I’ve got to give credit where credit is due and this week it goes to Rachel Maddow – who’s been doing a terrific job with her investigations into the right-wing propaganda machine. On her show last night, she featured a devastating critique of Richard Berman, a Republican political operative profiled by CBS’s 60 Minutes as “Dr. Evil” for his willingness, even enthusiasm, for taking on politically regressive causes. He’s the one behind the most recent attacks on ACORN, an organization that mostly does things like advocate for poor black and brown people, get poor people registered to vote, and lobby for raising the minimum wage. Apparently, rich white people – like the ones that hire Berman – are very upset by this sort of activity.
Also featured in this segment is Peter Dreier, a professor of political science at Occidental College, who has a new research which demonstrates the way that the mainstream media bought into the lies that Berman put forward and missed getting out the accurate story about ACORN, including one finding that about 80% of news stories failed to report that ACORN itself was the group that reported irregularities in voting registration in the first place.
The part of this story that I wanted to call attention to is the bit about the websites that are key part of Berman’s strategy. Maddow refers to them as “grass roots-ish” which is cute, but I’d like to respectfully suggest that she call these cloaked sites. Cloaked websites are published by individuals or groups who conceal authorship in order to deliberately disguise a hidden political agenda. In this way, these sites are similar to previous versions of print media propaganda, such as “black,” “white” and “grey” propaganda. In my latest book, Cyber Racism, I write extensively about how racist groups are using cloaked websites to further their goals to subvert civil rights and affirm white supremacy in covert ways. I also write about the range of political movements that use cloaked websites in a recent article, “Cloaked websites: propaganda, cyber-racism and epistemology in the digital era,” in the journal New Media & Society. While not the exclusive purview of the right-wing, it does seem that the right is amplifying their use of this technique.
Cloaked sites are a key piece of the propaganda machine that Berman is operating, and they’re incredibly hard-to-detect and perniciously effective according to my research. According to this site which seeks to expose Berman, he has been the force behind dozens of cloaked sites, including “RottenAcorn.com” and anti-ACORN site that disguises the real authorship behind something called “Employment Policies Institute” which is a front group that Berman runs. Maddow mentions a couple of others, such as “UnionFacts.com” (with very similar graphics to the previous site) an anti-labor union site, again with the true authorship disguised in order to advance a hidden political agenda. And, “MercuryFacts.org” a cloaked pro-fishing-industry site that disguises its authorship and corporate agenda. In my study of how young people made sense of cloaked white supremacist sites, I found that most of the 15-19 year-olds I interviewed as they surfed the web could not easily tell they were white supremacist sites. It seems very likely that most of those people who visited the cloaked sites that Berman created were fooled as well.
What difference does it make? Well, it makes a difference in a lot of ways. If you’re someone like me who is in the classroom, then you’re going to have to deal with students bringing arguments found on cloaked websites into the classroom. This happens to me frequently and just happened to a friend and colleague of mine the other day. In a discussion on “racial profiling,” a student in my colleague’s class brought up a report called “The Color of Crime,” which concludes that black people are inherently more dangerous than white people, published by Jared Taylor of the New Century Foundation, a white supremacist organization. In a recent class of mine, a student did a presentation on “post-abortion syndrome,” not a medically recognized condition – as the student believed – but a rhetorical strategy of the pro-life movement. She had found information about this supposed “syndrome” on a cloaked pro-life site called “TeenBreaks.com.”
Cloaked sites, websites that look legitimate yet disguise a political agenda, are like the Trojan Horses of the digital era. These sorts of sites make it possible to smuggle in ideas into current debate that have been discredited, and allow right-wing political operatives to undermine organizations, like ACORN, which are doing hard work on behalf of impoverished people of color. Fighting back takes much more sophisticated critical thinking about the information we find online and good, investigative reporting, like Rachel Maddow’s on this topic.
Here’s the clip from the show in case you missed it: