For any healthy American who hasn’t irradiated his brain by consuming political news on Twitter: A journalistic autopsy on how a wrestling video tweeted by President Trump last week spawned a national controversy involving Reddit, CNN, vengeful neo-Nazis — and a hashtag campaign that adds blackmail to the list of offenses of which the news media stands accused.
It is a saga of politics and the media in 2017, when inane spats, egged on by the president and facilitated by social media, have the power to become consuming viral events, propelled by the right’s antipathy toward the mainstream media.
It all started with the Reddit group /r/The_Donald.
From the swamps of the Internet, a president’s meme emerges
Imagine the bustling cantina scene from the original “Star Wars” movie, except the outlaw oddballs from the far-flung corners of the known universe in this case are fraternizing over American politics instead of Darth Vader. That should give one a general idea of Reddit’s /r/The_Donald channel, one of the most popular and eccentric hives of pro-Trump activity on the Internet.
/r/The_Donald claims hundreds of thousands of subscribers, with lists of popular news stories from the day and other memes. Top posts receive thousands of approving upvotes.
This online saloon is where, last week, an anonymous Reddit user named after Han Solo (plus an unprintable anatomical part) posted an old video clip of Trump pummeling another performer at a professional wrestling match. Except someone had doctored the GIF to replace the other wrestler’s head with the CNN logo, a nod to the president’s long-running feud with the cable news network.
On its own, it wasn’t noteworthy, except for what happened next. On Sunday, Trump tweeted out what appears to be a spiffed-up version of the Reddit Han Solo’s GIF, with sound added, and the hashtag #FraudNewsCNN. It soon became Trump’s most-retweeted tweet ever.
The crudeness and brazenness of the tweet quickly became a big story. Many journalists were outraged, seeing the video as encouraging an atmosphere of violence against journalists. Trump’s supporters saw it as harmless mockery. “Wow!!” the Reddit Han Solo wrote in a post Sunday. “I never expected my meme to be retweeted by the God Emporer himself!!!”
Then came the plot twist.
It turns out the guy who posted the GIF also posted a list of Jews who work at CNN and a bunch of other really racist stuff
On the Internet, there’s a principle of sudden celebrity you could call the Milkshake Duck rule, inspired by a popular Twitter joke: “The whole Internet loves Milkshake Duck, a lovely duck that drinks milkshakes! *5 seconds later* We regret to inform you the duck is racist.”
Journalists, curious about who made the president’s CNN wrestling meme, quickly identified the Reddit Han Solo as the likely author. Then they spotted the stuff he’d been posting before he went viral — the N-word for black people, the F-word for gay people, the R-word for mentally disabled people. He had also posted a list of CNN employees next to images ofthe Star of David, writing, “Something strange about CNN … can’t quite put my finger on it.”
The facts suggested that not only had the president or someone on his team taken an image from somebody on Reddit, but that whoever it was didn’t check to see who they were borrowing from. (The White House, for its part, denied getting the wrestling video from Reddit but hasn’t given any further information.)
Yet while the user was anonymous, he was not untraceable. CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski tracked down the man behind the account for comment, which apparently prompted the user to preemptively publish an apology on /r/The_Donald “for the posts made that were racist, bigoted, and anti-semitic.”
“I am in no way this kind of person. I love and accept people of all walks of life and have done so for my entire life,” the user wrote, shortly before deleting his account. “I am not the person that the media portrays me to be in real life. I was trolling and posting things to get a reaction from the subs on reddit and never meant any of the hateful things I said in those posts.”
The user then apparently spoke to CNN, asserting that the White House had not asked his permission to use the video.
But that revelation was quickly eclipsed with a bit in the CNN story in which the network explained why it was not naming the man: He was a private citizen and had apologized, saying he wouldn’t post racist material again.
“CNN,” the story said, “reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change.”
That last little phrase ignited critics on social media. Many of those on the right thought it sounded like CNN was threatening to “dox” the anonymous man — reveal personal information about him — if he posted something CNN didn’t like in the future.
“CNN basically extorting a private citizen for legal behavior,” tweeted commentator Dave Rubin, earning thousands of retweets. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange argued that CNN had violated New York criminal law on coercion.
Nor was criticism limited to the right. The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald questioned the propriety of CNN investigating one of its critics. “That fact creates the appearance of vengeance: If you, even as a random and anonymous Internet user, post content critical of CNN, then it will use its vast corporate resources to investigate you, uncover your identity, and threaten to expose you if you ever do so again,” Greenwald wrote.
The president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., also waded into the action: “So I guess they weren’t effective threatening the admin so they go after & bully a 15 [year old]? Seems in line w their ‘standards’ #CNNBlackmail,” Trump tweeted.
CNN stepped forward to explain Wednesday, saying it had concealed the user’s identity to protect his safety and that there was no coercion.
“The user, who is an adult male, not a 15-year-old boy, apologized and deleted his account before ever speaking with our reporter,” a CNN spokesperson said in a statement. “CNN never made any deal, of any kind, with the user. In fact, CNN included its decision to withhold the user’s identity in an effort to be completely transparent that there was no deal.”
By that time, though, neo-Nazis were rushing to the Redditor’s aid. The popular white supremacist site Daily Stormer demanded thatCNN fire several journalists and endow a scholarship on behalf of the Redditor, or else CNN would face payback from “jackboots on the ground in every major metro area in the world.”
“We are going to track down your parents,” the site wrote. “We are going to track down your siblings. We are going to track down your spouses. We are going to track down your children. Because hey, that’s what you guys get to do, right? We’re going to see how you like it when our reporters are hunting down your children.”
Others on the right also weighed in.
CNN “committed the only real sin on the Internet, which is that you don’t dox people,” Mike Cernovich, a right-wing media personality, said in an interview.
“You’re not some heroic person, the underdog. You’re working for a big corporation, and that comes with consequences, one of which is that you can’t punch down,” Cernovich said of the network. “We now have the story of CNN as Goliath going after the Reddit user David…. That’s always going to trigger a massive backlash.”
In the end, it seems, David won.
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