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Right-Wing Media Won’t Stop Lying About Afghan ‘Hanged’ From Chopper


Reprinted with permission from Media Matters

Multiple right-wing media figures, outlets, and social media users falsely claimed that a viral video showing a man in Afghanistan suspended from a helicopter was an execution by the Taliban. Other footage of the flight showed the man alive and well, and reportedly he was attempting to fix a flag.

This narrative is just one example of multiple falsehoods spread by conservatives to attack President Joe Biden following his decision to withdraw U.S. military forces from Afghanistan.

As Media Matters previously wrote, Fox News host Sean Hannity aired the footage on the August 31 edition of Fox News' Hannity, falsely claiming it showed the Taliban dangling a hanged man from a Black Hawk helicopter in Afghanistan. But Hannity's claim had been debunked before his show aired.

Conservative media personalities and politicians — including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rep. Jason Smith (R-MO) — also repeated the false claim on Twitter, using it to criticize the Biden administration's decision to remove U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Cruz later deleted his tweet, writing that the information in it "may be inaccurate."

A tweet by Rep. Jason Smith that reads "On the day that we see innocent people hanging from an American helicopter, the Biden Administration decides to pull out early leaving behind hundreds of Americans and even more innocents to die at the hands of the Taliban. It's unacceptable and heartbreaking."

A Fox anchor along with multiple contributors and guests have also engaged with the false claim, as have other right-wing cable channels like One America News Network and Newsmax, other media organizations and users on fringe social media platforms.

Fox News and Fox Business

  • On August 30, a day before Hannity himself pushed this lie, Hannity guest Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) said that "we had a video today of one of our Blackhawk helicopters with somebody hanging from it as it moves through the sky."
  • Also on August 30, guest Elliot Ackerman said on The Ingraham Angle that "we just saw the Taliban flying a Blackhawk helicopter above Kandahar with a dead body hanging from its bottom."
  • On August 30, Fox Business guest Stephen Yates said: "We have today the Taliban hanging someone from a helicopter."
  • On August 31, Fox Business guest Sam Brown said, "We're seeing the reality of the Taliban now flying Blackhawk helicopters over Kabul, hanging their enemy."
  • Later the same day, Fox contributor Katie Pavlich said on The Five, "They are hanging people from our helicopters." Pavlich repeated this later in the show, saying the Taliban have "been using" weapons left behind "to execute our allies who helped us on the ground. … They hung a guy with a helicopter."
  • That evening, Fox Business anchor David Asman was discussing the helicopters U.S. forces left behind and said: "At least one was used yesterday in horrific fashion to hang a human being. We don't know the circumstances of that. We don't know who that person was that was hanging from the helicopter. But in one of the typically sick dimension of the way that these -- the Taliban think, or whoever was piloting that helicopter, that's how they used it."
  • And on September 1, Fox News contributor Charles Hurt said on Fox Business, "The image of our Blackhawk helicopter flying around Kabul with the body of what appears to be a dead person hanging from the bottom of it -- those images get seared into people's minds, and they never forget it."

Newsmax

  • On the August 31 edition of the morning show Wake Up America, Newsmax's Alex Kraemer showed and read a tweet claiming that the Taliban "are now hanging innocent civilians from [helicopters] for the world to see." Later in the show, co-host Rob Finnertysaid: "We saw someone hanging from a helicopter on video. This person was dead."
  • During Newsmax's August 31 midday show John Bachman Now, the host said there are "U.S. Blackhawks reportedly being flown by the Taliban with people hanging from them."
  • Later that day on American Agenda, Newsmax host Grant Stinchfield said the Taliban were "flying people hanging from Blackhawk helicopters yesterday." Later in the show, former Trump spokesperson Jason Miller referenced people in Kabul risking being "flown around the city hanging by their neck off of a helicopter."
  • On September 1, Finnerty repeated this lie on Wake Up America, saying: "We saw somebody hanging from a U.S. military helicopter over Kabul just a couple of days ago."

One America News Network

  • On August 31, the host of OAN's In Focus with Stephanie Hamill said: "There's video circulating online of them in an American helicopter with a man hanging by his neck off of the helicopter." Her guest, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC), replied: "That's sick. That is sick."
  • Later on Real America, host Dan Ball previewed the video he claimed shows "the Taliban flying one of our Blackhawk choppers in Kandahar with a body hanging from it" with a long-winded warning about graphic content. He added: "Now, have we vetted it all out? Can I confirm it happened yesterday? I don't know when it happened. It's all over the web. It's from Kandahar. I can't read what that says, but we're getting this from multiple sources of folks that were there on the ground. They confirm it's one of our choppers, they confirm it's from Afghanistan. I don't know who's hanging there, but -- you want to see this stuff come over here? And I'm not trying to fearmonger one bit. I'm keeping it real, folks."

Other right-wing outlets and social media

  • On August 30, Gateway Pundit shared a screenshot of the video on its website along with tweets containing versions of the video, incorrectly claiming that "today the Islamists used US helicopters to hang 'traitors' in Kandahar Afghanistan" and argued that the Taliban was "openly mocking" the U.S.
  • On August 31, the New York Post published the video on its website along with an article that said "it is not immediately clear exactly how [the person in the video] is attached or if he is alive." The piece then quoted "some journalists" who it says "insisted that it showed someone who had been hanged — and then paraded in the skies."
  • The video of the helicopter and screenshots from the video also spread on several fringe right-wing social media platforms between August 30 and September 1, including Gab, 4chan, and Patriots.win. This content was also shared widely among right-wing users on the messaging app Telegram. Many of these posts criticized the Biden administration, with one Patriots.win user claiming, falsely, that the Taliban was "flying [a] Biden-provided Blackhawk helicopter…while hanging someone from it." This post quoted a tweet stating that "it's an absolute shitfest to see the Taliban now actually flying US BlackHawk helicopters, hanging people by the throat from them!! The American President will never be forgiven for this!!"
Research contributions from Leo Fernandez and Bobby Lewis

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 times more 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 repeatedly agreed 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 Journal falsely 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 deep ties 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.

Secession And Martial Law Obsess Right-Wing Media Outlets

Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters

After the Supreme Court on Friday declined to hear a lawsuit from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to overturn the election, many far-right pro-Trump media figures, social media personalities, Republican Party officials, and former congressional candidates expressed support for secession from the United States or the use of the military to overturn the election which President Donald Trump lost.

The lawsuit sought, in a "seditious abuse of judicial process," to invalidate the election results from several swing states that contributed to President-elect Joe Biden's victory. This extreme attempt to overthrow our democracy garnered mainstream Republican support, with 17 GOP state attorneys general and more than half of House Republicans signing on in support of it.

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Major Media Parroted Trump Doctor’s Misleading Claims

Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters

The administration and the medical team of President Donald Trump have offered misleading and contradictory information about his health since he announced early Friday morning that he had tested positive for the coronavirus. But on Sunday, many major news organizations took at face value and highlighted their claims that Trump may be discharged from the Walter Reed medical center on Monday.

On Saturday, Trump's doctors made confusing statements about the timeline of his coronavirus diagnosis and treatment, and a memo from the White House aimed at clarifying these statements itself contained errors and inconsistencies. Trump's physician Dr. Sean Conley had also been cagey about whether Trump had been given oxygen as part of his treatment. White House chief of staff Mark Meadows has also issued contradictory statements to reporters, at first expressing grave concerns about Trump's health after the Saturday press briefing by the president's doctors, but later claiming Trump "is doing very well."

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On Texas TV Outlets, Rep. Gohmert Claimed Mask Caused His Illness

Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters

Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert, who represents the 1st Congressional District in Texas, tested positive for the novel coronavirus on Wednesday. Gohmert has regularly failed to wear a protective face mask, and after he absurdly blamed his infection on the times he did wear a mask, TV news coverage from outlets in his district failed to correct his dangerous misinformation, potentially misleading viewers -- Gohmert's own constituents -- about the necessity of wearing masks to protect themselves and others.

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Network Sunday Shows Ignore Bombshell Report On Trump’s Pandemic Failure

Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters

The New York Times on April 11 reported that various officials in President Donald Trump's administration sounded the alarm on the novel coronavirus in January, but the president "was slow to absorb the scale of the risk and to act accordingly." While medical experts appeared on Fox News Sunday and State of the Union to discuss the story -- with Dr. Anthony Fauci acknowledging that lives could have been saved had Trump acted sooner -- and Meet the Press discussed it as well, This Week and Face the Nation failed to cover the Times report at all.

According to the Times' reporting, Trump repeatedly downplayed the seriousness of the outbreak even as experts were making clear that aggressive action was needed:

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