From viral videos to Fox News: how rightwing media fueled the critical race theory panic

Viral videos of impassioned parents denouncing critical race theory at school board hearings have become a cornerstone of the movement to ban its teaching.

In one such video, a mother declares critical race theory (CRT) to be “a tactic used by Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan on slavery very many years ago to dumb down my ancestors so we could not think for ourselves”. In another, a woman calls CRT “the American version of the Chinese Cultural Revolution”. A third mother she has proof that her local school board is “teaching our children to go out and murder police officers”.

The videos, and their spread online, are emblematic of the way the campaign to ban CRT has combined genuine grassroots anger, institutional backing, and a highly effective rightwing propaganda machine to propel critical race theory from academic obscurity to center stage in the US political debate.

That movement has gained tremendous ground at great speed. Legislation seeking to limit the teaching of CRT has been introduced in at least 22 states this year, and enacted in six: Arkansas, Idaho, 爱荷华州, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas. Statewide resolutions against CRT have also been passed in Florida, Georgia and Utah.

“This was a massive campaign that has borne fruit in very dramatic fashion,” said Emerson Sykes, a first amendment lawyer with the ACLU, which is exploring litigation to combat these bills. “It’s going to take a massive campaign to try to push back against that.”

When Moms for Liberty first came to Jacksonville, 佛罗里达, the nascent conservative parents’ group was talking about one of the issues that worried many parents during the coronavirus pandemic: mask mandates for kids.

But Quisha King, a mother of two who worked for the Republican National Committee and the Black Voices for Trump campaign in 2020, also wanted to address other concerns. The district was debating renaming certain local schools, including Robert E Lee high school, and King thought that the argument for making the change – that the name was damaging to Black students – was disrespectful of those students’ ability to succeed. King signed on as a co-chair of Moms for Liberty and began advocating against an ideology she had been reading up on: CRT.

Raised in a “staunchly Democrat” household, King experienced a change in perspective in 2017 that was part political, part spiritual, 她说. She felt that the Black Lives Matter movement had little to say about Black victims of crime apart from those killed by police, and she began seeking out new sources of information, including Dr Thomas Sowell, a prominent Black conservative intellectual who argues that “systemic racism” is an untestable hypothesis and has compared it to Nazi propaganda. She read foundational CRT scholars, such as Kimberlé Crenshaw, Derrick Bell and Richard Delgado, but also Christian critics of CRT, 包括 Neil Shenvi and Pastor Voddie Bauchman.

“I’m a person of faith, Christian, and I felt like God spoke to my heart,” she told the Guardian. “He said, ‘Your skin color has become an idol in your life and you’re seeing yourself through your skin color, and you’re not seeing yourself through Christ.’ That was really the moment for me that changed everything. I felt the shackles of all of those limiting thoughts. That’s why I fight so hard about these thoughts and these ideas being planted into kids’ minds because it is debilitating.”

在 11 六月, King attended a meeting of the Florida state board of education to argue in favor of Governor Ron DeSantis’s proposal to ban the teaching of CRT. “Just coming off of May 31st marking the 100 years of the Tulsa riots, it is sad that we are even contemplating something like critical race theory, where children will be separated by their skin color and deemed permanently oppressors or oppressed in 2021,” she said. “That is not teaching the truth unless you believe that whites are better than Blacks.”

Video of King’s speech, in which she went on to falsely argue that CRT involves “teaching hate”, was quickly clipped and packaged for social media, where it was primed for virality.

Of the 500 most viral Facebook posts that mentioned “critical race theory” between 1 January and 21 六月, 多于 20% were articles about or reposts of parent videos, according to a Guardian analysis of data from CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned analytics tool. The posts use combative language to sell the videos, with captions like, “Watch this parent absolutely obliterate Critical 种族 Theory at an Illinois school board meeting” or “Black Mother TEARS Into School Board for Pushing Racist Critical 种族 Theory”.

Among the most viral is a 20-minute video by the conservative TV channel Newsmax sold under the caption “Mom tears apart school board over Critical Race Theory”. The clip includes an entire speech by Tatiana Ibrahim, a mother who accuses school officials of “creat[ing] a curriculum of Black Panther indoctrination” and teaching students to kill cops, before the Putnam county schoolboard in New York. The video racked up more than 4.6m views on Facebook alone and was shared nearly 150,000 times.

In one sense, these videos are so successful because they are, simply put, great content for social media. Hyperbolic takedowns have long been a reliable formula for web traffic (just Google “John Oliver eviscerates” to see how the liberal media capitalizes on this). A recent 学习 by University of Cambridge psychologists found that social media posts that criticized or mocked a “political outgroup” – those on the opposite side of a political divide – were twice as likely to be shared on Facebook or Twitter as posts that praised the author’s political allies.

But the videos have also enjoyed a significant boost from the rightwing media ecosystem, which appears to be engaged in a concerted effort to promote the critical race theory narrative.

King’s speech became fodder for a mini-news cycle within the conservative press. With headlines such as “Black mom blasts critical race theory as ‘not teaching the truth’”, the speech was covered by, among others, the New York Post, Fox News, the Daily Caller, theBlaze, the Daily Signal, the Daily Mail, the Washington Examiner, Rebel News, Tucker Carlson and Newsmax. King appeared on Fox News multiple times and was interviewed by the Federalist, Rudy Giuliani’s YouTube show, the One America News Network, and Newsmax.

It’s a pattern that has been repeated numerous times, and may increase as more media coverage inspires more parents to head to their local school board meetings.

Take Ibrahim. Her school board speech video earned more than 1.1m views on YouTube after it was posted by an account called Actively Unwoke”. The virality of Ibrahim’s video was then covered by numerous rightwing outlets, including the Daily Mail, the Daily Signal, the Daily Caller and the Wall Street Journal. Ibrahim also appeared on Fox & Friends, One America News Network, and the podcasts of Glenn Beck and Sebastian Gorka.

Shawntel Cooper, the mother who attributed CRT to “Hitler and the KKK”, spoke at an 11 May hearing in Loudon county, 维吉尼亚州, a wealthy DC suburb that is one of the epicenters of the CRT fight. A video of Cooper’s speech amassed more than 800,000 views after it was shared on Twitter by Ian Prior, a former Trump administration official who is leading the effort to recall school board members over antiracism reforms. The video received news coverage in the Washington Free Beacon, Washington Examiner, Western Journal, Blaze Media, and FaithWire, and Cooper gave interviews to the Daily Wire, Tucker Carlson, and Sebastian Gorka.

Xi Van Fleet, the mother who compared CRT to her experience growing up in China during the cultural revolution, is also from Loudon county. A video of her speech was shared on Twitter by another rightwing group that is heavily involved in the Loudon county debate – the Virginia Project’s “Program on Un-American Activities”. The video was covered by Fox News, the New York Post, the Daily Mail, Newsmax, theBlaze, the Washington Examiner, the Daily Caller, and Real Clear Politics, and Van Fleet appeared on Sean Hannity’s show, earning another writeup in the Daily Signal.

Becca Lewis, a Stanford doctoral student in communication theory who studies rightwing media, characterized these dynamics as an example of “network propaganda”, 一种 theory developed by researchers at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for for Internet & Society. “Conspiracy theories aren’t more likely to emerge on the right or the left,” Lewis said. “The difference is that on the right you have this whole ecosystem that amplifies the conspiracy theory and turns it into generalized knowledge, whereas in the mainstream media, what you have is outlets that try to quell them.”

The opposition to critical race theory may not precisely be a conspiracy theory, but many of the fears about it stem from misinformation and there are strong echoes of classic conspiracy tropes in the narrative that anti-CRT influencers such as Christopher RufoJames Lindsay tell about it. Both Rufo and Lindsay present a narrative of the development of CRT by Black legal scholars in the 1980s that seeks to scandalize the influence of earlier leftist thinkers, as if Bell and Crenshaw were puppets of 1930s German Jewish intellectuals. The University of North Carolina professors Alice Marwick and Daniel Kreiss have described the campaign against CRT as “an all-out disinformation war” that invokes claims “buil[吨] on long-standing antisemitic conspiracy theories about Marxism and the Frankfurt School”.

The sheer volume of content created by the conservative media about incidents like the parent speeches has helped the right set the terms of the conversation about CRT. While the mainstream media has increased its coverage of the controversy in recent weeks, negative coverage by Fox News has dominated: the cable station has dedicated six times as much airtime to CRT as CNN since 1 一月, 根据 data from the GDelt Summary Television Explorer.

CrowdTangle data for every post mentioning “critical race theory” by a Facebook Page or verified profile since 1 January showed that the Pages whose posts received the most interactions were, in order: Ben Shapiro, Sean Hannity, the rightwing media personality Dan Bongino, Fox News, the rightwing podcaster Michael Knowles, Glenn Beck, the conservative evangelist Franklin Graham, Breitbart, Newsmax and PragerU.

Shapiro alone has posted about critical race theory 167 times, racking up 6.5m interactions and more than 8.6m video views. The highest ranking non-conservative source was the historian Heather Cox Richardson, who came in 20th place, just behind the rightwing extremist and QAnon promoter Marjorie Taylor Greene.

The value of the parent speeches to the rightwing propaganda machine has led some to suspect these moms and dads are not what they seem. A report by Media Matters for America pointed out that many of the people that Fox News had billed as simply parents were in fact professional political operatives, prompting criticism that the entire anti-CRT movement was “obvious astroturf” – a term used to describe well-funded campaigns posing as grassroots activism.

But to Lewis, the communications scholar, the rush to dismiss the anti-CRT movement as simply astroturf is reminiscent of liberals who similarly, and inaccurately, dismissed the Tea Party movement as nothing more than Koch brothers-funded astroturf. 在一个 2012 学习 of the Tea Party, the sociologists Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson described a more complicated dynamic involving “mutual leveraging” between rightwing organizations, rightwing media and real grassroots energy.

Lewis suspects similar leveraging may be at play today. “There’s a tendency outside of the world of the rightwing ecosystem to dismiss [rightwing movements] as being orchestrated by billionaires,“ 她说. “There are parents who very sincerely believe this, who aren’t necessarily connected to rightwing foundations. There’s a whole spectrum there that can exist.”

With substantial grassroots energy from parents already angry at schools over Covid, a super-charged propaganda machine, and major institutional backing from well-funded groups like Heritage, the movement to ban CRT is poised to keep getting stronger.

在五月, Republican operatives established a new political action committee, 这 1776 Project Pac, to fund school board takeover campaigns around the country. The takeovers are modeled on the fight in Southlake, Texas, a wealthy Dallas suburb, where the school board attempted to implement “cultural competency” reforms in response to a 2018 Snapchat video showing several white students shouting the N-word. Conservative parents declared the efforts “reverse racism” and launched a successful campaign to oust the members of the board.

The next viral video of a parent denouncing critical race theory may just come from a school board near you.

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