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Jan 2, 22

From “Race Realism” to Anti-Vaxx, How the Spread of Conspiracy Theories Has Helped the Far-Right Grow

An analysis of how the spread of mass disinformation has helped grow support for the far-Right. 

Back in October, an IT specialist named Rob Willis reached out to tech news web site Ars Technica. His conscience was troubling him, and he had a story to tell. Willis had spent a couple of years in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election building and running a huge and highly sophisticated network of fake news web sites and Facebook pages pushing pro-Trump lies and propaganda, all at the behest of a mysterious news organization he initially referred to only by the pseudonym “Koala Media.” Willis’ operation, while not officially connected to the Trump campaign, racked up millions of views and likes, at one point drawing a retweet from Trump himself. Koala Media was a major factor in spreading right wing talking points and conspiracy theories from early 2015 to 2019.

The mainstream media failed utterly to pick up the story. After months of breathless fulmination over “Russiagate,” there was no way they were going to entertain any possibility that Trump’s social media triumphs had actually been accomplished by one guy with a handful of VPN accounts. Willis himself, who seems to genuinely regret his service to the far-Right cause, claims “Russia played such a minor role that they weren’t even a blip on the radar.” Granted, it’s not likely he spent much time investigating the issue, but whatever the relative contributions made by Russian and homegrown disinformation efforts to Trump’s 2016 election victory, this stance probably doomed any chance of Willis’ story being told outside of techie circles.

A few days after the original story broke, Willis, after absorbing some serious shit-talking on the internet, was no longer willing to perpetrate a “half-assed whistleblow,” and named his old employer. It wasn’t Breitbart, OAN, Real News Network or any of the other usual suspects. Instead, Willis’ work had been directed by NaturalNews, an on-line purveyor of questionable medical advice and quack cures. Today, the link between anti-vaxxers and the far-Right is well established, but before the COVID-19 pandemic quackery and fascism were far less closely associated than they are now, and it is reasonable to ask why and how NaturalNews ended up being the standard bearer for Trump’s social media manipulation campaign. The answer seems to be that they had a bunch of suckers already lined up, giving them a head start.

There’s a rule of internet scams that the initial pitch shouldn’t be too slick and convincing. This is why Nigerian 419 email scams were always written in fractured English, and why those “one weird trick” ads featured such crudely drawn graphics. The idea is to weed out the smart people early, to avoid wasting time on prospective marks who will never hand over any money. Initial response rates will suffer, but this can be made up in volume, and those who do click the link are self certifying as Grade-A suckers. NaturalNews operated on a conceptually similar principle. They had been around for about a decade at that point, peddling suspect supplements and “natural” treatments, all the while amassing an enormous database of pre-screened idiots. This left them perfectly positioned to expand into the realm of electoral politics, a move that coincided with Willis’ arrival. Anybody who already believed in, as Willis put it, “lemons curing cancer,” would hardly strain at so eminently reasonable a supposition as Mexico paying for Trump’s border wall. It was just a matter of pushing the new message to the old marks, something Willis proved to be very good at.

It is clear from Willis’ account and quotes from other NaturalNews ex-employees that everyone involved knew they were running a scam, one that began even before Willis’ hiring.

From the original article:

Sources also told Ars that Koala Media owners realized the massive potential for financial gain in pushing out the pro-Trump and anti-Clinton rhetoric after analyzing Trump’s voter base and their emotional reactions to the fake news articles all adding to traffic. Had Clinton’s voter base earned them more money, the pro-Clinton narrative might have been their focus, claim the sources.

Facebook finally banned NaturalNews content in June of 2019, mirror sites and all, but at least four years too late, and only after YouTube, Twitter, and even Pinterest had done the same. By then, less than a year before the pandemic, the site was among the top seven most influential anti-vaccination outlets on Facebook, and far and away the craziest of the seven. Featuring a huge following among Trump supporters and heavy doses of conspiratorial ranting, the site had already established anti-vaccination narratives among a wide swath of the right wing before the pandemic struck – and made millions doing it. NaturalNews’ efforts were therefore self-sustaining, an important element of their strategy.

Facebook has been fanning the flames ever since. They need suckers too, after all. Their revenue depends almost entirely on advertising, and most internet ads only pay the host when a viewer clicks on them. Older white users with disposable income who are gullible enough to click on ads – the core anti-vaxxer demographic – are consequently pure gold. The social media giant’s reluctance to curb the right-wing is well documented, but intense public pressure has forced them to ban such obviously hateful groups as Proud Boys and Oath Keepers. Anti-vaxxer and reopening groups have mostly flown under the radar, a few high profile exceptions like NaturalNews not withstanding. Antifascist think tank Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights recently published a 13 part series entitled Facebook and Covid Denial, which all antifascists should read. In it, IREHR chronicles in painstaking detail the ongoing trend of white supremacy and other oppressive ideas being spread in the comments on anti-vaxx posts, taking advantage of Facebook’s comparatively lenient approach to moderating comments.

This is not to say the relationship between explicit white supremacists and the broader anti-vaxx movement always runs smoothly. Nick Fuentes can testify to that. He and a few Groyper pals turned up at an anti-vaxx protest outside Pfizer headquarters in November, only to be chased out and denounced by the organizers. Fuentes then complained bitterly that the organizers “…hate us more than they hate the vaccine.” We shouldn’t be too encouraged by this sort of squabble however. While not every anti-vaxxer is a hardcore fascist, the anti-vaxx movement constitutes an enormous and fertile recruiting ground for the extreme Right.

It wasn’t always like that. Racists used to be able to count on a broad consensus among white people that theirs was the superior race, backed up by a spurious and incomplete understanding of genetic science. In fascism’s formative years, before the human genome had been sequenced, before the structure of DNA had been deciphered – before DNA was even known to be the repository of genetic information, the idea of a master race had sufficient superficial plausibility to form the basis for a political program.

Thanks to Mendel and Darwin, it was known that heritable traits were somehow transmitted in units called “genes” that came in pairs, and that these traits evolved across generations in response to natural selection. That was about it. The prevailing state of incomplete knowledge allowed the concepts of social Darwinism and eugenics to flourish behind a veneer of scientific respectability, and eventually help justify the atrocities of the Third Reich. During the height of the eugenics frenzy in the 1920s and 30s, genetics and eugenics were considered essentially the same field. Tenured professors at prestigious universities published papers in respected journals concerning the best way to identify and sterilize “defectives” and the “feeble-minded” (who were of course mostly poor people of color). (Read Edwin Black’s War Against the Weak for details.)

Today we know that there is no significant genetic difference between the so-called races. Visible superficial characteristics such as skin tone have no correlation with any physical or mental abilities. No respectable scientist’s career would could survive claiming otherwise. (The last one who tried was Larry Summers, who was fired from his position as president of Harvard in 2006 for suggesting that women’s brains were biologically unsuited for math and science.) “Scientific racism” is dead (if not quite buried). Its last gasp was The Bell Curve, published over a quarter century ago, and soundly debunked even at the time. Racism can no longer claim any basis in science or logic. Its only chance of spreading is therefore through people to whom science and logic mean nothing – and anti-vaxxers constitute an enormous reservoir of such delusion.

Sinclair Lewis might or might not have said, “When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross,” but it’s a safe bet that he never thought it would be peddling horse de-wormer and screaming about vaccine-borne 5G nano-transmitters. Nonetheless, that seems to be what’s happening. Anti-vaxx attitudes are so widespread on the right that even fascists who have been active since before the pandemic are all on the bandwagon now. No self-respecting Proud Boy would dare suggest the whole group get vaccinated and wear masks – he’d be laughed off Parler.

Fascism has always been prone to cultishness and conspiracy theories, but these days it’s reaching new heights of ridiculousness. We can’t know how everything will pan out, but we can rule out anything we’ve seen before. There’s no point waiting patiently until we spot a rerun of Germany in the 1930s, or the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, or any other historical precedent. Nor should we distort current events to create tortured historical parallels, contrary to the tendency to see Weimar Germany in every blotch of the political Rorschach test. 21st century US fascism incorporates a healthy dose of Idiocracy, which we need to account for in our analyses as we struggle against it.

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