Over the weekend, The New York Times published a good story by Caitlin Dickerson about how the right-wing media makes its audience angry and hateful.
Anxiety About Muslim Refugees Is Stoked Online by the Far-Right Media
Type the word refugees into Facebook and some alarming “news” will appear about a refugee rape crisis, a refugee flesh-eating disease epidemic and a refugee-related risk of female genital mutilation -- none of it true.
For the months leading up to the presidential election, and in the days since President Trump took office, ultraconservative websites like Breitbart News and Infowars have published a cycle of eye-popping stories with misleading claims about refugees. And it is beginning to influence public perception, experts say.
Headlines are quoted, including these:
Breitbart, May 31, 2016: Syrian Refugees Spreading Flesh-Eating Disease, Polio, Measles, Tuberculosis, Hepatitis...
Freedom’s Final Stand, Oct. 3, 2016: Muslim Refugee Beats and Rapes Woman in North Dakota While Yelling ‘Allahu Akbar’
And we hear from a consumer of this news, an Oklahoma police officer named Mike Eason, who responded to the latter story:
The post, which was shared 14,000 times, linked to a story about a case in which the authorities have not described the immigration status of the suspect, or said that he was a noncitizen. They have also discredited the claim that the man yelled “Allahu akbar” during the episode.
Nevertheless, the comment that Mr. Eason posted on the site, which he later said he could not remember making, garnered 87 likes. “If Muslims are taught hate by their religion,” he wrote, “then all Muslims are potential terrorists and should be treated accordingly. TRUMP will stop this kind of stuff.”
This is important. Republicans don't win office because their ideas are better. They reach office because the right-wing media scares and agitates white voters with anecdotes that substitute for data and half-truths (or outright lies) that substitute for reality. Some of this is what we now call "fake news," but much of it is a distortion of reality for propaganda effect. Breitbart, for instance, ran a story titled "Muslim Immigration Puts Half a Million U.S. Girls at Risk of Genital Mutilation." Reality:
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... the Breitbart article about genital mutilation was based on a study that estimated that a half-million women currently living in the United States have had their genitals mutilated. But most of them were immigrants who had fled here because of such treatment in their home countries.
(The Times story doesn't mention it, but please note the strategic use of "U.S." in that headline. It's a legitimate cause for concern that those who come to America from communities where female genital mutilation is accepted practice might continue the practice here. But the headline wants to plant the suggestion that immigrants are going to mutilate the genitals of native-born American girls. That's outright deception.)
The Times story is good, but it's twenty years too late. Mainstream journalists have been ignoring the right-wing media since the Clinton years, with disastrous results.
Back in the 1990s, the mainstream press generally shrugged off the stream of disinformation on the right -- the "Clinton body count," the reports of sex toys on the White House Christmas tree, and so on. Regnery published book after book filled with disinformation, quite a few of which hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, but they weren't reviewed and they weren't debunked. The belief seemed to be that they were too ridiculous to be acknowledged by serious people.
But in the past two decades, disinformation (in book form, online, and on Fox and talk radio) has the been the main way the GOP has built brand loyalty. And now it's worse: We have a president who's not a cynical beneficiary of right-wing disinformation, he's an eager consumer. The president of the United States gets his ideas from this garbage.
More like this story, please. But it's probably too late.
Crossposted at No More Mr. Nice Blog