Cloaked Sites Key to Right-Wing Propaganda

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 “” 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 “” (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, “” 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 “”

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:

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  1. Barbara Rice

    What an excellent piece of writing! I’ve bookmarked your blog. Could you please name some more “cloaked” blogs? I think that I’ve come across them when friends have been arguing about immigration with me.

    Thank you once again, Barbara

  2. ellen says

    I understand everything said here. However, the ACORN organization was taped by two undercover reporters, posing as a prostitute and her boyfriend asking for a housing loan. The Acorn employees enthusiastically offered to help these people, even when they said they were ‘importing’ under age girls from Central America to join the brothel. One of the employees on the very tape shown here advises the couple, “Tell the girls to keep their mouth shut. You’ve got to have eyes in the back of your head.”
    Also, the ‘tax consultent’ in the tape says, ‘we can’t call it prostitution on tax records’ and then proceeds to tell them it can be filed under ‘entertainment’.
    The post reads:
    “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.”
    I’m not a rich person, although I’m white. I came to post on this site because I believe in fighting racism, and think it’s essential to do this if we’re going to survive as a global community.
    However, I was shocked to see these tapes on Youtube. It made me very sad to see Acorn employees encouraging Human Trafficking. Why did they do this? It would have cost them Nothing to simply say, “We can’t help you get a loan or help you with tax filing for illegal activity”. I don’t think this particular Acorn incident has Anything to do with racism: it’s just wrong. Is it wrong to want an investigation of Acorn before anybody’s tax dollars are re-invested in this organization?
    Anybody is capable on occasion, of committing a crime: black, white or green. In this case the participants were black. As I said, I cannot understand their motives. It would not have harmed Them in Any Way to refuse these undercover reporters any aid.

  3. ellen says

    This is the ACORN Youtube tape where the ‘prostitute and her boyfriend’ ask for a loan to start a brothel, including bringing in 13 underage girls {aged 15 years old} from El Salvador.

    The Acorn ‘consultants’ tell the prostitute that ‘anything that’s not government approved is against the law’ when they tell her that the woman is indeed a prostitute. The tax consultant says, ‘You’re going to have to name your business something else. We can put you under Performing Arts..which is what you are, a performing artist.” I don’t understand any of this.
    I approve of the principle behind Acorn! However, in some cases, this organization is obviously being abused.

  4. Dave Paul

    Unfortunately, the only reason Acorn is even an issue is because some rich white dudes are scared about poor, mostly minority individuals getting any sort of assistance. I would argue that us white men like to conveniently ignore centuries of racial oppression, continually-increasing global inequality as a result of western imperial capitalism, and centuries of inherited white wealth built on the backs of people of color.

    Did the fact that some state employees botched up a single case of housing assistance change this undeniable fact? No.

    It seems the words of Glenn Beck mean a hella lot more than millions of people of color who have been struggling with poverty, housing discrimination, and overt racism for decades.

  5. Jessie Author

    Barbara ~ thanks for your comment and your interest in my work. I talk about a lot of different cloaked sites in the article I referenced in the post and the book. I hesitate to link to the most egregious white supremacist ones because I don’t want to drive traffic to them, but one that some activists on the left have used is the site. There’s more about the site and the project related to it here:

    The creators of the site intentionally used the strategy of disgusing authorship, and clever graphic design, to hide their political agenda. And, it worked. Reporters were fooled by the site – believed it was affiliated with the presidential campaign of Bush (the younger) and called the campaign headquarters to ask questions about the policies on the cloaked site.
    Ellen, the point of my post is not really about ACORN. It’s about the propaganda strategies of the right. The fact that you’re focusing attention on ACORN simply affirms the power of these strategies.

  6. Julie

    Great post. Good for R. Maddow for exposing the underlying motives. “Cloaked sites” is an important and useful way of understanding these online phenomena which seems to proliferate by the day.

  7. ellen says

    Dave Paul says:”Unfortunately, the only reason Acorn is even an issue is because some rich white dudes are scared about poor, mostly minority individuals getting any sort of assistance.”
    Why does objecting to assisting in human trafficking have Anything to do with white men ‘scared’ of minority people gettting assistance? Helping minorities Does Not mean ignoring Problematic Behavior. Bertha Lewis, CEO of ACORN said she herself was appalled at these tapes and that the people who participated were fired.
    Nobody said these {3} cases and{ may be indicative of other abuses} have Anything to do with Western White Imperialism. This is saying that the people involved in this particular illegal activity cannot be held responsible because of Slavery? Minorities are not responsible for their behavior because…why? This is infantilizing minorities. It’s insulting.
    You can be a Strong Anti-Racist and still be against criminal activity, can’t you? This particular case involved human trafficking. If the reporters had been genuinely a prostitute and boyfriend, intending to employ underage girls, where was the responsibility for the ‘rights’ of the underage girls?

  8. Jessie Author

    At the risk of repeating myself, the reason anyone is even discussing the alleged criminal activity of ACORN is a triump for people like Berman and the nefarious strategies he uses. The fact that this discussion has veered so completely off-track so quickly just further illustrates out how completely effective propaganda can be.

  9. ellen says

    @ Jessie:
    I think Berman’s a creep too, and cloaked agenda websites are indeed nefarious. I just think ACORN {in particular} needs investigating.
    I am sorry that the Acorn scandal was a triumph for people like Berman. The Acorn situation is Sad, not a triumph for anybody..certainly not Human Rights.
    I was upset about the Acorn tapes.
    They really bothered me because anti-racism and pro-human-rights should apply in All Situations. The supposed El Salvador under-aged girls, if this incident had not been staged, would have been Totally Deprived of their rights..and They Were Children.
    Condoning prostitution..which in essence Ruins not excusable. Even Bertha Lewis said these 3 incidents were inexcusable.
    This website is a forum for people to use their own logic and intelligence. I can’t go along with every single sentence posted just to be ‘part of the gang’. Most of the posts on this site I totally agree with or I wouldn’t be here. But I’m not part of a herd of sheep..just parroting everything. I say what I truly believe. Acorn needs investigating. That’s what I think.

  10. Mom

    Propaganda of what? Employees not doing an ethical job? I happen to see a lot more in these tapes. If we took out the underage girls then I see lower social economic people helping each other out creatively. I know this sounds a little “off the charts”, but why do we hire accountants at tax time, or “ethical” attorney’s when we go to court? Then ask yourself would you help your neighbor get a better job from a “good” word from you, to your employer? Are we getting the idea yet? The fact the an entire Corp. needs to be investigated because of the unethical practices of a few employees is ridiculous! Then there should be an investigation of every Corporation in this country, and we can start with health care.

  11. ellen says

    Mom said: “Then there should be an investigation of every Corporation in this country, and we can start with health care.”
    I’m not disagreeing with this Mom. Many corporations desperately need investigating from health care companies to Wall Street {now there’s a place that could use a few thousand IRS agents looking around the ‘books’ with a microscope}.
    As you know, thousands of people lost their entire 401-K’s cause the companies they worked for invested this money of their own volition in stock. When the stocks crashed..bye 401-K! This is a tragedy of the worst lack of responsibility! I am one of those drone-working Americans {I mentioned I work 7 days a week} who would be wiped out if anything happened to my savings. Fortunately, I direct my own’s called ‘self-directed IRA’s’ and I’m very risk I never lose any money. I don’t make much through my savings{lol} but I don’t lose anything either. Who cares? I feel fortunate. Better safe than sorry.
    But I listen to National Public Radio as I drive to work and So Many heart breaking stories of people saving for 30 years being completely wiped out of their savings. The CEO’s and all these phoney ‘vice presidents’ with their multi-million dollar golden parachutes should all be in state pens With the General cushy country club incarceration for you boys! I am very upset about this issue..I just can’t understand the outright cruelty.

  12. Mom@Ellen

    More like corruption. Anyway, I know that what I’m suggesting may sound confusing, and I don’t agree with unethical practices of some people, but it happens everyday. These people just got caught, and really should be fired for some of the things that was on those tapes. However, there is crime committed everyday by Corporate America, which seems to be alright with the American people, which I truly don’t understand. My feeling, anybody that has to walk around with body guards is up to no good. LOL I know there are some people that need protection, but humm, I have to wonder about others.

  13. Jessie Author

    Mom says: Propaganda of what?
    The propaganda is that ACORN is even an issue. Each time the conversation, whether here or in the broader national discourse reflected in the mainstream media, talks about the supposed misdeeds of ACORN, the propagandists like Berman win. They win because they’ve successfully shifted the terms of the debate away from health care reform, or raising the minimum wage, or social inequality and toward what was on those tapes.
    Each time you say “ACORN,” the propagandists win.

  14. ellen says

    Jessie says: “talks about the supposed misdeeds of ACORN”.
    Did you watch the tape? What is alleged about these misdeeds? I don’t think Berman wins Anything. Health care debate rages on, raising the minimum wage and social inequality are {especially in this economy where 10% of the population are unemployed} are top-post in everyone’s mind. Mentioning Acorn, if this was his agenda, has Failed. Nobody’s putting Acorn above the aforementioned agenda. My health insurance premiums are $585 a month because I’m a serious disease survivor.
    So, no. I don’t think Berman’s accomplished anything. Besides CNN covered Acorn also, Not just the notorious Fox News. CNN interviewd Bertha Lewis also. Why does this distract from what’s keeping people up nights..Health Care Reform.
    Just because I say ACORN, the propagandists don’t win doodly. Jessie, I understand your zeal. I know you are heart and soul devoted to extinquishing racism. I know Berman has a political agenda regarding Acorn abuses..Which Is Wrong! This is not why Acorn should be investigated.
    But doesn’t this approach ‘Let Acorn do whatever they want cuz if we don’t Berman will win!’ reflect more of an attitude to Trump Berman than to address problematic behavior in an organization that Should be Legitimately and Compassionately Operated to help the People Who Need Help instead of prostitutes and human traffickers? Please Honestly ask yourself this. With all due respect.
    This is like cutting off your nose to spite your face. People can 1.despise Berman and Say so and 2.still require ACORN to be accountable for their actions 3. still require Congress to stop playing Politics while millions of Amercians die every 12 minutes through lack of health care…all at the same time.
    Plus, Berman gleefully links Acorn abuses to Obama..wrong! Obama never approved this misconduct by Acorn. He would be the first one {in private} to tell His Wife: ‘I wish Acorn monitored their employees more assiduously.’ He can’t say this in public because it would seem as if he is deserting black voters who need Acorn services, but we can Say It!

  15. In retrospect the attack on ACORN worked. Blackwater is under indictment for what, 32 counts of murder and they’re still employed by – the Obama administration? Yet ONE ACORN office gets taped maybe doing something wrong and that’s it? Funding pulled? The right wing are experts at the kind of strategy typified by the old joke, “Hey, are you still beating your wife?” – and then the Democrats reel back on their heels for four years. BTW, the ACORN tape could have been edited, easily.

  16. Craig

    This article about right-wing cloaked web sites pierces the heart of my concerns on truth, lies, reality and just-plain hate.
    As a left-wing individual, do you think it would be worth creating a cloaked web site to publish even more right-wing falsehoods against the current Administration? My aim would be to add to their current irrationality and to tip the critial mass of American opinion more toward the righ-wing’s irrationality.
    I propose this because I have become an example of a person who now wants to ensure that the rational citizen ignores the dissemination of mis-information published by these cloaked websites. That is, I normally wouldn’t have searched and found a website such as yours, and have become more proactive because of this phenom.

  17. Jessie Author

    Excellent point, jcisbell! I think that the contrast to Blackwater is an apt one.
    Craig ~ thanks for your comment. You wrote:
    do you think it would be worth creating a cloaked web site to publish even more right-wing falsehoods against the current Administration? My aim would be to add to their current irrationality and to tip the critial mass of American opinion more toward the righ-wing’s irrationality.
    I don’t see this as a viable solution. The problem with cloaked sites is that they create confusion and cloud people’s thinking. I don’t think more confusion is a way out of that problem. I too want to “ensure that the rational citizen ignores the dissemination of mis-information” but I think that there’s no quick fix to this problem. The solution, in my view, has to be to develop the citizenry’s critical thinking skills and ability. Sadly, this is a task that our educational institutions seem to have forsaken in favor of teaching to improve standardized test scores.


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