Below is an archived edition of Ctrl Alt Right Delete, a weekly email newsletter. This edition was published on 05/21/2017. Members of Factual Democracy Project have access to past editions. Subscribe to Ctrl Alt Right Delete.
The Factual Democracy Project and MisinfoCon invite you to participate in a conference call debriefing the final 72 hours of the French Election. We’re bringing together experts from media, tech, national security, and politics to discuss what happened leading up to the #MacronLeaks hack, how media responded, and how the American alt-right organized and amplified the hack on social media.
WTF Happened to Trump’s Echo Chamber?
As the Trump Administration comes out of its worst week to date, right wing media and social media are having an epic meltdown. Buzzfeed’s Charlie Warzel wrote an article outlining how pro-Trump media responds to a crisis in four steps: “Stay quiet, blame and discredit, change the news cycle, and then close the loop.” It’s a good guide for understanding how the Frog Squad operates. This week, the right’s attempt to change the news cycle has centered around the thoroughly debunked conspiracy theory that Seth Rich, a political staffer murdered in DC last summer, was killed by Hillary Clinton and the Democrats for exposing some nefarious plot by the DNC to rig the primary in Clinton’s favor. Earlier this week, I put up a post on Medium to show what that looked like.
I’m not often surprised by what I see from the Frog Squad but the staying power of Seth Rich conspiracy theory news has really thrown me. The supposed developments in the Rich case that triggered all of this were quickly debunked but Fox News, Breitbart, and Drudge kept running with them. The Rich family has demanded Fox News retract the story, but that wasn’t enough to slow it down either.
Even weirder than right wing media outlets has been the Frog Squad online. They’re making no real effort to defend President Trump in his time of need. On 4chan, the #maga chatter on Twitter, and some of the less public channels I monitor, there is no concerted effort to rally around the president or mount any kind of defense for him. It’s all Seth Rich, all the time.
Nowhere has this been more obvious than on the “The_Donald” subreddit, one of reddit’s most trafficked communities, but also one of its most loathed. This is where the true Trump fans tend to congregate, but this week, the subreddit was all Seth Rich. Hundreds of threads, and hundreds of thousands of comments, devoted to the conspiracy theory. They don’t even bother talking about Trump much anymore. Reddit’s admins clearly tried to step in, get the Trump subreddit off of their community-wide obsession and back onto discussing President Trump. “The_Donald” moderators responded by declaring war and calling on the community to abandon reddit entirely. Things went downhill from there.
Why is this happening? A few reasons, but we have to acknowledge Russia’s likely role in all of this. (Yes, really.) This Twitter exchange between Jonah Goldberg and Walter Olsen explains it best.
Yup, “the bots are back.” Remember though that Russia’s aim isn’t to prop up Trump. Their goal is to weaken western democracy by creating as much chaos as possible. As Greg Miller points out in The Washington Post, Russia’s return on investment for their continued influence operations is quite good. Much of what we’re seeing online from the right is coming from bots and paid trolls, hence the sheer volume of Seth Rich conspiracy theory content. Since media generally loves covering what’s happening on social media, it becomes an endless feedback loop of crazy.
The biggest loser in all of this might just be President Trump. The echo chamber that helped buoy his campaign is long gone. GOP electeds won’t defend him, right wing media won’t defend him, and his own subreddit has abandoned him. Trump’s army won’t turn against him, but they don’t seem likely to help him anytime soon.
How Did We Get Here? A History.
The Washington, DC offices of Judicial Watch were crowded on the evening of May 8th, 2013. Founded for the sole purpose of filing lawsuits against the Clintons, Judicial Watch had been much quieter during the George W. Bush years, but now they were attacking the Obama administration any way they could.
Among the luminaries present were Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, wife of conservative Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas; retired Gen. William G. “Jerry” Boykin and Ken Blackwell, both of the hate group Family Research Council; former congressman Allen West; and Frank Gaffney, chief Muslim-basher at the hate group Center for Security Policy.
Then there was the Breitbart team. Future White House strategist Steve Bannon brought his Washington bureau chief Matthew Boyle, his national security editor Sebastian Gorka, and his good friend and senior editor Mike Flynn (not the former Trump National Security Advisor currently under investigation).
Calling themselves “Groundswell,” these people wanted “to sync messages and develop action from reports and information exchanged,” as Mother Jones reporter David Corn later wrote. Bringing journalists, activists, and professional hatemongers together in one place, they aimed to wage “a 30-front war” on progressives by adopting each other’s issues and developing a common set of talking points.
Boykin and Gaffney opened the meeting with a discussion of their congressional lobbying for a special Benghazi committee. Conspiracy-driven narratives about the Islamist attacks on the diplomatic compound had electrified the right, driving a billion page views in the process, and the Groundswell organizers wanted to turn that energy into action at Capitol Hill.
Indeed, if there was one issue that unified everyone in the room, it was the crusading urge to fight a civilizational war between east and west, and against the liberals who held America back.
Jerry Boykin complained that Mikey Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation was “a very evil man” for opposing Christian radicalization in the ranks. Gorka, a man of questionableexpertise on radicalization, complained that the issue was about more than just “religious freedom.”
For everyone present, America was at war with the ideology of the Qur’an, an existential fight that topped all other agendas. “This topic is a very high priority for us,” Bannon added, citing “a series of articles from Mike Flynn and Matt Boyle” critical of the Obama administration’s tolerance towards Islam.
Shifting gears, Bannon asked everyone to help his staff develop their issues and blast their messages out. “I’m saying we can get pieces out fast on Breitbart. Whenever you have an idea, email or call me with a pitch and I’ll do my best to get the story out there,” he said. “Keep us on offense, them on defense. Even if the idea isn’t perfect, I can help massage it to get there.”
Sitting nearby was Catherine Engelbrecht. A tea party activist from Houston, Texas, she had emerged as a leader of the King Street Patriots, which had been charged with intimidatingminority voters. By 2010, Engelbrecht had founded True The Vote in hopes of systematizing crowdsourced voter suppression on a nationwide scale. Three years later, TTV was operating exactly like a political action committee even though it was ostensibly a nonprofit organization.
Engelbrecht had long enjoyed easy access to Breitbart, and now she explained that TTV wanted sue the IRS for holding up their nonprofit status application. Which they did 13 days later, kicking off the so-called “IRS targeting scandal” with a media and activism plan hatched that night at Judicial Watch.
Breitbart and other conservative outlets pushed their contrived outrage hard in the months that followed this consequential meeting. Although at least as many liberal groups were “targeted” during the agency’s review of political nonprofits — in fact, the only organization to actually be denied nonprofit status was a progressive one — the coordinated talking points set a narrative of IRS malfeasance in media concrete. Conservatives still react to it as if by reflex.
By contrast, there was little attention to the plain language of federal law, which flatly prohibits501(c)3 and 501(c)4 organizations from partisan political activity.
Groundswell’s pressure campaign worked, instigating congressional hearings that effectively cowed the IRS. Taken together with the right’s long-running campaign to defang the Federal Elections Commission through litigation like Citizens United, the last restraints on conservative “dark money” were removed.
Today, Steve Bannon can probably get away with campaign finance violations because no one with any power to enforce the laws will dare to do so. Hate groups can become taxpayer-subsidized nonprofit corporations, then behave like super PACs, all with perfect impunity.
No moderating incentives exist anywhere today in the conservative food chain of donors, activists, think tanks, lobbyists, “experts,” and opinion journalism outlets. Once relegated to the media fringes, right wing extremists are now entirely free to monetize their hate.
- How Fox News Covered Trump Firing The FBI Director, In 51 Screen Shots
- Report: Media Manipulation and Disinformation Online
- Kevin McCarthy’s Explosive “Joke” Points Toward a Darker Questions: How Long Have Leading Republicans Known About Donald Trump’s Russia Problem?
- Jane Austen And The Persistent Failure Of The White Imagination
- His Kampf: Richard Spencer is a Troll and an Icon for White Supremacists. He Was Also My High-School Classmate.
for copy editing this newsletter every week. That’s all for now folks. Talk to you on Thursday!