The online far right is angry, exultant, and ready for more

“On Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, the message board TheDonald, and Parler, a “free speech social network” created in opposition to Twitter, some users blamed antifa for the attack while others claimed credit for it. Meanwhile, others were angry at the president for posting a video Thursday acknowledging a “new administration” would take over.

Even as the online right is divided about how to react to the events of this week, loyalty to President Donald Trump is still strong. Many online supporters refer to him as “GEOTUS,” or Grand Emperor of the United States, and have called fellow members to stand by him.

But there is fracturing within the movement: Some are confused about why they were asked to come to the January 6 rally if not to take extreme action, others are angry at Trump’s concession video posted on Twitter Thursday night where he described Wednesday’s events as a “heinous attack,” and others still are developing new conspiracy theories.”

“It’s hard to know how seriously to take any individual threat or comment made by members of these forums. Distinguishing between legitimate threats and trolling is difficult — and that reality is mirrored by the president himself. Trump will make “jokes” that target groups or individuals and undermine democratic norms. His supporters casually dismissed criticisms of these comments, or chastised observers for taking the president literally.”

“While the effort to remove extremism from mainstream social media companies could help curb the spread of extreme ideas to casual users of the internet, the ever-evolving web of right-wing social media and messaging boards will likely defy the control of these tech giants. Just take a look at TheDonald, formerly a part of Reddit; once banned there, it managed to migrate to its own outpost on the internet.”

The fantasy-industrial complex gave us the Capitol Hill insurrection

“American insurrectionists, for the first time in the history of this country, stormed the US Capitol on Wednesday. Offices were vandalized. Windows were broken. Statues toppled. A woman was shot and killed. Four others have reportedly died, including a Capitol Police officer. It was ugly, embarrassing, and seditious.

But it wasn’t surprising.

We’ve been inching, inexorably, toward this moment for years. I know this because I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time over the course of this presidency thinking and writing about what you might call the “epistemic crisis” or the “post-truth crisis” or the “misinformation crisis” — it all refers more or less to the same thing.

The American mind, or a sizable chunk of it at least, has been deranged by a poisoned information system. The way millions of citizens learn about the world, the way they form core beliefs, is irredeemably broken. And because the media environment has been blown apart by digital technology, “there is no longer any buffer between mainstream thought and the extreme elements of our politics,” as Politico’s Tim Alberta put it recently.

If the depth of that crisis wasn’t apparent before Wednesday, it sure as hell is now.”

“The road to this dark place was paved by lots of hands over many years. But the evolution of right-wing media into a fantasy-industrial complex is at the center of the story.

Propaganda has always been a bipartisan game, but media-driven polarization has become more asymmetric in recent years. The left mostly receives its news from organizations like the New York Times, the Washington Post, or cable news networks like MSNBC or CNN. However biased some of this reporting can be (and there’s plenty of bias), most of it is anchored by basic journalistic ethics.

This just isn’t true on the right. A 2018 book called Network Propaganda by three Harvard researchers is probably the best survey on this disparity, and it shows that American conservative media functions very much like a closed system, with Fox News at the center (at least until recently). The people who inhabit this system rarely collide with information beyond it, and the competition within it — on the supply side — is continually intensifying in order to meet the demand from audiences consuming the high-stakes narratives. As Brian Stelter, longtime media reporter and author of Hoax, told me in November, anchors at Fox are now struggling “to keep up with their viewers’ demand for propaganda.””

“Consumers of this stuff have been fed a daily diet of conspiracies and panicked claims about the death of the republic and the plot to steal the election.”

“If you watch Newsmax and OAN every night, if you listen to talk radio hosts like Mark Levin claim that “Our Declaration of Independence and Constitution are being destroyed by the Democratic Party and the media,” if you hear Sean Hannity (whose show pulls in 4 million viewers a night) insist, “We have a duty to investigate every legitimate claim of fraud and abuse,” if you’re inhaling QAnon fantasies online, you’re likely extremely deluded about the state of the world. Is it any surprise that we’re living in a golden age of conspiracy theories?

The president himself is the most consequential consumer of this stuff. Listen to his leaked hour-long call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and you’ll hear a hodgepodge of familiar conspiracy theories about hacked voting machines and forgeries and collusion among various election officials. It’s all laid out and distilled, just as you’d hear it on Newsmax or read on 4chan or Parler, the right-wing alternative to Twitter.

All these fictions have coursed through the conservative media ecosystem, and the insurrectionists who flooded the Capitol have imbibed it for months. It’s why they chanted, “Stop the steal,” and it’s why you can hear them saying, “They don’t get to steal it from us, they don’t get to tell us we didn’t see what we saw.” And it’s why something like 70 percent of Republicans do not believe the 2020 election was free and fair.

So we reached this precipice because millions of Americans have had a firehose of falsehoods blasted into their brains for months on end. They believe the election was rigged and stolen. And they believe that because they’ve been told exactly that, not just by the president but by a vast network of grifters and online provocateurs and political entrepreneurs who have cultivated and reinforced conspiracy theories about the election and god knows what else.

And all of this is facilitated by social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, both of which, as Warzel told me last year, pretend they’re not “arbiters of truth” and insist they “don’t want to weigh in at all” — but they’re already in that position and have been for a long time. These tech companies may not be putting their thumbs on the scale in the conventional sense, but as Andrew Marantz, author of Antisocial, pointed out to me in a recent interview, they’re “outsourcing those decisions to algorithms” that continually push users into blackholes of mutually reinforcing content. Whatever their intentions, these companies helped lead us to this moment.”

“If you believed — I mean really believed — that the president you supported won a landslide victory that was systematically undermined by seditious Republicans and Democrats, and that that conspiracy was being covered up by a crooked and compromised media, and at the same time you saw over 100 Republican House members and multiple senators questioning the validity of the election, and the president was telling you to do something about it, it’s not hard to see how quickly you might move from shitposting online to storming the Capitol.”

“Everyone who participates in this system of misinformation shares responsibility for what happened at the Capitol on Wednesday. We are reaping what they sowed. Still, Tucker Carlson goes on Fox News primetime hours after a violent assault on the Capitol and, naturally, casts blame elsewhere: “We got to this sad, chaotic day for a reason. It is not your fault; it is their fault.””

“It was obvious when a man walked into a DC pizza shop in 2017 with a gun because he believed a conspiracy theory about Hillary Clinton running a child sex ring. It was obvious when armed protesters occupied the Michigan Legislature to protest Covid-19 lockdowns after an incendiary Trump tweet. It was obvious when we learned the Nashville bombing suspect reportedly believed in various conspiracy theories about aliens and lizard people. As this Wall Street Journal report shows, it was obvious in recent weeks as various watchdog groups warned of growing threats online. And it’s painfully obvious now after we saw the Capitol ravaged by rioters who believed, without any evidence, that an election had been stolen from them.”

“Every member of the Republican Party — from senators like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz to the toadies working in the Trump White House — bear special responsibility for this crisis. They’ve known exactly who and what Trump is from the start, and they rode the tiger straight into the abyss.

And so many of them performed this ridiculous two-step, parroting Trump’s nonsense in one breath and winking quietly while doing it. Even on Thursday, before the dust has settled at the Capitol, Republican House members like Paul Gosar (AZ) and Matt Gaetz (FL) are spreading baseless conspiracy theories suggesting the assault was some kind of “false flag” perpetuated by antifa. And despite everything that happened in the past 48 hours, nearly 150 Republican lawmakers formally objected to the election results anyway.

If the fantasy-industrial complex churning out lies and conspiracy theories wasn’t bad enough, we’re also dealing with a much more pervasive problem in the press. As I tried to explain last year, we’re facing a new form of propaganda that wasn’t really possible until the digital age, something known as “flooding the zone with shit.” It’s less about perpetuating alternative realities and more about overwhelming the public with so many competing narratives, so much misinformation, that even well-intentioned people don’t know what to believe.”

“Without some kind of reckoning in right-wing media, there is no sustainable path forward for the country. And even if the complicit pull back from the brink, it’s probably too late anyway. So much of the damage is already done. The conspiracy theories that radicalized that mob are already out there, already implanted in millions of minds. Like some kind of political pathogen, they will keep working their will on the body politic.

That is our hell for the foreseeable future.”

How fake news aimed at Latinos thrives on social media

“Democrats are increasingly worried about the influence of misinformation on social media aimed at Latino voters in the runup to the election. The misleading narratives continue to spread on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, as well as in closed chat groups like WhatsApp and Telegram, in addition to the more traditional platforms like television, radio, and talking points coming directly from elected officials.

Several misinformation researchers told Recode that they’re seeing alarming amounts of misinformation about voter fraud and Democratic leaders being shared in Latino social media communities. Biden is a popular target, with misinformation ranging from exaggerated claims that he embraces Fidel Castro-style socialism to more patently false and outlandish ones, for instance that the president-elect supports abortion minutes before a child’s birth or that he orchestrated a caravan of Cuban immigrants to infiltrate the US Southern border and disrupt the election process.

“What I’ve seen during this election looks to be a multifaceted misinformation effort seeking to undermine Biden and Harris’s support amongst the Latino community,” said Sam Woolley, a misinformation and propaganda researcher at the University of Texas Austin. “I think that political groups understand that the Latino vote matters and they are showing they are willing to use any and all informational tactics to get what they want.””

“Some of the misleading messages — like that Biden is a radical socialist — aren’t uniquely aimed at the Latino community; Trump often made this claim during his campaign. But these comparisons take on a new intensity with some immigrants from countries like Cuba or Venezuela who have lived under socialist governments and may be deeply opposed to them.”

Parler, the “free speech” Twitter wannabe, explained

“But despite the recent attention, some say the rise of Parler fits into the larger history of American conservatives and their relationship with the media.

“This follows a pattern of what the right wing has done [since] the rise of talk radio in the ’80s, and then through live cable TV, and then the rise of social media,” Lawrence Rosenthal, the chair of the University of California Berkeley’s Center for Right-Wing Studies, told Recode. “In each case, what you found is that the right wing gives up on participating in mainstream media and creates an alternative universe.””

“Based in Nevada, the company behind Parler is run primarily by two people: Matze and Jared Thomson, who serves as CTO. Neither of them had a particular public profile before creating the app. Jeffrey Wernick, a bitcoin enthusiast and early Airbnb investor, serves as the company’s chief operating officer. But there are other people funding the app.

Earlier this month, Parler confirmed to the Wall Street Journal that conservative megadonor Rebekah Mercer was the company’s lead investor and agreed to fund Parler only if it gave users control over what they saw on the platform.”

Can Americans Inhabit Parallel Political Universes Without Compromising Freedom?

“Last week, I argued that President Donald Trump’s own behavior—rather than a vast nationwide voter-fraud conspiracy—caused his election defeat. I’m used to all types of angry responses (and even had ones over the years that required police intervention), but many of the responses have left me more fearful about the nation’s future than I’ve been in a while.

The comments’ tenor were not the problem. Almost everyone who contacted me was remarkably civil, including those who believe that yours truly is a blithering idiot. Differences of opinion are what makes the world go round, but I am worried about the vast differences in the sources that people rely upon—and by the fundamental lack of trust that many people have in the nation’s institutions.”

“Let’s look at how debates should work. For example, I’ve repeatedly railed against income-tax hikes. I argue that the state should get its spending in order before taxing us again and taxes depress economic growth. In response, tax supporters argue that the rich don’t pay their fair share. We then look at the numbers and argue over what they mean. We draw different conclusions but accept the premise even if we pick nits with some of the data.

Now imagine having that taxation argument with someone who claims (without a scintilla of evidence) that the Department of Finance is rigging the numbers and that none of its data can be trusted. Or with a person who believes that poor people pay the bulk of state taxes. What if upon seeing evidence to the contrary, that person accuses me of ignoring the TRUTH!!! and directs me to a brilliant but unknown economist Grandpa found on YouTube?

You can see the problem. Regarding the Trump voter-fraud conspiracy, many of us rely on the 38-plus judicial rulings that have thus far rebuked the president’s arguments. We trust the nation’s elections system, which—despite its obvious flaws—has been one of the world’s democratic triumphs. If the president had evidence of systemic fraud, we figure most of that would emerge in the courts.

The ensuing debate would center on specific legal cases and judicial findings. What happens, though, when large numbers of people believe that the entire court system, election process, and federal government are essentially in on the scam? As a libertarian, I’m fully aware of flaws in every political and governmental system, but still believe that sufficient checks and balances exist—and that our system is fundamentally legitimate.

What happens when people believe that most journalists are establishment tools who refuse to report that the election was stolen—perhaps by Venezuelan communists who rigged the electronic-voting software? That particular allegation can be disproven with hand counts, but never mind such petty details. It only proves that I’m listening to “lamestream” media sources rather than seeking out the real truth-tellers.”

“What can you say when a major political movement (Trumpism) finds it easier to believe that every major American institution is potentially corrupt than it is to think that a president with a history of telling whoppers is being dishonest again?”

“I used to think the proliferation of sources—including access to primary source material—would save our democracy by empowering people to go around gatekeepers. The biased media system used to limit our voices, after all. In our newly democratized media world, however, Aunt Ethel’s post from some errant numbskull is as credible as a well-researched report in The Wall Street Journal.

A 2018 report from Rand Corporation refers to the situation as “Truth Decay,” which results in “the erosion of civil discourse, political paralysis, alienation and disengagement of individuals from political and civic institutions, and uncertainty over national policy.” That’s putting it mildly. If Americans cannot figure out how to agree on basic facts and restore trust in our institutions, then how long will we remain a peaceful and free society?”

Social media is making a bad political situation worse

“it’s often difficult to understand which comes first: a polarized situation or the social media that aggravates that situation. Rather, it’s become a self-reinforcing system.”

“Animosity toward members of opposing parties is very high even though our divisions over policy preferences don’t appear to have grown, according to new research published in Science magazine. The paper brings together a number of different studies on the topic and is written by scholars from six disciplines who found that, these days, we’re more likely to hate the opposing side and consider them to be “different,” “dislikable,” and “immoral.” The result is a “political sectarianism” in which one’s party identity seems to come first, before policy, religion, or common ground. Political identity, in turn, shapes our other views instead of the other way around. For example, after seeing a clip of Donald Trump espousing a liberal policy, followers exhibited a more liberal attitude, according to the paper, which presumes Democrats would do the same for their political leaders.”

“The results of this kind of alignment are disastrous for a functioning democracy. As the researchers argue, “holding opposing partisans in contempt on the basis of their identity alone precludes innovative cross-party solutions and mutually beneficial compromises.””

“Then there’s distrust — encouraged by the president — of facts and journalism organizations, which are necessary to protect democracy. A series of Pew Research Center polls shows that Republicans rely on and trust fewer news sites for politics than they used to, with Fox News, Trump’s mouthpiece and a fount of disinformation, being one of few sources they regularly read and believe. However, research by Andy Guess, assistant professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University, looks at web traffic rather than people’s survey responses to reveal that there’s considerable and consistent overlap in media consumption between the parties, except among a smaller set of extremists. This suggests many people might be reading the same sources but coming to totally different conclusions. Wildly divergent interpretations of the same news is a more difficult problem to fix.”

“Hyperpartisanship, tense societal factors, and divergent news diets — or at least divergent interpretations of the news — are then fed back through social media, which is likely amplifying our divisions. We don’t know exactly how the social media algorithms work that select what information we see because the technology is a black box controlled by the respective social media company that built it.
What we do know is that Facebook has put less of an emphasis on news and more on engagement, and that posts with strong, emotional language have more engagement. We also know Facebook has continually promoted Groups since 2016, which can function as their own echo chambers, even without algorithmic help. YouTube, whose algorithms like other platforms were designed to make people spend more time on the site, has been shown to radicalize people through inflammatory messaging. Most recently, it has been awash in election misinformation.”

“The share of Americans who often get their news from social media grew 10 percentage points to 28 percent last year, according to Pew. Those who mainly get their news that way were also less informed about current events and more likely to have been exposed to conspiracy theories.”

“A new study from the University of Virginia found increased Facebook usage among conservatives is associated with reading more conservative sites than they normally do. The effect was less dramatic among liberals.

The study’s authors conjectured that the way Facebook works might have something to do with this outcome. In addition to algorithms favoring engagement, the very structure of Facebook limits who we talk to: You have to “friend” others to see their posts, meaning you’re less likely to see people outside of your real-life friends and family, who are more likely to have similar lives and viewpoints. Facebook also tweaked its algorithms after the 2016 election to promote posts from friends and family and show far fewer posts from news outlets, which likely further contributed to filter bubbles and division.”

“Research highlighted in the Wall Street Journal suggests that people on social media do see opposing viewpoints. But since sites like Facebook are calibrated to highlight posts that elicit reactions, we’re seeing the most acerbic of opposing views, which can lead people to be even more repelled by them. The result is even more entrenched viewpoints and more polarization.”

““It’s not just a matter of coming into contact with the other side,” Pariser told Recode about how his conception of filter bubbles has changed since he first coined the term. “It’s doing so in a way that leads us to greater understanding.””

Trump’s executive order on social media is legally unenforceable, experts say

“Trump’s new order aims to limit social media companies’ legal protections if they don’t adhere to unspecified standards of neutrality. It comes just two days after Twitter fact-checked two of his tweets that made misleading claims about voting-by-mail in the 2020 elections.”

“The order calls for limiting protections that a law called Section 230 offers tech companies like Twitter, Facebook, and Google by not holding them responsible for what users post on their platforms.”

“To do this, the order tasks regulators at the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission to create new rules that could pull back some of those protections, potentially opening them up to a litany of lawsuits for libel, defamation, and other complaints.”

“Critics — including, reportedly, some of Trump’s most conservative advisers — have warned the order could set a dangerous and unconstitutional precedent that the president can use executive powers to effectively censor companies for political reasons. Many legal experts say the order is largely toothless and will be challenged in court.”

“Ironically, it’s actually Trump — not Twitter — who is wading into unconstitutional territory here. If Trump were to try to shut down social media companies in retaliation for Twitter’s fact-check of his tweets, that would be a clear violation of the First Amendment. It would be sure to invite a fierce legal challenge and would signal an alarming attempt by the president of the United States to wield his executive power against one of the most fundamental rights in this country.”

Fox News goes to desperate lengths to gin up outrage over clip of Vince Vaughn chatting with Trump

“Fox News’s article about how Vaughn supposedly “faces liberal outrage after he was seen with Trump during national championship game” prominently features a tweet from Washington Examiner staffer Siraj Hashmi, who is hardly a liberal, sarcastically quipping that “Ladies & gentlemen, I regret to inform you Vince Vaughn is CANCELED” — but the tweet is presented in David Aaro’s article as though Hashmi is a liberal who meant it earnestly.

Hashmi later noted on Twitter that the Fox News article caused right-wing trolls to flood his Instagram page with abusive comments. And the few other examples of “liberal outrage” in the piece were gleaned from the far fringes of Twitter. (Fox News still hasn’t figured out that Hashmi isn’t actually liberal as of Tuesday afternoon — his tweet was falsely cited as an example of “liberal cancel culture” on Outnumbered.)”

“a few left-wing accounts did react to Burke’s clip with comments like, “Sad. Vince Vaughn is one of my favorites. I always knew he was Republican but this, so gross … I don’t need a Wedding Crashers sequel anymore.” But the idea that there was some sort of concerted liberal backlash to the clip is make-believe aimed at ginning up outrage.”