The headline on the Washington Post story was scary enough: "Lawmaker: Russian trolls trying to sow discord in NFL kneeling debate".
The piece was one of many this week warning that foreigners were amplifying political controversies in the United States: "Russian Internet trolls are trying to gin up even more controversy over NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem, a senator said Wednesday – warning that the United States should expect such divisive efforts to escalate in the next election…"
The Post cited Oklahoma Senator James Lankford, a toothy, humorless, young Republican who looks like an escapee from a teen zombie movie. Lankford shocked the world this week by revealing that "Russian Internet trolls" were stoking the NFL kneeling debate.
Lankford made the revelation, the paper wrote, in a "hearing with the heads of the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and the National Counterterrorism Center."
This was the rare sort of story that garnered enthusiastic coverage from both houses of our increasingly bicameral system of media.
Conservative outlets like Breitbart and Newsmax and Fox played up the "Russians stoked the kneeling controversy" angle because it was in their interest to suggest that domestic support for kneeling protests is less than what it appears.
They all liked the story so much, it seemed, that nobody bothered to check it.
Senator Lankford initially didn't offer any specifics backing up his claim. Later, however, a spokesperson for the Senator's office directed reporters to the work of "a Russian Twitter account calling itself 'Boston Antifa' that gives its geolocation as Vladivostok, Russia."
The Post reported that Lankford's office had cited one of "Boston Antifa's" tweets. But the example offered read suspiciously like a young net-savvy American goofing on antifa stereotypes:
"More gender inclusivity with NFL fans and gluten free options at stadiums… We're liking the new NFL #NewNFL #TakeAKnee #TakeTheKnee."
We're liking more gluten free options at NFL stadiums? Does Senator Lankford think the KGB is run by the Jerky Boys? It's bad enough that none of the people who ran this story could tell this was a gag. What's even worse, though, is that none of these same people bothered to employ the magic Google machine.
Had anyone bothered to do that, they would have discovered that "Boston Antifa" had been in the news before, very recently in fact.
Weeks ago, there was an incident in Fenway Park in Boston in which a group of protesters unfurled a banner that read "Racism is as American as Baseball" over the storied Green Monster.
After the incident, a group called, you guessed it, Boston Antifa took responsibility for the action. They tweeted out a "Twitlonger" essay, "Our statement on our Fenway appearance tonight," in which they explained their motives for the banner:
"We were largely inspired by Howard Bryant who now writes for ESPN," the group wrote. "His article, 'Don't expect protests in baseball – it's a white man's game by design,' was inspirational."
Breitbart naturally jumped all over the story, which of course was a prank probably designed specifically for Breitbart audiences ("Howard Bryant and ESPN made me defile Fenway Park!" is as obvious a right-wing fantasy as you can manufacture). The only surprise was that "Boston Antifa" didn't pick Jemele Hill as their inspiration in their essay. Here is the Breitbart headline:
Boston Antifa Claims Responsibility for Fenway 'Racism' Banner, Drew Inspiration From ESPN Writer
Here is what Breitbart wrote about the Fenway action:
"There aren't enough, 'I told you so's' in the 'I told you so' factory, to do justice to this revelation. While ESPN has been running themselves in circles trying to shoot down the idea that they are what they are, a leftist cable-network with highlight reels. In addition to engaging in rank hypocrisy in how they treat their liberal host’s versus their conservative hosts."
Take that, liberal media! Meanwhile, in Boston, other local media outlets also credited "Antifa" with the action, despite the fact that the actual protesters were by that time more than happy to talk to the press.
In an interview with local sports outlet CSNNE, the Fenway protesters scoffed at the notion that they had any connection with "Antifa Boston." They called the idea ridiculous and added, "The five of us are in no way associated with Antifa nor did Antifa Boston have anything to do with the action."
The group actually drew some of its inspiration from Black Lives Matter, and was trying to make a statement about how Boston is "an extremely segregated city." But in another lesson about the perils of the 140-character communication generation, many took the banner to be an endorsement of racism.
In any case, an actual competent reporter at this point looked into the story. Dan Glaun of Masslive used the magic Google machine and looked up "Boston Antifa." He discovered they were what he called "alt-light" conservative jokers posing as far-left goofs. They claimed responsibility for the Fenway stunt, but actually had nothing to do with it.
The group was most likely a pair of yahoos from Oregon named Alexis Esteb and Brandon Krebs. Glaun found the boy-girl Kaufman-esque comedy group had given an interview to right-wing media personality Gavin McInnes in April. In this interview, McInnes says, "You're not affiliated with Richard Spencer, you're just two people in fuckin' Oregon having a laugh."
"Exactly," says Alexis.
Boston Antifa's accounts have mostly been taken down since, but Alexis and Brandon operated by saying nasty things about right-wing personalities they actually liked (like referring to conservative trans personality Blaire White as "Blaire White Pride"). They also did things like make claims that fidget spinners caused PTSD in hurricane victims. In short, two young people goofing on the Internet.
It was bad enough that so many legit media outlets fell for it when they took responsibility for the Fenway stunt. But for Lankford to later point to them seriously as evidence of a looming Russian threat after they'd already been unmasked in the press was amazing. Maybe the Senator's office didn’t want to pay the eight bucks to listen to the McInnes interview?
Glaun, the Masslive reporter, was surprised that so many people fell for the Boston Antifa bit.
"It did not require some heroic feat of investigative journalism for me to find this stuff out," said the Springfield, Massachusetts-based reporter. He noted that Buzzfeed and ThinkProgress also debunked the story pretty quickly.
When the Russia story broke this week, Glaun called Lankford's office. His write-up for Masslive is amusing:
"A source close to Lankford acknowledged in an email that the Boston Antifa account may not be linked to the Russian government, but maintained that there was a high likelihood it was connected to some Russian entities, based on information collected by the Senate Intelligence Committee.
"Lankford's office declined to elaborate on what evidence ties Boston Antifa to Russian influence campaigns."
So even confronted with evidence, Lankford's office dug in. Apparently they have secret information gleaned from Senate Intelligence Committee hearings that proves these two yuksters – people you can see are clearly American amateurs on video in the McInnes interview – are actually still "connected to some Russian entities."
Not one of the legacy news outlets that ran with the original Lankford story has retracted. I have my doubts that any of them will. Lankford's insistence that "Boston Antifa" really is still connected to the Russians will probably give them enough wiggle room to feel okay about not admitting the error. How's that for irony: the warnings about fake news by Lankford and the commercial press turned out, in the end, to actually be fake news.
It may very well be that foreign governments, and perhaps even the Russians in particular, are trying to sow chaos and division in American society through fake news operations. But episodes like this prove such campaigns are probably a waste of money. We Americans are clearly too dumb to read our own news, and quite capable of destroying ourselves over nonsense without the help of outside parties.
The irony here is that the solution to so much of this fake news panic is so simple. If we just spent more time outside, or read more books, or talked in person to real human beings more often, we'd be less susceptible to this sort of thing. But that would take effort, and who has time for that?