A disheartening aspect of our national life is the disinformation industry. I’m not talking about “spin” or “puffery.” I’m talking about widespread, deliberate propaganda.
For example, a recent Yahoo News story was summed up in this headline: “Antifa website cited in conservative media attacks on Biden is linked to–wait for it–Russia.” (Speaking of Russia, the New. York Times confirmed that a story about bible-burning in Portland, also embraced by the Right, was both wildly inaccurate and linked to Russia.)
It turns out that propaganda dissemination isn’t confined to Fox News, although Fox is clearly a. predominant “player” in the richly rewarding field of lying for fun and profit. Others have noticed how lucrative propaganda can be, as The Washington Post recently reported.
The reality curated by “The Bearded Patriot” and “The Wolf of Washington” is dismal.
The websites tell of nonstop riots and “crazed leftists.” They warn of online censorship and the wiles of an “anarchist billionaire,” a reference to George Soros, the liberal investor and Holocaust survivor.
The material is tailor-made to inflame right-wing passions. But its underlying purpose is to collect email addresses and other personal information from impassioned readers, whose inboxes then fill up with narrowly targeted ads. The effect is to monetize the anger stoked by misleading political content — for as much as $2,500 per list of contacts.
For-profit fear-mongering is rewarding, and so-called “merchants of misinformation” are exploiting new techniques of data collection to capitalize on American polarization.
The clip that was posted to Twitter — and subsequently viewed over 1.2 million times — purports to show protesters invading a church, screaming “Black Lives Matter” and even abusing parishioners. One demonstrator is filmed calling a church member “a dumb fuck.”
The clip was uploaded by Charlie Kirk, one of the leading voices in the Trump Youth Movement, who added his own interpretation of events: “Christians have not been allowed to attend church for months,” Kirk tweeted, referring to coronavirus-related pauses in services. “But when they finally are, BLM inc. rioters are allowed to assault them. Christianity is now under physical assault by radical left wing terrorism. Where is the media coverage of this?”
Kirk, the founder of Turning Points USA, has 1.8 million followers. His chief creative officer, Benny Johnson — who also tweeted the video, has more than 315,000. The video was picked up by a who’s who of conservative and fringe media: Dinesh D’Souza, Nigel Farage, Laura Ingraham, OAN, the Daily Wire, the Blaze, PJ Media, and Mike Cernovich. The Republican candidate for US House District 20 — which includes Troy, New York, where the events in the clip took place — tweeted it. So did RT, the state-controlled Russian propaganda network. The message of the coverage was a variation on the same theme: This is the real BLM, and they’re coming for your churches next.
Years ago, Paul Harvey hosted a radio show that would begin with an attention-getting story he wouldn’t finish until (after an intervening advertisement) he returned with “the rest of the story.”
The rest of this one’s a doozy.
The church being “assaulted” is affiliated with Westboro Baptist, and the day the video was filmed, it was hosting the second of two AR-15 give-aways. In the middle of a neighborhood that had been wracked with gun violence for years, a neighborhood where faith leaders and public officials had organized gun buy-backs to get firearms off the street, it was giving away deadly guns.
The Black Lives Matter protesters had been invited inside by the church’s pastor, John Koletas, a self-proclaimed “bigot” who has preached against interracial marriage, defends the use of the n-word, and believes that Black people, as descendants of Ham and Canaan, are cursed by God. He thinks Black History Month is “communism and Marxism month.” He calls Black Lives Matter protesters “savages.” He places a pork product — a ham or hot dogs — at the door, and requires all church attendees to touch it, supposedly to ward off would-be jihadists. He abhors feminists and gay people. He hates Catholics and thinks Muslims shouldn’t be allowed in the country. He mocks sexual abuse victims and the #MeToo movement. And videos of Koletas preaching these beliefs are readily available on the church’s Facebook and YouTube pages.
The invitation was a trap–a set-up intended to incite a protest. The timing was instructive: George Floyd was killed on May 25. The protests in Minneapolis started on the 26th. On May 28, the church tweeted that the church would be giving away additional AR-15s.
The Buzzfeed article goes into substantial detail about these events, including the strategies employed to generate confrontations and get video useful to rightwing provocateurs. The “rest of the story” was that BLM got played.
The rest of our story is clear: Unless we can somehow get a handle on this tsunami of disinformation without running afoul of the First Amendment, the “American experiment” simply won’t survive.