Trump claims mir­ror con­spir­acy web­site

The power of ‘fake news’

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS - Fear of Sharia

Some of the most in­cen­di­ary claims made by Donald Trump - both be­fore and af­ter his elec­tion ap­pear to be based on a US web­site de­nounced as a pur­veyor of hoaxes and con­spir­acy the­o­ries. The pres­i­dent-elect’s un­sub­stan­ti­ated claim this week that “mil­lions” of peo­ple voted il­le­gally in this month’s elec­tion had been re­ported on the in­ web­site, based on a study de­bunked by the on­line fact-check group Snopes and oth­ers.

It was not the first time Trump had re­peated in­for­ma­tion re­ported in in­fowars, a site oper­ated by ra­dio host Alex Jones, who is known for claims that the 9/11 at­tacks were faked by the US gov­ern­ment. Dur­ing the White House cam­paign, Trump had re­peated claims made on in­fowars that his ri­val Hil­lary Clin­ton was “wear­ing an ear­piece” and that Mus­lims had cel­e­brated dur­ing the Sept 11 at­tacks.

Left-lean­ing me­dia watch­dog group Me­dia Mat­ters for Amer­ica has doc­u­mented dozens of in­stances where Trump has re­cy­cled claims from Jones and in­fowars. Trump has not re­peated some of the most out­landish claims on in­fowars - that aliens from space had landed in Florida or that the mass killing of chil­dren at Sandy Hook Ele­men­tary School was faked to win sup­port for gun con­trol - but critics say that it would be trou­bling for the pres­i­dent-elect to rely on the site for in­for­ma­tion.

“A lot of what he (Jones) says is just pure non­sense,” said An­gelo Caru­sone of Me­dia Mat­ters. “What he is pre­sent­ing is an al­ter­na­tive uni­verse. He is ad­vanc­ing a broader world view that there is a global world gov­ern­ment and ev­ery day they are go­ing out there to take away your power.” For Caru­sone, it re­mains un­clear if Trump be­lieves what was pub­lished on in­fowars or is merely pan­der­ing to its read­ers, but he said ei­ther sce­nario would be dis­turb­ing.

For ex­am­ple, Caru­sone said that in­fowars ran “com­pletely fab­ri­cated” sto­ries say­ing that Mus­lims were im­pos­ing sharia law in US cities. “If the pres­i­dent be­lieves that and starts to make pol­icy based on the be­lief that we have sharia law, we have a prob­lem,” said Caru­sone. In­fowars has none­the­less amassed a sig­nif­i­cant reader base - with some 14.3 mil­lion unique global vis­i­tors and 75 mil­lion views over the past month, ac­cord­ing to the web in­tel­li­gence firm Quant­cast.

Other spec­tac­u­lar - and wholly un­sub­stan­ti­ated - sto­ries on the site in­cluded claims that Clin­ton was in­volved in a child pe­dophilia ring oper­ated out of a Wash­ing­ton pizza par­lor, and that juice boxes had been laced with chem­i­cals to in­duce ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity in chil­dren. In the most re­cent in­ci­dent, Trump ap­peared to echo the claim by in­fowars that he would have won the pop­u­lar vote against Clin­ton in ad­di­tion to the Elec­toral Col­lege if votes by il­le­gal im­mi­grants were dis­counted. As it stands, Clin­ton won the pop­u­lar vote by more than two mil­lion bal­lots and both ex­perts and of­fi­cials across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum have dis­par­aged Trump’s un­sub­stan­ti­ated claim of mass fraud.

Trump was in­ter­viewed dur­ing the cam­paign by Jones, who also claimed to have had sev­eral phone con­ver­sa­tions with the Repub­li­can bil­lion­aire, rais­ing con­cerns about in­flu­ence on pol­icy. “Alex Jones is the most pro­lific and un­hinged con­spir­acy the­o­rist in Amer­ica,” said Mark Po­tok, a se­nior fel­low at the South­ern Poverty Law Cen­ter, a civil rights group which mon­i­tors “hate groups.”“The fact that our pres­i­den­t­elect treats him as if he were a se­ri­ous thinker and critic is ap­palling. This is a man who be­lieves, among other things, that the gov­ern­ment is re­spon­si­ble for the Ok­la­homa City bomb­ing, the Bos­ton Marathon at­tack, the mass mur­der in Or­lando, Florida, and any num­ber of other sim­i­lar at­tacks by ter­ror­ists.” —AFP

The In­ter­net ru­mor had the mak­ings of a bizarrely sor­did scan­dal in­volv­ing a top po­lit­i­cal aide to Hil­lary Clin­ton, al­le­ga­tions of pe­dophilia and a restau­rant in an up­scale part of Wash­ing­ton. It ended in death threats against a small busi­ness owner - and be­came a shock­ing case study in the dan­gers of the grow­ing preva­lence of “fake news”. The fake news phe­nom­e­non has sent ma­jor in­ter­net com­pa­nies scram­bling to re­spond amid claims that bo­gus re­ports that pro­lif­er­ated ahead of the US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion may have skewed the re­sult.

This episode started in Oc­to­ber af­ter Wik­iLeaks pub­lished a batch of hacked emails from John Podesta, the chair­man of Clin­ton’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. Jour­nal­ists and oth­ers have pored over the tens of thou­sands of stolen com­mu­ni­ca­tions in search of po­lit­i­cally rel­e­vant in­for­ma­tion. But some read­ers honed in on a hand­ful of in­nocu­ous mes­sages re­count­ing a Clin­ton fundraiser in­volv­ing James Ale­fan­tis, the owner of a pop­u­lar Wash­ing­ton pizze­ria called Comet.

Al­most im­me­di­ately, “piz­za­gate” was born as right-lean­ing con­spir­acy the­o­rists on the dis­cus­sion sites 4chan and Red­dit claimed Comet was not just a pur­veyor of pizza and beer but in fact a sin­is­ter front hid­ing a po­lit­i­cally con­nected pe­dophile ring. Word quickly spread. “They’ve ap­par­ently un­cov­ered an elite child traf­fick­ing net­work which cel­e­brates its ten­den­cies us­ing code words and dis­turb­ing art­works,” al­leged the web­site The Vig­i­lant Cit­i­zen, which claims to study sym­bols.

In this world, noth­ing was in­no­cent. Nude paint­ings on the walls were sus­pect. Pat­terns on a child’s dress or the menu re­vealed sup­posed pe­dophile sym­bols and a pic­ture of a girl play­ing with mask­ing tape was ev­i­dence of sex­ual abuse. The­o­rists even re­sorted to the French lan­guage in search of po­ten­tial codes: the name James Ale­fan­tis was sup­pos­edly de­rived from the French phrase for“I love chil­dren.”

As the Nov 8 elec­tion drew near, hun­dreds of threat­en­ing mes­sages flooded Ale­fan­tis’s In­sta­gram ac­count. The restau­rant’s Face­book page was also bar­raged with neg­a­tive com­ments. “My first re­ac­tion was there’s a bunch of cra­zies out there. Ev­ery­one is hyped up about the elec­tion, so it will go away,” Ale­fan­tis told AFP. “But in­stead it went the other di­rec­tion.”

Af­ter Donald Trump’s shock vic­tory, things got even worse. “It was a com­bi­na­tion of peo­ple telling us that they were go­ing to come and do some­thing or that we’ve been found out and that we should show where the tun­nels are,” Ale­fan­tis told AFP. To all ap­pear­ances, there is noth­ing un­to­ward about Comet. Friendly and stylish, the restau­rant is di­vided into sev­eral ar­eas, in­clud­ing one with ping-pong and Fuss­ball ta­bles, and stages for al­ter­na­tive rock per­for­mances in the evening. “Comet is a place that bridges,” said neigh­bor­hood res­i­dent Les­lie Har­ris who is help­ing the restau­rant re­spond to the on­slaught. “In the early evening, peo­ple with strollers bring their lit­tle kids in for pizzas. It’s an adult hang out but the irony of it is that it has also been this safe place for our teenagers.”

Ale­fan­tis be­lieves the “co­or­di­nated and or­ches­trated at­tack” was in re­al­ity ret­ri­bu­tion for his po­lit­i­cal views and his sup­port of Democrats. “I’m an in­de­pen­dent busi­ness owner and I feel I have the right to make de­ci­sions on who I sup­port and how I uti­lize my re­sources,” he said. Ale­fan­tis has con­tacted the lo­cal po­lice and the Fed­eral Bureau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion but there is lit­tle that can be done for the time be­ing. Un­der pressure, Red­dit has closed the “piz­za­gate” dis­cus­sion, cit­ing“re­peated vi­o­la­tions of the terms of our con­tent pol­icy”.

But the at­tacks have not ended. “It would be like whack-a-mole,” said Claire War­dle of the Tow Cen­ter for Dig­i­tal Jour­nal­ism. “It’s im­pos­si­ble to reg­u­late or to po­lice these places so in­stead we have to think of other ways to give users tools to rec­og­nize what’s trust­wor­thy or not.”In the mean­time, Ale­fan­tis is call­ing for greater so­cial me­dia aware­ness. “It has to be rec­og­nized within the broader so­ci­ety that so­cial me­dia can be weaponized,” he said. “You can be eas­ily taken down or de­stroyed by this sort of at­tacks.” —AFP

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