In Brooke Binkowski’s mind, there’s a deliberate connection between the rise of the white supremacist movement and the proliferation of what’s come to be known as “fake news.”
If anyone would know, it’s Binkowski. As the managing editor of the venerable fact-checking news outlet Snopes, she’s spent years debunking viral, online disinformation. Because propagandists often want to split people apart, aiming their lies at pre-existing racial fault lines can be a way to achieve their goals.
“Because so much disinformation is geared toward splitting people apart, it’s often racialized,” she said.
In the past few months, Snopes has blown the whistle on wildly inaccurate stories about a Black Lives Matter organizer being sued for embezzling millions, ID cards issued by the city of Chicago that supposedly would allow undocumented immigrants to illegally vote in elections and the “Muslim” mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey, banning the word “Christmas.”
Binkowski hasn’t seen hate just in the online realm. Growing up in Southern California, she was personally targeted by white supremacists for recruitment. It sparked a lifelong interest in how white supremacy operates freely around the margins of polite society.
I talked with Binkowski about the indelible link between conspiracy theories and racist hate. I’ve edited our conversation for length and clarity.
Reveal’s Aaron Sankin: What’s the connection between “fake news” and the rise of white supremacist groups?
Brooke Binkowski: There’s definitely a connection between disinformation, propaganda and the rise of far-right reactionary politics. I have no doubt it’s being done deliberately. It’s a feature, not a bug.
And it’s not without historical precedent. The Nazis did this in the lead-up to rounding up and exterminating the Jews and the Roma. It started with really corrosive disinformation being spread through radio.
Racial fears, in particular, are very powerful because they tell you that you’re not a loser because you can’t get a job and girls don’t like you. There’s this global conspiracy to keep you down. That’s incredibly appealing if you’re a lost, white 20-something who feels ignored by society. I’m not saying that for compassionate purposes. They make this choice, and I have no sympathy for them. I’m saying this because it is crucial to understand who these people are and why they are being targeted for fake news.
Sankin: Are there specific examples of how the conspiratorial mindset plays into these racialized fears of the racial or cultural other?
For example, there’s a park in San Diego called Chicano Park. It’s in a working-class Mexican American neighborhood. I spend a lot of time there because that’s where a lot of my family and the people I love live. I’m white, and I have no problems there. There was recently an event there called “Patriot Picnic.” These people were calling themselves “patriots,” but they were going around with tattoos of swastikas that say “white pride” on them.
These people, these Nazis, were protesting there because they think it’s a white no-go zone. They literally think if they are there by themselves, they’re going to get beat up, or worse, by swarthy Chicano people. That’s what no-go zone actually means. It means white people need to buy a bunch of guns to walk through this neighborhood, which is completely untrue.
Even Pizzagate was predatory in a patriarchal, avuncular way. The whole thing was about how the Clinton Foundation are the real racists because they’re smuggling little black babies from Haiti through the basement of a pizza place, which doesn’t actually have a basement. They’re fetishizing and using black people as an excuse. It is still racialized, and it’s still corrosive.
Sankin: Snopes has been around for almost a quarter-century. Have these sorts of racialized fears always been a strong element of conspiracy theorizing on the internet? Or is what we’re seeing now something fundamentally new?
Binkowski: It’s a question of scale. It’s always been around.
There’s a really old conspiracy theory about a secret race of lizard people who secretly run the world. It was one of my very favorite conspiracy theories, until I found out lizard people are stand-ins for Jews. I was so bummed. So are vampires, by the way. The oldest version of vampires are sexy, swarthy men who would seduce young women, drink blood and were held back by crosses. Now that I see it, I can’t unsee that one.
In the ’40s and ’50s, there were a bunch of local radio news stories about how black people were coming into previously white towns, raping women and carrying away children, which was all fake. Whenever there’s a new form of mass communication, disinformation immediately follows before journalism can catch up. Journalism naturally takes more time, whereas it’s easy just to make stuff up. Because so much disinformation is geared toward splitting people apart, it’s often racialized.
Sankin: How different are these stories from the sort of conspiracy narratives promulgated by the left?
Binkowski: I think it’s about the same, but packaged differently.
If you go to Natural News (a conspiracy-minded site famous for pushing dubious claims about alternative medicine, genetically modified organisms and other health issues from a progressive perspective), it’s tuned into exactly the same line the far right is pushing. And they’re supposed to be a lefty site. But now it’s, “Buy guns, (Florida school shooting survivor) David Hogg is a crisis actor, and the government wants to forcibly vaccinate you.” That’s the crack in the armor they found. That’s where they can get through, the anti-vaxxer stuff.
Sankin: What about Infowars? It has a huge reach. It got the praise of President Donald Trump. Do you see Infowars spreading a lot of this racialized propaganda?
Binkowski: It’s really disgusting what Infowars does. It’s so irresponsible. It’s absolutely appalling. I don’t care who hears me say that because somebody needs to call Alex Jones out. He is knowingly spreading corrosive propaganda and disinformation that’s directly contributing to the suffering of countless people. He’s spreading these stories about Muslims. He’s pushing the crisis actor line. The guy never had any integrity or morals whatsoever. Now it’s getting more dangerous because he’s got more of a platform.
Sankin: Are these conspiracy theories actively being propagated through overt white supremacists and white nationalist groups? Are these things circulating on (neo-Nazi websites) Stormfront and the Daily Stormer? What’s the role of not just the crypto-racists, but the actual, self-proclaimed neo-Nazis?
Binkowski: Do you know “Weev”? Andrew Auernheimer (webmaster of the Daily Stormer)? I used to be friendly with that guy. We were LiveJournal buddies back in the early 2000s, back before he became a neo-Nazi after he got out of prison (for computer fraud). I was on the “Free Weev” bandwagon because I didn’t want him getting radicalized in prison. I didn’t think he was somebody who should have been made an example of.
Q: What made you think Weev would get radicalized in prison into becoming a white supremacist?
Binkowski: I grew up in San Diego. A lot of people were surprised to hear this, but there is a very heavy neo-Nazi contingent within San Diego County. It used to be more out in the ’90s, but it’s been kind of driven underground – at least until recently.
I was in high school in the ’90s, at the height of this wave, and weirdly enough, they tried to radicalize me. I was the kind of vulnerable 14-year-old girl that seniors would prey on. I was outgoing, but I really wanted to be accepted. On the outside, I was great radicalization material for them, I think. So these older boys would try to get me and my friends to come over to their houses. We were always flattered by this. But then, all of a sudden, they would be talking about how black people don’t deserve the same rights as white people. I was like, “Wait a second. Half my family is black, and I don’t believe any of this.”
I would tell them that and they would say, “Oh, we’re just kidding.” Once I figured out they weren’t joking, I stopped hanging around them because I didn’t want to be part of that.
They had offered me meth. They really wanted me to do meth. It was Southern California in the ’90s, so a lot of people did get on meth. It was a scourge back then. I never got into it. I don’t know what it says about the drug, or if it’s just a self-selecting group, but once people start using meth, I saw some of them becoming white supremacists.
Weev – on LiveJournal, when I started to distance myself from him a few years before he went to prison – he was writing a lot about scrubbing the grout out from the tiles of his bathroom with a toothbrush at 3 a.m. during a party. It was not normal behavior. He was obviously using pretty heavily.
I knew that if he went to prison, he would be ripe for this kind of thing.
Sankin: The biggest internet conspiracy that’s bubbling up right now is something called “QAnon.” Is that something you’ve looked at?
Binkowski: I will do my best to explain it. It’s basically a continuation of Pizzagate. It alleges (special counsel) Robert Mueller is working on ways to convict Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, who are secretly wearing ankle monitors. Trump is helping. He’s actually saving the United States from Russian intervention. He’s the good guy, playing nine-dimensional chess. All of this is supposedly being seeded by someone who posts on 4chan claiming to have a “Q clearance” in the federal government.
What’s dangerous about QAnon is they keep saying, “A storm is coming.”
It started when Trump cryptically said something about “the calm before the storm.”
What they’re doing now is saying, “You need to arm yourself. You need to be ready for the storm. You need to be ready for when it comes. Buy guns.”
What they’re doing is grooming this whole army.
Sankin: That’s the same narrative that you see in the white supremacy universe, people saying, “There’s a storm coming.”
But this storm is a race war, so people need to be prepared for violence. With something like QAnon, maybe they’re not saying explicitly it’s going to be a race war. But, for people who’ve already been indoctrinated with race war rhetoric, hearing they should take up arms against the government, it’s feeding into the same thing.
Sankin: If we’re in a situation where you have a whole ecosystem of, for lack of a better word, bullshit sowing division in the United States on explicitly racial lines, how do we fix it?
Binkowski: Here’s my idea: I want to pressure Facebook in particular, but also Twitter and Google, into giving journalism grants to small local newsrooms across the country as penance for helping seed this disinformation. A hundred thousand dollars a year might not make a huge difference to The Washington Post, but it would make a huge difference to The (Chula Vista, California) Star-News.
That’s the only way to beat it back. People talk about more media literacy education, but it strikes me as more of the intellectual snobbery that got us here to begin with. It’s saying only idiots fall for fake news. Therefore, I’m not falling for anything, and everything I read must be true.
Education is good, but journalism is better.
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