NOTE: Middle East Eye published a new piece of mine on the prospect of Bibi Netanyahu being indicted and what this may mean for Israeli politics and the peace process. I hope you’ll read it and promote it on social media and via e mail.
Politico has published a blockbuster story about a white nationalist conspiracy to dupe the media into reporting that Parkland shooter, Nikolas Cruz, was a member of the Florida neo-Nazi group. But what is most shocking about the story (at least to me) is the key role played by Jonathan Greenblatt’s ADL in spreading the disinformation. The ADL employs staff who monitor alt-right and neo-Nazi social media platforms. But using private forums that weren’t monitored by its staff, a large group of white nationalists had concocted a conspiracy to fool the ADL and media into believing that Cruz was one of them.
This follows a common tactic of sowing discord in society as a whole, exploiting the powerful role of the media to disseminate lies which promote the alt-right’s interests:
[Joan] Donovan [of the think tank, Data and Society] called this an instance of “source hacking,” a tactic by which fringe groups coordinate to feed false information to authoritative sources such as ADL researchers. These experts, in turn, disseminate the information to reporters, and it reaches thousands of readers before it can be debunked.
“It’s a very effective way of getting duped,” Donovan said.
All it takes is one overly gullible reporter or researcher to believe your lies. That turns the dross you’re offering to gold and fools millions into believing lies. To use another analogy, it’s like a parasite which disguises itself as an innocuous agent and enters a host. Once the host’s defenses are fooled into trusting the parasite it is then able to wreak havoc and eventually destroy the host. Not that the alt-right is going to destroy American society. But they’ll take this as far as they can and as far as we let them.
To note an eerily similar modus operandi, this is precisely what the Russian election hoax strategy involved. You plant lies in social media, attempt to get the MSM to cover the fake news stories as real. Then when society finds it’s been hoaxed it will no longer view traditional sources of information as reliable. This in turn degrades society as a whole, which no longer believes there are institutions to trust. It turns us all on each other and permits the breakdown of the very values which hold us together as a people.
The ADL professes to be a world-class researcher and expert on extremism. But this incident and others on which I’ve reported here show that it is woefully inept at dealing with these far-right groups. That either it ignores their real crimes entirely, as in the case of Blaze Bernstein; or that it is easily duped by them:
“All of our evidence seems to point to the ADL getting this wrong,” said Joan Donovan, a researcher who tracks online misinformation campaigns for Data & Society, a think tank in New York City.
The ADL subsequently revised its report, as did many news outlets.
“ADL shared information from our experts on extremism and claims from white supremacist that we believed could be helpful to both law enforcement and the public due to the fluid and evolving nature of the events,” an ADL spokesperson said in a statement on Friday. “Confirmation of whether Cruz was part of ROF is now in the hands of law enforcement, and that’s what the Broward sheriff’s team is looking into.”
This response is disingenuous because it describes a research and reporting process that is bogus. If you are a reputable organization devoted to the study of extremism you make it a habit of only passing on legitimate reports to law enforcement. If you don’t, then no one will believe anything you say. So claiming that as an organization you merely pass along poorly vetted information to the police and then allow them to determine its credibility has things ass-backwards. If your information is bogus you only waste the precious time of authorities, who have to track down the elements of the hoax which suckered you. Believe me, they have better things to do when investigating a mass killing like this one.
To be fair, white supremacists aren’t the only ones playing these games. A former Shabak agent fed me two false stories which I published some years ago. Obviously, he became persona non grata after his fraud was exposed. Other right-wing Israelis have attempted (and failed) to dupe me a number of times. This is a game these people play. As a professional journalist you develop a sixth sense about such fraud and usually can avoid it. Given the circumstances of this hoax as portrayed in the Politico article, it seems clear that the ADL and other media outlets let their guard down, and violated basic rules of journalism (know your source, secure his bona fides, etc.)
I don’t know what’s going on in Greenblatt’s ADL. But it has made a series of terrible choices and decisions of late. Instead of catching extremists before they kill, it’s focused on non-existent threats like smearing Keith Ellison for attending a dinner whose guests included Louis Farrakhan; and demanding yet another denunciation by Barack Obama of Farrakhan after a photographer, seeking his moment of fame, dusted off a fourteen year-old photo of the future president at a Congressional Black Caucus luncheon which honored Farrakhan.
It’s also devoted precious resources to hounding social media platforms for not doing a better job of keeping anti-Israel content off social media platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Google. It even hired a social media czar whose job is to permanently lobby for censorship of controversial content. No doubt she’s also going to be responsible for doing serious fundraising amidst the enormous wealth in Silicon Valley.
Get your priorities straight, ADL.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.