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Trump Turns to Favored Cable Network to Back Antifa Claims

Mark Bergen and Eric Newcomer

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump tweeted early Tuesday morning that a 75-year-old protester who was seriously injured by Buffalo police officers “could be an ANTIFA provocateur.”

The baseless claim set off the latest chapter in a rolling controversy over the president’s social media activity, highlighting how fringe ideas make their way from the far reaches of the internet to mainstream consciousness. In this case, a key step was One America News Network, a conservative TV station that increasingly has Trump’s ear.

Videos spread last week of two police officers pushing over a man named Martin Gugino without provocation; Gugino fell and began bleeding from his head. The officers were later arrested, and charged with assault. The case has become a stand-in for a wider pattern of police aggression against lawful demonstrators.

OAN ran a report offering an alternate narrative, alleging that Gugino “was appearing to use common Antifa tactics.” A correspondent for the network said in the segment that “a new report finds the latest tensions at the Buffalo police department could be a result of a false provocation by far left group Antifa.” The segment centers on an assertion that Gugino was using his phone to somehow sabotage police communications.

There is no evidence that Gugino has ties to organized anti-fascist protesters, or that such a group has had a meaningful presence in the anti-police brutality protests more broadly. “Martin is a peaceful protester,” said his lawyer, Kelly Zarcone. “No one from law enforcement has even suggested anything otherwise so we are at a loss to understand why the president of the United States would make such dark, dangerous, and untrue accusations against him.”

OAN’s report cites a right wing blog called “the Conservative Treehouse” whose author operates anonymously and has published a number of unverified theories. Its blog post on Gugino contends that he’s a “professional agitator and Antifa provocateur” without showing any connection to organized violent protesters.

Since launching 2013 out of San Diego, OAN has rapidly developed a wide national audience. In 2019, OAN was the fourth largest cable news provider by audience, behind Fox News, MSNBC and CNN, according to an analysis of ComScore Inc.’s data. A spokesman for ComScore said the analysis was valid, though added it was based on data from a single provider in 70 markets. ComScore’s syndicated rankings cover 210 television markets.

On the web, OAN is far smaller. It reached 35 million web visitors during 2019, according to comScore; Fox News’ main sites brought in over 38 billion visitors that year.

Trump has cited OAN’s coverage for years. In recent months he has heaped praise on the network, often contrasting this approval with his dissatisfaction with the more prominent Fox News. “Watching @FoxNews on weekend afternoons is a total waste of time. We now have some great alternatives, like @OANN,” the president tweeted in April. In May, he referred to OAN as “Great News, Not Fake News.”

OAN is prolific on Google’s video site YouTube, where its main channel has over 664,000 subscribers. YouTube has said that it surfaces what it calls “authoritative” news channels more often in search results and viewer recommendations. A spokeswoman said that YouTube does not consider OAN as an authoritative news channel.

The network’s coverage can take a style less like Fox News and more like InfoWars, the conspiracy theory website that YouTube banned in 2018. A recent clip described contact tracing related to Covid-19 as a “tool to force Biden ‘victory,’” attributing the alleged scheme to a “Democrat cabal.”

Two different YouTube clips on OAN’s channel promote a special series entitled “ANTIFA - AMERICAN UNDER SIEGE,” echoing an effort by the Trump administration to turn antifa -- a term that refers more to a form of leftist activism than a specific group with a leader or organizational infrastructure -- into a political foil.

On YouTube, the contact tracing clip has been viewed over 60,000 times. Unlike many other clips about the coronavirus, it does not contain a panel from YouTube with links to public health information.

Neither OAN, nor the underlying Treehouse blog, attempted to show that Gugino had connections to other antifa protesters, mentioning only “antifa tactics.” It provided as evidence a slowed-down version of the initial video that made Gugino’s movements appear strange.

Krista McClelland, a spokeswoman for Herring Networks Inc., which owns OAN, defended the segment. “From numerous sources, OAN’s investigative team is aware of Mr. Gugino’s anti-police sentiment and statements,” she wrote in an email. “As you may know, his social media accounts have been deleted, covering-up his anti-authority affirmations. Mr. Gugino refused to comply with the repeated requests of police officers.”

She did not respond to an additional question asking which additional sources OAN was citing. McClelland also said that OAN would be airing additional footage on the story later on Tuesday.

As of publication, OAN had not posted the footage on Gugino and the Buffalo protests on YouTube or other social networks such as Facebook Inc., where it has 682,000 fans, or Twitter Inc., where it has over 840,000 followers. McClelland said OAN features breaking news on broadcast first before moving them onto the internet.

But OAN’s report was already being widely discussed online. With the president’s tweet on Tuesday, the claim immediately spread far further than OAN could have managed on its own.

(Updates 7th paragraph with additional information on OAN’s viewership.)

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