For most of the last decade, the flow of misinformation was often easy to track in media, with right-wing media often forcing mainstream outlets to follow the stories and tone they favored. Now, a couple of months into President Donald Trump’s administration, this pattern has changed and new players have entered the ecosystem. Groups that used to be contained to their own bubble have been able to insert themselves into the food chain and been able to spread not just misleading, but patently false information to right-wing outlets and sometimes even in turn to mainstream media. A new dubious allegation regarding Susan Rice, former national security adviser to President Barack Obama, illustrates how this new pattern can spread pro-Trump misinformation and propaganda from fringe sources into mainstream media outlets.
Recently, fake news and the white nationalist “alt-right” movement have become two of the country’s biggest problems in terms of fighting misinformation. Both government officials and websites like Facebook and Google are trying to lessen the harmful impact as websites that share fake news continue to mislead news consumers. And the “alt-right” is growing in prominence thanks in part to Trump’s choice of Stephen Bannon, the former chairman of "alt-right” website Breitbart News, as his chief strategist. Fringe “alt-right” forums, on sites like Reddit, 4chan and 8chan, exercise influence by pushing conspiracy theories and leading harassment campaigns.
These different groups do not operate in a vacuum. Repeatedly, they have come together to spread and amplify their misinformation and claims. Often, a claim will start on a fringe outlet or forum, and other such sites will amplify the misinformation, then fake news purveyors will push it, and then the claim will jump into more traditional right-wing media before sometimes spreading into mainstream media. Trump aides and other people connected to Trump have even promoted some of those stories, crucially helping them break through at times.
And that brings us to Rice.
On April 2, Mike Cernovich, a self-described member of the “alt-right,” claimed in a post on Medium that the “White House Counsel’s office identified Rice as the person responsible for the unmasking” of Trump officials caught in surveillance of foreign officials “after examining Rice’s document log requests.” The claim then spread among fringe outlets such as the Gateway Pundit — which said the unmasking “was purely for political purposes” — and Infowars, and spread via posts on 4chan and Reddit.
As the claim started getting pickup on Twitter, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, promoted Cernovich with a tweet linking to the main page of his Medium blog (the next day, Donald Trump Jr. praised Cernovich for “breaking the #SusanRice story”).
The claim was then echoed by Bloomberg’s Eli Lake, who added a layer of credibility to the attempted smear, writing that Rice “requested the identities of U.S. persons in raw intelligence reports on dozens of occasions that connect to the Donald Trump transition and campaign.” Meanwhile, multiple fake news purveyors hyped the allegations, dubiously claiming that Rice “could be headed to jail” for “absolute treason.”
Lake conceded in his piece, however, that Rice’s requests “were likely within the law.” Legal and national security experts echoed that conclusion, saying Rice’s actions weren’t “odd or wrong,” did not indicate “anything improper whatsoever,” and were “within the scope of the job of a national security advisor like Rice.” Lake's caveats did not prevent him from going on both Sean Hannity's radio and Fox News show, where the right-wing host described the story as "worse than Watergate."
As the claim spread into the mainstream, some in right-wing media criticized mainstream outlets for not giving the story enough attention or for not presenting it the way they would. Although some mainstream figures have echoed the consensus of experts, others have also suggested that Rice could be guilty of some kind of wrongdoing. Fox News in particular insisted that something must be improper if not illegal about Rice's actions, and in their scramble to claim they may have had the story before Cernovich, likely outed themselves as another outlet that the White House used as a puppet for the Rice leak.
Right-wing criticism of mainstream media’s coverage will likely ramp up, spurring some mainstream outlets to defend their coverage or possibly tweak some of their framing under pressure.
This is the new media ecosystem in the Trump era. No longer are these false claims all originating in traditional right-wing media before mainstream outlets give in to pressure to cover them. Now they can start from these fringe pro-Trump propaganda outlets, with right-wing media picking them up. Meanwhile, members of the “alt-right” continue to gain more prominence and acceptance in traditional conservative and conservative media circles. Indeed, radio host Rush Limbaugh, while hyping the Rice story, bragged that mainstream media outlets are “not the arbiters anymore;" whitewashed the original source of the story, Cernovich, as simply a “pro-Trump blogger” and said CBS’ "60 Minutes" “tried to destroy him;" and criticized mainstream outlets for dismissing the story because it was pushed by right-wing media.
This is not the first example of misinformation following such a trajectory. In March, after a federal judge in Hawaii placed a hold on Trump’s revised Muslim ban, fringe “alt-right” outlets such as Infowars and Gateway Pundit pushed a conspiracy theory that appeared to have started on Reddit alleging that Obama conspired with the judge. The claim then spread among fake news purveyors and was pushed by Donald Trump Jr. before breaking through to more traditional conservative media figures and outlets like Hannity and the Independent Journal Review. Later that month, in order to back up Trump’s false claim that Obama wiretapped Trump Tower, Infowars dubiously claimed it had National Security Agency documents that provided proof. The claim made its way around other “alt-right” outlets and fake news purveyors and wound up being pushed at the top of the Drudge Report.
This is the danger that the new media environment presents. The fringe is no longer being siloed; it has been actively raised into the mainstream by pro-Trump forces both known and unknown, and has been repeatedly validated by both mainstream reporters and especially an administration that has no hesitation about lying to the world. It’s crucial that mainstream media outlets understand this new environment and the kind of claims and conspiracy theories it puts forth. It is one thing to share the mainstream with extremist cranks, propagandists and liars. It's another thing to succumb and do their pro-Trump misinforming for them.