This is a transcript of the May 23 edition of Trumpcast, a discussion with Zack Beauchamp, a Vox senior writer, about the rise of fake news on the left. These transcripts are lightly edited and may contain errors. For the definitive record, consult the podcast.
Jacob Weisberg: There are these stories. They fill my Twitter feed: Trump’s about to be indicted. Pence is about to be indicted. Paul Ryan’s about to be indicted. There are tapes of Trump cavorting with Russian prostitutes. I get the instinct to wish it’s true, but it just obviously isn’t.
I think you call it a “fake news bubble for liberals.” It seems like a mirror image of what we’ve been dealing with on the far right these past years, through the Obama era and birtherism and everything else.
Beauchamp: Right. And if you put even the littlest amount of scrutiny into fact-checking here, you would see some red flags.
The sources of most of these stories are three people. There’s Louise Mensch, who is a former British MP. John Schindler, who is a former NSA agent, and also a former professor at the Naval War College who was fired for a really weird sexting scandal. Well, resigned, technically. Then, third, you have Claude Taylor, who, as best as I can tell, is a D.C.-area photographer who hasn’t had any role in any government since 1998.
If those people were to have exceptional sources and be able to break news that no one at the New York Times or the Washington Post or ProPublica or anyone else with a lot of investigative resources could break, it would be striking. It would be incredible. It would be one of the greatest journalistic stories of, I don’t know, the past 60 years.
Except that’s not what’s happening. Over and over again, the things that they say turn out to be wrong, or at least impossible to prove. There are a small number of things that are true. But you could detect the difference if you put the littlest amount of work into figuring out what was going on. And people just don’t.
Weisberg: Let’s talk about Louise Mensch first, because she seems to be very much at the heart of this. I should say we’ve invited her on this show in the past but she hasn’t been too receptive. I’d still like to have her come on.
She has the most credibility because, as you say, she was a member of Parliament. A conservative member of Parliament. She is not necessarily identified with the left in terms of her own political background. She got one big scoop, which was that the FBI had a warrant to intercept the communications between the Trump organization and these Russian banks. She doesn’t come totally out of left field.
Beauchamp: She did get that right, and she got that well before the mainstream media caught up. That was legitimately impressive, and so she parlayed that into quite a following. She got herself an op-ed in the New York Times that helped boost her own credibility.
She seems like she should be, on the surface of it, as you say, quite credible. But if you go through her history in the U.K., you find that she has a long, long pattern of making strange claims.
My favorite example of a weird Louise Mensch quote, that’s not relevant to Russia but illustrates her broader mind-set, is that she said that she would mute anyone on Twitter who used the word “Zionist,” as it was a code word for “anti-Semite.” Then, when someone asked her, “Would you mute Theodor Herzl?” she said, “Yeah, if he used ‘Zionist.’ It’s a code word for ‘anti-Semite.’” She doesn’t know who Theodor Herzl is and doesn’t have much of a stake in the argument. She’s just saying something that furthers her point of view.
Weisberg: Although she’s kind of right about that. People who go on about Zionists on Twitter—there’s a pretty good overlap with anti-Semites.
Beauchamp: True, unless you’re actually Theodor Herzl, father of modern Zionism.
Weisberg: This is what’s frustrating about her. There’s some mixture of actual sourced information. Obviously, she doesn’t conform to any sort of journalistic standards that we would apply, but she does not seem to be making everything up. But then there’s a side of her that just seems very wacky.
Beauchamp: Yeah. It’s the “making everything up” part that you said that’s the key bit.
She doesn’t make literally everything up, but she does make up a lot of things. For instance, she said that Russia was funding the protests in Ferguson for some reason that I can’t figure out. I don’t know where that comes from. I assume there’s no way that that’s true in any meaningful sense, so it’s probably made up. Sometimes it seems like there are some people in the intelligence world who talk to her, a very small number of people, but they don’t have the knowledge to power all of the scoops that she says she has.
The small nugget of true information ends up getting extrapolated into these much broader, bigger scoops and claims. For instance, her claim that Representative Jason Chaffetz was being blackmailed by the Russians, that they had kompromat on him. It’s very hard to believe, impossible to believe given what we know about Chaffetz in public and what mainstream reporters are capable of uncovering.
Weisberg: Part of what is effective about conspiracy theorizing is that you can never disprove it, because you can’t prove a negative. You can’t prove that the Russians don’t have kompromat of Jason Chaffetz. But then it just evolves and you’re onto the next crazy theory.
Beauchamp: Someone I was talking with analogized her practice, what these people do, to baseball. A good baseball player is batting about .300. A great one, anyway. She’s probably at .025. But her followers don’t pick up on the other parts of it, because unlike in baseball—you know when somebody strikes out in baseball, it’s clear—but it’s not clear when Mensch is striking out, because she could just say, “Well, this hasn’t happened yet.”
As you said, it’s very rare that something that she said ends up getting disproven. So that .025 of correct hits, for her followers, ends up being proof that she has better sources than anyone else in the world.
Beauchamp: No, but I think we can go with it.
Weisberg: Given her Russian obsession, it seems appropriate. They are a little bit of a digital troll army, right? Have they come after you since you went after her?
Beauchamp: Not nearly as much as I expected them to.
When I asked her for comment on the piece, she said no and then called me a “dickhead” on Twitter, that’s a literal quote. Then her followers went after me because she quote-tweeted me. But I haven’t seen her mention the story yet. I’ve been looking because I’ve been really curious to see her reaction.
Weisberg: It’s not just Louise Mensch. As you mentioned, there’s this thing, the Palmer Report, and Claude Taylor, the photographer. How do the other centers of this Russia-sphere relate to her?
Beauchamp: The three of them amplify each other and give each other credibility and knowledge. Mensch isn’t a Russia expert, but Schindler did work on Russia and wrote about Russia, so he provides her with the type of terms that you’re supposed to use if you’re familiar with the intelligence world or familiar with the way that Russian intelligence services work. Taylor is constantly claiming to have sources that are telling him new things, and then it seems like Mensch parlays those claims from Taylor into pieces.
The three of them try to signal to each other’s followers that these are credible people you should listen to. It ends up becoming a kind of insular info-bubble. If you’re inside of this world, anyone else is to be distrusted—these are the three who know what they’re talking about.
Weisberg: Is Schindler the intelligence source that the other two refer to? Because he was in intelligence.
Beauchamp: That’s possible. He doesn’t tend to make as wild claims as Taylor or Mensch. He tends to be a little bit more measured in his tone, but still he can be a little extreme. He once claimed that Ayn Rand was a secret Russian agent assigned to delegitimize American conservatism way back in like 1925, when she came to the U.S.
Weisberg: What’s fascinating about this is that it’s so much like John Bircherism in the ’50s, where the paranoia was at such heights about everybody being a secret Communist. The Birchers went well beyond Joe McCarthy. They would circulate these pamphlets about how Dwight Eisenhower was actually a Communist agent. As the world became more and more paranoid, you couldn’t be right wing enough to protect yourself from somebody’s conspiracy vision. Ayn Rand is a great example. The icon of the right was secretly a Communist.
Beauchamp: That’s right. It’s not about ideology, so much. They like to point out that some of them are conservatives by background, like Mensch, and some of them are liberals, like Taylor. They’re unified in their concern about Russia, as they would describe it.
But in the way I would describe it, they’re united in a sense that the world is best explained by conspiracy and secret maneuvering. That mind-set, that sense of omnipresent Russian influence, is what creates a unified information chamber where people share the same set of ideas and instincts.
Their followers do tend to be disproportionately Democrats.
Weisberg: Do you think this is the mirror of the fake news on the right? On the right you have a range from Fox, which doesn’t usually do fake news, that is, fraudulent news, to Breitbart, to Infowars, the Alex Jones thing. Is this the same? Where does it fit in that continuum?
Beauchamp: I would say the closest analog would be Infowars.
It’s not quite as—it’s weird to say a conspiracy theory’s not quite as conspiratorial as another conspiracy theory, but they don’t really get into things like the Illuminati secretly manipulating the U.S. government. Or like a logo is a plot that shows the true understanding of our reptile men masters. Lizard men. Sorry, I used the wrong term. They prefer “lizard men.”
It’s a little more like something between Breitbart and Infowars, I would say. Because it’s a little more grounded, in the way that Breitbart is, in actual concrete political events, but its tone is very much “Secret information that only we have says this thing that you want to believe, that makes your world make sense, and your instincts and your anger make sense, is true.” That’s classic Infowars.
Weisberg: I would argue, Zack, that there’s a big distinction between how the left has treated these people and how the right has treated the Infowars types. You’ve got examples in your piece of Democratics picking up and amplifying little bits of Menschism, but there’s not a lot of it. She doesn’t have a platform on MSNBC, whereas Fox News right now is going on and on about this Seth Rich story, which is a crazy conspiracy, as bad as anything from Louise Mensch. There’s no equivalent of Fox News on the left giving a platform to these people.
Beauchamp: Yeah, it’s hard not to be angry when you think about the Seth Rich case. It’s good that these claims aren’t being picked up in the liberal media in the same way. I think that you’re right about that. There are a lot of people on the left and in liberal journalism who have said we should ignore these people.
One reaction I’ve gotten to my piece that I didn’t anticipate but perhaps should have is conservatives saying this proves that they’re the same, that there’s an equivalence between the left and the right when it comes to conspiracy theorizing. While it’s true that there’s nothing about the psychology of liberals that prevents them from succumbing to conservative thinking, the actual structure of the center left and center right in the United States are vastly different, particularly when it comes to how information is consumed, produced, and distributed.
Standards are just objectively much higher on the left. There’s no question about that. You don’t have MSNBC going to the same informational gutters as Fox News does in the way that you just described. You most often get a few people occasionally tweeting a story from one of these sources, but then apologizing for it.
It’s not something that you can assume will go away. Liberals really have to be vigilant about this. But it’s still a much better response than what you saw from Republicans when birtherism first started.
Weisberg: It’s really on Twitter that this flourishes most of all. Is this primarily a phenomenon of Twitter?
Beauchamp: Twitter and Facebook, I would say. The core information gets produced on Twitter. That’s where Mensch and Schindler and Taylor are always talking to each other. But some of Mensch’s stuff has been shared on her blog, Patribotics, which I encourage you to read. It’s super weird. She writes an open letter to Vladimir Putin about how Edward Snowden was trying to discredit Hillary Clinton. It’s very strange.
Weisberg: What does that name mean, “Patribotics”? I don’t get it.
Beauchamp: I was wondering that when I was researching the piece.
Weisberg: If Louise Mensch ever comes on the show, she can explain.
Beauchamp: I wanted to ask her, but I’m a “dickhead.” Some of its posts have gotten over 50,000 shares on Facebook. Palmer Report, which basically aggregates claims from Mensch and other people that are equally bizarre, has gotten over 50,000 shares on some of its pieces, too, if I recall correctly.
Facebook is, for those of you who don’t spend all your day online or in the media, the primary source of traffic for a lot of major news sites. If these things are really spreading on Facebook, that’s a sign that they have some heft, that there really are some people who are buying into them. I didn’t want to amplify a phenomenon that didn’t exist. I think this is real and it’s troubling, but it’s just in its very early stages.
Weisberg: Right. What would you advise people about information hygiene around all this?
Beauchamp: I think it depends on who you are.
If you’re just an average news consumer, then you should ignore them. If one of your friends shares their stuff, tell your friends. It’s self-interested, but I would say show them my article. You can also just tell them that most trusted authorities think that they’re kind of absurd.
If you are an elite in the Democratic Party or in the liberal media or in the entertainment sphere, then your obligations are much higher. You really should be telling people that they can’t trust these things, that information comes from reliable sources, that their wildest theories about Donald Trump might not be true, that while there’s a lot of shady things surrounding the Trump administration, not every conspiracy theory is going to be true. You really have to work to prevent this from becoming normalized.
Perhaps the most troubling thing that I didn’t put in the piece was that you’ve seen a few Hollywood types, people with huge megaphones, sharing this stuff on social media. They’re just less likely to be deeply informed about what is and isn’t a reliable source because they don’t spend all day in the political and journalism world. That’s a worrying venue for this stuff.
You need all different kinds of liberal elites condemning them. When I asked professors who study misinformation, they say people listen to what elites who they trust say. A politician you like—a Bernie Sanders, say—or a media figure that you like—a Rachel Maddow, say. If those people are saying you shouldn’t listen to them, and you should really be careful about what information you consume, and here’s what the real facts are, then people will be better off, and ultimately we won’t have a replay of birtherism on the left.
Weisberg: I think it’s also important to not excuse it as entertainment. I think people on the right often make this defense, that, whether it’s Rush Limbaugh or Infowars or any of these sources, that they don’t necessarily believe it but enjoy it because it expresses their political fantasy. That’s really dangerous. You create a separate category of things that are OK because they’re in a gray zone of entertainment. You’re not holding them to the same standard of scrutiny.
Beauchamp: Yeah. One of the reasons that the right has declined so much intellectually in the past 30 or 40 years is because the tasks of idea generation and of idea popularization has fallen to a bunch of people who are willing to cater to the worst instincts of people who are on their side. Your Rush Limbaughs and Brietbarts and Fox Newses.
The late Roger Ailes is probably the master of taking weird, extreme, angry, bigoted ideas and turning them into an information product that people like and identify with. Ailes perfected that, and it became a huge, huge problem for conservative politicians who wanted to be sober-minded, thoughtful policymakers. It was hard for them to deal with the furor of their base. You’re not seeing an equivalent phenomenon on the left, not because liberals aren’t susceptible to angry thinking, but because there isn’t a left media ecosystem that’s willing to fill the same role.