On the list of the internet’s worst effects, that it’s turned everyone into a detective has got to be in the top five. Armed with the power of Google, seemingly limitless knowledge is at everyone’s fingertips, and that makes each and every one of us the smartest, most intuitive person on the planet.
This is clearly not the actual case, as there are plenty of idiots who use Google every day. Maybe you’re one of them. I don’t know. But the multitude of informational sources online means that there is nobody who isn’t able to confirm their bias somewhere. Every possible thing can be found online, that’s part of its beauty and its terror. That makes it easy for web detectives to uncover supposedly damning clues that others missed; information that makes them more right than the other person, or changes the narrative.
Earlier this week, it was reported that Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is currently investigating the president, has asked the FBI to look into an effort to concoct allegations of sexual misconduct against him. Earlier this month, reporters began receiving suspect emails claiming that the sender was being asked to fabricate allegations against Mueller. They connected Jack Burkman, a right-wing lobbyist, and Jacob Wohl, a 20-year-old, pro-Trump, failed hedge-fund manager, to the scheme. Reporters digging into it also learned about a mysterious firm called Surefire Intelligence.
It didn’t take long for the authority of Surefire Intelligence to be thoroughly dismantled. LinkedIn profiles for the firm used profile pictures of model Bar Refaeli and actor Christoph Waltz. Wohl’s name was found in the registration information for Surefire’s domain name, and he used a darken photo of himself on LinkedIn for a fake profile of the firm’s managing partner, Matthew Cohen. He also connected phone numbers related to the firm to his mother’s voice-mail.
Yesterday, Burkman and Wohl held an embarrassing press conference where even Gateway Pundit, a frequent publisher of inaccurate and outright false news stories, pushed Wohl about the allegations. Wohl occasionally writes for Gateway Pundit, but that relationship has been suspended in the wake of this latest stunt.
Burkman and Wohl’s story has been dismantled, and pending some sort of statement from the woman they claim to represent, it will fall by the wayside. But it might be worth speculating about why the ruse fell apart. The most obvious reason is that Wohl seemingly did no work to obfuscate what he did, missing obvious steps like masking his domain-registration records, using photos that could not be reverse-image-searched, or connecting Surefire’s phone numbers to literally any number besides his mother’s.
But the scheme also shows the limits of what the MAGA internet can do to invent controversy. Misinformation feeds the right-wing internet because the misinformation usually stays within that bubble. For instance, while the allegations that Christine Blasey Ford leveled against Brett Kavanaugh were generally regarded by senators of both parties as credible, the right-wing internet set about circulating pictures of drunk, naked women and claiming the person pictured was Ford (it wasn’t). Similarly, photos of bloodied police officers taken in 2012 have circulated as part of an anti-migrant campaign as the caravan makes its way to the southern border. These campaigns rely on “citizen journalists” showing you bombshell information that the mainstream media won’t. They work because they remain out of the mainstream, gaining power from their exclusion.
The point of these intentionally false posts is less to rebut Democrats and more to inflame the already established stances of fellow Republicans. They work best when they are kept in the GOP’s online bubble, and force outsiders — Democrats, journalists, fact-checkers, whoever — to try to intervene. Those interventions never work. Fake news persists often because the people encountering it want to believe it. They also persist because viral misinformation does not refute fact as much as cloud it.
What Wohl and Burkman tried to do was the reverse. They tried to elevate the same sort of almost-credible, manufactured, right-wing controversy into a national story, and convince outsiders of its legitimacy. Faced with a more skeptical audience — one armed with basic web-sleuthing skills — the story immediately fell apart.