The Truth About Right-Wing Disinformation

The Truth About Right-Wing Disinformation:

We all know the old adage "Never speak of politics or religion in polite company." It looms over every kitchen table around which our friends or family might gather, but with rising political polarization around the world, a break from tradition may finally be due. Considering the current political climate and its effects on matters ranging from racial injustice to income inequality, refusing to talk politics with loved ones starts to look a lot less like common courtesy and a lot more like denial. Lack of communication has only widened the generational divide in perceptions of politics. It is common knowledge that older generations tend to be the most conservative, but studies now show that they are also the most susceptible to the spread of disinformation online, a factor that has pulled them even further to the right. The inherent problem with avoiding topics of consequence in "polite company" is that it by default relegates them to impolite company: right-wing forces whose concerted efforts to poison the well of discourse with disinformation have successfully warped people’s views on topics including censorship, race, economics, and immigration. These disinformation campaigns have increasingly foiled younger generations as well. If we are to have any hope of breaking through this echo chamber of radicalization, we must insist on replacing the old adage with one that better reflects the times we live in: everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but no one is entitled to their own facts. In order to better combat right-wing disinformation, we must first have a better understanding of how it spreads, how far it reaches, its consequences when left unchecked, and what motivates its sources. Furthermore, we shouldn’t be afraid of wielding the facts to counter said disinformation whenever possible, and hopefully changing some minds in the process. Here’s hoping that the following facts can help do that.

Part 1:

The Cons Who Cried Censorship

It’s human nature to be drawn to the forbidden. When information is presented as forbidden fruit, something that the “powers that be'' don't want you to know, its mere consumption is an act of rebellion. This is a major reason why outrage over claims of censorship has become ubiquitous in the right-wing online ecosystem, serving as a rallying cry for conservative politicians and pundits that has echoed across borders and unified their respective audiences in indignation. In America, Canada, the UK, France, and beyond, the refrain on the right remains the same: the biggest threat facing each country isn’t climate change, wealth inequality, or even the ongoing pandemic, but rather the “silencing” of conservative voices. Ohio Republican Congressman Jim Jordan echoed this sentiment in a recent interview with Fox News when he described "cancel culture" as "the number one issue for the country to address today". At the time of his comments, the weekly death toll from Covid-19 in the United States had surpassed that of 9/11. These lopsided priorities were on display during the various congressional hearings spearheaded by Republicans seeking to validate claims of censorship by big tech. CEOs of Google, Twitter, and Facebook were confronted with accusations of anti-conservative bias, but do those accusations hold any basis in fact? Not only has Zuckerberg intervened on behalf of the right on Facebook, but according to the New York Times, right-wing politicians, media, and commentators account for, on average, a whopping 8 out of Facebook’s daily top 10 most-shared posts. A deeper look at the numbers reveals the further troubling implications of this trend.

While the murder of George Floyd sparked protests against police brutality from Los Angeles to Montreal to Japan, a Politico analysis of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter found that conservative voices dominated the conversation online, as anti-Black Lives Matter posts painting the protests as exclusively violent affairs were shared 10 times more than posts in support of the cause. This, in spite of the fact that according to a report by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project (ACLED), 93% of BLM protests were peaceful and law enforcement were “heavy-handed” in their response. Exaggerated claims of violence heighten racial tensions, increasing the likelihood of actual violence. In one of the more egregious examples of this phenomenon, a flyer purporting to be from BLM which had gone viral on Twitter and Facebook called for people to “kill all whites on sight,” only to be traced back to a far-right group in the UK. Other fake BLM flyers with similar incendiary messages were traced back to Nazi forums on 4chan. The intent to sow discord is clear. Nevertheless, as a result of these viral right-wing disinformation campaigns, a growing number of people who get their news mainly from social media have come to staunchly oppose the Black Lives Matter movement, and now view protests against police brutality as a bigger problem than police brutality itself. As it stands today, the Black Lives Matter Facebook group has 723,000 followers, while the conservative Blue Lives Matter Facebook group, which supports police and opposes BLM, has a staggering 2.2 million followers. So much for being silenced. 

There are many areas where conservatives dominate online dialogue by spreading disinformation while crying censorship. The consequences of this may vary in their severity, but they’re always there - some are just harder to ignore than others. On January 6th, 2021, as Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol, those consequences were laid bare for the world to see. The violent insurrection inspired by lies about a stolen election came as a shock to many, but the signs were all there, making it clear that the bill for letting disinformation go unchecked would eventually come due. In the months leading up to the election, conservatives’ unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud and conspiracy theories were read and shared on Facebook twice as much as election coverage from traditional media outlets, according to an analysis by Politico. "Stop the Steal" was the banner they gathered under, and a Facebook search for that name just after the attack revealed 66 different groups with thousands of followers each. Although those groups were subsequently banned from Facebook after openly celebrating the violence of January 6th, the damage was already done: misinformation quickly became a conspiracy theory, and misguided calls for action quickly became a battle cry that, among other things, literally led 5 people to their deaths. It is equal parts noteworthy and alarming (but not surprising) that among those who answered that call were several prominent white supremacist hate groups including Neo-Nazis, the Boogaloo movement, and the Proud Boys, who have used the attack as an opportunity to more than double their online following. It should also be noted that these same hate groups were previously emboldened by the former president’s comments following the deadly march on Charlottesville (“very fine people on both sides”) and his response to demands to denounce them with instructions to “Stand back and stand down.” Despite Trump’s electoral loss and impeachment for inciting the riots, his brand of conservatism has become a North Star for right-wing politicians worldwide such as Brazil’s Bolsonaro, the Philippines' Duterte, and Poland’s Kaczyński. Consequently, traditional conservative talking points like lower taxes and deregulation have taken a backseat to right-wing culture war rhetoric (anti-social justice, anti-immigration, anti-trans, etc.), much to the delight of far-right extremist groups everywhere, for whom politicians like Trump are natural allies. 

Ultimately, when considering the dominance of these right-wing voices on social media, cries of censorship are a shield from accountability, as freedom of speech is intentionally conflated with freedom from criticism or consequences. Meanwhile, the fanned flames of heightened political rhetoric, disinformation and bigotry continue to spread, the ramifications of which can be felt well beyond America.

Part 2:

Bigotry Without Borders

Of course, disinformation existed long before social media and can still travel far and wide via network news, one of its most efficient means of transportation. If, as the old saying goes, a lie can travel halfway across the world while the truth is still busy tying its shoes, Fox News is a Boeing 747 on which lies travel first class. The network even defeated a recent defamation lawsuit against one of its most incendiary hosts, Tucker Carlson, by admitting as much. According to the ruling, Fox News’ lawyers successfully argued that "This 'general tenor' of the show should inform a viewer that he is not 'stating actual facts' about the topics he discusses and is instead engaging in 'exaggeration' and 'non-literal commentary'". Furthermore, the US district judge overseeing the case added that “given Mr. Carlson's reputation, any reasonable viewer ‘arrive[s] with an appropriate amount of skepticism' about the statements he makes." (It should be noted that both of Fox News’s right-wing competitors, One America News and Newsmax, were also forced to admit to lying following lawsuits). When considering the network’s propensity for dishonest fearmongering, xenophobia and racism, one might wonder just how reasonable their millions of viewers worldwide could actually be. But perhaps the more pertinent question is just how unreasonable is the network making its viewers? 

If you constantly encourage people to view everything as a matter of culture wars, they will eventually view themselves as soldiers - some, more literally than others. Alexandre Bissonnette of Quebec City was one of those people. On January 28th, 2017, upon seeing a tweet from Justin Trudeau suggesting that those affected by then-president Trump’s Muslim ban would be welcome in Canada, Bissonnette walked over to the nearest Mosque and shot six Muslim men to death, injuring 19 more. “I was, like, sure that they were going to come and kill my parents also, and my family” he would later tell investigators during an interrogation. Where could he have gotten such an idea? Well, a search through his internet history by investigators found that Bissonnette was a fanatical Trump supporter and avid consumer of Fox News. In the month leading up to his terrorist act, Bissonnette obsessively scowered far-right Twitter pages including those of Trump, Tucker Carlson, Canadian podcaster Stefan Molyneux (who claims a trip to Poland solidified his white nationalist beliefs), Alt-right leader Richard Spencer, and conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, who famously tweeted “Israelis like to build. Arabs like to bomb crap and live in open sewage. This is not a difficult issue.” Indeed, deciphering what drove this young man to a murderous rage is not a difficult issue at all. 

Yet Alexandre Bissonnette is far from being the only person who saw himself as a soldier in a culture war, and Fox News is far from being the only outlet driving people to do so. 

  • In the UK, 48-year-old Darren Osborne drove his van into a group of Muslims outside a London Mosque, killing 1 and injuring 11. Prosecutors argued he’d been “brainwashed by far-right propaganda” including Canadian far-right outlet Rebel Media and Alex Jones’ infowars.

  • In South Carolina, 20-year-old Dylann Roof drove to the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and murdered nine African-American churchgoers. Roof had come to believe the white race was in danger after obsessively consuming (debunked) statistics on Black crime available on far-right sites such as the Council for Conservative Citizens and Breibart. 

  • In New Zealand, 28-year-old Brenton Tarrant broadcasted his Christchurch mosque massacre of 51 Muslims on both Facebook and Youtube. His manifesto would later reveal his angst over “white genocide,” a conspiracy theory popularized by white nationalists such as Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern of Canada.

  • In El Paso, Texas, 21-year-old Trump supporter Patrick Crusius murdered 22 people at a Wal-Mart. In his manifesto, he claims the attack was an attempt to prevent “the Hispanic invasion of Texas”. He also cites the New Zealand shooter as a direct influence.

  • In Pittsburgh, 46-year-old Robert G. Bowers killed 11 people and injured 6 more at the Tree of Life Synagogue. His time spent on the far-right social media site Gab led him to believe that Jews were secretly financing a caravan of migrants to the US and thus deemed them all guilty of white genocide. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics. I’m going in” he wrote in his final post on the site before committing the largest-ever act of antisemitic terrorism on US soil. 

What we’re witnessing here are not isolated incidents, but a global epidemic of right-wing terrorism directly inspired by disinformation based in bigotry; the so-called lone wolves, united in their ideology, have become a pack. In fact, a 2020 report by the UN Security Council's Counterterrorism Committee found a 320% increase in right-wing terrorism worldwide in the 5 years leading up to the report’s release. In the US, a report by the ADL found that right-wing extremism was responsible for a whopping 73% of all terrorist-linked killings within the last decade. In their efforts to downplay this crisis, many on the right regularly resort to whataboutisms, but the numbers consistently prove those to be false equivalencies.

For example, when they ask “what about Antifa?,” it should be noted that only a single death has been linked to Antifa in the past 25 years. Meanwhile, right-wing terrorism is now killing more people in North America per year than ISIS and the Taliban combined

When they ask “what about crimes by illegal immigrants?,” it should be noted that while there was a sharp increase in the population of documented and undocumented immigrants in the US between 1990 and 2010, during that period the violent crime rate dropped by 45%. In fact, studies have found that immigrants commit crime at lower rates than native-born Americans.

When they ask “what about Black-on-Black crime?,” it should be noted that while 90% of Black murder victims have Black perpetrators, 83.5% of white murder victims have white perpetrators. These numbers are indicative of segregation, not propensity to kill. The more appropriate question is why is one referred to as Black-on-Black crime while the other is simply referred to as ‘crime?’ 

The fear of a changing world based solely on changing demographics is an integral part of the right’s disinformation campaign, and continues unabated thanks in large part to elected officials who see political gain in racial division. A sitting Republican US congressman, Paul Gosar, even spoke at a recent white nationalist conference at which its founder, Nick Fuentes, claimed "If [America] loses its white demographic core … then this is not America anymore" (He also described the attack on the US Capitol as “awesome”). This theme of cultivated victimhood echoes the false claims of censorship. And its particular focus on race and culture wars has successfully misdirected the attention of the white working class away from matters that actually affect their material bottom line, much to their own detriment. Which begs the question: who benefits?

Part 3:

Covering Up Class Warfare

"Economic anxiety" is a term most commonly deployed in defense of those who harbour racist sentiments, for example, scapegoating immigrants for the economic woes of the lower classes. According to this subset of the "economically anxious," foreigners weigh down the economy because they’re too lazy to work, and yet simultaneously they are stealing everyone’s jobs: Shrodinger’s immigrant. However, this oft-politicized and xenophobic stereotype is another product of right-wing disfinformation, which conveniently provides cover for the root causes of economic anxiety: trickle-down economics and wealth inequality. Its perpetrators not only gain from disinformation campaigns, but also use their influence to maintain the status quo. It should be no surprise that the wealthy few who gain the most from right-wing disinformation are also the primary sources of it. 

Three prominent examples are the Koch brothers (Charles and his recently deceased brother David), the Wilks brothers (Dan and Farris), and the Mercer family. Over the course of decades, these billionaires have spent hundreds of millions of dollars pushing not only American politics but politics around the world to the right. The Koch brothers have engaged in more traditional influence and disinformation campaigns.These include providing funding to right-wing think tanks, right-wing movements including the Tea Party, and right-wing politicians who oppose “big government” and “the regulatory assault on energy,” as well as “climate change alarmism and the move to socialized health care,” much to the benefit of the Koch’s $100 billion multinational petroleum conglomerate. While the Mercers, led by patriarch hedge fund billionaire Robert, and the Wilks, who made their billions in the fracking industry, also use their massive resources to pass off policies that would protect their wealth as culture war issues, their tactics have proven to be much more inflammatory. If bigotry was a byproduct of the Koch’s disinformation campaign, the Mercers and the Wilks brothers have fully embraced it as an asset. Dan and Farris are major financial backers of the religious far-right, which has led them to fund both anti-LGBTQ and anti-choice movements, but their most successful contribution to the culture war has been PragerU, a website that, by their own admission, is not a university but does aim to indoctrinate young people into the far-right. PragerU features short videos with titles such as “Who needs feminism?”, “Income inequality is good”, “Where are the moderate Muslims?”, “Fossil fuels: the greenest energy”, and “The data proves that police are not racist”, which, despite their cries of censorship, have garnered over 3 billion views on Youtube and Facebook, where 70% of their audience are under the age of 35. Meanwhile, the Mercers have been busy funding alt-right websites such as Breibart in America, Rebel Media in Canada, and the now-defunct misinformation machine Cambridge Analytica in the UK (a vital part of the Brexit movement). The Mercers bankrolled Trump’s 2016 victory, and after his 2020 loss, helped spread claims of a stolen election. They also founded Parler, a far-right social media website where extremists congregate, which was used to plan and coordinate the attack on the US Capitol. Again, the millions of dollars that right-wing billionaires have spent to spread this rhetoric can be viewed as an investment in public distraction, as the culture war waged in public detracts from the class warfare they wage in private.

While the right would have you believe that climate change is a hoax, internal records show that fossil fuel giants have known of its consequences for decades, all the while funding conservative politicians who deny its existence and block the policies that could mitigate its effects. Conservative voters may have been swayed by this disinformation campaign, but climate change does not care whether or not you believe in it - it comes all the same. This much was made clear last February when a massive snow storm turned Texas into a cautionary tale. Special interests had successfully lobbied for the privatization of Texas’ power grid and its separation from the federal power grid in order to avoid regulations, cut corners and maximize profits. As a direct result of this, when the snowstorm hit, millions of Texans were left without power right when they needed it most, and nearly 200 people lost their lives in their freezing homes. Meanwhile, Texas Governor Gregg Abott, who had received $26.9 million from Big Oil to allow them to “self-regulate,” falsely blamed green energy for the tragedy. Senator Ted Cruz, the Senate’s top recipient of Big Oil donations, booked a flight to Cancun while his constituents froze to death. This is a likely precursor of what’s to come if the right has its way on matters of climate: as the biggest polluters’ profits continue to climb, climate stability will further decline, and those same polluters will avoid accountability by paying off politicians, who will simply flee to safer ground as the rest of us suffer the consequences of their actions. 

While the right would have you believe in the doctrine of trickle-down economics (that what is best for the wealthy is best for society as a whole), the numbers tell a different story. According to studies by the London School of Economics covering 18 developed countries from Australia to the US, 50 years of trickle-down economics have exclusively benefited the rich at the expense of everyone else. Thanks to economic policies like those championed by the Kochs and the Mercers, worker productivity has outpaced worker pay 6 times over since 1979. Moreover, the top 1% of Americans increased their wealth by $21 trillion since 1989, while during the same period the poorest half lost $900 billion. In fact, the three richest US families now own more wealth than the poorest 50% of Americans combined, while globally, the 26 richest people own more than the poorest 50% of people on Earth combined. Income inequality is indeed a global issue, as CEOs make on average 149 times more than their workers in Canada, 180 times more in South Africa, 201 times more in the UK, 229 times more in India, and at the top of the list, 265 times more in the US. As these untenable gaps continue to grow, it’s no wonder that the wealthy would rather you believe that immigration is the biggest threat to the working class, rather than policies that help corporations crush unions, deny their employees benefits, and keep working class wages as low as possible.

While the right would have you believe that inequality is a natural and inevitable result of meritocracy, the facts reveal a rigged system, especially in America. Attempts to justify inequalities almost always ignore their direct causes. The same people who encourage the poor to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” aren’t troubled that the minimum wage in America hasn’t budged in over 10 years while the cost of living continues to rise. The same people who suggest that those who want a better life should simply “get a better job” ignore the increasing inaccessibility of higher education for low-income families, as tuition and fees climb astronomically and student loans become a predatory industry. Those who decry the “unfairness” of affirmative action are seemingly unfazed by the fact that, for example, 43% of white students at Harvard are legacy admissions or related to donors or staff. Those who argue in favour of for-profit healthcare don’t seem concerned that America is the only developed nation without universal healthcare and that 68 000 Americans per year die as a result of not being able to afford insurance or not having a job that provides insurance as a benefit. Those who supposedly support a “free market” have no qualms with major corporations spending over $3 billion annually lobbying the government to insure that this profitable status quo remains unchanged while receiving even billions more back in the form of corporate welfare. Those who preach the American Dream, equal opportunity for anyone willing to work hard enough, and who tether that possibility to unbridled capitalism, conveniently leave out that in terms of upward social mobility, America ranks 27th globally while countries labelled “socialist” by right-wing rhetoric, such as Denmark, Sweden, and Finland, are global leaders. This is a major reason why fear mongering over socialism has become such a common theme among the wealthy purveyors of right-wing disinformation: it reduces any attempt to address economic disparity to a caricature, making it easier to dismiss, while protecting their interests - interests that are seldom shared with the non wealthy who believe them.

In the world of right-wing disinformation, up is down and down is up. The most prominent spreaders of falsehoods on social media and network news claim to be the most silenced. Those who are white and christian are judged by their best examples, while people of colour and of different faiths are judged by their worst. Immigrants who work hard for their piece of the pie are viewed as a threat, while those who conspire to keep the poor poor while hoarding wealth are viewed as an inspiration. In this landscape of cultivated culture war victimhood, omnipresent imagined enemies must be stopped at all costs, even if people’s lives are at stake. In this paradigm, truth holds no value, empathy is a liability, and cruelty is the only currency that trickles down. Its appeal rests mostly in the promise that the rightful place of true believers awaits atop the pecking order, which leads them to view those seeking equality as foes. In reality, however, the facts reveal this promise to be a pipe dream, made so by those much more deserving of the title of foe: billionaires who spare no expense to divide us, in fear of class solidarity. It is a strategy of division that Lyndon B. Johnson described best: "If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you."