Welcome back to Can't Handle the Truth, our Saturday column looking at the past seven days of fake news and hoaxes that have spread thanks to the internet.
Republican Roy Moore is still a contender for a US Senate in Alabama despite a total of eight women accusing him of behavior that ranges from romantically pursuing them when they were teenagers to outright sexual assault. Members of Moore's own party, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have called on him to drop out of the race.
Moore maintains that the accusations are "fake news," and wrote an open letter to Fox News host and pro-Trump propagandist Sean Hannity in which he claims to have been "attacked by the Washington Post and other liberal media in a desperate attempt to smear my character and defeat my campaign." He accused his accusers of lying, and even claimed that what looked like his signature in an accuser's high school yearbook was the result of "tampering."
But lest we forget, something similar happened to the president. A month before his election, Donald Trump was revealed to have bragged into an open mic in 2005 that he grabbed women "by the pussy," and that he kissed them without permission. He was also accused of predatory behavior by more than a dozen women. Then he won. But though he maintains that all of his accusers are lying and though he has not yet joined the Republican outcry against Moore, he has responded to fresh accusations against Democratic Senator Al Franken—who posed for a photo of himself grabbing a sleeping woman's breasts, and is accused of kissing her without permission—by accusing him of even worse behavior on Twitter:
My point is, Moore still has a real shot. If he wins, it may be because enough Alabama voters were convinced by some of the shadier fake news items spread in the wake of these accusations. Most of these hoaxes were given a push by Moore's wife, who will post seemingly anything online if it seems to bolster her husband's tarnished reputation.
One of Roy Moore's accusers works for Michelle Obama
"Second Roy Moore Accuser Works For Michelle Obama Right NOW," the headline says, and gosh, I know some Facebook uncles who are eager to hit the share button on a story like that. Indeed, according to the counter on the site that published it, Lastlineofdefense.online, 20,000 people did share it online.
But hold the phone! This isn't real news, and we can be sure of that because according to a disclaimer at the bottom of every page, Lastlineofdefense.online is "satire." So those thousands of people who shared this fake post about a fake accuser working for the former first lady? Don't worry, they just enjoyed the article for its sidesplitting humor!
Reporters are bribing women into accusing Roy Moore
Of course, the story about Moore's accusers wasn't a piece of opinion journalism but a carefully reported documentation of what women were saying about the candidate. Nevertheless, Moore said of the Post shortly after the initial story, "I think they have a political agenda," and added that the public should expect "revelations about the motivation and the content of this article."
Then last weekend, a rumor circulated on the right-wing internet that someone was paying women to dish dirt on Moore.
A reporter was supposedly taped while offering a woman $1,000 to provide sexual allegations about Moore. The origin of this story was the Twitter account @umpire43—an account that has since been either temporarily or permanently shut down.
The Daily Beast dug through some of the other information @umpire43 has helpfully provided thanks to the many jobs the account's owner has claimed to have had: a Navy SEAL, a Reuters pollster, a State Department worker based in Calgary, a voter fraud expert, and an associate of Reince Preibus. The account frequently posted fake claims of expertise designed to discredit polls or prove the supposed validity of Trump's more outlandish statements, like the one about thousands of Muslims celebrating after 9/11 in New Jersey.
In short, the bribe story was sourced entirely from a Twitter account that just constantly posts lies.
A Jewish reporter is cold-calling Alabamans with bribe offers
Then, like a bolt from the blue around November 15, a robo-call claiming to be from the Washington Post started ringing phones in Alabama_._ Initially reported by a pastor named Al Moore (no relation), the calls to the homes of potential voters seem to be coming from a reporter named "Bernie Bernstein," a name that doesn't match the name of anyone on staff at the _Post. "_Bernstein" claims to be paying sources enormous sums of money for information that he "will not be fully investigating." Before hanging up, he gives the email address of someone named Al Bernstein instead of his own. Oh, and he has a Jewish name, and the exact speech pattern of my Jewish grandmother, so I think it's safe to say his name is meant to be spelled "(((Bernie Bernstein)))."
It remains a mystery who exactly is behind this robo-call, but it seems designed to discredit the Post and thus the story about the women. As ruses go, it's pretty obvious—but it seems clear that it's not necessarily for Moore and his allies to prove the allegations against him are false, they are just hoping to sow enough doubt so that his voters don't desert him.
Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.