29 05 18

Remember the Human

By Melissa Ryan

Donald Trump knows the power of a good conspiracy theory. Trump fueled his political ambitions with birtherism, and has continually pushes conspiracy theories as a candidate and as President, amplifying them and encouraging his base to believe them. President Trump’s favorite conspiracy theory revolves around a deep state, determined to take his administration down a fight that began supposedly during his campaign. This week he gave it a new name: Spygate.

Conspiracy theories are a staple tactic of the Frog Squad. In just a few years they’ve gone mainstream in a way most of us never could have imagined. Social media weaponization is mostly to blame but having a conspiracy theorist in the White House doesn’t help.

Conspiracy theories also dehumanize the people who become entangled in them. Real people’s biographies get rewritten online. In the blink of an eye the owner of a local pizza place is recast as the leader of a child sex trafficking ring, a teenage shooting survivor is a plant for the FBI, an activist murdered by neo nazis actually died of a heart attack. The creators of these theories, the amplifiers, the sharers, and the believers don’t care about the harm they’re causing. The people involved are no longer human to them, just characters in a story.

A couple of lawsuits filed this week are good reminders of the havoc hoaxes and conspiracy theories cause, and their power to destroy lives. Former Seth Rich family spokesman Brad Bauman has filed a lawsuit against “Matt Couch, a fringe internet activist; America First Media, Couch’s media company; Ed Butowsky, a wealthy Texas businessman; and Howard Gary Heavin, the co-founder of Curves International.” for defamation. Brad is asking for monetary compensation and for the defendants to remove “false and defamatory materials” from websites they control.

Full disclosure, Brad is a friend and I observed the campaign online against him in real time. It was both a fascinating and terrifying thing to witness because the character of Brad Bauman that Seth Rich truthers created online has no resemblance to the friend and colleague I know. Brad’s ordeal made me see how harmful these kinds of attacks and conspiracies are in a way that I wouldn’t have otherwise. And how easily the same could happen to anyone.

The families of eight Sandy Hook victims as well as an FBI agent who responded to the shooting are suing Alex Jones and Infowars. Jones has been slandering these grieving families for years, spreading conspiracy theories that the mass shooting was a hoax and that the families were paid crisis actors. Jones has done irreparable harm to grieving families in Sandy Hook and several other shootings

Veronique De La Rosa, who lost her son at Sandy Hook and is one of the plaintiffs brought home just how harmful these kinds of attacks can be in an interview with the New York Times: “When anybody’s behind a machine, whether it’s a gun or a computer or a car, a dehumanization takes place that makes it easier to commit an act of violence.”

Here’s some good(ish) news. As I wrote over at Media Matters early this week there are signs that the tech companies are finally starting to take their role in the spread of online hoaxes and conspiracy theories seriously. Successfully curbing how quickly this crap spreads online a lot of power away from weaponizers like Donald Trump and Alex Jones. I’m cautiously optimistic that some progress is finally being made.

If you’re interested in better understanding and combating all of this, Data & Society released a timely new report authored by Whitney Phillips this week: The Oxygen of Amplification. It offers “better practices for reporting on extremists, antagonists, and manipulators online.” The report is written with journalists in mind but there are good takeaways for activists as well.  


NYC and DC Readers Take Note

Save the Date: The first ever Ctrl Alt-Right Delete conference is coming up soon! June 28th in Washington DC. You can pre-register here!



Fake News Horror Show: I’m helping organize a cool event in NYC June 7-8, Fake News Horror Show, convening researchers, digital media experts, technologists and those concerned with the political and social implications of computational propaganda, to imagine the worst. Picture a science fair of terrifying propaganda tools – some real and some imagined, but all based on plausible technologies. I’m also speaking on a panel organized by Media Matters.

You can register for Fake News Horror Show here.


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