Last week, my news feeds from Twitter and Facebook got swamped with reports from right-wing blogs saying: “Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegReuters poll finds Sanders cutting Biden national lead to single digits Biden says he’ll adopt plans from Sanders, Warren Buttigieg guest-hosts for Jimmy Kimmel: ‘I’ve got nothing else going on’ MORE Accused of Sexual Assault.”
My first reaction to the stories was to think they marked a sad end to the first presidential campaign by an openly gay man. Buttigieg, the Democratic mayor of South Bend, Ind., has been creating a stir since entering the 2020 presidential race.
Within hours, the ‘assault’ story was revealed to be a sick hoax perpetrated by two of President TrumpDonald John TrumpCuomo grilled by brother about running for president: ‘No. no’ Maxine Waters unleashes over Trump COVID-19 response: ‘Stop congratulating yourself! You’re a failure’ Meadows resigns from Congress, heads to White House MORE’s supporters.
The Daily Beast tied the scam to Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman, whom reporter Sam Stein described as “two of the most notorious smear merchants in politics.”
Stein reported that Wohl had been attempting to find gay Republicans who would levy false accusations against Buttigieg.
You may remember the 21-year-old Wohl as the alt-right provocateur who was banned from Twitter for promoting other hoaxes. He claimed evidence of sexual misconduct by Special Counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN’s Toobin warns McCabe is in ‘perilous condition’ with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill’s 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE; he started online rumors that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was dead; and he said Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisBiden tops Trump by 9 points in Fox News poll Biden could be picking the next president: VP choice more important than ever With VP pick, Biden can’t play small ball in a long ball world MORE (D-Calif.) was not eligible to be president because of some vague combination of her immigrant parents’ naturalization status and time spent in Canada during her upbringing.
Wohl bragged to a reporter earlier this year that for one of his made-up stories, “the believability stuck at about 15 to 18 percent by my measurement…not a bad campaign.”
The Mayor Pete hoax came as another social media hoax gained traction on Twitter. The #CharlottesvilleHoax pushed the lame argument that Trump was taken out of context when he said “very fine people” were on both sides of the violence sparked by Neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.
The Charlottesville-Truthers say that Trump was talking only about people who wanted to see Confederate statues preserved for history.
The idea that “fine people” march with Tiki-torch carrying Neo-Nazis chanting “Jews will not replace us!” is ludicrous, as Vice President Biden pointed out in his 2020 announcement video.
The emergence of the Charlottesville-Truther movement and the attempted smear on Buttigieg amount to a ‘Canary in the Coalmine,’ moment for American politics going into the 2020 race for president.
Christopher Wray, the FBI director, said in late April that Russia’s success in using the internet’s social media sites to promote distrust in government, and spread racial and religious divisions, is now a model for other countries who see a benefit in interfering in the 2020 race.
Russia, China and Iran are “going to keep adapting and upping their game,” Wray explained to the Council on Foreign Relations, adding that propaganda coming from trolls continues “pretty much unabated.”
The ugly online attack on Buttigieg came two days after a white nationalist teenager used an anonymous website, 8Chan, to declare his hatred of Jews before allegedly killing one and injuring three people at a San Diego synagogue.
“Every Jew is responsible for the meticulously planned genocide of the European race,” John Earnest reportedly wrote. “[Latinos] and [Blacks] are useful puppets for the Jew in terms of replacing Whites.”
The best hope in the fight against the rising online wave of anti-Semitism and racial poison is polling showing Americans souring on social media.
An NBC News//Wall Street Journal poll published last month found the following:
— 61 percent of Americans say social media “spreads unfair attacks and rumors against public figures and corporations.”
— 55 percent say social media “spreads lies and falsehoods.”
“If America was giving social media a Yelp review, a majority would give it zero stars,” said Micah Roberts, one of the pollsters who conducted the survey.
Absent action from the Trump administration, the question is whether this increased public skepticism will limit the power of social media platforms to distort political news.
The public concern evident in the polls led Facebook and Instagram last week to ban extremists such as Alex Jones and Infowars.
The Atlantic reported last week that Josh Russell, an expert on radical extremist use of the internet, reported that “more than 30 white-nationalist pages flagged to Facebook and Instagram last month are still up.”
But will the Trump administration ever do anything to protect elections? The odds look bad.
Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenHillicon Valley: Twitter falling short on pledge to verify primary candidates | Barr vows to make surveillance reforms after watchdog report | DHS cyber chief focused on 2020 Sen. Kennedy slams acting DHS secretary for lack of coronavirus answers The ‘accidental director’ on the front line of the fight for election security MORE, the former secretary of Homeland Security, reportedly was warned not to speak with Trump about creating a cabinet group to deal with ongoing Russian interference in the upcoming campaign as well as domestic hate-group propaganda.
One possible hope is that Congress will act.
Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonJuan Williams: Mueller, one year on Biden tops Trump by 9 points in Fox News poll With VP pick, Biden can’t play small ball in a long ball world MORE last week pointed out that if Republicans in Congress allow Trump’s indifference to carry the day, she can see Democrats playing the same game.
Playing off of Trump’s famous “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing” line from 2016, Clinton posed a theoretical query on MSNBC: “China, if you’re listening, Why don’t you get Trump’s tax returns? I’m sure our media would richly reward you.”
She quipped, “If you’re going to let Russia get away with what they did and are still doing,” why not “have a great power contest and let’s get the Chinese in on the side of somebody else.”
She is right. This whole thing is absurd. But it is also a cancer that can quickly spread deeper into the bones of American politics.
We can only hope that this disease is beat back as swiftly and decisively as the Mayor Pete hoax was last week.
Juan Williams is an author, and a political analyst for Fox News Channel.