As the Trump Administration comes out of its worst week to date, right wing media and social media are having an epic meltdown. Buzzfeed’s Charlie Warzel wrote an article outlining how pro-Trump media responds to a crisis in four steps: “Stay quiet, blame and discredit, change the news cycle, and then close the loop.” It’s a good guide for understanding how the Frog Squad operates. This week, the right’s attempt to change the news cycle has centered around the thoroughly debunked conspiracy theory that Seth Rich, a political staffer murdered in DC last summer, was killed by Hillary Clinton and the Democrats for exposing some nefarious plot by the DNC to rig the primary in Clinton’s favor. Earlier this week, I put up a post on Medium to show what that looked like.
I’m not often surprised by what I see from the Frog Squad but the staying power of Seth Rich conspiracy theory news has really thrown me. The supposed developments in the Rich case that triggered all of this were quickly debunked but Fox News, Breitbart, and Drudge kept running with them. The Rich family has demanded Fox News retract the story, but that wasn’t enough to slow it down either.
Even weirder than right wing media outlets has been the Frog Squad online. They’re making no real effort to defend President Trump in his time of need. On 4chan, the #maga chatter on Twitter, and some of the less public channels I monitor, there is no concerted effort to rally around the president or mount any kind of defense for him. It’s all Seth Rich, all the time.
Nowhere has this been more obvious than on the “The_Donald” subreddit, one of reddit’s most trafficked communities, but also one of its most loathed. This is where the true Trump fans tend to congregate, but this week, the subreddit was all Seth Rich. Hundreds of threads, and hundreds of thousands of comments, devoted to the conspiracy theory. They don’t even bother talking about Trump much anymore. Reddit’s admins clearly tried to step in, get the Trump subreddit off of their community-wide obsession and back onto discussing President Trump. “The_Donald” moderators responded by declaring war and calling on the community to abandon reddit entirely. Things went downhill from there.
Why is this happening? A few reasons, but we have to acknowledge Russia’s likely role in all of this. (Yes, really.) This Twitter exchange between Jonah Goldberg and Walter Olsen explains it best.
Yup, “the bots are back.” Remember though that Russia’s aim isn’t to prop up Trump. Their goal is to weaken western democracy by creating as much chaos as possible. As Greg Miller points out in The Washington Post, Russia’s return on investment for their continued influence operations is quite good. Much of what we’re seeing online from the right is coming from bots and paid trolls, hence the sheer volume of Seth Rich conspiracy theory content. Since media generally loves covering what’s happening on social media, it becomes an endless feedback loop of crazy.
The biggest loser in all of this might just be President Trump. The echo chamber that helped buoy his campaign is long gone. GOP electeds won’t defend him, right wing media won’t defend him, and his own subreddit has abandoned him. Trump’s army won’t turn against him, but they don’t seem likely to help him anytime soon.
The above is an excerpt from Ctrl Alt Right Delete, a weekly newsletter devoted to understanding how the right operates online and developing strategies and tactics to fight back.