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Tracing right-wing alt-reality on Twitter

In 2017, your politics dictate where you get your information, and increasingly on the web that information is open to interpretation.

Jack Posobiec says he doesn't see a similarity between his tweets on Pizzagate and other right-wing concerns and the heated rhetoric ont he left.
Jack Posobiec says he doesn't see a similarity between his tweets on Pizzagate and other right-wing concerns and the heated rhetoric ont he left.Read moreYouTube

At 8:15 on Wednesday morning, the right-wing Twitter personality Jack Posobiec retweeted a straightforward breaking-news alert: Someone had fired on a group of Republican congressmen practicing for the annual Congressional Baseball Game in Alexandria, Va.

Five minutes later, he tweeted another news link, with the caption "Terrorist Attacks GOP Baseball Practice in Alexandria." Four minutes after that, as reports were surfacing that a man near the field had asked two congressmen whether the players were Democrats or Republicans, Posobiec tweeted again: "After Kathy Griffin and Julius Ceasar [sic], the Russia conspiracy theory, the Left and MSM inspired today's terrorist attack."

Posobiec, 33, is a Norristown native who gained tens of thousands of Twitter followers during the campaign season, and his feed Wednesday was a primer for how the story of the shooting that wounded Rep. Steve Scalise (R., La.) and four others was framed in far-right media in the hours after it took place.

Liberal anti-Trump rhetoric was to blame for the shootings, Posobiec and other heavy hitters on conservative Twitter said, and so was the mainstream media for disseminating the talk. On Wednesday, Posobiec shared something that seemed to back his theory: a video that former Attorney General Loretta Lynch had filmed in March about resisting the Trump administration's policies. "Flashback: Loretta Lynch: 'We Need More Blood in the Streets,' " Posobiec tweeted, with a link.

But Lynch hadn't said that — as no less than the Daily Caller, a popular conservative website, pointed out in a fact-checking column Thursday morning. And it wasn't the first time Posobiec had been called out for tweeting misleading information — one he sent last week garnered a blistering article in the New York Times about the spread of false information.

The tweet in question included part of the transcript of a May Senate hearing, in which James Comey said the attorney general and senior Justice Department officials hadn't asked him to halt any investigations. But Posobiec wrote that the transcript showed Comey said President Trump hadn't asked him to halt an investigation.

To Posobiec, this wasn't wrong. It wasn't even a stretch. It was just his interpretation of the testimony.

"The New York Times called me a conspiracy theorist," he said. "But I posted the testimony, and this is my take on the testimony." (He didn't respond to a follow-up call about the Lynch tweet.)

By midday Wednesday, police had released the name of the baseball-field shooter, who had died in a shootout with officers: James T. Hodgkinson, of Illinois, whose Facebook profile was crawling with Internet sleuths within minutes. He had supported Bernie Sanders for president, and frequently expressed anti-Trump views; he was a member of a group called "Terminate the Republican Party."

On the left, the shooting story spiraled in another direction, with liberals decrying lax gun laws and countering arguments about "violent rhetoric" with examples of similar heightened rhetoric by more prominent figures on the right (President Trump's campaign-trail comment about "Second Amendment people" played heavily).

This is how news works in 2017: Your politics, increasingly, dictate where you get your information — and, in an ever-widening corner of the internet, the basic meaning of that information is up for endless debate.

"It's this whole universe where it's all a matter of interpretation," said Will Sommer, an editor at The Hill who runs Right Richter, a newsletter that monitors right-wing media. The left, of course, has its fringe theorists, too — the former British member of Parliament Louise Mensch's sprawling theories on the Russian meddling in the presidential election are probably the most prominent.

"But people are constantly making fun of Louise Mensch, all the time," Sommer said, while articles detailing right-wing fringe theories are making their way to the president's desk. Posobiec himself has attended White House press briefings. ("He's the most brazen person in right-wing media," Sommer said of Posobiec. "To make stuff up, relentlessly — like, with Loretta Lynch, that quote is just not in the video. There's no one at that level.")

Yphtach Lelkes, a University of Pennsylvania professor who studies political polarization, said the alternate media universes on the left and right have been building for a while — since the 1980s, when most Republicans began to identify as conservatives and most Democrats as liberals. Some research has shown most people still get their news from relatively centrist sources, he said — and, on policy, most Americans tend to be centrists themselves. But distrust of the opposite party, he said, has skyrocketed.

And the more politically involved you are, he said, the more likely you are to listen only to news sources that dovetail with your beliefs.

"The people who are the most extreme, and most interested in politics, tend to cordon themselves off from other voices," he said. "People reject information that contradicts their prior attitudes or beliefs — you can't get on the same page, because you reject the information."

Posobiec, for his part, says he regularly follows more mainstream voices like CNN's Jake Tapper. He was an early supporter of Trump, running a grassroots organization called Citizens for Trump during the campaign. Pre-Trump, he served in the Navy, attended Temple University, and ran the school's College Republicans group.

His Twitter following ballooned around the time of the Republican National Convention, he said, and later that year he began tweeting extensively about Pizzagate — a conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton and her aides were running a pedophile ring out of a Washington pizza parlor. He even filmed himself eating a slice there. In December, a North Carolina man walked into the restaurant with a rifle and fired three shots. Posobiec figured heavily in subsequent news reports on how the falsehood had metastasized online.

He doesn't see a parallel between news reports associating him with the Pizzagate gunman and his own assertions that left-wing rhetoric was to blame for the Alexandria shooting.

Pizzagate, he said, was simply "people investigating something, looking into something."

"When I'm talking about rhetoric, I'm talking about violence and normalization of violence," he said. It's an idea that had been percolating in right-wing circles for some time.

Two days before the shooting, in an interview with the Inquirer and Daily News, Posobiec mentioned Griffin posing with a fake decapitated head resembling the president's, and the New York staging of Julius Caesar that portrays the titular character as Trump. "I called for both sides' need to de-escalate before this gets out of control," he said then. "It's stupid, it's silly, and someone is going to get severely hurt at some point."

On Friday night, though, Posobiec and another protester stood up in the middle of the production and yelled, "Stop the normalization of political violence against the right!" Posobiec later posted video of the incident on Twitter. His fellow protester, a conservative activist named Laura Loomer, made it onto the stage, got escorted off, and was charged with disorderly conduct after refusing to leave, the New York Times reported.

In the interview, Posobiec acknowledged how polarized political discourse has become. He cited a metaphor that the Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams, who moonlights as a conservative pundit online, uses sometimes: "It's like people are watching two different movies about the same event."

Sommer has been cataloging right-wing media in his newsletter for more than a year now. But he's a product of a Republican household, and has been following the right for years. The virulent partisanship that's emerging these days, he said, has been building for decades.

"People ask me, 'When did the switch flip?' I think it's a lot of things — the conservative movement has launched attacks on independent finders of facts, academia, the press. There's this growing discontent with what we view as the mainstream press," he said. "And people are like, 'Well, how do we fix this?' And I don't know. I don't know if it can be fixed."

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