OCT. 13, 2020 • 21 DAYS UNTIL THE ELECTION
Welcome to FAHRENHEIT 411, a special newsletter on disinformation and conspiracy theories ahead of the 2020 presidential election. It is produced in partnership with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based think tank that studies extremism, and written by Molly Boigon, an investigative reporter at The Forward.
THE 411: CALLS FOR A #JEXIT SWEEP SOCIAL MEDIA
New York’s crackdown on mass gatherings in Orthodox neighborhoods like Borough Park, Brooklyn, where coronavirus rates have spiked, resonated across hate and conspiracy theory communities on social media last week.
ISD tracked a 56% increase in posts discussing Jews among hate communities on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Reddit in the week ending Oct. 6 compared to the previous week. Among the 2,443 posts, one theme was a so-called “JEXIT”— predicting an exodus of Jews from the Democratic Party to vote for President Donald Trump.
New York’s Orthodox Jews quietly supported Trump in 2016 but have been decidedly more vocal in this presidential campaign. At protests in Borough Park last week against the new restrictions imposed by New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, both Democrats, some waved large Trump flags.
“MAYBE TIME FOR A #JEXIT,” said one user, whose post generated more than 400 interactions on Twitter.
“Jexit” is a play on the word “Brexit,” referring to the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. While for most users it’s just a hashtag, Jexit is also tied to a number of existing political action committees and nonprofits, and generates interest whenever Democratic elected officials can be accused of antisemitism by Trump conservatives, as in the case of Cuomo and de Blasio.
The first iteration of the belief or fervent hope that Jews will abandon the Democratic party for Trump was “Jexodus,” an organization created by Jeff Ballabon, a 2016 Trump campaign adviser who is Jewish. He and former White House official Sebastian Gorka (who was the subject of a Forward investigation that found he had ties to Nazi groups in Hungary) announced the new group during the Conservative Political Action Conference in February of 2019.
The group changed its name to “The Exodus Movement” shortly after it was the subject of a segment on Fox News and a subsequent tweet by President Donald Trump. The Exodus Movement is now paid for by Red Sea Rising, a conservative super PAC that has so far spent more than $24,000 during the 2020 election cycle.
Fox News and other media expressed increased interest in the idea of a “Jexodus” after comments by Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar about “allegiance to a foreign country,” Israel, that generated controversy in the spring of 2019.
The organization Jexit was also established in 2019 to encourage American Jewish Democrats to “stand against antisemitism in the Democratic Party and join with Christians and Jews across the United States” to fight anti-Zionism and other perceived ills, according to registration documents. The organization, a 501(c)4 based in Florida, is operating at a $4,000 deficit, according to its most recent tax filings, and its president is Michelle Terris, a co-chair of the Jews for Trump Coalition in 2016.
“Jexit” is the hashtag that has taken off in recent weeks, although “Jexodus” still gets significant search interest.
“Jexit” is also used as a Twitter hashtag for people who leave the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Despite the buzz about a Jewish exit from the Democratic party, polling from earlier this year finds Jews solidly behind Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, and the numbers of Jews registered as Democrats and Republicans have not changed outside the margin of error since 2018, according to the Jewish Electorate Institute.
Massimo Flore is an independent researcher based in Italy who studied disinformation at the European Commission and served as an electoral expert at the United Nations. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Molly Boigon: What makes people vulnerable to disinformation?
Flore: One of my findings is that each single disinformation message is not that important. There’s been testing in several academic institutions — people usually will forget the content of any message that we send to them. What they will remember is the feeling that is attached to that particular message.
Disinformation has evolved and has been embedded into something that I named “hostile narratives,” which are campaigns that are really organized and are aimed at disrupting our democratic institutions. Hostile narratives work by targeting three specific fears. There is the fear of losing health, the fear of losing wealth and the fear of losing identity. These are the most powerful fears because this is what defines who we are, and these are the three aspects we defend with our lives.
We should care more about what is behind hostile narratives than about the single disinformation message.
Boigon: Who, according to your research, is trying to do this?
Flore: It is not a specific group, is not a specific person, is not a specific foreign country. It’s multiple groups and individuals that maybe are not coordinating with one another, but even if they don’t know it, they have the same goal.
If you just think about it in political-science terms, what we are experiencing now is one of the many regimes that we have had in society, through centuries. This is the democratic regime, and for America, it’s been for two centuries, but for Europe it’s been since after the second World War.
Before, there were many others. There were dictatorships, there were absolute kings, there was the Pope with temporal power. And every time that we have a specific regime in society, all the others want to remove that one and put themselves there. There are people who prefer to have a king instead of a president, or a dictatorship instead of a republic. There are people who prefer to have a religious leader.
These hostile narratives are made to change the perspective of other people to make them think that the current democratic system is not providing them with security and prosperity, and so they need to have a regime change.
There are people who are actively plotting against democracy, neo-Nazi groups for example. But there are also people who are frustrated, who want maybe a change, but they don’t know what that change should look like. They can be hooked into hostile narratives.
There is one British researcher that used the word “unwitting agents” for people who do not know that they are operating on behalf of a hostile narrative. But they are nevertheless. They are being used.
Boigon: What do you make of the disinformation around mail-in voting in the United States right now?
Flore: I’ve never seen something like this in the way it’s developing in the United States.
Before working for the European Commission, I worked for the United Nations in elections, so I was an electoral expert. I worked in West Africa in some countries that were coming out of a civil war, some countries that entered into a civil war after the elections, some countries where the military was taking power and organizing the elections and some countries where the old dictator was obliged to organize a free and fair election to transfer power.
Disinformation around elections always happens. But it happens always with a specific time frame— it’s basically some days before the election, maximum one week, and then one week after. That disinformation comes from the bottom, from anonymous sources.
This case is specifically scary because it’s coming from the top. It’s the most powerful person in the country who is sharing those false claims.
I’m more scared about the long term effects. Trump can win or lose this election; it doesn’t matter. The impression that the voting system in America is rigged will remain in the minds of people. Maybe next election, not for the president but for a governor, for a congressman, anybody can just get up and say, “This election is rigged.” And people will not just discard these ideas, because they heard them from somebody who is really in a top position. People start having their doubts, because they say, “They are inside the machine, and maybe they know something that we don’t know.”
Boigon: How can people successfully engage with others who have been hooked by hostile narratives or targeted by disinformation?
Flore: Don’t challenge what they are saying, but just try to let them talk about how they feel. Identify which kind of fear or feeling they are experiencing, and then try to reassure them.
Don’t challenge the idea, don’t make them feel that they are stupid or they are racist, but challenge the fear, because this is the vulnerability that is being targeted.
Here are articles worth looking at for a deeper dive on foreign and domestic disinformation campaigns, Facebook’s role in the growth of QAnon communities and the ascendance of a Borough Park conspiracy theorist.
How Hispanic voters are being targeted by disinformation
“Comments by Joe Biden about making abortion the ‘law of the land’ triggered a siege of coordinated disinformation across a number of Spanish-language Facebook pages.” Read more.
Is Facebook helping QAnon avoid the effects of its upcoming ban?
“By announcing the ban, but not being able to fully enforce it nearly immediately, what Facebook is doing is giving the QAnon community an opportunity to do two things: a) adapt/modify their pages to avoid ban; and, b) transition to other platforms.” Read more.
Schiff Sees Rise in Russian Disinformation as Trump Attacks Mail-In Voting
“Schiff predicted that if the presidential vote is close and counting absentee ballots takes time, Russia and other foreign powers would most likely step up their disinformation campaigns, amplifying Mr. Trump’s criticism of mail-in votes and accusations of a rigged election.” Read more.
The Forward’s coverage of disinformation and conspiracy theories
We separated fact from fiction on Cuomo’s new coronavirus restrictions, covered Facebook’s crackdown on Holocaust denial and wrote about Borough Park agitator Heshy Tischler, who has said, without evidence, that Covid positivity rates in New York are fake.
HATE TRACKERS, WEEK ENDING OCT. 6
ISD has developed a tracker that scrapes the web for hateful posts across social media platforms. Researchers categorize hateful users based on their ideological motivations and use keywords to examine their conversations. All of the entities are manually reviewed by ISD analysts. To read more about ISD’s methodology, click here, and to see their entire analysis for the week, click here.
Related messages decreased to 16,804 this week from 18,133 last week.
Top 5 Ascendant Communities:
+ 59% Anti-LGBT + 35% Identitarian communities + 14% Far-right communities + 5% Misogynist - 24% Anti-Black communities
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