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Monday, December 09, 2019

Right-Wingers Celebrate Musk's Renewed Offer To Buy Twitter

After The Wall Street Journalreported that billionaire Elon Musk proposed to Twitter that he buy the company at his original offer of roughly $44 billion — following months of his attempts to back out of the deal, resulting in a recent lawsuit — many right-wing media personalities celebrated the news and expressed hope that banned users would be allowed back on the social media platform.

In a statement released in response to the reported acquisition, Media Matters President Angelo Carusone warned that under Musk’s ownership, Twitter “will become a supercharged engine of radicalization if he follows through with even a fraction of what he has promised.” Musk had “made it clear that he would roll back Twitter’s community standards and safety guidelines, reinstate Donald Trump along with scores of other accounts suspended for violence and abuse, and open the floodgates of disinformation,” he said. NBC online disinformation reporter Ben Collins offered similar warnings in a short Twitter thread, stating that “it could actually affect midterms” because Musk “can elevate any idea or person he wants through recommendations and UX [user experience] choices and there will be no oversight on this as a private company.”

When the purchase deal was first announced in late April, there was excitement among right-wing figures banned from Twitter for violating its terms of service and on right-leaning Facebook pages. Anti-trans figures celebrated by expressing increasing bigotry on the platform in violation of its rules against hateful conduct. Fox News hosts were also ecstatic, with some advising Musk to fire everyone at Twitter while pushing the fake narrative that the platform censors conservatives. (According to reporting from the Los Angeles Times, Musk has often opposed transparency at Tesla and quashed his employees’ freedom of speech.)

Now, right-wing media and extremists are once again celebrating Musk for moving forward with his offer to buy Twitter. They’re especially expressing excitement about the likelihood that Musk would return disgraced former President Donald Trump to the platform, from which he has been banned since inciting violence surrounding the January 6 attempt to overthrow the government. He continues to spread inciting rhetoric, recently against law enforcement.

Some right-wing media figures expressed glee about Musk’s Twitter deal

  • Former Fox News legal analyst Andrew Napolitanosaid that Musk’s Twitter acquisition would be a “great gift to the American people.”
  • Fox Nation host Tammy Bruceexpressed relief that Musk’s deal to buy Twitter had been rekindled: “As long as he gets it that’s all that matters.”
  • Fox host Dan Bonginospeculated that Musk would “own the libs at Twitter,” and he bid his audience to “enjoy every second.”
  • On his Telegram channel, Stop the Steal founder Ali Alexandersuggested he might be back on Twitter if the Musk deal goes through and said that “firing bad Twitter staff” and allowing every bad actor who has been banned from the platform back on “makes PEACE more probable.”
  • The right-wing political organization Project Veritas — which specializes in "sting" operations aimed at smearing its perceived political opponents — used Musk’s takeover as an opportunity to solicit emails from whistleblowers to “restore trust in Twitter.”
  • On the Great Awakening message board, which is associated with the QAnon community conspiracy theory, users agreed that Musk had played Twitter “like a f**kin fiddle.” As one top commenter ominously wrote: “They're so screwed without the commie censorship crew.”
  • Users on the pro-Trump message board The Donaldsuggested that Twitter is a “MASSIVE democrat bot farm” and that Democrats “won’t be happy” about losing their “psyop, programming machine.”

Other right-wing figures speculated that Musk’s Twitter acquisition will open the floodgates for “free speech”

  • Fox Business reporter Lauren Simonettispeculated that the Musk deal could be positive for Twitter users if he “makes these changes that are more supportive of free speech.”
  • Newsmax host Greg Kellysuggested that Musk might bring Trump back on the platform and said that “we should be able to say whatever the hell it is we want to say.”
  • Newsmax anchor Bob Sellerscommented that the deal “could have a political effect” and Musk might “allow things other people would not have” on Twitter.
  • Conservative media watchdog Newsbusterspublished an article titled “Free Speech Wins, Libs Have Epic Meltdown Over Musk Deal.” On Twitter, the organization’s founder, Brent Bozzell, said that he hoped the deal would go through “for the sake of free speech.”
  • Frequent Fox guest Glenn Greenwald said that the “hysteria” over Musk’s Twitter acquisition derived from liberals' fear that “Musk will stop censoring their adversaries.”
  • On his radio show, Outkick.com founder and frequent Fox News guest Clay Travissaid the deal was a big win for “those of us who want to be able to share our actual opinions on social media.” Meanwhile, Outkick.com published an article praising the deal as “a tremendous win for freedom of speech.”
  • In a Twitter thread, right-wing provocateur Christopher Rufosingled out Media Matters and others for reporting on disinformation and prescribed that Musk “should protect independent voices against the false, manipulative, and destructive game of these ‘disinformation reporters’” upon seizing the company’s reins.
  • On Facebook, right-wing advocacy groupPragerUattributed a quote to Musk bashing “wokeness” as “a shield to be mean and cruel, armored in false virtue.” The post racked up over 100,000 interactions.
  • On Truth Social, right-wing filmmaker and conspiracy theorist Dinesh D’Souzasaid that Democrats are “terrified by the prospect that under Elon musk, Twitter might again become a genuine free speech platform.” On Twitter, D’Souza speculated that his own following on the platform might double “to around 5 million.”
  • Former One America News Network host Liz Wheelerteased that she might voice opinions about elections, COVID-19, or trans people as a “first tweet on FREE SPEECH Twitter” once Musk takes over.

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters.

Why Social Media Is To Blame For The Spread Of Covid Lies

In 2021, social media companies failed to address the problem of dangerous COVID-19 lies and anti-vaccine content spreading on their platforms, despite the significant harm it caused users. Along with enabling this content to spread, some platforms profited from the dangerous misinformation, all while making hollow promises that prioritized positive news coverage over true accountability.

Many platforms instituted toothless moderation policies while letting propaganda encouraging distrust of the vaccine, science, and public health institutions run rampant. Media Matters researchers easily found content promoting dangerous fake cures for COVID-19, conspiracy theories about the virus’s origins and the safety of vaccines, and more on major social media networks throughout the year. Some platforms profited from this content, while others helped anti-vaccine influencers gain followings and monetize their misinformation in other ways.

This abundance of low quality or misleading information was not inevitable. The features that have come to define social media platforms — features that facilitate monetization, promote rapid content sharing, and encourage user engagement — accelerated and fostered misinformation about COVID-19 and the vaccines. And this misinformation has resulted in real and irreversible harms, like patients dying from COVID-19 yet still refusing to believe they have the illness. Social media companies could have taken action to mitigate the issues brought on by their platforms, but they did not, despite repeated warnings and demands for change.

Facebook

Throughout 2021, Facebook (now Meta) repeatedlyfailed to control the spread of egregious vaccine misinformation and other harmful COVID-19 lies, which were prevalent in the platform’s pages, public and private groups, comments, and ads.

Public pages remained a bastion of anti-vaccine misinformation

As shown in multiplepreviousMedia Mattersreports, right-leaning pages on Facebook earn more interactions than ideologically nonaligned or left-leaning pages, despite conservatives’claimsofcensorship. In fact, right-leaning pages earned roughly 4.7 billion interactions on their posts between January 1 and September 21, while left-leaning and ideologically nonaligned pages earned about 2 billion and 3 billion, respectively.

In the past year, right-wing pages sharedvaccinemisinformation with little moderation or consequence from Facebook. Even when the pages were flagged or fact-checked, users foundways around Facebook’s Band-Aid solutions to continue pushing dangerous medical misinformation.

Right-wing figures such as Fox host Tucker Carlson and Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano have used the platform to push anti-vaccine talking points and/or lie about the origins of the coronavirus.

In fact, vaccine-related posts from political pages this year were dominated by right-wing content. Right-leaning pages earned a total of over 116 million interactions on vaccine-related posts between January 1 and December 15, accounting for 6 out of the top 10 posts. Posts from right-leaning pages that dominated the vaccine discussions on Facebook included:

Third post in the top 10, with about 300,000 interactions:

A meme from the hodgetwins reading "the protected need to be protected from the unprotected by forcing the unprotected to use the protection that didn't protect the protected"

Fifth post in the top 10, with over 266,000 interactions:

Image of a turning point USA meme reading "food trucks should start parking outside of restaurants that require covid-19 vax cards"

Private and public groups sowed some of the most dangerous discourse

Groups on Facebook were also rife with harmful COVID-19 lies -- including dismissing the severity of COVID-19, promoting dangerous alternative treatments, and sharing baseless claims about the vaccine. In August, Media Matters reported on Facebook groups promoting the use of ivermectin as a prophylactic or treatment for COVID-19, even as government officials warned against it. As of the end of September, there were still 39 active ivermectin groups with over 68,000 members.

Media Matters has repeatedlyidentified anti-mask, anti-vaccine, and other similar groups dedicated to spreading COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation. Yet Facebook has failed to remove these groups, even though they appear to violate the platform’s policies.

In October, we identified 918 active groups that were dedicated to promoting COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation, with over 2 million combined members. These included groups discussing misleading and false stories of vaccine side effects and conspiracy theories on what is in the vaccine. We also recently identified at least 860 “parental rights” groups dedicated to opposing school policies around LGBTQ rights, sex education, and so-called “critical race theory,” and other culture war issues — including at least 180 groups that promote explicit COVID-19, mask, or vaccine misinformation.

Comment sections continued to be a toxic part of Facebook, especially as users found ways to use them to evade Facebook’s ineffectual fact-checking and moderation efforts. Group administrators encouraged this behavior, asking members to put more extreme content in the comments and to use code words instead of “vaccine” or “COVID” to thwart moderation.

What’s worse, Facebook reportedly knew COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation was spreading in its comment sections and did little to prevent it.

Facebook continued to enjoy increased profits as misinformation spread on its platform

During all of this, Facebook has enjoyed increased profits -- including from ads promoting fringe platforms and pages that push vaccine misinformation. Media Matters found that Facebook was one of the top companies helping COVID-19 misinformation stay in business, and that it was taking a cut itself. Even after a federal complaint was filed against a fake COVID-19 cure circulating on Facebook (and Instagram), the platform -- against its own policy -- let it run rampant, generating profit.

Throughout 2021, Media Matters has followed how Facebook has enabled the spread of harmful COVID-19 lies, extremism, and more.

Instagram

Though often overshadowed by Facebook, Instagram — which is also owned by Meta — has similarly established itself as a conduit for dangerous lies, hate, and misinformation.

In 2021, there was no better example of Instagram’s shortcomings than its inability to stop the spread of anti-vaccine misinformation -- despite Instagram head Adam Mosseri’s persistent claims that the company takes vaccine-related misinformation “off the platform entirely.”

Insufficient moderation and consistent ban evasion by misinformers

In March, Media Matters found that despite Instagram’s ban on anti-vaccine content, anti-vaccine influencers earned tens of thousands of interactions by falsely claiming that the newly available COVID-19 vaccines were “dangerous,” and in some cases by claiming the shot was killing thousands of people.

A month later, Instagram removed several of the anti-vaccine accounts highlighted in our research, including several members of the so-called “Disinformation Dozen,” influencers the Center for Countering Digital Hate identified as the originators of an estimated 65 percent of vaccine misinformation spread on Facebook and Twitter between February 1 and March 16 of this year. Within days of the accounts’ removal, many of them were back on the platform, using ban evasion tactics.

Today you can still find accounts associated with seven members of the Disinformation Dozen and scores of similarly inclined influencers active on the platform. Practically speaking, not much has changed, despite Instagram’s ban on anti-vaccine content.

Instagram’s recommendation algorithm pushes users down anti-vaccine rabbit holes

In addition to allowing violative content to flourish, the platform’s algorithms also push users down anti-vaccine and health misinformation rabbit holes. In October, a Media Matters study found that Instagram’s suggested-content algorithm was actively promoting anti-vaccine accounts to users who demonstrated an interest in such content.

Similarly, the Center for Countering Digital Hate found that Instagram’s “Explore” page not only funneled users toward anti-vaccine posts, but also led them to other extreme content espousing the QAnon conspiracy theory and antisemitism, for instance.

Others who engaged with the platform have stumbled upon the same phenomenon: If a user demonstrates interest in extreme content, the algorithm feeds them more of it.

Instagram’s monetization features present unique dangers

As the company expands its e-commerce ambitions, bad actors are already abusing the platform's monetization features to finance dangerous propaganda. Instagram Shopping, which debuted in 2020, is filled with anti-vaccine merchandise. Pro-Trump businessman Mike Lindell and right-wing agitator Jack Posobiec teamed up to use the platform’s new link sticker feature — which allows users to link directly to external websites — to finance their crusade to undermine faith in American democracy.

Again and again, Instagram commits to addressing harmful content on its platform, but either failsto do so effectively, or waits until it’s way too late.

TikTok

In 2021, TikTok was used as an anti-mask organizing space and a launching pad for COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation. While the policies TikTok designed in response to the pandemic were strong on paper because they specifically addressed combating medical misinformation, the company has failed to meaningfully enforce them.

TikTok fails to proactively moderate dangerous medical misinformation

A large part of TikTok’s misinformation crisiscomes from its moderation practices, which appear to be largely reactive. Although the company has removed some COVID-19 misinformation when highlighted by researchers or journalists, it has fundamentally failed to meaningfully preempt, detect, and curb health misinformation narratives before they go viral.

There is no excuse for a multibillion-dollar company behind the most downloaded social media app to have such insufficient moderation practices, especially when medical misinformation can seriously harm its users.

TikTok’s recommendation algorithm fed users COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation

Not only did TikTok fail to stop the spread of dangerous misinformation, but the company’s own recommendation algorithm also helped propelled COVID-19 and vaccine falsities into virality -- hand-delivering harmful medical misinformation to unsuspecting users.

TikTok’s major appeal is its “For You” page (FYP), a personalized feed of videos individually tailored to each user. When COVID-19 misinformation goes viral, it’s often because TikTok’s algorithm feeds users this content on their FYP. Media Matters identified multiple instances of TikTok's own algorithm amplifying COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation. In our study, 18 videos containing COVID-19 misinformation — which at the time of the study had garnered over 57 million views — were fed to a Media Matters research account's FYP.

TikTok’s unregulated conspiracy theory problem creates a gateway to medical misinformation

The spread of conspiracy theories and misinformative content on TikTok has created a pipeline from other false or harmful content to medical misinformation. Vaccine skepticism is tied to belief in conspiracy theories, which has long proliferated on the platform. Media Matters identified repeated circulation of videos from Infowars, a far-right conspiratorial media outlet, including those in which Infowars founder Alex Jones spreads COVID-19 misinformation.

Media Matters also found evidence of a gateway between conspiracy theory accounts and the spread of COVID-19 misinformation, as well as content promoting other far-right ideologies. In one instance, we followed a flat earth conspiracy theory account and TikTok’s account recommendation algorithm prompted us to follow an account pushing COVID-19 misinformation.

YouTube

In 2020, Media Matters documented YouTube’s repeatedfailure to enforce its own policies about COVID-19 misinformation. In 2021, the platform continued to allow this type of content to spread, despite its announcement of an expanded medical misinformation policy.

In September, well over a year into the pandemic, YouTube finally updated its policies around vaccine-related misinformation. However, these changes came too late, after videos such as the Planet Lockdown series collected at least 2.7 million views while on the platform. In the months following the policy expansion, YouTube’s enforcement of the new policies proved to also be far too little.

YouTube has failed to enforce its guidelines since early in the pandemic

Prior to the policy updates in September, Media Matters documented YouTube’s failure to sufficiently enforce its existing guidelines around COVID-19 misinformation. For example, the platform allowed right-wing commentator CharlieKirk to baselessly speculate that 1.2 million people could have died from the COVID-19 vaccine. The platform also failed to remove numerous videos promoting deceptive claims about the use of ivermectin to treat COVID-19. (Since the original publication of the linked article, YouTube has removed three of the videos. The rest remain on the platform.) YouTube also hosted a two-hour live event featuring prominent anti-vaccine figures such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Even after its September 2021 policy expansion, YouTube still fell short

After months of letting anti-vaccine and COVID lies flourish, YouTube announced in a blog post that it was expanding its policies because it was seeing “false claims about the coronavirus vaccines spill over into misinformation about vaccines in general.”

The blog stated that the platform would prohibit “content that falsely alleges that approved vaccines are dangerous and cause chronic health effects, claims that vaccines do not reduce transmission or contraction of disease,” and content that “contains misinformation on the substances contained in vaccines.”

After renewing its commitment to combating medical misinformation, the Alphabet Inc.-owned platform enjoyed a wave of mostlypositivepress. However, less than a week after this announcement was made, Media Matters uncovered numerous instances where enforcement of these new policies was falling short.

Despite banning individual accounts, YouTube allowed prominent anti-vaccine figures featured among the Disinformation Dozen to continue to spread misinformation on the platform. Recently, several of the videos were finally removed, but only after accumulating more than 4.9 million views.

Media Matters also found that YouTube allowed numerous videos promoting ivermectin to remain on the site following the new policy debut, and also permitted advertisements for the drug, some of which promoted it as an antiviral for human use.

Additionally, we identified a YouTube video from right-wing group Project Veritas claiming to show a “whistleblower” exposing harms caused by the COVID-19 vaccine. The video, which provides no real evidence or context, accumulated millions of views despite violating YouTube’s updated guidelines.

In 2021, YouTube has repeatedly failed to enforce its own policies. In addition to hosting ample misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines, the platform has profited from recruitment videos for a militia that has been linked to violence and election fraud lies. It has allowed right-wing propaganda network PragerU to fundraise while spreading transphobia, and is still falling short on its promise to crack down on QAnon content.

Methodology

Media Matters used the following method to compile and analyze vaccine-related posts from political pages on Facebook:

Using CrowdTangle, Media Matters compiled a list of 1,773 Facebook pages that frequently posted about U.S. politics from January 1 to August 25, 2020.

For an explanation of how we compiled pages and identified them as right-leaning, left-leaning, or ideologically nonaligned, see the methodology here.

The resulting list consisted of 771 right-leaning pages, 497 ideologically nonaligned pages, and 505 left-leaning pages.

Every day, Media Matters also uses Facebook's CrowdTangle tool and this methodology to identify and share the 10 posts with the most interactions from top political and news-related Facebook pages.

Using CrowdTangle, Media Matters compiled all posts for the pages on this list (with the exception of UNICEF – a page that Facebook boosts) that were posted between January 1 and December 15, 2021, and were related to vaccines. We reviewed data for these posts, including total interactions (reactions, comments, and shares).

We defined posts as related to vaccines if they had any of the following terms in the message or in the included link, article headline, or article description: “vaccine,” “anti-vaccine,” “vaxx,” “vaxxed,” “anti-vaxxed,” “Moderna,” “Pfizer,” “against vaccines,” “pro-vaccines,” “support vaccines,” “vax,” “vaxed,” “anti-vax,” “pro-vaccine,” “pro-vaxx,” or “pro-vax.”

Article reprinted with permission from Media Matters

‘Critical Race Theory’ Was Weaponized Against Obama In 2012 — And Flopped

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters

A few weeks before he died, Breitbart News founder Andrew Breitbart teased his masterplan to take down President Barack Obama ahead of the 2012 election. In part, the plan relied on associating Democrats with the little known academic study of systemic racism called "critical race theory" and rendering it radical and toxic enough to damage them in the upcoming election cycle.

"This election we're going to vet him from his college days to show you why racial division and class warfare are central to what hope and change was sold in 2008," Breitbart declared during a speech at Conservative Political Action Conference. "The videos are going to come out."

The most-hyped video among the ones Breitbart promised was ironically already publicly available and had been reported on during the 2008 election. It finally surfaced after Breitbart's death in early March 2012. The footage showed a law-school era Obama who was then the president of the Harvard Law Review talking about and hugging an academic named Derrick Bell at a 1990 protest. The video was supposedly evidence of Obama embracing — literally in this case — extreme anti-white views.

As Joel Pollak, then-editor-in-chief of Breitbart News, would tell CNN's Soledad O'Brien, "Derrick Bell is the Jeremiah Wright of academia. He passed away last year, but during his lifetime, he developed a theory called critical race theory which holds that the civil rights movement was a sham and that white supremacy is the order and it must be overthrown."

Ultimately, the smear attempt flopped. But it marked conservative media's first crack — led by Breitbart, Steve Bannon (who at the time was a board member of Breitbart News Network), and their employees — at poisoning the specific phrase "critical race theory" and seeding it in the wider public discourse.

This attempt may also partly explain why the current fear-mongering about critical race theory spread so fast and successfully. Right-wing media and activists, as well as their peers at conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Manhattan Institute, seem to know exactly what they are doing because they have dusted off the same playbook from 2012. And they even share some of the same funders.

Hug-Gate: Breitbart's Campaign Against Derrick Bell

Back in 2012, Breitbart and the rest of the conservative media apparatus were laser focused on painting Obama as a secret radical ahead of that year's general election — a tactic not all that much different from what they had tried in 2008. In fact, Andrew Breitbart's final written piece, published posthumously, connectedObama to famed leftist organizer Saul Alinsky.

Once the hug video was published, Breitbart flooded its homepage with stories about Bell and his supposed transgressions. Between March 7 and March 14, 2012, the site published dozens of video clips and articles purportedly exposing Bell, Obama, and critical race theory.

Then-Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro, a familiar face from the current discourse on critical race theory, painted Bell as a Louis Farrakhan-loving antisemite whose work Obama loved and assigned as reading in his law school classes.

On March 7, 2012, Shapiro authored a story headlined "Obama: 'Open Up Your Hearts And Your Minds' To Racialist Prof" in which he wrote: "This is just the beginning. And this video is a smoking gun showing that Barack Obama not only associated with radicals, he was their advocate."

Open up your hearts and minds -- Shapiro

Pollak and Shapiro also appeared on Hannity on March 7 to discuss their "exclusive" scoop.

On March 11, 2012, Shapiro penned a supposed critical race theory explainer in which he claimed that Obama's entire administration was "an ode to CRT."

In the months that followed, Shapiro's "CRT" motif was apparent in Breitbart's coverage of the administration. There were suggestions that Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, who graduated from Harvard Law in 1986, was suddenly an ardentproponent of critical race theory, as was deputy White House counsel Cassandra Butts.

At one point, Pollak suggested that then-Attorney General Eric Holder's infamous statement about the United States being a "nation of cowards" on race was evidence that Holder — and likely the rest of the Justice Department — were also under the spell of critical race theory.

In the end, the effort to paint the Obama administration as a bunch of secret radicals stationing critical race theorists at the head of every public institution was short-lived. Even reactionary Fox personalities like Geraldo Rivera and Bill O'Reilly panned Breitbart's big scoop in March.

Same funders, same playbook, different year

Fast forward to 2021 and right-wing circles are rabid with critical race theory outrage. Republican state legislatures are promoting legislation to curb it — even when they don't know what it is. School board meetings are being overrun by conservative activists who are organizing online. At every level, the GOP is betting on its new boogeyman to convert "racial anxiety into political energy" ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.

And once again, Breitbart is publishing scores of articles about "critical race theory." Some are even written by the same guy, Joel Pollak, who was pushing the samenarrative back in 2012.

Ben Shapiro, now one of the most popular conservative pundits in the country, is once again helping lead the right-wing media campaign against critical race theory. But this time his megaphone is bigger, broadcasting the same talkingpoints about critical race theory to his millions of followers on major social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

Per Media Matters' internal data, Shapiro is responsible for 13 of the top 20 posts (receiving the most interactions) about critical race theory on Facebook since the 2020 election. Last month, we reported that among Facebook pages that post about politics, nearly 90 percent of the posts that mention critical race theory were by right-leaning pages.

There are even similarities in the dark money behind the 2012 and 2021 efforts. Robert Mercer (advised by Bannon, who became executive chairman of Breitbart after Andrew Breitbart's death) infamously financed Andrew Breitbart's early smear campaigns. His daughter Rebekah has donated large sums of money to two think tanks that seem to be behind the newest weaponization of critical race theory. Bannon, for his part, is now predicting the current anti-"critical race theory" campaign will not only win the House of Representatives back for Republicans in 2022, but may also prove to be a right-wing presidential winner in 2024.

Nearly a decade later, Breitbart News' failed smear of critical race theory is back — and this time it appears to be working.

Research contributions from Carly Evans.

As Local Newsrooms Wither, Right-Wing Disinformation Is Burgeoning

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters

In a year when local news has been arguably more important than ever, newsrooms across the country have faced drastic cuts. The decimated industry has left many Americans without a clear avenue for getting relevant and reliable information about their communities -- and nefarious actors have taken advantage of this opportunity to fill the void with hyperpartisan narratives and conservative misinformation. While this tactic is not new from right-wing media, the stakes were higher and the consequences greater in 2020.

The economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic was particularly devastating for an industry already in decline before the virus hit. Newsrooms strained by shrinking ad revenues and consolidation found they could not weather the pressures of COVID-19 without cutting staff or shuttering entirely. Thousands of outlets have been impacted this year, according to the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, which maintains a database tracking these cutbacks. Local newspapers were hit much harder than local TV newsrooms, according to the Pew Research Center and NiemanLab.

In the absence of trusted local reporting, partisan commentary and right-wing misinformation can thrive. Conservative activists have already proven willing to seize on the decline of local news -- and the perceived trustworthiness of local outlets -- to further their agenda. For example, Media Matters has previously reported on the dark money-fundedFranklin Center's network of state "watchdog" sites, which provided partisan coverage of state governments earlier in the decade. A similar strategy is now taking hold in Georgia as the state heads into contentious January runoff elections that will determine control of the U.S. Senate.

We are seeing the likely consequences of this dynamic already, as many stories were missing from the pages of local newspapers and the airwaves of local broadcast news in 2020. Local news outlets failed to warn viewers about health risks of political rallies, declined to inform people that a politician running for national office was making racist statements, and omitted right-wing extremist violence from their reporting. While local outlets fail to cover vital stories in their community, right-wing media have plenty of room to fill the gaps with misinformation via local talk radio, news stations owned by conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group, and hyperpartisan local sites.

Local Broadcast TV Falls Dangerously Short

Months into the COVID-19 pandemic, and especially after it began affecting the 2020 presidential campaigns, local TV news stations sometimes failed to give important public health context in their coverage -- potentially putting viewers at risk. This has ranged from omitting new local COVID-19 developments in stories about national pandemic policy, ignoring problematic decisions by local governments or federal institutions with local impacts, or neglecting to report when local representatives spread misinformation related to the pandemic. Local news stations in several states repeatedly failed to connectPresident Donald Trump's superspreader political events to their area's status in the ongoing pandemic -- even failing to warn viewers about the health risks of attending these Trump rallies after several had been tied to infections and even deaths.

There were also serious failures in local TV coverage of voting procedures and controversial candidates for federal office. In Florida, most TV news coverage in the state failed to properly explain how a new court ruling would make it nearly impossible for residents with former felony convictions to vote -- a measure that disproportionately targets Black potential voters. Broadcast news stations in Pennsylvania and Minnesota also mostly neglected to explain proper procedures in the immediate aftermath of court rulings which changed how mail-in votes can be counted close to the presidential election. Local TV news coverage also largely overlooked the reported sexual misconduct and bigotry of then-candidate and now Rep.-elect Madison Cawthorn (R-NC). They also neglected to mentionprint reports with new information about Sen. David Perdue's (R-GA) stock trading scandals before voting for the Georgia runoffs began (newspapers throughout the state also failed to cover this in their print editions).

Sinclair Broadcast Group Spread Misinformation

Sinclair Broadcast Group owns one of the largest concentrations of local television stations in the United States and uses it to broadcast conservative propaganda to unwitting local news audiences. In recent years, it hired Fox News castoffs who were fired for sexual misconduct to push right-wing misinformation.

Stations owned or operated by Sinclair have had their own unique failures related to the pandemic and the election. Around the end of August, at least 55 Facebook posts and 36 Twitter posts from Sinclair stations' social media accounts shared articles from their own or other Sinclair stations' websites which lacked context about data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, effectively misleading people into believing COVID-19 isn't as deadly as it's proven to be. And when it came to broadcasts, the Sinclair station in the Florida congressional district where bigot Laura Loomer won her Republican primary election failed to mention the anti-Muslim hatred she is known for while covering her victory. Georgia's Sinclair stations in May similarly failed to cover recent insider trading news about Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, while non-Sinclair stations in the state did multiple times.

Locally produced newscasts are not the only way Sinclair has spread misinformation through the country this year. Sinclair employs several national correspondents who produce short news segments which are distributed throughout its network of local TV stations to air around the country in local news broadcasts. Over the summer, many of these national Sinclair news segments hid violence by police and others against protesters who were marching against police killings of Black Americans and repeated debunked falsehoods about the topic. On the weekends, the company also airs two news-like programs, Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson and Eric Bolling's America This Week, which have spread similar -- and at timesmore dangerous -- misinformation.

Sinclair's COVID-19 Misinformation Was Pulled Twice

Earlier in the pandemic, Sinclair's national correspondents would cover the right-wing protests against COVID-19 precautions without including warnings from health experts against the consequences of lifting those restrictions too early. Later on, these news reports amplified Trump's attempts to downplay how dangerous the novel coronavirus is and his lies about his mishandling of the pandemic, or distracted from his attempts to politicize the coronavirus vaccine effort. One of Sinclair's weekend programs, Full Measure, also touted the discredited use of hydroxychloroquine as a coronavirus treatment.

But it was on Sinclair's America This Week where the really deadly misinformation happened. The program started out by downplaying the threat of the pandemic, using racist terms, and pushing conspiracy theories about the origin of the coronavirus. As the pandemic grew worse and worse, host Eric Bolling repeatedlyagreed with his guests that public health restrictions needed to end. Bolling brought up a Trump-boosted conspiracy theory downplaying the deadliness of the coronavirus. He aired a segment advocating for a "natural herd immunity" strategy that would kill millions -- and later interviewed the White House adviser who proposed that strategy to the president while failing to bring it up. Bolling also allowed Trump to spread COVID-19 misinformation via the town hall interview he conducted in October. In November, he floated a partisan conspiracy theory after Pfizer announced on November 9 that it had developed an effective vaccine, calling for a congressional investigation and suggesting the timing of the announcement was politically motivated.

On two occasions, Bolling's COVID-19 misinformation was so dangerous that Sinclair simply pulled it off its stations' airwaves. The first time was in late July, when he interviewed a conspiracy theorist from the Plandemic viral video which had been banned from social media platforms for its harmful misinformation. After widespread criticism, Sinclair pulled the entire episode after it aired on one station -- though not before defending the interview as an expression of free speech. The second occasion was in mid-October, when Sinclair cut a part of Bolling's opening monologue in which he falsely claimed face masks and lockdown precautions do not help slow the spread of COVID-19, though The New York Times reported that the Sinclair host "stood by his unsubstantiated claims that Chinese scientists had tampered with the virus."

Sinclair Also Spread Misinformation About Voting

As the presidential election approached, Sinclair spread misinformation about voting from both its national correspondents and its weekend program America This Week. In late June, a Sinclair news segment pushed Trump's debunked lies about fraud in absentee voting and included so little pushback against the lie that one local anchor had to more thoroughly explain the security features of mail-in voting following the prerecorded segment. In mid-July, Bolling used his program to amplify Trump's attacks on mail-in voting by using his interview of a former secretary of state in Washington state to validate claims that voter fraud is rampant. And a series of Sinclair national news segments which covered Trump's false attacks on mail-in voting made no mention of his deliberate weakening of the Postal Service prior to the election.

After the election, Sinclair stations also spread debunked misinformation that originally came from right-wing video group Project Veritas, which is known for infiltrating progressive organizations, campaigns, and nonpartisan institutions and heavily editing recorded undercover footage to allege wrongdoing. For example, multiple Sinclair stationsspread their lie that a post office was illegally backdating ballots in Michigan the day after local and national media debunked it.

Talk Radio Undermined Public Confidence

For decades, local conservative talk radio has served as a source of hyperpartisan commentary on community issues and as a breeding ground for conspiracy theories. Without trusted local sources to provide the facts or hold these hosts accountable, misinformation and dangerous rhetoric can run rampant on local airwaves.

Throughout the pandemic, talk radio hosts have attempted to undermine the work of local officials to control the spread of the virus. In the spring, right-wing hosts across the country were at the forefront of efforts to promote protests against stay-at-home orders. Local radio hosts in Arizona rejected mask mandates implemented by cities there in June, when COVID-19 cases were surging. When coronavirus numbers surged in Wisconsin this fall, the hosts in the state downplayed the spike and complained about new public health orders.

Listeners' faith in the electoral process was also under attack ahead of the 2020 election. After Trump claimed "bad things happen in Philadelphia" during a debate, local radio hosts in the city suggested that local Democrats were planning to steal the state's election, and some even helped local Republican leaders recruit poll watchers. As Pennsylvania continued to count votes following Election Day, conservative hosts across the state suggested that the additional time needed to count mail-in ballots was actually a sign of a widespread conspiracy by Democrats engaged in election fraud.

Hyperpartisan "News" Pages Were Misinformation Superspreaders

In the days after the 2020 election, a site called the Milwaukee City Journalfalsely claimedthat certain wards were reporting more votes than registered voters. A site called Peach Tree Times added to the ever-growing pile of voter fraud conspiracy theories by suggesting that ballot rejection rates in Georgia portended election shenanigans. Ahead of Georgia's runoffs in January, Georgia Star News -- a new website with deepties to Trump and his former adviser Steve Bannon -- began to pepper audiences with stories of election fraud and conspiracy theories aggregated from the right-wing fringe.

Georgia Star News is the latest project of Star News Digital Media, which was founded in 2017 by tea party activists and now operates half a dozen conservative news sites. From the beginning, the company's explicit aim was to flood residents of battleground states with pro-Trump propaganda and to coat local news in the same grievance- and conspiracy-filled venom as used by outlets like The Daily Caller and Breitbart.

Metric Media, which runs the Milwaukee City Journal and Peach Tree Times, operates nearly a thousand such pages. A New York Times investigation revealed that the company's sites amount to little more than content farms for right-wing political groups and PR firms.

Those sites and hundreds of others like them are part of a growing trend of hyperpartisan "news" pages designed to look like legitimate local news outlets that have taken advantage of the collapse of the local news industry. Such sites have been around for nearly a decade, but their numbers have grown dramatically over the past few years.

It's hard to overstate the importance of the local news industry in providing critical on-the-ground reporting that cannot be replicated on the national level. Cuts to funding and to whole newsrooms and outlets during the pandemic present a crisis point that will continue to be exploited by social media echo chambers and right-wing news outlets filling the void with misinformation.

Social media's replacement of local news outlets as the primary source for community information will likely contribute to an absolute deluge of conservative misinformation and the spread of local conspiracy theories in the years ahead, both issues we have already seen play out this year during the election cycle and the pandemic. The year 2020 has proven yet again that protecting resources for local reporting is essential -- and could even save lives.

Fox News Personalities Uniformly Defend Monuments To Treason

Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters

In 2015, after a white supremacist gunned down nine Black worshipers in a Charleston, South Carolina, church and calls to dismantle the symbols of racism and slavery grew louder, Fox figures rallied around the Confederate flag. When state leaders, led by then-Gov. Nikki Haley, ordered the flag's removal from public buildings, Bill O'Reilly used his Fox prime-time perch to say it "represents, to some, bravery in the Civil War because the Confederates fought hard." Then-Fox personality Kimberly Guilfoyle speculated about whether the American flag would be next.

In 2017, when a white supremacist mowed down a crowd of protesters at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia -- which was spuriously organized around the city's plan to remove a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee from a local park -- the same pattern emerged. Fox figures defended President Donald Trump's false equivalence between white supremacists and the counterprotesters at the rally. And they asked whether book burning or removing the U.S. Capitol stone by stone would come next.

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