Accuracy in Media

A story in Sunday’s New York Times magazine accuses President Trump of trafficking in conspiracy theories through his Twitter account while trafficking in a few questionable theories itself.

The headline itself – “In Trump’s Twitter Feed: Conspiracy-Mongers, Racists and Spies,” by Mike McIntire, Karen Yourish and Larry Buchanan – suggests the story is more about poking fun at Trump’s narrative than revealing anything meaningful about his Twitter feed.

The lead further makes the point: “In September, an obscure Twitter account promoting a fringe belief about an anti-Trump cabal within the government tweeted out a hashtag: #FakeWhistleblower,” McIntire, Yourish and Buchanan wrote.

“It was typical for the anonymous account, which traffics in far-right content and a conspiracy theory known as QAnon, some of whose adherents think that satanic pedophiles control the ‘deep state.’ The Federal Bureau of Investigation recently labeled QAnon a potential domestic terror threat.”

Within a week, the Times reported, “hundreds of QAnon believers and “MAGA” activists had joined in, posting memes and bogus reports to undermine the complaint by a government whistleblower that President Trump and pressed Ukraine’s leader for dirt on former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his son.”

Trump promptly released the transcript of the call, in which he asks Volodomyr Zelensky, president of Ukraine, to look into Crowdstrike, the sole source for the claim Russian intelligence was responsible for hacking the Democratic National Committee’s website and distributing damaging emails to Wikileaks, which published them shortly before the Democratic National Convention in 2016.

The Times’ point was that once Trump, who follows only 47 accounts on Twitter – mostly family, familiar conservative media figures and members of his administration – but has 66.5 million followers, retweets something, it takes on a life of its own. The “FakeWhistleblower” hashtag went from less than 100 mentions per hour to more than 1,200 per hour after Trump tweeted about it, the Times reported.

“Such is the frenetic life cycle of conspiracy-driven propaganda, fakery and hate in the age of the first Twitter presidency,” McIntire, Yourish and Buchanan wrote. “Mr. Trump, whose own tweets have warned of deep-state plots against him, accused the House speaker of treason and labeled Republican critics ‘human scum,’ has helped spread a culture of suspicion and distrust of facts into the political mainstream.”

The Times wrote that Trump “is also awash in an often toxic torrent that sluices into his Twitter account,” from users promoting hashtags such as “#HitlerDidNothingWrong, #IslamIsSatanism and #WhiteGenocide.” It has no idea whether Trump sees these tweets – “filters can block offensive material,” the reporters admit – but “the president clearly sees some of it, because he dips into the frothing currents and serves up noxious bits to the rest of the world.”

This led the Times to go through 11,000 tweets from Trump to try to determine “the ways he is exposed to information” so it can gain a “comprehensive view … of a virtual world in which the president spends significant time mingling with extremists, impostors and spies.”

It wrote of being alarmed that at least 23,000 of those 66 million followers “have QAnon references in their profiles.”

Thus, with Trump’s arrival in the Oval Office, “Twitter managed to connect the ultimate seat of power to the darkest corners of the web for the first time,” McIntire, Yourish and Buchanan wrote. “There is little evidence that Mr. Trump harbors concerns about promoting accounts that traffic in fake or inflammatory material.”

The Times expressed its concern that, with his army of Twitter-based informants took shape, the president began to outright reject the views of the Times.

“The implications of Mr. Trump’s Twitter habit became apparent early in his presidency,” they wrote. “In short order, he was railing about ‘fake news,’ questioning the findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and peddling the fiction that millions of illegal ballots had cost him the popular vote.”

Later, they accused the president of retweeting one man who has advanced “the discredited suggestion that Mr. Obama wiretapped Mr. Trump’s phone in 2016.”

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