WASHINGTON — Jack Posobiec had his Twitter sights set on James B. Comey.
A pro-Trump activist notorious for his amateur sleuthing into red herrings like the “Pizzagate” hoax and a conspiracy theory involving the murder of a Democratic aide, Mr. Posobiec wrote on May 17 that Mr. Comey, the recently ousted F.B.I. director, had “said under oath that Trump did not ask him to halt any investigation.”
It mattered little that Mr. Comey had said no such thing. The tweet quickly ricocheted through the ecosystem of fake news and disinformation on the far right, where Trump partisans like Mr. Posobiec have intensified their efforts to sow doubt about the legitimacy of expanding investigations into Trump associates’ ties to Russia.
But as the journey of that one tweet shows, misinformed, distorted and false stories are gaining traction far beyond the fringes of the internet. Just 14 words from Mr. Posobiec’s Twitter account would spread far enough to provide grist for a prime-time Fox News commentary and a Rush Limbaugh monologue that reached millions of listeners, forging an alternative first draft of history in corners of the conservative media where President Trump’s troubles are often explained away as fabrications by his journalist enemies.
In this fragmented media environment, the spread of false information is accelerated and amplified by a web of allied activist-journalists with large online followings, a White House that grants them access and, occasionally, a president who validates their work. The right-wing media machine that President Bill Clinton’s aides once referred to as “conspiracy commerce” is now far more mature, extensive and, in the internet age, tough to counter.Continue reading the main story
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In an email, Mr. Posobiec described his work as “reality journalism — part investigative, part activist, part commentary.” A day before his tweet, the White House had allowed him into an Oval Office photo op with the president, and he tried to ask a question about Seth Rich, the murdered Democratic National Committee staff member.
Once Mr. Posobiec pushed the send button on Twitter, the conservative media machinery kicked into gear. Later that day, Breitbart News published an account of Mr. Comey’s May 3 testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee under the headline “Comey Under Oath: ‘Have Not Experienced Any Requests to Stop FBI Investigations.’”
GotNews.com, a website that often misrepresents media accounts of the Russia investigation to cast Mr. Trump in a more favorable light, repeated the claim but also raised the possibility of a more serious offense. Mr. Comey, the site said, might have perjured himself if he had claimed in a memo — as outlets including The New York Times have reported — that Mr. Trump pressured him to call off an investigation into Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn.
The next day, the perjury question was the subject of an article on InfoWars, the home of Alex Jones, a conspiracy theorist who has called the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks an inside job and questioned whether the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., really happened. InfoWars had almost five million visitors in the last month.
That afternoon, Mr. Limbaugh was also onto the story, telling his audience, “Comey said, under Senate oath, he had never been pressured to halt any investigation.” As evidence, Mr. Limbaugh read straight from the GotNews.com article. The whole Russia investigation, he declared, is “a political witch hunt.”
That account of the Comey testimony has lived on in the weeks since, with Sean Hannity of Fox News citing it as recently as Tuesday night. “And by the way,” he insisted on his program, “James Comey also said it never happened.”
What actually happened in the Judiciary Committee hearing was hardly an exonerating moment for Mr. Trump. Senator Mazie K. Hirono, Democrat of Hawaii, asked Mr. Comey whether “the attorney general or senior officials at the Department of Justice” had ever tried to halt an investigation. Mr. Comey, then still the F.B.I. director, said they had not.
Never did Ms. Hirono ask Mr. Comey anything about Mr. Trump in that exchange, nor did Mr. Comey volunteer anything about the president’s words to him. (Mr. Posobiec insisted that he had misrepresented nothing, saying Mr. Comey’s comments “certainly could include President Trump, who is the senior official of the entire executive branch.”)
Mr. Trump has had no small role in the elevation and legitimization of dubious news accounts and the sources that spread them — he is both consumer and enabler.
The president has shared discredited information from his Twitter account on subjects like voter fraud. He has publicly embraced those who trade in these kinds of theories, appearing, for instance, on Mr. Jones’s radio program while he was running for president. And after the election, he called Mr. Jones to thank him for his support.
Mr. Trump has been seen reading material from GotNews.com, an outlet founded by Charles C. Johnson, who has also helped start a crowdfunding website that pays for private investigations and legal defenses for fringe conservative causes. Among its current campaigns is one to help a man accused of sending a journalist with epilepsy a Twitter graphic that triggered a seizure.
In February, the president was spotted with a printed copy of a GotNews article in the Oval Office. The article, which claimed to pinpoint a source of leaks from within the West Wing, was shown to him by his wife, according to one person with knowledge of the encounter — first reported by Politico — who did not know how the first lady had come across it.
The site’s tagline now reads: “President Trump reads us. You should too.”
The architects of the effort to discredit Mr. Comey seem to be working from a playbook straight from a political campaign, said Angelo Carusone, the president of Media Matters, a liberal group that is tracking Comey threads in the conservative media.
“This is why they are being effective,” he said. “They are really engaging in a pure persuasion effort. They are not playing by any established rules. And they are cashing in on the mistrust and uncertainty people feel about traditional news media.”
They are also taking advantage of the proliferation and polarization of avenues to spread their message.
“The ability to mitigate such disinformation campaigns was far easier in the 1990s,” said Chris Lehane, who worked as an aide in the Clinton White House. Back then, he added, “for the most part the existing distribution channels were not as segmented across ideological lines that, in effect, create parallel realities that run along ideological grounds.”
Mr. Posobiec, a 33-year-old Navy veteran, was until recently the bureau chief for a right-wing website based in Canada called The Rebel. Its founder, Ezra Levant, said Mr. Posobiec was no longer employed there.
“We wish him well,” Mr. Levant said, offering only that Mr. Posobiec’s promulgation of the Rich conspiracy had nothing to do with his departure.
Despite being out of his day job, Mr. Posobiec has not stopped broadcasting or tweeting. He took to Periscope after Mr. Comey’s testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday, repeated his false claim from before and leveled a new specious charge: that the former F.B.I. director had acknowledged leaking classified information from his government laptop to the news media. “Comey admitted to breaking the law multiple times,” he said.
Shortly after the hearing concluded on Thursday, the video had been viewed nearly 30,000 times.