A New Jersey congressman targeted in a controversial ad by the National Republican Congressional Committee portraying him as a protector of pedophiles denounced it as a “crazy” and “crap” attack designed to exploit the fears stoked by the QAnon conspiracy cult.
“The more I watched it the more disgusted I became,” said Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowski during an interview for Yahoo News’ “Conspiracyland” podcast. “I remembered these ads play not just on cable television, they play on YouTube. At some point probably every 10-year-old kid in my district is going to see that ad when they’re watching their shows, and as much as I think it’s gonna hurt my opponent more than me it’s still really unpleasant that that kind of darkness, that that kind of fear, is being propagated in my community because of a political campaign.”
The ad — titled “Shadow” and for which, according to Malinowski, the NRCC has spent up to $500,000 to air — accuses the Democrat of opposing the National Sex Offender Registry. It shows a series of dark images of suburban neighborhoods and then delivers the menacing message that “sex offenders are living among us.” Malinowski, the ad states, “tried to make it easier for predators to hide in the shadows.”
The ad also claims that Malinowski, as the Washington director of Human Rights Watch 14 years ago, “led an effort to stop” the National Sex Offender Registry. In fact, another lobbyist at Human Rights Watch had written a letter in 2006 opposing certain provisions in a crime bill that would have required even those convicted of minor misdemeanor offenses to be listed on the registry for up to 20 years — not for dismantling or stopping the registry in its entirety. That lobbyist, Jennifer Daskal, who worked on domestic U.S. programs, told Yahoo News that Malinowski — who lobbied on national security and foreign policy issues — played no role in drafting or approving the letter, and Malinowski said he had nothing to do with it.
In the interview for “Conspiracyland,” a production of the Yahoo News “Skullduggery” podcast, Malinowski called the ad an obvious play by Republicans to appeal to the QAnon movement, whose followers believe that President Trump is saving children from an international cabal of pedophiles and Satan worshipers. QAnon’s startling rise has included the recent victory by one of its followers, Marjorie Taylor Greene, in a House GOP primary in Georgia. (Trump would go on to call Greene a “future Republican star.”)
“What this [ad] is doing is playing on and amplifying the paranoia and fear that this conspiracy-mongering cult is promoting to millions and millions of Americans and then taking advantage of it to help a political candidate,” Malinowski said.
Malinowski, a freshman, is locked in a close reelection campaign in a swing district against New Jersey state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., the son of former Gov. Tom Kean, who chaired the 9/11 Commission.
Michael McAdams, a spokesman for the NRCC, rejected Malinowski’s assertion that the attack ads are designed to appeal to QAnon followers. “Trying to excuse Democratic candidates’ decisions to lobby on behalf of sex offenders ... and vote against legislation protecting children from sex offenders because of an online conspiracy theory is truly pathetic,” McAdams said in an email to Yahoo News when asked about the ad and others run by the NRCC attacking Democratic candidates as being soft on sex trafficking and pedophiles.
Malinowski recently introduced a bipartisan resolution condemning QAnon and encouraging the FBI and other federal law enforcement to focus on preventing violence and harassment caused by “fringe political conspiracy theories.”
Malinowski said about 70 explicitly pro-QAnon candidates ran for Congress this year and a few are probably going to be elected.
“There are several million people who take part in QAnon forums on social media,” Malinowski said. “That’s a substantial number of people. It sounds absolutely crazy, but you know what else was crazy? ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ and the ancient anti-Semitic blood libel, which is exactly what this is. ... Yes, it’s totally crazy but this has been around forever and it has contributed to really some of the worst events in all of human history.”
Malinowski said he has spoken with a number of Republican colleagues in the House of Representatives who privately “roll their eyes” at QAnon and who share his worry and disgust about “what Trump is doing to their party.” But, he added, these Republicans feel helpless and unsure how to fix things when the president himself has signaled his support for the movement.
Malinowski believes that Trump bears responsibility for how QAnon has grown.
“Remember one of the main things that he has led his followers to believe is that mainstream media and institutions cannot be trusted,” Malinowski said of Trump. “There is nothing true. And you know the saying: If nothing is true, anything is possible.”
Malinowski said he is contemplating legislation to attack the problem. He said social media companies merely shutting down accounts affiliated with QAnon is not enough because it’s just a “game of whack-a-mole.”
“What they need to be doing and are unwilling to do is change the way their algorithms work,” Malinowski said. “Most recruitment to extremist groups, including QAnon, in the U.S. is driven by Facebook’s algorithm or Google’s algorithm, because what these algorithms do is they know what everybody’s searching for, they have massive amounts of data on all of us, and they feed us precisely the information and the content that is most likely to keep us glued to the screen.”
Facebook itself estimates that more than 60 percent of recruitment to extremist groups is due to its algorithm, Malinowski said.
Many of the ideas for reform build on the understanding that the algorithm is vital to the movement’s growing power. Malinowski said that options include requiring people to opt in to algorithmic promotion so that they have more control over what content is pushed on them. He also said reformers have discussed taking away some of the immunity that federal law now gives social media companies for content they promote.
“The theory is they may not be responsible for the content, but if they write an algorithm that causes that content to reach millions of people based on data that suggests those people will like that content, then they are the recruiters,” Malinowski said. “Get a clean computer, look at some really nasty videos on YouTube like white supremacy stuff, and then watch the recommendation engine go to work, and sure enough it’s recommending more stuff just like that. And that is the driver of much of this problem.”
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