President Donald Trump is about to resign as a result of the Russia scandal. Bernie Sanders and Sean Hannity are Russian agents. The Russians have paid off House Oversight Chair Jason Chaffetz to the tune of $10 million, using Trump as a go-between. Paul Ryan is a traitor for refusing to investigate Trumps Russia ties. Libertarian heroine Ayn Rand was a secret Russian agent charged with discrediting the American conservative movement.
These are all claims you can find made on a new and growing sector of the internet that functions as a fake news bubble for liberals, something Ive dubbed the Russiasphere. The mirror image of Breitbart and InfoWars on the right, it focuses nearly exclusively on real and imagined connections between Trump and Russia. The tone is breathless: full of unnamed intelligence sources, certainty that Trump will soon be imprisoned, and fever dream factual assertions that no reputable media outlet has managed to confirm.
Twitter is the Russiaspheres native habitat. Louise Mensch, a former right-wing British parliamentarian and romance novelist, spreads the newest, punchiest, and often most unfounded Russia gossip to her 283,000 followers on Twitter. Mensch is backed up by a handful of allies, including former NSA spook John Schindler (226,000 followers) and DC-area photographer Claude Taylor (159,000 followers).
Theres also a handful of websites, like Palmer Report, that seem devoted nearly exclusively to spreading bizarre assertions like the theory that Ryan and Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell funneled Russian money to Trump a story that spread widely among the sites 70,000 Facebook fans.
Beyond the numbers, the unfounded left-wing claims, like those on the right, are already seeping into the mainstream discourse. In March, the New York Times published an op-ed by Mensch instructing members of Congress as to how they should proceed with the Russia investigation (I have some relevant experience, she wrote). Two months prior to that, Mensch had penned a lengthy letter to Vladimir Putin titled Dear Mr. Putin, Lets Play Chess in which she claims to have discovered that Edward Snowden was part of a years-in-the-making Russian plot to discredit Hillary Clinton.
These three Mensch, Schindler, and Taylor form a kind of self-reinforcing information circle, retweeting and validating one anothers work on a nearly daily basis. A quick Twitter search reveals hundreds of interactions between the three on the platform in recent months, many of which reach huge audiences on Twitter (judging by the retweet and favorite counts). Theyre also reliably boosted by a few allies with large followings conservative NeverTrumper Rick Wilson, the anonymous Twitter account Counterchekist, and financial analyst Eric Garland (best known as the time for some game theory tweetstormer.)
The Palmer Report, and its creator, little-known journalist Bill Palmer, is kind of a popularizer of the Russiasphere. It reports the same kind of extreme, thinly sourced stuff for instance, a story titled CIA now says theres more than one tape of Donald Trump with Russian prostitutes often, though not always, sourced to Mensch and company. This seems to personally irk Mensch, who has occasionally suggested the Palmer Report is ripping her off.
Yet nonetheless, Palmer appears to have built up a real audience. According to Quantcast, a site that measures web traffic, the Palmer Report got around 400,000 visitors last month more than GQ magazines website. The Russian prostitute story was shared more than 41,000 times on Facebook, according to a counter on Palmers site; another story alleging that Chaffetz was paid off by Trump and Russia got about 29,000.
This stuff is real, and theres a huge appetite for it.
Thats how the GOP fell for conspiracy thinking during the Obama years. Theres nothing about Democratic psychology that prevents them from doing the same which means the burden is on Democratic elites to correct it.
Democratic partisans and liberal media outlets are the ones best positioned to push back against this kind of stuff. Rank-and-file Democrats trust them; if theyre saying this stuff is ridiculous, then ordinary liberals will start to think the same thing. Even if they just ignore it, then the Russiasphere will be denied the oxygen necessary for it to move off of Twitter and into the center of the political conversation.
Scrutiny from trusted media sources and criticism from allied elites can help discourage this kind of behavior, Nyhan says. It wont suppress it there are always places it can go but on the margin, allies can help limit the spread of conspiracy theorizing inside their party.
So thats the key question going forward: Will the mainstreaming of the Russiasphere speed up and birth something like a Breitbart of the left? If so, itll create an environment where the people most willing to say the most absurd things succeed, pulling the entire Democratic Party closer to the edge and leaving liberals trapped in the same hall of mirrors as conservatives.
Read the rest here.
I see this stuff retweeted on twitter and then minutes later debunked. Gotta have multiple sources to stay truly informed.