The FBI’s investigation into President Trump’s Russian connections is now looping in notable right-wing news sites, according to a new report.
McClatchy reported on Monday evening that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was looking into the possibility of whether or not the Russian Federation used prominent far-right news sources like Breitbart News (formerly run by current White House chief strategist Steve Bannon), conspiracy theory site Infowars, and Russian-funded sources like RT and Sputnik News to plant stories that cast Donald Trump in a positive light while simultaneously casting doubt on Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.
A key facet of the FBI’s investigation — conducted by the agency’s Counterintelligence Division — is how Russian government operatives may have used “bots” to spam social media hubs like Facebook and Twitter with links to pro-Trump stories from those sites in order to help make those stories go viral and improve public perception of the billionaire real estate scion. The bots may have also spread links to WikiLeaks’ stash of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee’s server and the personal Gmail account of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta.
Some of the news that bots spread that was helpful to Trump and damaging to Clinton turned out to be entirely false. McClatchy cited the work of Oxford University Internet Institute professor Philip Howard, who has extensively studied how bots operate. Howard said that bots helped spread the fake story about Comet Ping-Pong, a pizza shop in Washington, DC that operated a secret child sex slave operation out of its basement, in a faux-scandal later referred to as “Pizzagate.”
Even though the Pizzagate story was debunked (the pizza restaurant didn’t even have a basement), that didn’t stop news sites catering to the extreme right, like Infowars, from breathlessly covering it. The propagation of Pizzagate conspiracy theories eventually drove a 28-year-old North Carolina man to drive to Comet Ping-Pong with several weapons and rescue the victims of the nonexistent pedophilia ring.
According to former Pentagon official Mike Carpenter, who focused on Russia while working for the Department of Defense, the viral spread of pro-Trump and anti-Clinton news was done conspicuously to distract media attention away from Trump’s scandals (like the leaked Access Hollywood tape in which Trump grabbed about sexually assaulting women).
“They very carefully timed release of information to shift the news cycle away from stories that clearly hurt Mr. Trump, such as his inappropriate conduct over the years,” Carpenter told McClatchy. “Those stories got amplified by fringe elements of our media like Breitbart.”
Kevin Wallace is a journalist with five years’ experience in print and digital media, and covers politics, media, and culture for the Resistance Report. He lives in Tallahassee, Florida.