The coronavirus pandemic has been marked by medical uncertainty, rapidly changing information, and partisan rancor, making it a prime target for the spread of disinformation: some of that disinformation is about unproven cures, for both the disease and the disintegrating economy; some is intended to delegitimize the politicians who may or may not be in a position to steer the nation through it (and some of it comes not via the internet but from the president himself; see the man who died after heeding Trump’s assurances that chloroquine was a possible answer to coronavirus). Jiore Craig is a political consultant at a research firm, GQR Insights and Action, who has spent the past four years tracking the spread of disinformation online, much of it originating with, or being propagated by, the far-right political media — sites like Breitbart and Infowars. The Cut spoke to her about the patterns she’s seen and how they’re playing out in the midst of this pandemic.
Can you describe what you do for a living?
I try to figure out how public opinion is being formed online. We’re looking at what is going on on social media, and especially how disinformation is affecting what the public thinks about issues, candidates, and policy proposals. So we study conservative bad actors, those known for putting out disinformation, and what’s been interesting in the midst of COVID-19 is that even they needed to take a moment to get their bearings. Typically bad actors on the right — conservative online media which rampantly spreads disinformation — are very quick to align, and get their messaging straight, which usually comes down to reaching for handy attacks, targeting women, etc. But in this moment, it took a while for them to turn their cannons in the same direction.
Who are these conservative bad actors you’re referring to?
Obviously there’s Fox News, but I’m talking about more specialized online publications, like Breitbart, the Daily Caller, Red State, Town Hall, and people like Ben Shapiro and Tomi Lahren. There’s something called Salem Media Group; they control niche Facebook pages like I Am A Conservative Woman and Shut Down Planned Parenthood, and the social network only recently identified that both of those pages were controlled by Salem. These sites are different from Twitter. Twitter is where more journalists and opinion elites are, and so journalists write a lot about trends they see on Twitter. But I focus on what’s being shared on Facebook and other platforms where the majority of voters are spending their time. We know that Facebook increasingly has an older audience, so I look at what’s spreading there.
You mentioned that one of the key moves of these sites is targeting women. Is that the case even in the midst of COVID-19 panic?
What I should explain is that when multiple publications act at once on a social-media platform they get an algorithmic benefit. So those pages I mentioned often coordinate; they’re posting at the same time and coordinating around specific attacks, and one area where they do that is attacks on women. And there is a good example involving coronavirus. When Trump called out individual politicians, including governors like Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, it was very easy for these sites to use a typical framing right away: an unflattering picture of her, where she looks drunk or cross-eyed, or appears dumb, crazy, emotional, unhinged, angry. The sites are ready to echo each other, and so they amplified an attack on Whitmer more than they amplified attacks on other male governors that Trump got into fights with last week. Now part of that is that Whitmer is in a swing state, while Andrew Cuomo, for example, is not. But it’s also that those misogynistic frames are so readily available to them.
How unusual is it to find these right-wing sources in disarray as they have been in the midst of COVID-19?
Usually they’re very quick to decide what line of attack they’re using, but since Trump wasn’t clear on what to say or do about coronavirus for a while, these far-right outlets didn’t have a direct line to use right away. We’ve seen this happen before, most recently around impeachment. It took them a moment and then they all attacked Representative Adam Schiff of California. They’re very organized, very militant: they will push out the same line as a steady drum beat— the same hashtags, #shiftySchiff or #nervousNancy, to signal that there’s a trend — whereas voices on the left are more individualistic.
So now with Coronavirus, they’ve landed on attacking the left about “PC culture” — arguing that the left is more worried about the racist phrasing Trump uses for the virus than about the virus itself. That’s an example of something they’ve unified on since last week, because they know this playbook; they know how to attack the left on PC culture; they can run with that.
Are they likely to stick with that?
They prefer to stay on the same topic for as long as they can. They won’t move off of it just because the news cycle moves off of it. If they’re getting engagement and they know their audience reacts to it they will stay on it for longer. The left responds more to the news and typically, news and social media trend together. But whenever we see a social media spike that isn’t correlated with what’s happening in the news and wonder what’s driving that, it’s something that is driven by the right.
What has surprised you about what you’ve found out about the spread of disinformation in the U.S. versus other countries?
Definitely how under-aware people are of what’s going on on these sites. When I was just getting my bearings in the U.S. in 2016, I assumed that what I was finding was common knowledge and not interesting to anybody. But people had never heard of some of these sites. Since then, there’s been a lot more published but I still think people underestimate how wide-reaching these pages are and how good they are at repetition. The second part is, how much of what is published online from the right is connected back to pretty extreme movements. I wasn’t expecting my work — which is typically to deal with candidates and how opinions about them are formed — to get so quickly into hate speech, man-o-spheres, intense online misogyny. It’s a thin line to try to walk, where you want to be aware that this is out there, but you don’t want to elevate it. But the reality is that this is what the mainstream is now on the right.
The conservative media I mentioned earlier, which some may consider fringe, have become more mainstream on social media in terms of the volume of content they generate and their reach. It’s surprising how quickly you can get from these sites to truly fringe ideology platforms like 8Kun or Discord.
Then there’s the fact that every topic I look at comes back to some extreme misogynistic characterizations. For example, you can’t look at what’s going on with climate change without looking at horrible attacks on Greta Thunberg that originate in the horrible man-o-sphere underbelly of the internet. It’s the same thing with candidates, with Pelosi, or AOC or Kamala or Warren. The misogyny is not fringe; it’s mainstream, and a well-coordinated operation, all very interconnected. You can see the images, because so much of this is about visualization, and you can see the repetition: images of Warren cross-eyed in a headdress, or Pelosi looking under the influence.
What’s your prediction about how disinformation spread will change as the pandemic rages on?
I think we’re going to see a lot of conspiracy theories being applied. But the bad actors don’t really know who to attack at the moment; it can’t quite be about government control, because Trump is the government. So there’s going to be a question of how to make it about the Democrats: maybe invoking false claims around martial law. You have Alex Jones and Infowars profiting off of readiness products because people are scared. We may get to the conspiracy that Democrats want to take away their guns and take away their rights. And I think both sides will start asking: Were you focused on people’s health or were you focused on politics-or-profits? Both sides will try to make it seem like the other side isn’t focused on the issue at hand.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.