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Network PropagandaManipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics$

Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780190923624

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2018

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190923624.001.0001

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Immigration and Islamophobia: Breitbart and the Trump Party

Immigration and Islamophobia: Breitbart and the Trump Party

Chapter:
(p.105) 4 Immigration and Islamophobia: Breitbart and the Trump Party
Source:
Network Propaganda
Author(s):

Yochai Benkler

Robert Faris

Hal Roberts

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/oso/9780190923624.003.0004

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines how Breitbart, interacting with Donald Trump the candidate, made immigration the Republican Party’s main election agenda, despite the desire of party leadership to stay away from that issue. It shows that Breitbart did so by keeping up a steady flow of misleading stories that associated immigration wigth terrorism, the spread of incurable disease, criminality, and abuse of the welfare system. It also considers how Islamophobia allowed Breitbart to serve as a link between the frank racism and anti-semitism of the white nationalists and the more muted racial anxiety of the more mainstream white- and Christian-identity pillars of the Republican coalition. Finally, it discusses the ways in which the network of right-wing sites interacted during the month before the 2016 presidential election to weave together the Islamophobia frame and the Clinton corruption frame to make for a coherent narrative designed to convince wavering Republicans to vote for Trump.

Keywords:   immigration, Breitbart, Donald Trump, Republican Party, terrorism, criminality, Islamophobia, racism, anti-semitism, presidential election

ON JUNE 17, 2015, Donald Trump launched his campaign with this now-famous statement:

The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems. [Applause] Thank you. It’s true, and these are the best and the finest. When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.1

Immigration was to become the topic most associated with Donald Trump’s candidacy, as we saw in Figure 1.1. It became his primary agenda item, and his supporters were primed throughout this period to judge him by how he implemented his core agenda. In terms of framing, as we will see in this chapter, despite Trump’s initial emphasis on Mexico, and even though as a matter of practical policy, immigration in the United States involves Latino immigrants much more than immigrants from Muslim countries, over the course of the campaign immigration came to be framed primarily in anti-Muslim terms.

The centrality of immigration as an agenda item and its framing as centrally concerned with Muslims, and in particular with “radical Islamic terrorism,”2 explain why within a week of coming to office President Trump signed the first version of his “Muslim ban.” This executive order sought to stop all (p.106) immigration from several Muslim-majority countries, purportedly to prevent the entry of terrorists. The order was poorly conceived as a matter of policy and constitutionality, and had to be revised several times before it could pass judicial scrutiny. But it was first and foremost a symbol of faith—Donald Trump keeping faith with the central claim of his run—that America was deeply threatened by Muslim immigrants and that immigration was a leading vector for physical threats to Americans—Islamist terrorists, crime, and disease. Because immigration, particularly with this anti-Muslim inflection, plays a central role in the rise of far-right parties in Europe, understanding the media dynamics around the emergence of immigration as the core agenda shaping feature of the Trump candidacy and its framing in Islamophobic terms offers a clear bridge between the American-centered analysis we offer here and the dynamics that are putting stress on Europe’s pluralistic, democratic institutions as well.

Agenda Setting: This Election Is About Immigration

In 1980 Ronald Reagan concluded his nomination acceptance speech with an embrace of immigration from all over the world:

Can we doubt that only a Divine Providence placed this land, this island of freedom, here as a refuge for all those people in the world who yearn to breathe freely: Jews and Christians enduring persecution behind the Iron Curtain, the boat people of Southeast Asia, of Cuba and Haiti, the victims of drought and famine in Africa, the freedom fighters of Afghanistan and our own countrymen held in savage captivity.

He then called the assembled to pray. This view of immigration was not meaningfully contested in the Republican Party at the time. During the primaries, Reagan and George H.W. Bush were asked in one of their debates whether “the children of illegal aliens should be allowed to access Texas public schools free,” or should they be required to pay a fee. Bush emphasized the immigrants’ humanity and their hard-working families, and insisted that their children should be given everything that society gives to their neighbors, and that 6- and 8-year-olds should not be kept uneducated or “made to feel they are living outside the law.” Reagan responded with a greater focus on national security, emphasizing that high unemployment in Mexico could lead to a revolution and create hostile relations. On this basis he emphasized the need for free flow of labor across the border, rather than building a fence, as the only safety valve against that threat.3 (p.107) Unsurprisingly in that political environment, Reagan signed an immigration reform bill in 1986 that strengthened border security while granting amnesty to all immigrants who had entered illegally before 1982.

It was in 1992 that Pat Buchanan first ran in the Republican presidential primary with a campaign that called for a fence on the southern border and touted an anti-immigrant, anti-trade, “America First” message. Buchanan, who had worked for the Nixon administration, was primarily known as the conservative firebrand on CNN’s “Crossfire” and the nationally syndicated television show, “The McLaughlin Group.” He repeated the run in 1996. In neither case was he successful. Throughout the 1990s and up until 2006, attitudes toward immigrants in general and on the question of whether they were a benefit or a burden to the country, were largely similar among Republican and lean-Republican voters and Democratic and lean-Democratic voters.4 Following the collapse of a series of bipartisan efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2005, 2006, and 2007, led by both Republican Party and Democratic Party leadership and supported by President George W. Bush, partisan views on immigration began to diverge sharply. Part of this may be due to Latino voters, who, disappointed with the Republican Party’s opposition to comprehensive immigration reform, shifted from a near even split of Republicans and Democrats toward a more consistently Democratic vote. While George W. Bush had won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote, Mitt Romney won only 27 percent of that vote.5 Part of the effect was likely accounted for by the broader political polarization dynamics we discuss in Chapters 10 and 11. Be that as it may, the Republican National Committee’s postmortem of the 2012 election, written by a taskforce formed by then-RNC Chair Reince Priebus, who later became Donald Trump’s first White House chief of staff, explicitly emphasized the long-term threat of losing Hispanic voters as a block and insisted that Republicans had to find a way to appeal to Latino voters and that “among the steps Republicans take in the Hispanic community and beyond we must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only. We also believe that comprehensive immigration reform is consistent with Republican economic policies that promote job growth and opportunity for all.”6 Going into the 2016 election, at a bare minimum the Republican establishment wanted to emphasize growth, tax cuts, and deregulation, not immigration, and it certainly did not want Republicans to run on an agenda hostile to immigrants. Throughout the primaries, Fox News largely downplayed immigration, except in response to comments such as Trump’s announcement of his candidacy. But candidate (p.108) Trump, in a mutually reinforcing dynamic with Breitbart and the ecosystem of sites around it, would not follow the GOP playbook.

Immigration was Breitbart’s issue long before Trump gave it the perfect candidate. Figure 4.1 tracks the number of sentences per day that mentioned variations of the term “immigration” between the re-election of Barack Obama in November 2012 and the end of Trump’s first year in office across four of the top right-wing sites—Fox News, the New York Post, Breitbart, and the Daily Caller—as well as the Wall Street Journal to represent business-conservative opinion, and CNN, as a baseline for mainstream media.

Immigration and Islamophobia: Breitbart and the Trump Party

Figure 4.1 Sentences mentioning immigration across six top media outlets, November 2012–February 2018.

Figure 4.1 makes clear that Breitbart consistently produced substantially more stories that mention immigration than any of these other leading sites both during the 2014 fights over President Obama’s efforts to revive comprehensive immigration reform and during the primary. Breitbart’s rise within the right wing accelerated after it expanded its staff and opened offices in Texas and London in February of 2014,7 likely funded by a $10 million investment from Robert Mercer.8 Its prominence was revived in response to the Trump announcement of his campaign and his placing immigration at the center of his candidacy. Beginning in July 2015 and continuing through Election Day in 2016, Breitbart carried between two and five times as much coverage that mentioned immigration as any of the other sites, including the major right-wing sites. Overall, as Figure 4.2 describes, nearly 1 out of every 25 sentences in Breitbart’s election-related corpus over the course of the election period mentioned immigration, between two and three times as many as other major publications across the partisan spectrum. Nonetheless, analyzing the peaks (p.109) and troughs of coverage during the 2016 election, all but one of the peaks are responses to statements that Trump made on the campaign trail. Recognizing this allows us to put things in perspective. While as we document in a good bit of detail here, Breitbart was the lead singer in the anti-immigrant right-wing choir, Trump was very much chorus master.

Immigration and Islamophobia: Breitbart and the Trump Party

Figure 4.2 Proportion of sentences in each media outlet that mention immigration.

Breitbart played a large role by not only producing its own immigration stories but also acting as a source of stories and authority for other sites on the right and as the center of attention among social media users who shared content from right-wing sites on Twitter or Facebook. As a source of authority, Breitbart and the anti-immigration think tank, Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), were the only right-partisan sites in the 10 most linked-to sites discussing immigration. Table 4.1 lists the top 20 sites by number of inlinks from a topic analysis of all stories during the election period that covered “immigration.” (p.110) (p.111)

Table 4.1 Most linked-to sites discussing immigration during the election.

Media Source

Media Inlinks

Stories

Washington Post

723

2572

New York Times

719

2135

Pew Research Center

708

309

Breitbart

497

2300

Guardian

462

2795

Migration Policy Institute

412

357

Reuters

404

1169

Center for Immigration Studies

365

500

Politico

361

749

Wikipedia

346

776

CNN

338

1016

Huffington Post

328

1905

DonaldJTrump.com

327

9

US Citizenship and Immigration Services

304

128

Fox News

297

1128

Vox

253

1027

USA Today

250

761

The Hill

242

509

Real Clear Politics

238

484

Washington Examiner

221

366

Figure 4.3 shows a network map of the linking patterns among immigration-related stories and sites. This map shows that Breitbart, CIS, and Fox News were the major sources of authority on the right and were insulated from the rest of the media ecosystem, which was anchored around the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Pew Research Center.

Immigration and Islamophobia: Breitbart and the Trump Party

Figure 4.3 Map of sites discussing immigration during the election period. Architecture and node sizing by media inlinks.

One way of assessing the distinct nature of the right wing from the rest of the map is to run a community-detection algorithm on the map. These algorithms are designed to analyze the network and identify sets of sites that are sufficiently interconnected to each other to form a distinct subnetwork, or community, within the whole. We ran the commonly used Louvain community detection algorithm several times, tuning it to produce more or fewer communities. Figures 4.4 and 4.5 show that the subnetwork (p.112) anchored around Breitbart, Fox, and CIS is more homogenous and retains its coherence as a community even as distinctions begin to emerge in other parts of the network.

Immigration and Islamophobia: Breitbart and the Trump Party

Figure 4.4 Link-based map of immigration stories during the election. Node colors reflect modularity class, Louvain community detection, resolution 1.0.

Immigration and Islamophobia: Breitbart and the Trump Party

Figure 4.5 Link-based map of immigration stories during the election. Node colors reflect modularity class, Louvain community detection, resolution 2.0.

When measured by social media sharing, Breitbart again dominates the network, and the right is even more clearly separated from the rest of the network. Figure 4.6 shows the network with nodes sized by Facebook shares. The Wall Street Journal appears far from the right-wing ecosystem on the issue of immigration, reflecting the fact that its immigration coverage maintained its business-friendly free trade stance even as most other right-wing media had reoriented their immigration coverage into the Breitbart orbit.

Immigration and Islamophobia: Breitbart and the Trump Party

Figure 4.6 Map of sites discussing immigration during the election period. Architecture by co-tweets. Nodes sized by number of Facebook shares.

In general, the list of top sites by Twitter sharing includes more of the right-wing sites than was true of the list of top sites by links from other top sites (Table 4.2). (p.113) (p.114)

Table 4.2 Most tweeted sites discussing immigration during the election.

Media Source

Twitter Shares

Stories

Facebook Shares (thousands)

Breitbart

50913

1767

15037

Guardian

22718

1222

7732

New York Times

21668

1484

19122

Reuters

19585

928

1058

Fox News

19267

1154

2436

Wall Street Journal

16744

595

1167

Pew

13397

172

274

Huffington Post

13243

793

4814

Washington Post

12574

904

7477

Yahoo! News

11793

1044

2906

BBC

10628

1155

5582

Los Angeles Times

10439

484

1157

Washington Examiner

10393

1836

1581

Business Insider

8442

263

918

Judicial Watch

7283

74

2495

Infowars

6556

207

1996

Daily Mail

6445

959

5636

NPR

5993

338

2007

The Hill

5828

368

1911

Washington Times

5810

508

875

Daily Caller

5349

263

923

Think Progress

5151

202

97

Free Beacon

4945

73

472

Vice

4784

225

602

Forbes

4701

258

538

Framing: Immigration Is About Personal Security, Particularly Fear of Muslims and Islamic Terrorism

While for most of the American media ecosystem immigration in America was primarily focused on undocumented immigrants who were already in the United States, or on the southern border and immigration from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, the Breitbart-centered right-wing media ecosystem framed immigration primarily in terms of fear of Muslims, Islam, and Islamic terrorism. We can get an initial feel for what this frame looks like by reading the headlines of the 20 immigration-related stories published on Breitbart and most widely shared on Facebook (Table 4.3). Sixteen of these 20 stories were framed in terms of a Muslim threat, three of these combined fear of Muslims with other themes. Not a single story of these top 20 was focused purely on immigration from Latin America, and only two included that concern alongside fear of Muslims. (p.115) (p.116) (p.117)

Table 4.3 Most Facebook-shared immigration stories on Breitbart, election period; by frame.

Title

Jobs

Political power

Burden on the state

Disease

Crime

Mexico, Latinos, the Wall

Muslims & Islamic terrorism

WATCH: The Anti-Migrant Video Going Viral Across Europe

Jerry Brown Signs Bill Allowing Illegal Immigrants to Vote

WATCH: Migrants Dislike Food, Demand TVs, Threaten to Go Back to Syria

Social Security Administration Confirms: Illegal Aliens to Begin Collecting Benefits in 2017

EXCLUSIVE REPORT: 8 Syrians Caught at Texas Border in Laredo

Clinton Cash: Khizr Khan’s Deep Legal, Financial Connections to Saudi Arabia, Hillary’s Clinton Foundation Tie Terror, Immigration, Email

Paul Ryan Tells Sean Hannity He Will Not Support Any Cuts to Muslim Immigration: Not Who We Are

Paris Terrorist Was Migrant Who Registered as a Refugee in Greece

Donald Trump Calls for Complete Shutdown of Muslims Entering the United States

After Paul Ryan Funds Visas for 300,000 Muslim Migrants, House Republicans Give Him Standing Ovation

Hillary Clinton: We Cannot End Terrorism Without Gun Control

Paul Ryan Betrays America: $1.1 Trillion, 2,000-Plus Page Omnibus Bill Funds

Panic Mode: Khizr Khan Deletes Law Firm Website that Specialized in Muslim Immigration

Exclusive: Phyllis Schlafly Makes the Case for President Trump: “Only Hope to Defeat the Kingmakers”

Shock Poll: 51% of U.S. Muslims Want Sharia; 25% Okay with Violence Against Americans

Clinton to Resettle One Million Muslim Migrants During First Term Alone

South Carolina House Passes Bill Excluding Sharia Law from State Courts

Report: Every Deported Illegal Household Saves Taxpayers More than $700,000

White House Celebrates Muslim Holiday on Day Muhammad Murders Four Marines

Rand Paul: Restrict Immigration from Muslim Nations

Things look more or less the same when looking at the top most tweeted stories (Table 4.4). Here, 14 of the 20 stories are framed in terms of fear of Muslims, three in terms of Latin American immigration, either alone or in combination with Muslim immigration.

Table 4.4 Most tweeted immigration stories on Breitbart, election period, by frame.

Title

Jobs

Burden on the state

Disease

Crime

Mexico, the Wall

Muslims & Islamic terrorism

More Than 347,000 Convicted Criminal Immigrants at Large in U.S.

London’s Islamist-Linked Mayor Tells U.S. Audience: “Immigrants Shouldn’t Assimilate”

Mexico Helping Unvetted African Migrants to U.S. Border, Many From Al-Shabaab Terror Hotbed

Six Diseases Return to US as Migration Advocates Celebrate “World Refugee Day”

Paul Ryan Says U.S. Must Admit Muslim Migrants, Sends Kids to Private School that Screens Them Out

Immigration to Swell U.S. Muslim Population to 6.2 Million

Under Secretary Clinton, U.S. Permanently Resettled 31,000 Somali Migrants

Killer Illegal Immigrant Entered U.S. as “Unaccompanied Child”

Federal Data: U.S. Annually Admits Quarter of a Million Muslim Migrants

No Assimilation Needed in U.S., Obama Tells Millions of Migrants

More than 30 Immigrants Admitted to the U.S. Recently Implicated in Terrorism

Jeff Sessions Pushes Back Against Hillary Clinton’s “Radical” Suggestion of a Global Right to Immigrate

EXCLUSIVE: Illegal Immigrant with Drug-Resistant TB to Be Released into US, say Arizona Reps

Ten Times in Past Two Years Terrorists Slipped Through Immigration Process into U.S.

In Wake of Orlando Shooting, Paul Ryan Pushes Business Deregulation; Says U.S. Can’t Pause Muslim Migration

Only Ten Percent of Migrant Influx Has Reached Us So Far, Says German Minister

U.S. Resettled Nearly Three Quarters of a Million Migrants from Countries that Execute Gays

30 Million Illegal Immigrants in US, Says Mexico’s Former Ambassador

Since 9/11 U.S. Has Accepted over 2 Million Migrants from Majority Muslim Nations

Ryan’s Strategy to “Keep the American People Safe” Fails: U.S. to Issue Visas to 300,000 Muslim Migrants

Table 4.5 Most linked-to immigration stories on Breitbart on the open web, election period, by frame.

Title

Jobs

Burden on the state

Political power

Disease

Crime

Mexico, Latinos, the Wall

Muslims & Islamic terrorism

Federal Data: U.S. Annually Admits Quarter of a Million Muslim Migrants

Immigration to Swell U.S. Muslim Population to 6.2 Million

Congress Votes to Fund Nearly 300,000 Visas For Muslim Migrants in One Year

Six Diseases Return To US as Migration Advocates Celebrate “World Refugee Day”

Report: Nearly 2.5 Million Immigrants from “Predominantly Muslim Countries” Reside Inside U.S. Right Now

London’s Islamist-Linked Mayor Tells U.S. Audience: “Immigrants Shouldn’t Assimilate”

Scott Walker Stands for American Workers on Immigration

Hatch, Rubio, Flake Co-Sponsor Bill to Increase H-1B Guest-Worker Visas

More than 90 Percent of Middle Eastern Refugees on Food Stamps

Immigration Agents: ISIS May Exploit America's Weakened Immigration System to Attack U.S.

Muslim Immigration Puts Half a Million U.S. Girls at Risk of Genital Mutilation

Unholy Alliance: Christian Charities Profit from $1 Billion Fed Program to Resettle Refugees, 40 Percent Muslim

Obama Invites 18.7 Million Immigrants to Avoid Oath of Allegiance, Pledge to Defend America

Immigration Expert: U.S. to Resettle Nearly One Million Muslim Migrants Under One Term of Clinton Presidency

30 Million Illegal Immigrants in US, Says Mexico’s Former Ambassador

U.S. Tuberculosis Cases Rise as Foreign-Born Patients Triple 1986 Caseload Percentage

Illegal Immigrants Accounted for Nearly 37 Percent of Federal Sentences in FY 2014

Paul Ryan Tells Sean Hannity He Will Not Support Any Cuts to Muslim Immigration: “That’s Not Who We Are”

Measles Outbreak in Memphis Began at Mosque

New California: Mass Immigration Turning Virginia Blue

And again, looking at the stories with the highest number of links on the web, we see only a slight shift toward other topics, but still 60 percent of the coverage focused on fear of Muslims (Table 4.5). (p.118) (p.119) (p.120) (p.121) (p.122)

(p.123) By diverse measures of “top,” these lists of top immigration stories from Breitbart offer an immediate sense of the more quantitative text analysis to which we now turn to understand how the right differed from the rest of the media ecosystem. They emphasize Muslim immigrants and a fear of Islamist terrorism more than they focus on Hispanic or Latin American immigration, and they work to evoke fear and disgust through claims that immigrants are disease carriers and criminals. The appeal to visceral feelings becomes clearer yet when looking at the top immigration headlines of the Gateway Pundit, the fifth-most tweeted and third-most Facebook-shared site on the right (p.124) across the entire election coverage, which made sure no one would miss the message. Its most shared stories included titles like:

Droves of African Migrants Amass at Mexican Border Waiting U.S. Asylum Under Secret Obama Pact

Obama Changes Law: Allows Immigrants with Blistering STDs and Leprosy into U.S.

Muslim Immigrant Arrested After Purchasing Firearm for ISIS Attack on U.S. Soil

Trump Was Right => At Least Nine American Members of ISIS Were Immigrants to U.S.

To expand our view from this top-level analysis, we look at many thousands of sources, of which about 4,000 sources published more than three immigration-related stories over the entire election period. This broad lens allows us not only to understand the frame produced by Breitbart but also to examine the influence of explicitly white-nationalist publications on the debate and begin to consider to what extent these sites influenced the 2016 election, in particular through framing and pushing the immigration debate. Our analysis suggests that white nationalists actually played a peripheral role. To the extent they had an influence it was only through the bridging function that Breitbart played—cleansing their rhetoric from its most explicitly anti-semitic and racist rhetoric, and turning it into the Islamophobic language that the lists above illustrate. VDARE, the most widely linked and influential of the white-nationalist sites, was the only white-nationalist site that reached the top 100 most linked sites in the immigration set. When measured by tweets or Facebook shares, it did not break the top 1,000 sites. The Daily Stormer, one of the more notorious neo-Nazi sites, did not break the top 1,000 sites by linking, or the top 3,000 by Facebook sharing.

Working in collaboration with our colleague Bruce Etling, we analyzed over 180,000 immigration-related stories, training eight different machine learning algorithms to identify stories as “white nationalists,” right, center-right, center, center-left, and left. We deviate in this from our standard partisanship metric in order to get purchase on the influence of the white nationalists. Out of the “right” set we drew 36 sites that were categorized as “white nationalist” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Wikipedia, and an analysis of election-related Twitter clusters by an analytics firm with which we have often collaborated, Graphika.9 We then created sets of sites that our (p.125) retweet-partisanship scores identified as we described in Chapter 2, except that we excluded from that set any sites that we already identified as white nationalists. We trained eight algorithms on 3,000 stories from these five quintiles plus the nationalists to recognize whether a given story falls into one or another of the categories. We analyzed the remainder of the 180,000 stories using these algorithms and treated a story as within a given category when at least six of the eight algorithms agreed on which category the story fit in. The algorithms had the hardest time distinguishing between center, center-left, and left stories, and had the highest accuracy in identifying white-nationalist stories. Figure 4.7 portrays six word clouds that present the top 100 words among all the stories that our classifier labeled as white nationalist and each of the five usual quintiles. We use a standard TF-IDF scheme, which looks for which words that appear most frequently in a document such as this (say, a story categorized as “white nationalist” or “left”) relative to how often it appears in the overall set of documents. The terms in green in the center are the most typical of stories in that quintile or set.

Immigration and Islamophobia: Breitbart and the Trump Party

Figure 4.7 Words most representative of immigration in stories classified by our algorithms as white nationalist (top left), right (top right), center-right (mid-left), center (mid-right), center-left (bottom left), and left (bottom right).

What becomes eminently clear in looking at these word clouds is that white nationalists are distinctly characterized by their unabashed anti-semitism and blatant racism, whereas what characterizes the right quintile without the white nationalists, consistent with what the lists of most shared stories from Breitbart showed, is an emphasis on Muslims, Islam, and terrorism. The center focuses mainly on Mexico, with some attention to Muslims, the center-left combines a focus on Mexican and other Latin American immigration with a clear emphasis on the Syrian refugee crisis and asylum seekers, and the left focuses on deportation, families, and the undocumented as well as Muslim immigration and the war in Syria. To some extent what is surprising is the fact that the center-right publications seem to have been drawn into emphasizing Muslims and Islam more than any term denoting a focus on Latin American immigration.

Immigration and Islamophobia: Breitbart and the Trump Party

Figure 4.8 Multidimensional scaling plot of top sites, Fox subsets, VDARE, and Daily Stormer.

Figure 4.8 uses this data to plot typical sites among the six categories on a multidimensional scaling plot. In this plot, each site is plotted between the various segments based on the proportion of stories on that site that at least six of our algorithms agreed were typical of one or another of the quintiles or segments. Several things emerge from this plot. First, media sources across the center-through-left spectrum make up a single cluster, with minor differences separating them. Just as we saw when mapping based on links, tweets, and Facebook shares, here too the center, center-left, and left formed a single media ecosystem that discussed similar items in similar language. Second, the language that white nationalists use puts them on an entirely different (p.126) (p.127) plane from everyone else. No site that was not on our original list of white-nationalist sites had more than 2 percent of its stories categorized by our algorithms as “white nationalist” by its language. Third, Fox News pursues a mixed strategy online. We divided the Fox oeuvre into four buckets. We separated Fox stories from before May 2016 (fox_primary) from Fox stories from May to November (fox_general) to see whether Fox significantly changed its coverage of immigration after Donald Trump won the election. We also analyzed Fox stories from two distinct brands: Fox News Insider and Fox Nation. The text analysis shows that Fox moved only slightly from the center to the right in the transition from the primaries to the general election. Instead, it served its audience right-wing immigration fare through its Fox News Insider and Fox Nation properties, both of which clustered tightly with Breitbart, the Daily Caller, and the Gateway Pundit. Fourth, and finally, the center-right, although its influence was small in the overall election, did in fact have a focus and a way of talking about immigration that was highly distinctive and different from either the right or the larger cluster made of center-through-left outlets.

The major Fox News site’s position close to the center is easy to understand when looking at its most widely tweeted stories about immigration, which, like the center, emphasize Mexican immigration over Muslim immigration, along with a focus on waste of public money and arguments that emphasized (p.128) crime and personal insecurity. Nonetheless, these have a somewhat different tone to the headlines we saw from Breitbart or the Gateway Pundit.

ICE spends millions flying illegal immigrant children across U.S.

Con game? Immigrants lying about abuse to stay in the U.S.

Mexico warns Texas not to refuse its immigrants’ babies U.S. birth certificates

US, Mexican governments helping Haitian migrants enter country, lawmaker says

US immigration policies allow gangs to thrive in violence-plagued NY community, say critics

Mexico issuing transit visas to African migrants flocking to U.S.-Mexico border

Although Breitbart assiduously avoided the frankly anti-semitic language that so clearly marked the white nationalists, journalistic reporting has certainly identified it as a bridge between the white nationalists and the rest of the media ecosystem.10 In our own data, this can be seen most clearly by following the trajectory of the term “globalist” and how it came to be used by Breitbart to denote opponents who historically would have been referred to as “neoliberals” or “neoconservatives,” or as “free-traders” or “internationalists.”

Figure 4.9 is a histogram of the average number of sentences per day that use the term “globalist” across VDARE, as a marker for the white nationalists; Alex Jones, who used the term early in his conspiracy theories; and Breitbart from April 2015, when the presidential campaign began, to March of 2018. The histogram makes very clear that the term “globalist” was primarily a VDARE construct in 2015, although Breitbart used it occasionally late in that year, and that Breitbart picked up the term at the height of the primary season and then really leaned into it around the party conventions, through the fall of the election, and since.

Immigration and Islamophobia: Breitbart and the Trump Party

Figure 4.9 Sentences per day mentioning “globalist” in open web media, April 2015–April 2018.

It is also clear that coverage outside the right-wing media ecosystem clearly understood that “globalist” was a dog-whistle reference to the cabal of Jewish bankers who have filled the imagination of anti-semites at least since the Rothschilds replaced the Jewish moneylender in the Christian pantheon of villains. Looking at coverage of that term by all the media we code as center-right, center, center-left, and left from April 2015 to December of 2015, just before it was embraced by Breitbart, there was no ambiguity by anyone reporting on usage of the term that that is exactly what it is meant to evoke (Figure 4.10). The term “globalist” is surrounded by “cabal,” “banksters,” (p.129) “neocons,” and the acronym “NWO” (for the “New World Order” conspiracy theory that the globalists are seeking to impose is at the center), and “Hillary” is accompanied by “jewish.”

Immigration and Islamophobia: Breitbart and the Trump Party

Figure 4.10 Coverage of the use of the term “globalist” in media from the center-right to the left, April–December 2015.

That recognition does not disappear as Breitbart begins to adopt the term, even though the site otherwise explicitly and vocally supports the right wing (p.130) of Israeli politics, which is to say its governing coalition. Figure 4.11 shows that coverage from the center-right through the left still sees the anti-semitic overtones of the term, as “Hillary” continues to be associated with “jewish,” but the emphasis has shifted to using the term against other opponents, particularly in reporting on how Fox Business host and longtime anti-immigration voice Lou Dobbs applied the term in a new context—to Evan McMullin’s challenge to Trump in Utah, deriding McMullin as “nothing but a Globalist, Romney and Mormon Mafia Tool.” (Figure 4.12) (p.131) .

Immigration and Islamophobia: Breitbart and the Trump Party

Figure 4.11 Coverage of the use of the term “globalist” in media from the center-right to the left, January–November 2016.

Immigration and Islamophobia: Breitbart and the Trump Party

Figure 4.12 Lou Dobbs tweet deriding Evan McMullin as a “Globalist, Romney and Mormon Mafia Tool.”

Source: https://twitter.com/LouDobbs/status/790024160160411648.

After President Trump took office, as his lead adviser Steve Bannon continued to use “globalist” to describe allegedly coherent competing ideologies, the recognition was lost that “globalist” is not a description of actual positions anyone takes, but a veiled reference to a global conspiracy of Jewish bankers. As Figure 4.13 shows, coverage of the term from the center-right to the left no longer notes its particular anti-semitic frame.

Immigration and Islamophobia: Breitbart and the Trump Party

Figure 4.13 Coverage of the use of the term “globalist” in media from the center-right to the left, November 2016–April 2018.

Few examples capture the transition more clearly than an April 20, 2017, story from the New York Times, where the Times reports on yet another twist in the Trump administration trade policy. After describing a set of pro-trade moves, the Times, apparently oblivious to the origins of the term, cheerfully lists the Jews and Jewish bankers in Trump’s orbit as it explained:

The flurry of activity amounts to a comeback by nationalists like Mr. Bannon, who views trade as crucial to Mr. Trump’s populist appeal but whose star has dimmed after clashes with globalist-minded aides like Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, and Gary D. Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs banker and lifelong Democrat who is head of the National Economic Council.

The outcome of the debate between nationalists and globalists remains far from settled.

(p.132) And there you have it. From VDARE conspiracy theory to New York Times matter-of-fact reporting in less than 18 months, all through the good graces of Breitbart and Bannon.

The fear and loathing of immigrants, so frequently associated with white-identity movements in the United States and so visible in right-wing media immigration coverage during the election, led many to argue that the white nationalists were a major player during the 2016 campaign. Our data suggest that, if they did have a major influence, it was only through Breitbart and the bridging function that it played in transposing the basic frames of the white supremacists to the rest of the right-wing media ecosystem. But whether or not we focus on that bridging function, there is no question that the interaction between Trump the candidate and Breitbart the media outlet set the message that was at the heart of the campaign. That message set the agenda, declaring that immigration was the most important issue. That message framed immigration as primarily about fear of Muslims, and to some extent Africans and Mexicans, who would bring crime, disease, and terrorism. And it was a message that needed little help from the fringe. It was central to Donald Trump’s campaign itself, and central to the way that the most influential media outlets in the right-wing media ecosystem framed the immigration debate.

Mobilizing Fear and Loathing: The Clinton Foundation and Islamophobia

As we will see in Chapter 6, defining Hillary Clinton in terms of corruption was the central success of the Trump campaign and the right-wing media ecosystem during the 2016 election. Coverage of the Clinton Foundation in particular played a substantial role in a successful campaign, long engineered by Bannon and Breitbart, to shape the post-convention debate over the course of the month of August 2016, and to orient the debate around allegations of corruption surrounding the foundation. But for purposes of this chapter, with its focus on the interaction between the candidate and political elites and the core of the right-wing media ecosystem to frame the election around Islamophobia, we focus instead on how the Clinton Foundation was made to do double duty—in the mainstream, discussed primarily in August 2016, it was about potential conflicts of interest. But in September and October, as mainstream media moved their attention to the presidential debates and the Hollywood Access video that captured Donald Trump making lewd (p.133) comments about women, coverage of the Clinton Foundation became a vehicle for reinforcing the core Islamophobic frame that was at the heart of the immigration agenda. In the telling of the right-wing media ecosystem, Clinton was a traitor who collaborated with the enemy. And the enemy was Muslim, and mostly Arab.

Figure 4.14 shows monthly network maps from July to October 2016 of stories related to the Clinton Foundation on right-wing sites. These maps show that, in August, when mainstream media were focused on the Clinton Foundation story, the right-wing media were sparsely connected, directing most of their attention via cross-media links to amplifying the legitimating stories in the mainstream press. In July, September, and October, by contrast, the right-wing network was more densely interconnected, and the Daily Caller and Breitbart played a central role.

Immigration and Islamophobia: Breitbart and the Trump Party

Figure 4.14 Directed linking behavior of right-wing media sources within the Clinton Foundation topic during the months of July, August, September, and October 2016.

The Daily Caller in particular played a central role in setting up the Clinton Foundation topic in July. The site continued to play a significant role during the fall by publishing stories that found little purchase outside the right-wing media ecosystem but that stoked the anti-Clinton fervor (p.134) among core Trump followers. These stories claimed that Clinton’s behavior was criminal rather than merely questionable. In a campaign that expressed deep anti-Muslim sentiment, a repeated theme was that Hillary Clinton was seriously in hock to Muslim nations. It is here that the stories become a more explicit disinformation campaign.

On July 13, 2016, just as the focus on the Clinton Foundation was about to intensify, the Daily Caller published one of its most highly tweeted stories, “New Ties Emerge Between Clinton And Mysterious Islamic Cleric.” Above the fold, the story is breathless:

A newly-released email and lobbying documents filed with Congress reveals new ties between Clintonworld and members of a network operated by a mysterious Islamic cleric from Turkey. Connections between Clinton and acolytes of the imam, Fethullah Gulen, could muddle the complex relationship between the U.S. and Turkey, a key NATO ally, if the former secretary of state wins the White House.11

The story weaves Clinton Foundation donations into a tapestry of insinuations of corruption and influence by Gulenists in the Clinton Foundation and State Department. Many of the discrete incidents reported are likely factual. Reading carefully and skeptically below the fold reveals a loosely connected set of observations about a network that threatened the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in his own country, but that was likely more Western-oriented and less Islamic in its political orientation than Erdogan’s own party. The overall tenor and import, however, was intended to produce a belief that Clinton was working closely with a subversive “Islamic cleric.”

The most tweeted stories in October from the Daily Caller make its stance clear and are consistent with our observations about the immigration subtopic and the overall prominence of anti-Muslim stories in the right-wing quintile. The most tweeted story was headlined “Clinton Charity Got Up To $56 Million From Nations That Are Anti-Women, Gays,” accompanied by the image reproduced in Figure 4.15 and describing various contributions to the foundation from the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia.

Immigration and Islamophobia: Breitbart and the Trump Party

Figure 4.15 Image shared by the Daily Caller alongside the article “Clinton Charity Got Up To $56 Million From Nations That Are Anti-Women, Gays.”

The second-most tweeted story ran under the headline “WIKILEAKS: Here’s How The Clinton’s Free Private Jet Scam Works.”12 It offered a case study in how disinformation is created by weaving bits and pieces of evidence into a fundamentally misleading presentation that, again, (p.135) implied inappropriate connections between Hillary Clinton and influential Muslims. Above the fold it read:

Ira Magaziner, the CEO of the Clinton Health Access Initiative, asked former President Bill Clinton to thank Morocco’s King Mohammed VI for “offering his plane to the conference in Ethiopia.” “CHAI would like to request that President Clinton call Sheik Mohammed to thank him for offering his plane to the conference in Ethiopia,” Magaziner gushed in a November 22, 2011 email released by WikiLeaks. Clinton frequently has expected free, luxurious private jet travel during his post-presidential life. Clinton, his wife and daughter have artfully secured free air travel and luxurious accommodations since they left the White House. It’s an effective way to accept gifts of great value without declaring them for the Clinton Foundation.

“It’s highly illegal and it’s likely that the owners of these aircraft took tax deductions as a gift to the Clinton Foundation,” Charles Ortel, a Wall Street analyst and critic of the Clinton Foundation, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

Later in the same story the Daily Caller reported: “In the Moroccan case, Clinton was able to fly for free, jetting 3,367 miles from Rabat, Morocco, to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on the King’s specially equipped 747-400 jumbo jet.” Further along it made this seemingly incriminating statement: “But neither the Clinton Foundation nor CHAI have listed any ‘non-cash contributions’—such as free jumbo jet travel—on their 2011 tax return for the free use of the aircraft.”

(p.136) Reading the actual email on which the story is based makes clear that the story is pure bunk. The email, part of WikiLeaks’ Podesta emails dump,13 included the quoted words, but stated nearly the opposite of what the story implies:

CHAI would like to request that President Clinton call Sheik Mohammed to thank him for offering his plane to the conference in Ethiopia and expressing regrets that President Clinton’s schedule does not permit him to attend the conference. (emphasis added).

In other words, according to the email there was no flight, and Bill Clinton did not go to the conference. Moreover, the email says that the offer came from “Sheikh Mohammed,” not “King Mohammed,” two very different titles. If anything in the Daily Caller story is true, it is likely that the person the story describes as “Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Al-Amoudi,” a businessman who is not the king of Morocco but whom the story describes as organizing the conference in Ethiopia, offered the flight. But leaving King Mohammed of Morocco out of the story would have made it harder to weave in the factoid that “[n]ot including the flight, King Mohammed has donated at least $28 million to the Clinton Foundation.” After we published this story in our August 2017 report, the Daily Caller called us and asked for our data; they questioned one of us about his personal political campaign donations, presumably trying to find embarrassing information. In the end, they just removed the story from their site and issued a retraction. But that was long after the campaign had ended and the role the story was meant to play had run its course.

Here, as elsewhere in the campaign, emails played a critical role as concrete, material “evidence” for fantasized conspiracy. As Richard Hofstadter presciently wrote in his classic piece on the paranoid style in American politics,

A final characteristic of the paranoid style is related to the quality of its pedantry. One of the impressive things about paranoid literature is the contrast between its fantasied conclusions and the almost touching concern with factuality it invariably shows. It produces heroic strivings for evidence to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed.

But respectable paranoid literature not only starts from certain moral commitments that can indeed be justified but also carefully and all but obsessively accumulates “evidence.” The difference between this (p.137) “evidence” and that commonly employed by others is that it seems less a means of entering into normal political controversy than a means of warding off the profane intrusion of the secular political world. The paranoid seems to have little expectation of actually convincing a hostile world, but he can accumulate evidence in order to protect his cherished convictions from it.14

The ability to scour emails for “evidence” and to locate, quote, and link to actual secret documents offers a paradise for paranoid logic. In large bodies of documentation almost anything can be found in writing if one is engaged in motivated observation and reasoning. The fact that the emails were private and were pried loose from unwilling hands (whether through Freedom of Information Act litigation or hacking) enhanced their claim to veracity. Precisely because these were private conversations among the conspirators that they wished to deny the public, the emails became totems of truth in the paranoid imagination of the world.

Another major feature of network propaganda is the repetition of claims and statements so that they become familiar and easily recalled. (For example, the Daily Caller “jet scam” story ends, for good measure, with a reprise of the “Lolita Express” story as “perhaps the most notorious freebie flights” Clinton took.) Unsurprisingly, therefore, the next most tweeted story from the Daily Caller, published on the same day by the same reporter as the “jet scam” story, was “Hillary’s Two Official Favors To Morocco Resulted In $28 Million For Clinton Foundation.”15 The major part of the story was an utterly unsubstantiated and unsourced claim that in 2011 Clinton had gotten EPA head Lisa Jackson to try to shut down Mosaic Fertilizer, described as America’s largest phosphate mining company, in exchange for a $15 million donation to the Clinton Foundation from King Mohammed VI of Morocco, ostensibly to benefit Morocco’s state-owned phosphate company. The only evidence of Clinton’s supposed control over Jackson, which would allow the secretary of state, without any authority and contrary to law, to direct a regulatory action by an agency, was that two years later, in 2013, Jackson would join the board of the Clinton Foundation. As the foundation’s disclosure form shows, Jackson was paid exactly $0 for this “reward.”16

The Daily Caller story did not offer any details as to what regulatory action Jackson supposedly took at the behest of Hillary Clinton. The article reported vaguely, “The regulatory assault against the U.S. phosphate agency began in earnest when Jackson launched a barrage of intimidating regulatory initiatives against Mosaic.” Indeed, the article noted that there had been (p.138) environmental concerns about phosphate production since 1979, “but the EPA did little to address concerns related to phosphates until Jackson’s 2011 moves.” Jackson’s and Clinton’s powers were supposedly so great that “the regulatory assault on the U.S. phosphate industry encompassed several agencies,” including the Department of Homeland Security. And, to top it all, the EPA threatened Superfund penalties (the agency’s primary mechanism to force and fund cleaning up land contaminated by industrial waste) that could have bankrupted Mosaic. The story offered nothing to explain how an interdepartmental intervention like this could all have originated with the secretary of state based on a personal relationship. It did not note that the Department of Justice Environment and Natural Resources Division had described in its “Accomplishment Report” for fiscal year 2010 a consent decree with Mosaic to spend $30 million to update its site in Uncle Sam, Louisiana, and “cease sulphuric acid production in Bartow, Florida.”17 Nor did it mention that in 2015 Mosaic agreed to a consent decree with the Department of Justice, the EPA, and the EPA’s state equivalents in Florida and Louisiana to establish a $1.8 billion fund to clean up hazardous waste at six Florida and two Louisiana sites.18 The idea that multi-agency cooperation on this level between departments with strong histories of independence and encompassing the federal government and two states, would arise from the request of a secretary with no authority in the matter, endure for years after both she and Lisa Jackson had left government, and result in such a large court-approved settlement, is nothing short of fantastical. It is typical of the paranoid style of reasoning in American politics that such conspiracies loom, and fear and distrust are used to bridge the yawning gaps in logic and evidence.

Despite the absence of detail or evidence, the story quoted two Republican representatives, Dennis Ross, whose district includes a Mosaic facility, and Marsha Blackburn, who had initiated the letter to the IRS on which the Daily Caller began its reporting in late July. According to the story, Ross said, “An environmental concern never existed. This targeting was all done as a payback to Morocco for donating millions of dollars to the Clinton Foundation,” and Blackburn said, “These facts seem to reveal the possibility of more pay-to-play activities at the Clinton Foundation.” And yet, again, less than a year earlier Mosaic had agreed to create a $1.8 billion cleanup fund in a consent decree not only with the EPA but with the Department of Justice and the Florida and Louisiana environmental agencies as well. Active participation of elected politicians, acting as a source or attesting to the credibility of the story, underscores the extent to which it is a mistake to understand the present epistemic crisis in technological terms, or purely (p.139) in terms of Russian intervention. And while it is in principle possible that the author and publisher of these stories were themselves too far gone through the looking glass to recognize the yawning gaps in their own logic, the much more natural explanation is that they were simply propagandists, intentionally manipulating their audience on the eve of the election to help mobilize their base to vote out of fear and hatred of their opponent. Partisan propaganda, intended to achieve political advantage, sometimes driven and often supported by political elites indifferent to the truth, is a central part of the story. This interaction between partisan media and party elites is a constituent dynamic of the propaganda feedback loop.

The sheer implausibility of the story did not prevent other outlets from repeating it. Fox News republished Pollock’s story essentially unchanged,19 whereas more extreme outlets led with the subtext, as in this headline: “LEAK—Muslims Paid Hillary $28 MILLION To Do THIS, It’s SICK.”20 The anti-Muslim theme was reinforced in the next most tweeted Daily Caller story about the Clinton Foundation in October, “Here’s A (Dirty) Laundry List Of The Clinton Foundation’s Most Questionable Foreign Donations.”21 Other than the Russian donation said to have been tied to the Uranium One deal, all the foreign donations noted were from Muslim-majority countries—Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Indonesia, Algeria, Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman.

The Podesta email dump provided a new cache of evidence with which to work. The Daily Caller story most linked to (as opposed to most tweeted) in October 2016 was “Hillary In Leaked Email: Saudi Arabia And Qatar Are Funding ISIS,” which exposes another characteristic of network propaganda: the reworking of stories into a shared folklore.22 The Daily Caller story itself was reasonable in its basic frame. It cited an email from Clinton to John Podesta in which Clinton outlined a plan to defeat ISIS. This anti-ISIS plan emphasized arming the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government with heavier weapons than had been done in the past, supporting special operations, and seeking help for the Free Syrian Army or similar moderate paramilitary groups in Syria. Clinton added: “While this military/paramilitary operation is moving forward, we need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.” Focusing on this language, the Daily Caller story reminded its readers that Qatar and Saudi Arabia had both donated to the Clinton Foundation and reported that “[t]he Clinton campaign has not replied to a Daily Caller inquiry about whether the Clinton Foundation will return donations from these two nations that, according to Hillary Clinton, (p.140) fund ISIS.” In context of the repeated flow of stories connecting the Clinton Foundation to Arab and Muslim funders, the implication that she knew that these donors had funded ISIS was far less benign.

That thesis was at the heart of the story that became the most Facebook-shared October story on Ending the Fed (Figure 4.16), the site that filled five of the top 10 spots on BuzzFeed’s list of most widely shared “fake news” stories. Ending the Fed’s headline read: “IT’S OVER: Hillary’s ISIS Email Just Leaked & It’s Worse Than Anyone Could Have Imagined.”23 It opens with the sentence “Today Wikileaks released what is, by far, the most devastating leak of the entire campaign. This makes Trump’s dirty talk video look like an episode of Barney and Friends.” Offering a screenshot of the email from the WikiLeaks site, the story states:

Assange promised his latest batch of leaks would lead to the indictment of Hillary, and it looks like he was not kidding. The email proves Hillary knew and was complicit in the funding and arming of ISIS by our “allies” Saudi Arabia and Qatar! (p.141)

The media is yet to report on this, even though Wikileaks has a 10 year history of being 100% accurate in their leaks, never once releasing info that proved to be false.

. . . Can you guess why?

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that The Saudi’s brag about funding 20% of Hillary’s Presidential campaign, and along with Qatar, are among the largest donors to the CLINTON FOUNDATION.

While the original Daily Caller article presented a plausible framing—Clinton should return donations given by governments that were also supporting ISIS—the Ending the Fed story ramped it up, claiming that the email proved that “Hillary knew and was complicit in the funding and arming of ISIS by our ‘allies’ Saudi Arabia and Qatar.” Not only that, it alleged that the media were not reporting on this because the Saudis bragged that they funded 20 percent of Clinton’s presidential campaign and were among the largest donors to the Clinton Foundation. One can read the paragraph as many times as one wishes and still come up short in explaining how a series of non sequiturs adds up to the idea that Hillary Clinton admitted to funding and arming ISIS. However, the repeated insinuations that the Clinton Foundation was a funnel through which various Muslim governments (especially Saudi Arabia) got Clinton to do their bidding, and the intentional conflation of foundation donations and personal speaking fees with pay-to-play corruption, had long been circulating throughout the right-wing media environment.

The 20 percent funding claim originated in a June 14 story on Zero Hedge24 and was repeated and amplified that same day by Fox News25 (Fox has since removed the evidence of its republication of this story from its site and blocked its archiving by the Internet Archive) and Infowars.26 The origin of the story raises many questions. Apparently on Sunday, June 12, the Jordanian Petra News Agency published a story claiming that the then-Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had provided an exclusive interview in which he claimed that Saudi Arabia had provided 20 percent of the Clinton campaign’s funds. The report was soon removed, and the Petra News Agency issued a press release asserting that its system had been hacked and that the hack was the source of the bogus report.27 Before the story was removed, however, it was captured by a Washington-based think tank, the Institute for Gulf Affairs, whose focus is the Saudi government’s human rights violations and the cozy relationship between the United States and the Saudi royal family. The story was then published on June 13 in Middle East Eye (MEE),28 a U.K.-based site that describes itself as independent but is reported by a wide range of outlets to have diverse and conflicting political interests.29 (p.142)

Immigration and Islamophobia: Breitbart and the Trump Party

Figure 4.16 Sites linking to the WikiLeaks email entitled Congrats!, which includes the statement regarding ISIS and Saudi and Qatari funding. Nodes sized by the number of Facebook shares the sites received for all email-linked stories on each site.

Despite MEE’s retraction of the story, it had been picked up by Zero Hedge and amplified through the network of paranoid right-wing sites. RT also reported on the hack and the story, emphasizing the angle that MEE had reported that it had been pointed to the Jordanian agency’s error by the Podesta Group, the lobbying firm cofounded by John and Tony Podesta, which, it said, counts Saudi Arabia as a lucrative client.30 Like the emails, a document that was published and then removed offers a peek into occult knowledge that confirms conspiracy. Making the accusation by planting such a document in a remote site would offer it enormous credibility within the network of conspiracy theorists. Certainly, it is not impossible that the young, soon-to-be-elevated crown prince made a strategic error in an interview with the Jordanian news agency, and Saudi diplomatic power was brought to bear to release a bogus retraction and hacking story. For this to be the case one would have to assume that the prince in fact made such an embarrassing mistake and was nonetheless elevated to crown prince within a few months, and that, contrary to law, the Clinton campaign in fact received tens of millions of dollars in donations from a foreign government.

Immigration and Islamophobia: Breitbart and the Trump Party

Figure 4.17 Infowars story reporting on Zero Hedge’s story that links Hillary Clinton’s campaign to Saudi funding, June 14, 2016.

The alternative explanation is that the Jordanian agency was in fact hacked by someone who intended to harm both the Saudi government and the Clinton campaign. Such a hack would be similar to the hack of the Qatari news agency, which has variously been blamed on Russia31 or the United Arab Emirates.32 Even if a Muslim or Arab adversary aimed the original hack primarily at the Saudi government, its importation into the U.S. campaign fed into a strong racist, anti-Muslim narrative. The image of a laughing Clinton, on the background of squinting or self-satisfied Arabs and piles of dollars that accompanied the Infowars republication of the Zero Hedge story, leaves little for interpretation (Figure 4.17).

Even if we accept that Ending the Fed (which ceased operations shortly after Trump’s election) was a quintessential “fake news” site, a clickbait fabricator designed to make money by reaping Facebook advertising dollars, it did not rely solely on making up stories out of whole cloth, as in the notorious story claiming that the pope had endorsed Donald Trump, to serve as clickbait. It depended more heavily on stories from major nodes in the right-wing media ecosystem—from Zero Hedge to Fox News and Infowars—that created, replicated, and offered credence to various elements of stories that could then be recombined into new, believable conspiracy theories. If Ending the Fed had a meaningful role in influencing the debate; it was the amplification of already circulating tropes whose currency and efficacy depend on their being broadly familiar and intuitively recognizable—like canonical folk tales—to their readers. Such sites should be considered important if there is measurable (p.143) reason to think that their amplification contributed substantially to the effect produced by the network as a whole. The prominence of Ending the Fed on Facebook, coupled with the fact that a sizable group of voters used Facebook as a major source of news, suggests that such an amplification effect is at least possible. As we explain in more detail in Chapter 9, measuring that influence would be difficult because credibility in the field depends on embeddedness in an epistemic network, and truth or falsity will depend heavily on the familiarity and identity value of the elements of the story.

The “Hillary helped fund and arm ISIS” story depends on a rich shared narrative created by media that have longer and deeper purchase on the minds of those who are exposed to it. If such stories were believed, it is almost certainly because the sustained effort to tie all these themes together was central to the right-wing media ecosystem, as the sixth-most Facebook-shared Breitbart story of the entire 18-month period suggests: “Clinton Cash: Khizr Khan’s Deep Legal, Financial Connections to Saudi Arabia, Hillary’s Clinton Foundation Tie Terror, Immigration, Email Scandals Together.” In the paranoid imagination, all threads tie together.

And then there is Sean Hannity, host of the most-watched show on Fox News. On the same day that the Ending the Fed story came out, Hannity ran a segment, with Sebastian Gorka, who would become a deputy assistant to the (p.144) president during the first seven months of the Trump administration, built around the ISIS funding email. Hannity opened the segment with the words:

more headaches for the Clinton campaign because of the Wikileaks email dump. According to the hacked e-mails back in 2014, Hillary Clinton sent an email to John Podesta claiming Saudi Arabia and Qatar were both giving support to ISIS and other extremist groups. Mind you, Saudi Arabia has given up to $25 million dollars to the Clinton Foundation. In addition to that, according to the Washington Post, the royal Saudi family, well, they gave the Clinton Library around 10 million, and the Clinton Foundation took in between $1 and $5 million from the government of Qatar.33

What followed was a diatribe of how “America’s national interest will be in the auction block if she becomes Commander in Chief. It will be the highest bidder, whether it’s the Saudis or the Russians.” And the corrupt media were not going to ask Clinton the hard questions. A week later Donald Trump, during the third presidential debate, interjected “she gave us ISIS as sure as you are sitting there.”34

Ending the Fed’s story had a truly mind-boggling 750,000 Facebook shares.

Sean Hannity has over three million viewers.

And over 70 million viewers watched the third presidential debate.

As a candidate, Donald Trump ran an outsider’s campaign and used immigration, which he insisted on framing in terms of “radical Islamic terrorism,” as a battering ram against the walls of the Republican Party establishment. The first year of the Trump presidency was marked by escalating rhetoric against incumbent establishment Republicans, a large number of primary challenges from the far-right candidates against incumbents, and a wave of retirements by Republican incumbents ahead of the 2018 elections and the primary challenges they were sure to bring. In May 2018 immigration became the issue on which the House self-styled “Freedom Caucus,” the most radical wing of the Republican House members, blocked passage of a farm bill that would have achieved the goals of two major parts of the Republican establishment—providing large payments to farmers in core rural states in the Republican heartland, and encumbering food assistance for poor people consistent with the long-term goal of Reagan Republicans to reduce welfare payments. And while Trump did not invent the anti-immigration, anti-trade populism on the America right, his candidacy certainly was the fulcrum for that wing to achieve its most significant victory, and his presidency has provided the platform around which that battle is being fought.

Notes:

(1.) Jonathan Capehart, “Opinion | Donald Trump’s ‘Mexican Rapists’ Rhetoric Will Keep the Republican Party out of the White House,” Washington Post, June 17, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2015/06/17/trumps-mexican-rapists-will-keep-the-republican-party-out-of-the-white-house/.

(2.) Peter Holley, “‘Radical Islamic Terrorism’: Three Words That Separate Trump from Most of Washington,” Washington Post, March 1, 2017, sec. The Fix, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/02/28/radical-islamic-terrorism-three-words-that-separate-trump-from-most-of-washington/.

(3.) TIME, George H. W. Bush And Ronald Reagan Debate On Immigration In 1980| TIME, accessed April 11, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YsmgPp_nlok&feature=youtu.be.

(4.) Bradley Jones, “Americans’ Views of Immigrants Marked by Widening Partisan, Generational Divides,” Pew Research Center (blog), April 15, 2016, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/04/15/americans-views-of-immigrants-marked-by-widening-partisan-generational-divides/.

(5.) Mark Hugo Lopez and Paul Taylor, “Latino Voters in the 2012 Election,” Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project (blog), November 7, 2012, http://www.pewhispanic.org/2012/11/07/latino-voters-in-the-2012-election/.

(6.) Republican National Committee, “Growth and Opportunity Project,” December 2012, http://s3.documentcloud.org/documents/623664/republican-national-committees-growth-and.pdf.

(7.) Leslie Kaufman, “Breitbart News Network Plans Global Expansion,” New York Times, February 16, 2014, sec. Media, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/17/business/media/breitbart-news-network-plans-global-expansion.html.

(8.) Jane Mayer, “The Reclusive Hedge-Fund Tycoon Behind the Trump Presidency,” New Yorker, March 17, 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/03/27/the-reclusive-hedge-fund-tycoon-behind-the-trump-presidency.

(9.) We include a list of the sites in each part of the training set in the online appendix.

(10.) Joseph Bernstein, “Here’s How Breitbart And Milo Smuggled Nazi and White Nationalist Ideas Into The Mainstream,” BuzzFeed, accessed April 23, 2018, https://www.buzzfeed.com/josephbernstein/heres-how-breitbart-and-milo-smuggled-white-nationalism.

(11.) Chuck Ross, “New Ties Emerge Between Clinton And Mysterious Islamic Cleric,” Daily Caller, July 13, 2016, http://dailycaller.com/2016/07/13/new-ties-emerge-between-clinton-and-mysterious-islamic-cleric/.

(12.) Richard Pollock, “Wikileaks: Here’s A Peek At Clinton’s Free Private Jet Scam | The Daily Caller,” Daily Caller, October 31, 2016, https://web.archive.org/web/20161101090958/http://dailycaller.com/2016/10/31/wikileaks-heres-how-the-clintons-free-private-jet-scam-works/.

(13.) Email from Ira Magaziner to John Podesta, 2011-11-22. https://wikileaks.org/podesta-emails/emailid/38048.

(14.) Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Harper’s Magazine 229, no. 1374 (1964): 77–86.

(15.) Richard Pollock, “Hillary’s Two Official Favors To Morocco Followed By $28 Million For Clinton Foundation,” Daily Caller, October 31, 2016, http://dailycaller.com/2016/10/31/hillarys-two-official-favors-to-morocco-resulted-in-28-million-for-clinton-foundation/.

(17.) Department of Justice, Environment and Natural Resources Division, Accomplishments Report FY 2010, April 28, 2011. https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/enrd/legacy/2015/04/13/ACCOMPLISHMENT_REPORT_2010_FINAL_5_18_11_Internet-508.pdf.

(19.) Richard Pollock, “Hillary’s Two Official Favors To Morocco Resulted In $28 Million For Clinton Foundation,” Text.Article, Fox News, October 31, 2016, http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2016/10/31/hillary-8217-s-two-official-favors-to-morocco-resulted-in-28-million-for-clinton-foundation.html.

(20.) “LEAK—Muslims Paid Hillary $28 MILLION To Do THIS, It’s SICK,” Conservative Fighters (blog), March 14, 2017, http://conservativefighters.com/news/leak-muslims-paid-hillary-28-million-sick/; “LEAK—Muslims Paid Hillary $28 MILLION To Do THIS, It’s SICK,” The Angry Patriot, March 14, 2017, http://www.angrypatriotmovement.com/muslims-paid-hillary-28-million/.

(21.) Saagar Enjeti, “Here’s A (Dirty) Laundry List Of The Clinton Foundation’s Most Questionable Foreign Donations,” Daily Caller, October 31, 2016, http://dailycaller.com/2016/10/23/heres-a-dirty-laundry-list-of-the-clinton-foundations-most-questionable-foreign-donations/.

(22.) Alex Pfeiffer, “Hillary In Leaked Email: Saudi Arabia And Qatar Are Funding ISIS,” Daily Caller, October 10, 2016, http://dailycaller.com/2016/10/10/hillary-in-leaked-email-saudi-arabia-and-qatar-are-funding-isis/.

(24.) Tyler Durden, “Saudi Arabia Has Funded 20% Of Hillary’s Presidential Campaign, Saudi Crown Prince Claims,” Zero Hedge, June 14, 2016, https://www.zerohedge.com/news/2016-06-13/saudi-arabia-has-funded-20-hillarys-presidential-campaign-saudi-crown-prince-claims.

(25.) Tyler Durden, “Saudi Arabia Has Funded 20% Of Hillary’s Presidential Campaign, Saudi Crown Prince Claims,” http://nation.foxnews.com/2016/06/14/saudi-arabia-has-funded-20-hillarys-presidential-campaign-saudi-crown-prince-claims. The story was still live when we accessed it for our August 2017 report, but has since been removed from Fox’s site and blocked from the Internet Archive, so there is no live link to that republication.

(26.) Zero Hedge, “Saudi Arabia Has Funded 20% Of Hillary’s Presidential Campaign, Saudi Crown Prince Claims,” Infowars, June 14, 2016, https://www.infowars.com/saudi-arabia-has-funded-20-of-hillarys-presidential-campaign-saudi-crown-prince-claims/.

(27.) “Statement by Jordan News Agency” (Petra, June 14, 2016), http://www.petra.gov.jo/Public_News/Nws_NewsDetails.aspx?lang=2&site_id=1&NewsID=257423&CatID=13.

(28.) Rori Donaghy, “Jordan Says Hack Led to Posting of ‘False News’ That Saudi Funds Clinton,” Middle East Eye, June 14, 2016, http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/deleted-official-report-says-saudi-key-funder-hillary-clinton-presidential-campaign-223282807.

(29.) The editor of the site, David Hearst, was previously an editor at the The Guardian, and the site has consistently refused to disclose its donors. Other members of its staff and its sole registered director have been the basis of criticism from a wide array of sites—from Saudi (http://www.ikhwan.whoswho/en/archives/854) and UAE media, to Breitbart (http://www.breitbart.com/london/2014/06/19/the-national-muslim-brotherhood-its-uk-connections-and-media-attacks-on-the-uae/) to the U.K.-based Jewish News, (http://jewishnews.timesofisrael.com/font-of-hatred-how-hamas-relies-on-two-uk-websites/), all claiming one basis or another for tying MEE to Qatar or the Muslim Brotherhood.

(30.) “Hackers Did It? Jordanian Media in Hot Water over ‘Saudi Prince Funding Clinton Campaign’ Report,” RT International, June 14, 2016, https://on.rt.com/7fhe.

(31.) Patrick Wintour, “Russian Hackers to Blame for Sparking Qatar Crisis, FBI Inquiry Finds,” The Guardian, June 7, 2017, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jun/07/russian-hackers-qatar-crisis-fbi-inquiry-saudi-arabia-uae.

(32.) Karen DeYoung and Ellen Nakashima, “UAE Orchestrated Hacking of Qatari Government Sites, Sparking Regional Upheaval, According to U.S. Intelligence Officials,” Washington Post, July 16, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/uae-hacked-qatari-government-sites-sparking-regional-upheaval-according-to-us-intelligence-officials/2017/07/16/00c46e54-698f-11e7-8eb5-cbccc2e7bfbf_story.html.