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Yahoo’s Seth Rich Exposé Shows Why Countering The Right-Wing Misinformation Machine Is So Difficult

It's a nice thought - but it can't work. Here's why.

“Left-leaning media companies designed to counter the rhetoric coming from the Trump White House and its conservative media machine are growing ahead of the 2020 election”, an Axios story dated Tuesday proclaims.

Sara Fischer – a media reporter for Axios – cites a series of examples including “Front Page Live” which “aims to be the ‘Drudge Report’ of the left”.

This is a nice thought – a national push to establish and promote left-leaning, presumably fact-based media outlets dedicated to countering the kind of misinformation that rapidly proliferates through the vast and highly efficient right-wing echo chamber.

There’s just one problem: It can’t work, and I’ll tell you why.

Conservative media has cemented a kind of devil’s bargain with popular fringe portals and personalities like Alex Jones, who traffic in conspiratorial narratives ranging from “alternative” takes on geopolitics (e.g., employing various propaganda tactics to paint Syria’s Bashar al-Assad – a staunch Kremlin ally and a butcher – as a tragic hero) to wholly ridiculous yarns about slave colonies on Mars.

Those fringe portals multiplied like mogwai in 2015. Wittingly or unwittingly (and that varies on a case-by-case basis), they began to serve as conduits for Russian misinformation campaigns designed, in many cases, to help opportunistic politicians capitalize off the rising tide of nationalism and populism that accompanied the European migrant crisis.

Nationalism and populism found a receptive audience among disaffected white voters in the United States, who, lacking a frame of reference, jumped at the opportunity to embrace Trump’s narrative, which offered up simple explanations and readily identifiable scapegoats and an equally simple set of solutions.

Republicans were initially reluctant to embrace Trump, but eventually came to understand that if the party could swallow a series of bitter pills (including the abandonment of all pretensions to fiscal rectitude, the denigration of party icons like John McCain and the rolling back of America’s commitments to traditional allies), the GOP could tap into a fervent support base while simultaneously ramming through tax cuts and rolling back (or trying to roll back) every signature Obama-era policy initiative.

Unwilling to put principle over power, the GOP became a personality cult. The party was tamed. Lindsey Graham is the poster child for this metamorphosis.

While bringing the party in line took a while, securing the loyalty of conservative media was a much simpler task for Trump. Fox had already proven that playing on people’s emotions, whipping up nostalgia for a bygone era when purportedly sacred American “values” reigned and using tacky jingoism to foster a sense of misplaced patriotism, is a business model that works. In Trump, they had all of that (especially the “tacky”) personified, or at least on the surface. Of course, below the surface, Trump is a philandering stooge lacking any moral compass whatsoever, but the same goes for Fox. They preach conservative values, but the culture is poisonous.

Then nexus in all of this is captured in the notorious Seth Rich conspiracy theory which, in essence, holds that a Democratic National Committee staffer was murdered by assassins hired by Hillary Clinton.

You’ve probably heard variants of this story over the past two years. It was initially parroted by fringe portals. I won’t mention any by name, but it’s safe to say Seth Rich posthumously generated millions upon millions of page views (and thereby thousands upon thousands of ad dollars) for popular right-wing websites, some of which ran at least a half-dozen posts dedicated to it.

Eventually, the story was picked up by Fox.

On Tuesday, Yahoo News released a new investigative report, which includes a brief account of how Fox magnified the story. To wit:

The conspiracy claims reached their zenith in May 2017 — the same week as Mueller’s appointment as special counsel in the Russia probe — when Fox News’ website posted a sensational story claiming that an FBI forensic report had discovered evidence on Rich’s laptop that he had been in communication with WikiLeaks prior to his death. Sean Hannity, the network’s primetime star, treated the account as major news on his nightly broadcast, calling it “explosive” and proclaiming it “might expose the single biggest fraud, lies, perpetrated on the American people by the media and the Democrats in our history.”

On May 18, Hannity welcomed lawyer Jay Sekulow to a segment devoted to Rich. “It sure doesn’t look like a robbery”, Sekulow mused. He didn’t mention that he had already been hired for Trump’s legal team in the Russia probe and neither did Hannity.

Fox would later retract the original story after a source backtracked. “[The article] was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting”, the network said at the time.

By then, it was too late. Fox’s amplification efforts played a familiar role in the self-referential loop that powers the misinformation machine. Fringe portals relentlessly push a dubious story until it’s picked up by a semi-credible outlet like Fox. Then, the same fringe portals cite that coverage as “proof” that the original story has merit. When Fox (or Breitbart) doesn’t bite, Sputnik or RT often will, which is why, if you spend a half hour Googling some of your “favorite” right-wing portals alongside the search term “Sputnik”, you can find all manner of instances of cross-referencing.

The same goes for Jones’s InfoWars, which recently began syndicating content from other questionable outlets in what, at least on the surface, looks like an effort to help the misinformation cycle spin a little faster and perhaps mitigate the traffic impact from social media bans. Some of the content Jones now syndicates was cited and featured on his show in the past.

The big reveal in Tuesday’s Yahoo exclusive is that the Seth Rich story was in fact planted by Russia. To wit:

Russia’s foreign intelligence service, known as the SVR, first circulated a phony “bulletin” — disguised to read as a real intelligence report —about the alleged murder of the former DNC staffer on July 13, 2016, according to the U.S. federal prosecutor who was in charge of the Rich case. That was just three days after Rich, 27, was killed in what police believed was a botched robbery while walking home to his group house in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of Washington, D.C., about 30 blocks north of the Capitol. 

The Washington Post’s Philip Bump notes that conspiracies about Rich’s death were already making the rounds by then, which suggests Russia’s actions may have been more reactive than proactive.

Whatever the case, it was circulated in The White House, notably by Steve Bannon, who, according to text messages seen by Yahoo, sent a text to a 60 Minutes producer that read: “Huge story … he was a Bernie guy … it was a contract kill, obviously”.

The Rich conspiracy theory was also parroted by Roger Stone.

You’re encouraged to read the Yahoo report for yourself (it’s quite something), but our point here is a broader one – namely that efforts to counter this propaganda machine with left-leaning, progressive web portals are doomed to fail. The right-wing echo chamber is too efficient, too incestuous and operates in conjunction with a highly sophisticated state actor.

Even if those challenges could be overcome, left-leaning, progressive commentary faces what is perhaps an even more daunting task: Crafting content that resonates with a public which prefers fantasy to reality, lies to truth and misinformation to facts.

The only truly effective way to fight this battle is via relentless, no-holds-barred, profanity-laced parody. Few portals have the energy (let alone the editorial freedom) to engage in that on a day-to-day basis. Arguably, the only site that does it effectively is Wonkette.

Trump is hosting a social media “summit” at the White House this week. The guest list reportedly includes right-wing cartoonist Ben Garrison, the man behind this cartoon:

The list of those not invited, as of Tuesday morning anyway, includes Twitter and Facebook.



9 comments on “Yahoo’s Seth Rich Exposé Shows Why Countering The Right-Wing Misinformation Machine Is So Difficult

  1. Fox would later retract the original story after a source backtracked. “[The article] was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting”, the network said at the time. ROTFLMAO.

  2. And this is EXACTLY why the US needs a third party.
    Now is the time for a collective of big money to form that fulcrum in the balance.
    By having only 2 sides to the conversation OF COURSE there is animosity, lies and deceit to bicker over.
    Unfortunately the US populace is too busy playing to think about anything but “team sport”. It has never been a winner loser world. The apple, the eating, the choice; or for the American mindset: the gas, the brake, the steering wheel.
    Tom Steyer made a YUGE mistake by jumping in Dem. Shows he had no balls to begin with and plays by the same tired old rules.
    I like democracy in Ecuador and Chile better, the playgrounds are a lot more fun.

  3. Gary Seth

    What concerns me is that a significant reward was not offered for information concerning the Seth Rich murder . If is just a botched robbery a hefty reward would have shaken out some info .

    • I mean, somebody has to pay the reward. It’s not like there are cash rewards offered for every crime that’s committed. Plus, there is absolutely no guarantee that the promise of a cash reward would compel someone to report anything, especially if the person doing the robbing is extremely dangerous. But perhaps most obviously, if it was, in fact, a botched robbery, who’s to say that more than a few people know anything about it? That is, who are all these people that have “info” to be “shaken out”?

  4. The far right spreads lies;the far left spreads lies.
    Pick your poison

    • point me to some “far left lies” (not to say that you can’t, but i assume the reference is to the progressive wing of the Democratic party, and if so, what lies are they spreading?)

  5. Harvey Cotton

    Fake news isn’t the problem. Stupidity is the problem.

    Religion is fake news {not your’s obviously – just the people who disagree with you ;-)}. Marketing is fake news. Pick-up culture is fake news. Social media are fake news. People lie to each other all of the time in order to get them to believe nonsense and sell product (including themselves.) The problem is that people are not taught how to discern facts from opinion, and because they cannot tell the difference, and because learning and contextualizing facts is hard, instead make everything opinion. Conspiracy theories are a way for people who do not have complete information to take shortcuts, and if they are entertaining and can be used to bash political opponents, ever the better.

    Expertise is diminished. Science, academia, the press, all are attacked. The reason is that as the library of information gains, and fields become ever more specialized, they become arcane to the masses. The cost of new information is becoming ever more expensive, and access to the tools to this information are held by gatekeepers that are viewed with popular suspicion. And as we approach the limits of human knowledge, and we find precise classical-era measurements give way to, ahem, “Uncertainty” and wave functions and mathematical chaos. Probabilities are then easily conflated with opinion.

    Our culture does not value skepticism or sourcing information. Americans are mostly not taught how to think, but how to pass tests with information that does not stick. The smart people are usually only smart in a few, narrow fields, and they and most of the rest struggle with the grind and vicissitudes of daily life. And because of this, the greatest invention and great repository of information in the history of mankind, the Internet, becomes a mirror reflecting our base, cruel, stupid natures.

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