On Monday night, a disinformation campaign succeeded with distressing ease.
Jack Posobiec, best known for planting a fake "rape Melania" sign at an anti-Trump rally, tweeted out a photo that seemed to link Antifa with the North American Man-Boy Love Association, a pro-pedophilia organization that is all but functionally dead.
The surreal image shared by Posobiec portrayed protesters holding a sign that read "No White Supremacy, No Pedo-Bashing, No Mike Cernovich," above the rainbow-hued NAMBLA logo at a rally against Mike Cernovich at Columbia University. Never mind that activists who were present say that a group of masked men briefly unfurled the banner before being chased away. Never mind that the banner appears in no other video of the evening. Never mind that NAMBLA allegedly has next to no funding nor members. The idea of the left in bed with pedophiles was apparently too irresistible to ignore: at press time, the photo had been shared upwards of 20,000 times and was recently liked by Donald Trump Jr.
The far-right has long made spurious links between leftists and pedophiles. In 2016, Cernovich and other members of the alt-right falsely alleged that a pizza parlor called Comet Ping Pong was the home of a child sex ring. But this particular alt-right conspiracy furthered a bigoted myth: that LGBT predators are some kind of omnipresent political force and are now organizing protests against prominent alt-right figures.
The stunt, in fact, drew on a rich history of demonizing gay people by calling them sexual predators. Before the 1970's, gay men in particular were branded by their opponents as "sexual perverts." But despite a preponderance of studies that have sought to find a link between homosexuality and pedophilia, researchers have been consistently unable to prove the association. As Gregory Herek, an emeritus professor of social psychology at the University of California at Davis, writes on his blog: "The empirical research does not show that gay or bisexual men are any more likely than heterosexual men to molest children."
Herek adds that those who study pedophilia say that one cannot make the association between sexual attraction towards children and sexual orientation, gay or straight. "The important point is that many child molesters cannot be meaningfully described as homosexuals, heterosexuals, or bisexuals (in the usual sense of those terms) because they are not really capable of a relationship with an adult man or woman."
This hasn't stopped opponents from exploiting the myth. And at a moment when the suddenly-out-and-proud gay actor Kevin Spacey was trending because he had allegedly sexually-assaulted a minor (additional accusers have since come forward), it seemed an especially damaging moment to insinuate that a gay, pro-pedophilia organization was on the rise.
NAMBLA is widely considered anathema to the gay rights movement. The group doesn't have a presence on social media; its last blog post was posted in February of this year. An email to the organization via its contact page went unanswered.
But NAMBLA is anything but irrelevant to those in the far right, who seem to get a kick out of connecting its shadowy reach to everything from LGBT children's programming to the upcoming gay romance, "Call Me By Your Name," and the Boy Scouts decision to allow female members. It's become such a familiar trope for smearing leftists, that it's likely many of the folks who use it don't even know the organization they're referencing has been "close to extinction" for more than a decade.
Those who study how the far-right operates online insist NAMBLA is merely a symbol being used for shock value. "It was an obvious stunt," says Joan Donovan, a far-right researcher at the Data and Society Institute. She believes InfoWars and other conspiracy-peddlers rely on confusion about Antifa and NAMBLA to obscure just how ludicrous their partnership would be. "I'm sure they count on the audience not being able to fact check or debunk them. How do you confirm a conspiracy except with another conspiracy?"
"People retweeting this story see this as an ideological battle and they're far less concerned that they're sharing a story that might not be true."
Paul Mihailidis, a professor at Emerson College who has studied the way the alt-right uses conspiracy theories to further their agendas, believes the far-right will share anything that hurts their opponents. "I think people care far less about credibility and much more in perpetuating a certain value system," he says. "People retweeting this story see this as an ideological battle and they're far less concerned that they're sharing a story that might not be true."
Because NAMBLA is so obscure, it allowed the far-right to make a make a cheap shot with minimal risk of clapback, he says. "Because NAMBLA isn't actually powerful, there's probably less of a risk of getting engulfed in a response mechanism. They can make the link and people who know who NAMBLA is might be turned off immediately, but they don't risk a response."
While invoking NAMBLA may seem like a cheap shot, that doesn't make its impact on the LGBT community any less damaging. The argument that the public should think of the effect on children before granting gay people basic human rights was most potently spearheaded by Anita Bryant, a Christian singer best known for her successful repeal of a 1977 Miami ordinance that barred anti-gay discrimination. Her efforts and those of the Christian right have proven effective: even in 2005, fewer than half of respondents to a GALLUP poll believed gay people should be allowed to work as priests. Moreover, in 2014, 35 percent of the US public believed that same-sex couples shouldn't have the legal right to adopt a child.
President Trump also surrounds himself with people who've equated homosexuality and pedophilia. In August, Sam Clovis, the senior White House adviser to the US Dept. of Agriculture, was asked about his stance on LGBT rights during a campaign stop in his failed run for Republican Senate nomination in Iowa. "If we protect LGBT behavior, what other behaviors are we going to protect? Are we going to protect pedophilia?" he wondered aloud.
So while it's easy to laugh it off when NAMBLA is portrayed, ludicrously, as a thriving organization that teams up with Antifa and members of the Hollywood elite, it is in many ways a troubling escalation of the kind of rhetoric the right has been peddling for years—and one that can't so easily be dismissed as just another dumb, cheap stunt.