BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. For the mainstream
media this week, as most weeks, there was chaos in Trumpland.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Up next, breaking news, the government shutdown, no end in sight, anti-Trump protests across the nation.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: And a day of Russia-related developments, all of which hint at a ramped-up investigation in at least the obstruction of justice part of things.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Late today, NBC News reporting Mueller has interviewed former FBI Director Comey, focusing on if Trump interfered in the Flynn investigation.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The Washington Post is reporting that Special Counsel Mueller is seeking to question President Trump.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The attorney general, Jeff Sessions, was interviewed, apparently, just last week for hours.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But for many on the far right, the Trump administration is on the brink not of failure but of total vindication.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: A growing number of House Republicans now demanding the release of a top-secret memo.
ED HENRY, FOX NEWS: …that four-page memo that is at the center of these allegations that top Obama officials at the FBI and the Justice Department were conducting surveillance of top Trump officials.
SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: The scandal is one of the biggest abuses of power in American history. It is time that, you, the American people, get the truth. We are, once again, calling on you to contact Congress, let them know. You want the memo released.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The memo in question is a classified document put together by California Republican Devin Nunes, which, according to him and some of his fellow Republicans, demonstrates, once and for all, that the Obama administration abused its powers to spy on Donald Trump and his campaign. In fact, it demonstrates that the entire Mueller investigation is a corrupt sham or, rather, it would demonstrate that, if only we could see it.
WILL SOMMER: The big thing about the memo is that it’s classified, so only members of Congress and their staffs have seen it. And, of course, because it’s classified, they can’t describe, per se, what’s in the memo but they can certainly make a lot of allusions about it, and that’s what really lets minds run wild.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Will Sommer is an editor for The Hill and author of Right Richter, a newsletter devoted to right-wing media where hashtag #ReleaseTheMemo was just the most recent meme to take hold and spread like wildfire.
WILL SOMMER: This is really something that’s come from sort of out of nowhere to just take over the right-wing media. It’s what everyone’s talking about. On Thursday afternoon last week, a couple of Republican congressman got up on the floor of the House and they said --
REP. MARK MEADOWS: Today I had the opportunity to go into a confidential setting, and I'm here to tell all of America tonight that I am shocked to read exactly what has taken place. I would think that it would never happen in a country that loves freedom and democracy like this country.
WILL SOMMER: And we saw this just really explode within a few hours, people like Sean Hannity on Fox News who’s at the forefront of a lot of the conspiracy theories.
SEAN HANNITY: This, so you understand, is so much bigger than Watergate. It's about our Constitution, about the rule of law. It has been shredded.
WILL SOMMER: And, additionally, just tons of internet grassroots people, conspiracy-minded outlets like InfoWars with Alex Jones and Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, they’ve been tweeting, release the memo, someone send us the memo, really acting like it’s going to be this sort of golden ticket that reveals everything. Lots of memes, lots of pictures of a smug Trump saying, “time to release the memo.” And, of course, with any of these things there’s also some amount of bot activity by Russian bots.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Talk about that.
WILL SOMMER: Sure. The origins of this are American but researchers who’ve followed this up have seen these accounts that they suspect of being Russian bots proliferating and really sort of signal boosting, as it were --
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
WILL SOMMER: -- the, the #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The colorful Alex Jones of InfoWars claimed to have the memo.
ALEX JONES: Here it is, just sent to us, this is the classified memo. you want it, you got it, tomorrow’s news today, got the whole thing. In fact, the rest of it is comin’ out of the printer, guys, will you bring it to me, please, the one by my office in the hall.
WILL SOMMER: Yeah, this was kind of a flop for Alex Jones. [LAUGHS] He was saying, you know, I have the memo in front of me, and he had a big stack of papers.
ALEX JONES: How many hundreds of pages is this? It’s a 100. It’s 99 pages without the cover.
WILL SOMMER: And now we know, for a fact, that the memo is four pages, so his overhead camera is showing the, the pages from the supposed memo.
ALEX JONES: Oh, there’s page 1. That’s the shot right there. There’s page 2. This is all how they did it to Trump, all the spying. Good, God!
WILL SOMMER: People started looking at this and they started googling phrases in the memo and, as it turned out, this was a previously-released like a nearly year-old document.
And some of the other conspiracy theorists were kind of mad at him. So they were just like, you’ve discredited the memo, you know, we, we need the real memo. And, and, in fact, #ReleaseTheMemo briefly had a rival called #ReleaseTheRealMemo.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s out there somewhere!
You compared the fervor behind the memo to another ongoing right-wing internet fixation, something our listeners probably wouldn’t have heard of. It’s a complex conspiracy theory called “The Storm.”
WILL SOMMER: The Storm is kind of like a mega conspiracy theory. From Pizzagate to the murder of Seth Rich, it’s all kind of blended into The Storm, and the origins of this are pretty wild. Someone started posting anonymously on the really kind of scuzzy forum 4chan.
A lot of Trump supporters on there, and this person was calling themselves “Q” which is supposedly a reference to the top-secret Q security clearance, who could really be anyone. Then people are saying, well, you know what, I think this is a member of the Trump administration who’s sending us clues.
“Q”: The Storm has begun. Now it says the Eye of Providence and it crossed out the Rothschilds and the House of Saud and it circled Soros, 444. It says that this is the key you'll need in the coming weeks.
WILL SOMMER: There are a lot of like vague things about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and Huma Abedin and there’s baseless allegation about a pedophile ring in DC around a pizza parlor.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right.
WILL SOMMER: So these clues, which have come to be called “bread crumbs,” these are all kind of blended together into this idea that, you know, maybe Obama’s already been arrested and sent to Guantanamo Bay.
MAN: During the pre-dawn hours on Christmas Day, Delta Force operators launched a precision strike against an Obama-controlled stronghold in Thailand.
WOMAN: And another thing that leads right back in to Q, the Secret Service has the ability to arrest anybody they suspect of committing a felony without an arrest warrant.
MAN: Michelle Obama hasn’t said anything since the 11th. John Podesta hasn’t said anything since the 27th. All of this together really does lend some credence to the idea that maybe Trump just mass arrested these people. We’re basically in martial law right now, in a good way.
WILL SOMMER: And the way it ties into the Russia investigation is this idea that, in fact, Trump and Mueller are working hand in hand to investigate the Clintons --
-- and that this is all kind of a ruse. I mean, already we’ve seen Sean Hannity retweet a tweet that mentioned QAnon and, if the Russia investigation gets worse for the administration, I think we’ll find more people looking for counter narratives like QAnon or like #ReleaseTheMemo.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But what happens if these narratives are exposed definitively as bunk? What if the memo is released and there’s really nothing there, as the Democrats contend?
WILL SOMMER: Right, certainly it seems like even Republicans who have seen the memo don’t have a ton of confidence in it. Someone asked to Republicans who had seen the memo today whether they were in favor of releasing it or whether they had confidence in its conclusions, and a lot of them said, you know, no comment. [LAUGHS]
You know -- you know, once it comes out though, I mean, I, I think for Trump supporters and people in the right-wing media, historically we’ve seen it kind of doesn’t matter and they just move onto the next thing. You kind of just keep the machine going forward, as far as the narrative goes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why?
WILL SOMMER: I mean, certainly from a business perspective, the audience that consumes this stuff, whether it’s on Fox News, talk radio or online, it's better to tell the audience that they’re winning and that things are going Trump’s way. So, for example, after the Roy Moore allegations came out, there was like a real hunger for someone who was going to not just sort of deflect it, like Breitbart did, but really go on the offensive against the accusers. And so, we saw like Gateway Pundit was willing to step up, and so they got a lot of attention for that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
WILL SOMMER: And so, there's a business advantage in not alienating the audience by acknowledging bad news. That's why there's not a ton of introspection when these things flop.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So these memes and conspiracy theories, they’re like an endless smorgasbord of good news that Trump’s base can feed on whenever it likes.
WILL SOMMER: Absolutely. I mean, it’s really much more entertaining, you know, in the case of the memo to imagine that there's about to be all these revelations than following, say, the shutdown fight or various legislative quagmires the administration might find itself in.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Even beyond the fact that it creates a distraction that's forever churning, it does matter because in the midst of the Pizzagate scandal we saw one true believer take a gun and nearly carry out a shooting. There was a guy who was just busted for threatening to attack CNN for being fake news.
WILL SOMMER: The idea that, you know, these elites are trying to obstruct the will of the people or overturn the election or that there’s a coup in the offing, as you can hear on Fox News now, that kind of pushes people, especially people who are maybe atomized and outside of normal society, that can push someone to take extreme measures.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Have they talked about coups lately on Fox?
WILL SOMMER: I mean, the, the big thing now on Fox is calling for the US marshals to arrest Mueller and Comey.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [SIGHS] Conspiracy theories have always been with us but a unique feature of this moment, obviously, is the abundance of amplifiers which grow and mutate. You've got meme-heavy internet subcultures that live on sites like 4chan and Reddit, and you watch those religiously for your newsletter. Are these ideas particularly prone to memeification or is it just that there’s a greater opportunity to create memes?
WILL SOMMER: There’s an increased capability but I think also we’re in a, a political moment that is very prone to memes and slogans and ideas that can be transmitted quickly. You know, I mean, ultimately Trump is kind of the, the meme president. He’s saying stuff like, Crooked Hillary or Lyin’ Ted and --
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Cryin’ Schumer?
WILL SOMMER: Yes, exactly [LAUGHS], exactly.
And those are all picked up by his followers, obviously. During the campaign, it is said he practiced memetic warfare. Especially in the right-wing media, I, I think they have a much stronger meme creation infrastructure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s what I was going to ask you. I mean, you focus on right-wing media but what about the left? Aren’t they doing this?
WILL SOMMER: I think people on the right would say that the media infrastructure for the left is The New York Times and CNN and NPR, and so and so forth. But I really don’t think that’s a, an apt comparison because there’s no Sean Hannity on MSNBC, in terms of just sticking on message and repeating whatever is advantageous for the left politics at the moment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Not even Rachel Maddow?
WILL SOMMER: I don’t think so. Certainly that, that will come down to opinion. We haven’t seen, for example, Rachel Maddow promote the left’s equivalent of a Seth Rich conspiracy theory in the way that Sean Hannity did.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. Do you see another meme on the horizon?
WILL SOMMER: [LAUGHS] Well, you know, like the one that always gets a lot of play and I think is on the rise is the idea that Trump is a god emperor?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A god emperor?
WILL SOMMER: So they’re taking this from, like, video games where people are called god emperors and they do these drawings of Trump as a space warrior. I think as things get worse and worse for Trump potentially in the Russia investigation, they’re going to be leaning on that one pretty hard.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Any conspiracies?
WILL SOMMER: Obviously, the related thing to #ReleaseTheMemo are these FBI text messages, right, which, are, I mean, are legitimate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This was one FBI guy on the Russia investigation talking to his girlfriend and saying disparaging things about Trump, basically rooting for Hillary. This was before the election.
WILL SOMMER: Yeah, exactly. And the idea that the FBI and the so-called “Deep State” colluded against Trump, that’s like the real big thing right now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
WILL SOMMER: So there’s so many things that you can take from that. I mean, there’s -- secret societies is the latest one. In these text messages, the FBI agent says to his mistress, this is the first meeting of the secret society tonight or something.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm!
WILL SOMMER: And the senator who saw these texts has really seized on this as proof that there was an FBI secret society devoted to defeating Trump. So “secret societies” is really kind of like the new #ReleaseTheMemo.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can’t they just ask this guy what he meant?
WILL SOMMER: [LAUGHS] Oh, I think he has a lawyer. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So god emperors and secret societies.
WILL SOMMER: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Details at 11. Will, thank you so much.
WILL SOMMER: Hey, thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Will Sommer is the author of Right Richter, a newsletter that covers right-wing internet subculture.