Fearing a Trump presidency gone rogue, some critics have narrowed their focus to a single obsession: the so-called Russia affair. It’s a story of intrigue and shifting allegiances, lofted by slippery facts from anonymous intelligence sources. And that’s sent some eager news consumers to less-than-reliable places as they try to piece together the plot.
Brooke speaks with Zack Beauchamp, senior reporter for Vox, who recently wrote about how Democrats are falling for fake news about Russia. They discuss the fake news "Russiasphere," why people are so quick to believe, and the dangers that this could present for the future of the Democratic party.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Craig said that there are more right-wing sites than left-wing ones, but they’re certainly out there. And for some liberals, fearing a Trump presidency gone completely rogue, the focus has narrowed to a single obsession, the Russia affair.
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It’s a story of intrigue and shifting alliances, lofted by slippery facts from anonymous intelligence sources. And that’s sent some eager news consumers to some less-than-reliable places as they try to piece together the plot.
KEITH OLBERMANN: Sources with links to the intelligence community say it is believed that Carter Page went to Moscow in early July carrying with him a prerecorded tape of Donald Trump offering to change American policy if he were to be elected, to make it more favorable to Putin.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s Keith Olbermann, quoting Louise Mensch, former conservative British parliamentarian, current anti-Trump, anti-Russia Twitter conspiracy theorist.
ANDREW NEIL/SUNDAY POLITICS, UK: You’ve also claimed that President Putin had Andrew Breitbart murdered to pave the way for Steve Bannon –
LOUISE MENSCH: No, first of all, I haven’t. And no matter how many times people say this, it’s not going to be true. I said on Twitter in a tweet, “I believe that to be the case’ about the murder of Andrew Breitbart.
ANDREW NEIL: But that’s what I just said.
LOUISE MENSCH: I believe it –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Charlatan, opportunist or true believer, we don’t know what’s driving Mensch to tell her tales, and she didn’t respond to our invitations to come onto the show. But it’s clear that here brand of journalism adds a new layer of unreality to an already confounding information landscape.
Zack Beauchamp is a senior reporter for Vox, who recently wrote about how Democrats are falling for fake news about Russia. Zach, welcome to On the Media.
ZACK BEAUCHAMP: Oh, I’m so happy to be on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, so a blog called patribotics.com reported that a sealed indictment had been granted against Donald Trump and that the indictment is intended by the FBI and Justice Department to form the basis of Mr. Trump’s impeachment. That’s an explosive scoop, if true.
ZACK BEAUCHAMP: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
ZACK BEAUCHAMP: Patribotics is the blog of a former British parliamentarian from the Conservative Party and also romance novelist, Louise Mensch. She was a right-wing commentator but since the Trump Russia scandal began, Mensch has refashioned herself into a sort of citizen journalist, telling the truth about Trump and Russia when the mainstream media won't. The problem is that it doesn’t seem like anything she’s saying is true.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But she did have one true story, and that could potentially lend legitimacy to many of her stories.
ZACK BEAUCHAMP: That’s right. She reported that the FBI had a warrant for communications between a Russian bank and the Trump organization. She was right that there was a warrant, which most people weren’t reporting. And she has made some allies in her sort of more conspiratorial quest. John Schindler, a former NSA agent and professor at the Naval War College who got caught up in a sex scandal when he was there and resigned. And you have Clause Taylor, who said he had some unspecified position in the Bill Clinton administration and now is a DC area photographer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, you’ve got the three of them, Louise Mensch, Claude Taylor, John Schindler. They’re the driving force behind what you call the “Russiasphere.”
ZACK BEAUCHAMP: That’s right, the Russiasphere, formed entirely on Twitter, these three people communicating with each other and hundreds and thousands of fans. Mensch has nearly 300,000 Twitter followers, Schindler not that many fewer and Taylor close to 170,000. And the three of them are constantly talking about these conspiracy theories, notions like Russia funded the protests in Ferguson or that Paul Ryan, Trump and Mike Pence are all going to go down and you’re going to get President Oren Hatch. Those are actual things I’ve seen people in this sphere say, things they couldn't possibly know and don't seem to be backed up by any real evidence.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you suggest that the Russiasphere doesn't have one unified worked-out theory; it seems to be more of a frame in which any number of things can fit?
ZACK BEAUCHAMP: Yeah, it's a way of approaching the world where you assume that whatever's going on is best explained by Russia manipulating it behind the scenes or whatever's happening with Trump, it’s because of his collusion with Russia or whatever's happening with the FBI investigation, it's always about to get more intense and more aggressive.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In your piece, you mention many stories that seem to fit into this Russia frame, even Anthony Weiner.
ZACK BEAUCHAMP: That's right. Weiner pled guilty to charges of sexting with a minor, so Mensch published a story saying there was no 15-year-old girl, that this was part of a hacking group called “Crackas with Attitude,” working with the Russians to ensnare Anthony Weiner so then the emails could be exposed, which would then embarrass Hillary and torpedo her campaign.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: While the three people you write about are all anti-Trumpers, they’re not all liberal. So is this based on ideology or is it based on hating Trump?
ZACK BEAUCHAMP: For Mensch, Schindler, Taylor, those people, there is sort of an ideology, right? They, they are unified in their sense that Russia is out to get the United States and that Trump is their pawn, if not their willing accomplice. But the people who like them don’t have these kinds of worked out ideological ideas. They just really hate Trump. And these ideas about Russia provide them with a sense of certainty about the president that they crave.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why do you think liberals are so receptive to this brand of fake news?
ZACK BEAUCHAMP: It’s really interesting. During the Obama years, you saw a lot of conspiracy theories on the right flourish, birtherism being the best known example but also conspiracies that Obama was rigging economic data, right? And you – and you saw the spread everywhere among conservatives. Now, part of that was that the conservative media was quite happy to amplify a lot of these ideas. You saw them on FOX News and on Breitbart, The Daily Caller, other things with low journalistic standards. But it was also because when people are out of power, they are inclined to blame problems in the world on the people in power. One expert I spoke to on political misinformation said that conspiracy theories were a weapon of the weak. They were a way to understand and make sense out of the world when it doesn't seem to make sense to you or seems hostile to you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You offered a fascinating study by a researcher at Yale named Dan Kahan, about a math problem. Would you describe that?
ZACK BEAUCHAMP: So they gave him a kind of tricky math problem. It was a word problem. And some people got questions phrased in terms of the success of a skincare product at actually clearing up your skin. Other people got the question phrased in terms of the success of gun control legislation, whether or not it actually reduced crime and violence. For the people who got the skincare question, Democrats and Republicans were equally likely to get it right and wrong. But when you gave it in terms of a politically-loaded issue like gun control, people were much more likely to get the answer that their partisan interest told him they should get. So even though Democrats and Republicans seem to have the same math abilities –
- their partisanship overrode their ability to do basic mathematical reasoning.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s just remarkable. You referenced the one bright spot in your analysis. You note that the absence of a Breitbart of the left has made it harder for these theories to gain traction. They can't keep it in front of people, at least on cable news, but do they even really need cable news?
ZACK BEAUCHAMP: I think they do if they want to get bigger. Twitter is an inherently limited platform because following it and making sense of it requires a lot of attention. So they try these blogs, which actually do quite well. One Mensch story was shared 50,000 times on Facebook. But even that is only going to get you access to a limited audience, without the full weight of a large organization behind you. And they don’t have that right now.
Instead, they need mainstream media validators or other validators who are in good standing with a liberal audience. So that could be cable news, it could be newspapers, it could be websites that liberals like to read, it could be celebrities, even, that are well regarded in the liberal community.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They’ve gotten some notable people to back them up.
ZACK BEAUCHAMP: That’s right. The New York Times reached out to Mensch for an op-ed and then former DNC Chairwoman Donna Brazile tweeted out the story and then thanked Mensch for good journalism. There’s another current DNC official that retweeted one of her tweets as if it was a legitimate scoop, but they're relatively isolated incidents. It's more right now that it is accidentally seeping into the mainstream. This stuff though, you need to inoculate against it to prevent it from becoming part of an established media culture.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, so how do you do that? What is the role that the media can play in reining in this misinformation?
ZACK BEAUCHAMP: The Democrats as an institution can do a lot by denouncing these people or just ignoring them. The media should cast light on these people. They should say they don’t appear to have any evidence validating their beliefs. Especially media that's trusted by liberal audiences, they kind of have an obligaion to take a look at the more unsavory parts of the liberal mediasphere that are starting to grow up in the Trump era.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote that all this could discredit the real Russian investigation, which I can totally see. You also wrote that it risks polluting and degrading the Democratic Party. And you said that’s what happened to the Republicans which resulted in the election of Trump. Explain though, how it pollutes the party?
ZACK BEAUCHAMP: One of the professors I spoke to for this piece said one of the greatest failures of the Republican Party was not pushing back more against the conspiracy theories like birtherism that eventually took over the party. When lots of voters start to believe this stuff, elected officials can campaign on it and you get people like Michele Bachmann, like Louie Gohmert and Rep. Steve King, all Republicans who expound beliefs that you see first in the fever swamps of the Republican mediasphere, Ideas that are utterly unfounded and dangerous, if they were acted on, end up becoming actual political priorities for the party because elected officials either believe them or have to answer to people who do.
If the Russiasphere ideas become mainstream, you would have a Democratic Party where people went after the president on flimsy pretext that embraced ideas that had no founding and empirical reality and could have unknown consequences, if implemented. And the legitimate aspirations of the Democratic Party, the things that it wants to actually do, would fall by the wayside. The degradation of the Republican Party shows that this really can affect the way that a party operates.
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Now, Democrats don't have this problem right now, but it could happen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Zack, thank you very much.
ZACK BEAUCHAMP: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Zack Beauchamp is a senior reporter for Vox.
ETTA JAMES SINGING THE LOVE YOU SAVE (MAY BE YOUR OWN):
People, I've been misled
And I've been afraid
I've been hit in the head
And left for dead
I've been abused…
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BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week’s show. On the Media is produced by Meara Sharma, Alana Casanova-Burgess, Jesse Brenneman, Micah Loewinger and Leah Feder. We had more help from Jane Vaughan. And our show was edited - by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Terence Bernardo.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.
ETTA JAMES SINGING:
I want you to stop
Find out what's wrong
Get it right…