Oliver Darcy tells Brian Stelter that the OAN Network, with its quack propaganda, is dangerous enough. But then Trump retweets it constantly.
May 11, 2020

If you're blessed with emails from Crazy Uncle Liberty, you know that your right-wing, whack job relative now has his own video network, OAN. From Brian Stelter's email newsletter outlines the latest quack quack "news" they pulled out of their butts. Check out the conspiracy buzz names!

A video report from OAN ...falsely asserted that the Clintons, George Soros, Bill Gates, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and the Chinese are using coronavirus to “establish sweeping population control." The report, which also attacked authorities for backing remdesivir over hydroxychloroquine, claimed that a "deep-state Democratic cabal" is using the situation to undo the Constitution and "force the American people into total submission.

It was all deranged stuff -- and normally, a tiny media outlet promoting a crazy conspiracy theory like that wouldn't garner much attention. But it matters because this is a channel that Trump has repeatedly promoted. It's a channel Trump has lauded for "brilliant" reporting. It's a channel Trump has said all cable companies should carry. It's a channel that he has given special WH access. And it's the channel he has said he watches "whenever possible."

Stelter talked with a panel about OAN. Transcript via CNN:

STELTER: News is in high demand right now, but so are sick and vile conspiracy theories. And where there's demand, there's supply.

Have you heard of One America News?

It's a small but loud right-wing channel that's frequently promoted by President Trump. He touts OAN on Twitter all the time, right along with Fox News. He takes questions from OAN's person at the press briefings even though that person was expelled from the briefing rotation because she was violating social distancing guidelines.

So, OAN, it doesn't have high ratings. In fact, it's not rated by Nielsen at all, so it's pretty small, but it's getting a huge megaphone thanks in part to the president.

So, that's why this next point matters. This is one of the most heinous things I have ever seen on television. What OAN was showing viewers in recent days, a crazy conspiracy theory -- that's the only word for it, crazy -- a crazy conspiracy theory.

Let's keep going. I don't want to the old, let show the new video of what was broadcast recently. On Friday, as was re-airing, it's on YouTube, an entire segment, a crazy segment, claiming the Clintons and George Soros and Bill Gates and Anthony Fauci and all these people are into this plot to hurt people, to maybe establish sweeping population control.

Look at the banner. It says population control through COVID-19.

That is crazy. It's dangerous. But it's broadcast on cable. It might be broadcast into your home, and it's up on YouTube right now from a former Russian propagandist, OK? And this is the kind of channel the president promotes all the time.

Now, I spoke with two people from OAN, from One America News, who are just as embarrassed by the video as I am. They say they don't want their name attached to it. They don't want to work at a channel that broadcasts those kinds of lies. But there it is on YouTube right now.

So, let's talk about it and other COVID-19 conspiracy theories with Oliver Darcy, CNN's senior media reporter, just wrote a new story about OAN and its influence. Renee DiResta is also here, she's a disinformation researcher. She works at the Stanford Internet Observatory. And Brendan Nyhan is here, a political science professor at Dartmouth.

Oliver, OAN, I hate talking about this crazy lie they're spreading, but it's happening. The only way to try to expose it is to talk about it and explain why it's so crazy. Do you think there's any chance, any, any responsibility, any accountability in this case?

OLIVER DARCY, CNN SENIOR MEDIA REPORTER: I doubt it. I mean, if you look at what the kind of content this outlet has pushed in the past, this is just really run of the mill for them. You know, they kind of mask a lot of their content by running "Reuters" and "Associated Press" packages throughout the day. You can pay for those and run their content.

STELTER: Just straight news. Yeah.

DARCY: If you look at the kind of content that OAN produces and the people they hire, they have hired well-known right-wing conspiracy theorists, very prominent conspiracy theories. No secret to the kind of content they promote, and they run packages like the one there. The bigger problem is not almost what they're running but the fact that the president of the United States is promoting this channel during a public health emergency.

When people need accurate information, the president of the United States is promoting this channel. They're promoting other things as well. Bad drug treatments, you know, all sorts of conspiracy theory about Bill Gates, but the president is effectively endorsing this messaging during a public health emergency.

Brian, if you took the president's advice and watched the channel and tuned in to the news he wants you to, you would end up with a very twisted, frankly, Frankenstein image of America, and I can only think that he does this because it benefits him politically, but it's certainly not good for the national discourse, and again, it's important to stress that during a health emergency, people should be watching and consuming credible news information, not these crazy conspiracy theories.

STELTER: And so, let's zoom out beyond this one idea of population control. There's other COVID-19 theories out there. There's death toll denialism going on, there's anti-vaccine messaging going on.

Help us connect the dots, Renee DiResta, between these. What we're seeing is this amalgamation of QAnon believers, and anti-vaccination activists, and now, these COVID conspiracy theorists.

RENEE DIRESTA, STANFORD INTERNET OBSERVATORY RESEARCH MANAGER: Yes, so there's nothing new about conspiracies popping up during an epidemic, right? It's remarkable to see it on American media, but it's not new. I think what we see with the others, though, is they're really spread virally from person to person. People don't really know what to trust right now. They're not getting good information from the government. The government doesn't even have good information because the disease is so new.

And you see a lot of the appeal is people wanting to inform their community. So when they see a slickly produced conspiracy theory video like the ones making the rounds on social media over the last few days, they're inclined to share it. They think, this is a researcher telling me a truth that resonates with something I want to believe, so I'm going to share it.

And the way that the pipeline works is anti-vaccine activists, there's a lot of them in the QAnon community is shared to the antivax pages and groups. Most of the QAnon pages and groups moves to the reopen pages groups. Whenever you have that overlap on social channels, you do start to see things move through communities one after another after another. And that's how they go viral.

STELTER: Brendan, add on to that, you know, why -- why at a gut level to people want to believe in conspiracy theories?

BRENDAN NYHAN, PROFESSOR OF GOVERNMENT, DARTMOUTH COLLEGE: It seems to be appealing to believe that someone is pulling the strings.

That may be less scary than thinking that there are these unpredictable risks out there that none of us can control. And, of course, there is this information vacuum that Renee is describing. It's hard for anyone to make sense of what's going on, and these conspiracy theories provide a simple story.

So, it's not surprising people might want to share them, but what's worrisome is when those move from the fringe into the mainstream in the way Oliver was describing, and in that process, potentially put us all at risk. There have always been conspiracy theories but these might undermine the public health measures that we need everyone to undertake to protect us.

We are in this together. If people believed in a 9/11 conspiracy theory, it didn't put my family and your family's health at risk, but this one might, and that is very worrisome to me to see media amplifying those kinds of dangerous claims.

STELTER: Renee, how are the social platforms handling this? They got attention in March for being proactive and taking down disinformation related to the virus. Are they still on top of it or are they starting to flag? What's going on?

DIRESTA: There's a real challenge with -- there's a pipeline happening here. So, YouTube is where a lot of the videos are emerging from. There's a lot of creators on YouTube who produce them, and then very deliberately, they're shared to Facebook.

Some of the recent one that went viral was actually organized as a book marketing campaign.

So, what's happening is the platforms are struggling to figure out what is health misinformation and what is a political opinion. When the YouTube video is titled Dr. So-and-so takes down Fauci, that's not vaccines cause autism. That's a different angle that kind of crosses into that gray area where they're trying to decide what to take down.

The other problem is if YouTube takes it down but it's been uploaded to Facebook organically so it's local to Facebook, then Facebook has to decide what to do about it as well. So, you have these gaps in enforcement, these gaps in the areas where the platforms decide this is going to come down, this is not going to come down, and sometimes the discrepancy or the takedown after the fact where it's massively viral on one platform, means there's a second order wave of complaints about the conspiracy to sensor. So, that's one of the challenges that the platforms have to deal with right now.

STELTER: And oftentimes it's really on the fringe that gets removed, then gets the attention of Fox News which is much more mainstream because of the censorship complaint.


STELTER: I wonder, Brendan, what you make of Fox News stars who are out there encouraging people to resume their normal lives, get back to work, while broadcasting from their homes, staying at home?

NYHAN: Yeah, I think you should watch what people do and not what they say. I think there are a lot of people sitting in their houses on webcams telling everyone they should go back out and resume their lives. And that's cheap talk from elites who aren't frontline workers, who aren't in essential roles that put them at risk.

I think it's really being tossed off casually in an irresponsible manner. I think, you know, what's right to do is hard to know. But I think people are being very casual with the stakes right now, right?

People are dying, in the thousands. We're already over the totals for the Vietnam War. So, you know, this is just different than the kind of conspiracy content that Fox was running prior to this pandemic. The stakes are higher in a direct way for everybody.

STELTER: The stakes are so high.

Can you help us out?

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