A couple of weeks ago, I was heading to bed close to midnight on a Sunday night when I decided to check Twitter (always a mistake). It was Oscars night, and the twitterverse was buzzing with shock over an incident that had taken place 30 minutes before, in which actor Will Smith went on stage and slapped Chris Rock for telling an off-color joke about his wife. I watched the video of the event, and what struck me the most – no pun intended – was that the audience looked on, seemingly unperturbed. In fact, when Smith went onstage a short while later to accept the award for Best Actor, they gave him a standing ovation. It seemed to me that the complacency of the Hollywood crowd – likely borne out of a combination of hero worship, group pressure, and a lack of moral courage – was very similar to how former President Trump’s supporters have gone along with acts of violence, like January 6, encouraged by him over the last five years. I tweeted this sentiment, asking, “So did like anyone walk out after that happened??? Or are we getting an independent psychological case study on how Trump got normalized?” And then I went to bed. The next 24 hours turned out to be a case study in the coordinated propaganda strategy of right-wing media.
At around 10 a.m. the next morning, a slew of virulent emails began to flood my inbox. I won’t repeat their contents, though they included racist and misogynistic language, and a few were threatening or encouraged me to commit suicide. I knew immediately that a right-wing print outlet must have picked up my tweet. This is because I’ve learned over time that the far right audiences for Twitter and print media are separate: I often get harassed on Twitter by right-wing trolls, but it rarely spills into direct emails (and occasional phone calls) unless an outlet like Breitbart puts me in their crosshairs. Sure enough, one of my own loyal Twitter followers alerted me to ground zero: A Fox News story about my tweet which had been published at 9:04 a.m. with the headline, “CNN Analyst blames Trump for aftermath of Will Smith-Chris Rock Oscars incident.” In addition to misrepresenting my comments, the article included a thumbnail of me on air with the “CNN” logo prominently in the background – despite the fact that I had commented on my personal Twitter feed, not on TV. At this point, I knew my tweet was going to get some mileage in the right-wing media ecosystem.
I wasn’t disappointed. Here’s the journey of my tweet through articles in right-wing media outlets that day: Newsmax published “the story” at 1:39 p.m. which was quickly picked up by The Daily Caller, followed by The Daily Wire, The Blaze, and The First TV. My tweet even prompted an angry letter to the editor of The Bakersfield Californian by the next morning. Every single headline referred to me as a “CNN Analyst” and mischaracterized my comments as “blaming” Trump for Smith’s actions – if readers did not click on the article (which would be most of them), they would be left with the distinct impression that these exact words were comments I made on air. In fact, like a game of telephone, by the evening, I had been erased from the narrative altogether: Sean Hannity’s website had a story headlined, “OF COURSE CNN LINKS SMITH-ROCK SLAP TO TRUMP.” Hannity apparently couldn’t resist the allure of the Deep State trifecta consisting of a brown woman, former FBI agent, and CNN analyst, as he actually featured my tweet, including my photo, on his prime-time show that evening (a personal first!) and even brought on two guests, including former Trump press secretary Kayleigh MacEnany, to discuss it.
I tweet a lot of things actually critical of Trump – so why did li’l ol’ me get so much attention for this relatively minor one? I can think of two short-term reasons for March 28, the day this happened: Distract and redirect. What did right-wing media need to distract from? Well, March 28 was also the day that a federal judge rather inconveniently concluded that President Trump likely committed multiple felonies, including obstruction of Congress and conspiracy to defraud the United States. Oops! It takes some work to avoid covering that one, and it would require finding something that can capture an audience’s attention to successfully fill the time with alternative coverage. The culture wars are a perfect way to redirect their attention. Whether it’s Dr. Suess, the green M&M, critical race theory, Disney, or Will Smith, right-wing media can find endless outrage fodder, and research shows that moral outrage – particularly moral group outrage – helps to sustain recipients’ attention. Let’s face it: The people who were busy writing hate mail to me or letters to their editor were likely not reading Judge David Carter’s assessment of Trump’s actions leading to January 6.
The long-term reason, though, is to keep right-wing audiences entrenched in an alternative reality. This was the conclusion of a study of 1.25 million stories published before and up to the 2016 election conducted by The Columbia Journalism Review, which found that the media centers of gravity among left and right-wing audiences are asymmetric. That is, while left-wing audiences consume traditional media outlets, like The Washington Post and New York Times – ones that are more likely to adhere to journalistic standards for accuracy – right-wing audiences gravitate to relatively new and highly-polarized outlets like Breitbart and Fox News. The authors describe the latter ecosystem as “an internally coherent, relatively insulated knowledge community, reinforcing the shared worldview of readers and shielding them from journalism that challenge[s] it.” In particular, these outlets, which create what scholars call a “propaganda feedback loop,” aren’t entirely “fake news”; rather they purposefully construct misleading stories from true bits of information, with the goal of discrediting any opposing media. The articles surrounding my Will Smith tweet, with the misleading headlines and hyperfocus on CNN, fit that bill to a tee.
My hate mail peaked around late afternoon that day and eventually subsided (though I got a “second wave” on Instagram the day after). As a public figure, I’ve gotten used to it and it doesn’t bother me anymore – sometimes I find it amusing. In fact, I now just approach it from a clinical perspective, as a first-hand look into how right-wing propaganda fuels the kind of hate and vitriol which we saw manifest on January 6. I will caution, though, not to try this at home, as it’s not for the faint of heart. Take my advice: Never tweet after midnight.