Lives Matter, a movement for racial justice. Using bots and fake accounts, Cernovich and his followers tweeted the hashtag #BLMKidnapping 480,000 times in 24 hours.
Although Chicago police and BLM activists debunked the connection, it spread widely on social media, thanks in large part to far-right sites such as Breitbart. The theory was so pervasive that it appeared in most media stories about the kidnapping, if only to discredit it. Cernovich and his audience forcibly changed the way the story was framed by pushing out the hashtag.
With the rise of far-right activity online has come a dilemma for mainstream media: Should news outlets work to debunk conspiracy theories, or is it better to ignore them and hope they go away? It is an issue currently playing out in the debate over Megyn Kelly’s NBC interview with Alex Jones, a far-right radio host who has denied that the Sandy Hook school killings happened as the media depicted. NBC has come under sharp viewer and advertiser pressure to pull the interview, scheduled to air Sunday.
Indeed, research suggests that even debunking falsehoods can reinforce and amplify them. In addition, if a media outlet declines to cover a story that has widely circulated in the far-right and mainstream conservative press, it is accused of lying and promoting a liberal agenda. Far-right subcultures are able to exploit this, using the media to spread ideas and target potential new recruits.
A number of factors make the mainstream media susceptible to manipulation from the far-right. The cost-cutting measures instituted by traditional newspapers since the 1990s have resulted in less fact-checking and investigative reporting. At the same time, there is a constant need for novelty to fill a 24/7 news cycle driven by cable networks and social media. Many of those outlets have benefited from the new and increased partisanship in the country, meaning there is now more incentive to address memes and half-truths, even if it’s only to shoot them down.
Far-right trolls have an expert understanding of these vulnerabilities, and use them to their own advantage:
Take the term “alt-right,” a neologism coined by white nationalist and Trump advisor Richard Spencer. Their beliefs are nothing new: garden-variety racism mixed with economic isolationism and a heavy dose of misogyny. But by virtue of the new name, the alt-right and its leaders were seen as newsworthy. This allowed ideas long seen as unacceptable to seep into public discourse. When CNN interviewed Spencer, for instance, the chyron read “Alt-Right Leader Asks if Jews Are People.” It is unlikely that CNN would have given a Ku Klux Klan leader similar coverage. In political punditry, this is called “opening the Overton window,” or expanding the range of what is politically acceptable—and this is a major goal of the alt-right. (Overton is a reference to a public policy researcher, as well as to a novel by Glenn Beck.)
In a media-saturated world, both traditional and new media seek to cover whatever can attract eyeballs. And ultimately, the media’s fascination with novelty is what gave white nationalist ideas mass exposure.
Memes and pranks
Far-right groups use strategic ambiguity to spread memes rife with racist and sexist imagery while claiming that it’s just a joke. For instance, Milo Yiannopoulos claims that the alt-right uses Nazi imagery to annoy older people and provoke emotional reactions, in much the same way 1980s metal bands festooned album covers with satanic symbols. In reality, there are clear links between outright neo-Nazis and their more mainstream alt-right counterparts. Yiannopoulos was able to disassociate himself from the more extreme parts of the far right while simultaneously supporting such political commitments.
Another arm of the far right enjoys pranking the media just for the sake of it. The imageboard 4chan has repeatedly manipulated the media into propagating outrageous things. This spring, 4chan users emailed journalists and activists with the dubious claim that the “OK” hand sign was a symbol of white power. After a picture surfaced of Mike Cernovich and reporter Cassandra Fairbanks making the OK sign in the White House briefing room, Fusion, The Independent, Yahoo!, and Fox News dutifully reported that they were making a white power symbol. 4chan users were delighted by their ability to successfully mislead the media. More seriously, far-right communities saw this prank as proof of anti-Trump media bias. If reporters were willing to print so silly a story without fact-checking, it showed their eagerness to cover Trump negatively—and threw more legitimate stories into question.
Turning a small story into a large one
Another expert hoaxer is Andrew Auernheimer, a troll and hacker known as “weev.” Auernheimer gained mainstream visibility after he was convicted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for publicizing a security flaw in the AT&T website in 2010. This highly controversial case made him something of a folk hero among technologists and civil rights activists, and his conviction was eventually overturned. Upon his release from jail, Auernheimer revealed a large swastika tattoo and began openly identifying as a white supremacist. He is now the systems administrator of The Daily Stormer, a leading white supremacist site targeted at millennials.
In March 2016, Auernheimer hacked a number of unsecured printers on college campuses, using them to print out racist and anti-Semitic flyers. While probably only a few hundred people—at most—saw the flyers in person, the mainstream media picked up the story and reported on it extensively. It involved a sensational figure the public was interested in. The hook of the “hacked printers” provided technology-related novelty. The theme of racial tension on college campuses—a clickbait friendly topic—made it easy to report on.
Auernheimer was able to provoke the media into moral outrage, promote his message, and potentially spread racial tension throughout college campuses. What was essentially a non-story was amplified by Auernheimer’s manipulation of the mainstream media.
Shifting the focus
In July 2016, a young DNC employee named Seth Rich was murdered in what was likely a botched robbery. Because he was connected to the Democratic Party and the case remains unsolved, far-right groups circulated a conspiracy theory that the Clintons killed Rich to suppress damaging information. A variant held that he had leaked the Podesta emails to Wikileaks shortly before his death. There was no evidence for either theory; Rich was a junior employee with no access to the email of higher-ups, and his family vehemently denied it.
On May 15, the theory entered the mainstream media. Rod Wheeler, a private investigator and former Fox News contributor, told a local Washington, DC Fox affiliate that he had evidence Seth Rich had been in contact with Wikileaks before he died. Alt-right influencers like Jack Posobiec, Mike Cernovich, and Paul Joseph Watson latched onto the story, as did Breitbart and Drudge Report. Eventually Sean Hannity began promoting it it relentlessly on Fox News. By the end of the week, even politicians like Newt Gingrich were lending support to the claims.
The focus on the Rich story allowed the far right to shift public focus away from Trump’s ties to Russia. It also enabled them to delegitimize the Russia story in two separate ways. First, using classic conspiracy theory framing, adherents promoted the idea that Russia coverage was simply a mainstream media cover-up to distract from the “real” scandal. Second, when Fox News received intense criticism for promoting a story with no facts to back it up, Hannity was able to create a false equivalency, saying that the mainstream media was just as bad because there is no hard evidence about Trump’s collusion with Russia. Although Fox News and Hannity eventually retracted their claims, the far right considered this a successful example of media manipulation.