It is not common practice for a national news publication to hear the ravings of a racist, fraudulent, confessed liar and then feature that subject’s lies in a 3,100-word opus on the front page. Yet that is exactly what USA Today did on Tuesday with 21-year-old conservative Twitter troll Jacob Wohl.
Its profile ― titled “The dirty trickster in Trump’s corner: Jacob Wohl even baits Mueller, and he’s not done scheming yet” in print ― far overreaches in its apparent attempt to discredit but be fair with a grifter who is so unabashed, he’d make Fyre Festival creator Billy McFarland blush.
The result is promotional propaganda for Wohl, who is on an Islamophobia tour with noted racist Laura Loomer, as the pair attempts to force into reality a conspiracy theory about Rep. Ilhan Omar. (As this story was being written, Wohl was suspended from Twitter.)
It’s well known by now that giving column inches to conspiracy theories and bad-faith troll campaigns doesn’t often accomplish anything except propagate those messages and advance the reputations of the people behind them. Wohl’s entire political career can be attributed to taking advantage of media.
This point is, ironically, made no more clear than in the offending USA Today piece, which states:
Being repeatedly bombarded with a claim — social media’s specialty — increases its perceived accuracy, even if it’s false and has been publicly debunked. People are more likely to believe a false claim that fits their ideology, and the internet naturally facilitates people like Wohl finding and communicating with like-minded groups. ...
Wohl stressed that the accuracy of the information he spreads is “not the important part.” All that matters is how far those claims travel, and how many people believe them.
USA Today had Wohl’s playbook, and then it stood by as he ran every single play. Below is a non-exhaustive list of dangerous stunts and lies Wohl was allowed to pull in the story. While the story takes steps to disavow Wohl’s rhetoric and note his disinformation campaigns, it also inadvertently gives him the agency to reiterate them.
- A lie about special counsel Robert Mueller
- A conspiracy theory about Sen. Kamala Harris
- A conspiracy theory about Rep. Ilhan Omar
- A conspiracy theory about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg
- A call for damaging information on journalists from left-leaning news organizations and nonprofits
- A primer on using social media to “steer the left-wing votes in the primaries to what we feel are weaker candidates.”
- A call for funding from readers to carry out one of his schemes
Most mainstream news agencies are guilty of inadvertently giving credence to bad faith actors to varying degrees. People like Wohl have used the media to peddle everything from conspiracy theories to white nationalism and neo-Nazi rhetoric, as reporters’ attempts to cover both sides of an issue get taken advantage of. Most recently, The New York Times ran a glowing profile of Gavin McInnes, the racist and sexist founder of the Proud Boys street gang, calling him a “Brooklyn hipster” and “provocateur” and avoiding descriptions like “gang leader.”
USA Today’s piece is particularly egregious because it acknowledges who Wohl is ― a self-described liar made famous in 2017 for having defrauded investors in Arizona as a teenager ― and then regurgitates his rhetoric to 2.6 million daily print readers. Its thin attempts to discredit Wohl and his deceptions have the opposite effect, playing right into his hand.
Chris Davis, the executive editor of investigations for USA Today, responded to a request for comment, saying in a statement, “We exposed an ongoing disinformation campaign similar to the one that was used during the 2016 election, and one planned to be used in the 2020 election. We considered this expose an important story and we feel like the work speaks for itself.”
But when someone like Wohl is celebrating your news article, you have to wonder whether you’re one of his victims.