Weeks like this one are generally difficult to write about. When the news cycle speeds at such a breakneck pace, it can be difficult to know what’s most important. I couldn’t isolate one story or trend if I tried, so it’s time for another edition of #MAGA Trends. Here’s what you need to know at the end of a batshit week:
We have to talk about white genocide conspiracy theories now.
Late Wednesday night President Trump ordered the Secretary of State to investigate a bullshit conspiracy theory that Tucker Carlson is obsessed with. On Twitter. The White Genocide conspiracy theory has been a staple of the Frog Squad online for awhile now. Jared Holt has helpfully listed some of it’s biggest proponents online. It’s a frequent topic of discussion for the far right online, and boy were they excited and elated over Trump’s tweet.
The White Genocide conspiracy is also a solid example of the Frog Squad’s hypocrisy. For all their talk about sovereignty and nation-states, at the end of the day the so-called alt-right is a global white supremacist movement. I had to laugh while monitoring /r/the_donald last night and saw posters calling on Trump to accept white refugees and for U.S. Military intervention!
The government of South Africa told Trump where he can stick his racist conspiracy mongering. Also on Twitter.
— South African Government (@GovernmentZA) August 23, 2018
Trump’s sudden embrace of White Genocide probably won’t be the last far-right meme he embraces. The more cornered he feels, the less he feels he has to lose, the more I expect him to return to his hate-mongering, conspiracy-loving roots. At the end of the day Donald Trump is just a guy who never met a conspiracy theory he didn’t like and watches a lot of Fox News.
The right exploited and dehumanized Mollie Tibbetts.
You probably noticed that as the rest of the Internet was talking about Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort’s dual felony convictions the right became suddenly and weirdly obsessed with the murder of Mollie Tibbetts, a 20-year-old University of Iowa student. Right-wing media and social media, in an attempt to distract from a week of disastrous developments for Trump, have politicized Tibbetts’ death — ignoring her family’s own grief and objections.
I wrote a post about this for Media Matters, detailing some of the worst examples from the right. The list includes everything from Former Speaker of the House and conservative pundit Newt Gingrich emailing reporters about how Tibbetts’ death was potentially good news for Republicans in the fall, provided they could exploit it enough, to TP USA communications director and right-wing social media star Candace Owens arguing on Twitter with someone who says she is Tibbetts’ second cousin, accusing her of hating Trump and his supporters more than Tibbetts’ alleged murderer, to users on 4chan and 8chan actively celebrating Tibbetts’ death. /r/The_Donald didn’t make my post but this piece from Slate about how they’ve messaged about Tibbetts is both entertaining and spot on about their role in the ecosystem.
Right-wing media exploit tragedies and rewrite biographies of victims in the blink of an eye. The Frogs have no consideration for the victims they claim to care about or the grieving families and friends they’ve left behind.
Iranian influence operations. Yes, really.
Facebook, Twitter and Google all announced this week that they’d removed accounts for coordinated activity by foreign actors. Per a blog post from Facebook the company “removed 652 Pages, groups and accounts for coordinated inauthentic behavior that originated in Iran and targeted people across multiple internet services in the Middle East, Latin America, UK and US.” Twitter safety tweeted that “Working with our industry peers today, we have suspended 284 accounts from Twitter for engaging in coordinated manipulation. Based on our existing analysis, it appears many of these accounts originated from Iran.”
Facebook posted some of the removed content online. I’ve included a few of my favorites below.
I expect we’ll learn more about these and other influence operations when Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee in an open hearing next month. I’d also love to hear more from FireEye, the firm that alerted all three companies to these accounts.
2018 Election security? LOL NOPE.
The White House just blocked the Secure Elections Act, introduced by a Republican Senator James Lankford and co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle. The bill would have “grant[ed] every state’s top election official security clearance to receive threat information. It would also formalize the practice of information-sharing between the federal government—in particular, the Department of Homeland Security—and states regarding threats to electoral infrastructure. A technical advisory board would establish best practices related to election cybersecurity. Perhaps most significantly, the law would mandate that every state conduct a statistically significant audit following a federal election.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was apparently also involved in efforts to derail the bill.
The government still can’t get its act together and the chances that we’ll see any legislation between now and the midterms are pretty much nil. That means the same tech platforms that got us into this mess are now our first and only line of defense. Wired’s Issie Lapowsky takes a look at that reality:
There’s plenty that tech companies need to do to make their platforms safer and more trustworthy for their users. But there is so much else that they don’t have the authority to do. They can advocate, as Microsoft has, for a digital Geneva Convention that creates a set of international norms to protect cyberspace, but they can’t make it happen. They can try to assign blame in these attacks, as Facebook and Twitter have done, but they don’t have access to all of the intelligence community’s insights about escalating threats. And of course, when they detect a threat, they can’t retaliate. Only the government can make those calls, and yet, the US still has no single doctrine that signals to its adversaries what the consequences of such a cyberattack would be.
In the same vein here’s a sobering read from Alex Stamos, recently departed chief security officer of Facebook, on America’s election preparedness in 2018 and what we need to do to protect ourselves before 2020.
The revelations are evidence that Russia has not been deterred and that Iran is following in its footsteps. This underlines a sobering reality: America’s adversaries believe that it is still both safe and effective to attack U.S. democracy using American technologies and the freedoms we cherish.
And why wouldn’t they believe that? In some ways, the United States has broadcast to the world that it doesn’t take these issues seriously and that any perpetrators of information warfare against the West will get, at most, a slap on the wrist. While this failure has left the U.S. unprepared to protect the 2018 elections, there is still a chance to defend American democracy in 2020.
In short, if the United States continues down this path, it risks allowing its elections to become the World Cup of information warfare, in which U.S. adversaries and allies battle to impose their various interests on the American electorate.
How prepared are political parties and campaigns? This week the Democratic National Committee announced that a major hacking attempt on its voter database had been undertaken against them only to announce the next day that it was a false alarm and actually just a “simulated phishing test.” This comes on the heels of Microsoft announced this week that they’d seized six domains owned by the Russian hacking group Fancy Bear. Previously the same team at Microsoft had blocked three phishing attempts directed at Congressional campaigns.
Nothing gets #MAGA riled up like social media censorship claims.
He wasn’t the only one. GOP Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy claimed that Twitter was censoring Fox News host Laura Ingraham’s tweets and called on Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to “explain to Congress what’s going on.” Trump campaign senior adviser Katrina Pierson, who has ties to a pro-Trump fake news site, also tweeted about social media censorship and quoted Jim Hoft, founder of the far-right conspiracy site The Gateway Pundit. And of course Trump’s campaign manager Brad Parscale retweeted Pierson.
If you’re seeing all this and wondering if the right actually believe they’re being censored, or perhaps they’re really just defending extremist figures like Alex Jones without naming him, you’re not alone. In an interview with Reuters, President Trump added fuel to that speculation, saying “I won’t mention names but when they take certain people off of Twitter or Facebook and they’re making that decision, that is really a dangerous thing because that could be you tomorrow.”