A year ago, as Donald Trump prepared to take office, a new crop of self-proclaimed investigators burst forth to unspool the Russian conspiracy they claim launched Trump into the White House. Leaning on Twitter as their preferred platform, these voices worked to unwind the Kremlin ties that, in their mind, cost Hillary Clinton the election.
Led by British gadfly Louise Mensch (269,000 followers on Twitter currently) and going by a handful of names and hashtags — including #TeamPatriot — this coterie largely avoided any kind of original reportage, instead opting to try to piece together open-source information that they believed journalists elsewhere had overlooked. In the early days of the Trump administration, they were, as BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel wrote, a “mooring force” for the anti-Trump “Resistance.” With Mensch’s 2017 op-ed in the New York Times on Russian hacking, this group — which Warzel termed the “Blue Detectives” — appeared ascendant.
A year on, though, the group is in tatters, roundly mocked by experts on Russian-American relations, ignored by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his staff, and barreling quickly toward irrelevance. Where these “Blue Detectives” once looked like they may unearth some kind of smoking gun linking Trump and the Kremlin — or could at least help fill in certain missing pieces of the puzzle — they are now as derided, and derisive, as their earliest critics pegged them. They have become, as Deadspin noted, “the InfoWars of the left.”
At the outset of the Trump presidency, this crew looked like it might have something to add to the conversation: on national security, on America’s degraded democracy. But one year later, they look little better than their target in the White House — especially when it come to peddling the conspiracy theories that provide comfort to both ends of the political spectrum.
“There is always a market for conspiracy theories, and social media reduces the barrier to entry for people who want to peddle them to near zero,” Tom Nichols, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and author of The Death of Expertise, told ThinkProgress. “Twitter, especially, is amenable to this, because you can mimic expertise in short bursts, and pretend to know things you could not possibly know, in a way you would never be able to sustain — or that would reveal the utter ludicrousness of your argument — if you had to make your points at greater lengths in a coherent, single article.”
Mensch and company look increasingly like the symptoms of a driving fever that infected certain anti-Trump circles in early 2017.
The collapse of this contingent is, on the one hand, completely unsurprising. Take Mensch, for example. As the New Republic’s Sarah Jones noted, Mensch — called a “conspiracy queen” by the Daily Beast, and a prolific romance lit writer — has no background in Russian studies, nor a “degree in any subject that would grant her anything close to expertise on Russian politics.” (Unfortunately, that didn’t prevent Vanity Fair from the embarrassing choice of naming Mensch as the top Twitter feed to follow for Trump-Russia developments.)
It didn’t take long after Trump’s inauguration for Mensch’s conspiratorial colors to shine through. Not only did she claim Anthony Weiner was sexting with a Russian hacker instead of an underage girl, but around the time she was published in the New York Times — a move that, according to at least one report, sparked a “civil war” between the Times’ news and opinion sections — Mensch, citing zero evidence, said she believed Russian President Vladimir Putin had “murdered” Andrew Breitbart.
I absolutely believe that Andrew Breitbart was murdered by Putin, just as the founder of RT was murdered by Putin.
— Louise Mensch (@LouiseMensch) February 24, 2017
But these bizarre, outlandish claims weren’t Mensch’s most well-known brush with ignominy. A few months later, Mensch and Claude Taylor (214,000 followers on Twitter currently) — a volunteer director during the Clinton administration, and someone dubbed by New York Magazine as Mensch’s “sidekick” — were publicly duped by a hoaxer, who convinced the pair that Trump’s former fashion model agency was facing impending indictment as a hub for sex trafficking. As the hoaxer told The Guardian, she’d grown frustrated with their “dissemination of fake news,” and purposely provided falsehoods that Mensch and Taylor happily shared.
Mensch and Taylor are far from the only voices leading the “Alex Jonesification of the left,” as BuzzFeed described the phenomenon. For instance, few have managed to equal the spider-web conspiracism of Adam Khan (185,000 followers on Twitter currently), another “Blue Detective” with no relevant experience in either Russia or journalism.
— Adam Khan (@Khanoisseur) January 19, 2017
Eric Garland (171,000 followers on Twitter currently), meanwhile, has become something of a whipping boy for all those pointing out the inanities of the Twitter brigade seeking to succeed where traditional journalists have failed. Following the height of a post-election Twitter thread praised by a Mother Jones editor as a “Federalist Paper for 2016,” Garland’s writings have been dissected and demolished elsewhere, from Gizmodo to POLITICO to the A.V. Club.
Still, as Splinter noted last month, by the beginning of 2018 Garland had effectively been left with “no influence. People don’t even ridicule him that much anymore.” That sentiment could hold for the rest of most prominent voices — the rest of the so-called #TeamPatriot — taking to Twitter to try to uncover some hidden truth. As 2018 begins, and as Trump remains in office, Mensch and company look increasingly dated, and increasingly like the symptoms of a driving fever that infected certain anti-Trump circles in early 2017.
But there is at least one voice within the “Blue Detective” brigade who still appears to carry some credence beyond his Twitter followers.
Despite his scant relevant expertise, as well as his public history of outright, fantastical fabrication, Seth Abramson (434,000 followers on Twitter currently) has managed to separate himself from the rest of his conspiratorial claque and carve a niche on both social media and cable news as a Trump-Russia analyst. Where Mensch, Taylor, Khan, and Garland generate as much mockery as they do retweets, Abramson has thus far managed to see his credibility somehow remain afloat.
The New Hampshire Bar Association told ThinkProgress that Abramson hadn’t been an active member of the bar since at least 2014.
Much of that has to do with Abramson’s legal background, which lends certain credence to his “META-THREAD[S]” — some of which run into triple digits — on Trump’s relations, real or otherwise, with Russian operatives. Unlike the others, Abramson served as a public defender in New Hampshire, and teaches at the University of New Hampshire.
But saying that Abramson is a more veritable source than Mensch is, of course, not saying much at all.
To wit, according to his LinkedIn, Abramson hasn’t worked in any legal capacity in over a decade. A representative from the New Hampshire Bar Association told ThinkProgress that Abramson hadn’t been an active member of the bar since at least 2014. Likewise, while Abramson is often introduced as a “professor” in his media appearances, it’s almost always unsaid that he’s actually an assistant English professor — one whose primary project appears to be editorship of the “Best American Experimental Writing Series.”
Moreover, as opposed to Garland or Taylor, Abramson entered the Trump era with a distinct history of pushing what can charitably be described as misinformation — or what others would call outright lying.
For much of the 2016 primary campaign, Abramson claimed that Bernie Sanders, despite all evidence to the contrary, was actually on his way to the Democratic nomination. (As one of Abramson’s headlines read, “Bernie Sanders is currently winning the Democratic primary race, and I’ll prove it to you.”) The claims were outlandish enough to prompt the Washington Post’s Philip Bump to write a direct rejoinder, with The Atlantic describing Abramson’s writing as “often den[ying] basic human logic.” His writing even appears to have inspired a mocking video at College Humor:
When confronted, Abramson called his writing “experimental journalism” aimed at creating a “metanarrative” that would be “every bit as powerful and present and perceivable as any other.”
— Matt O'Brien (@ObsoleteDogma) May 24, 2016
All of that, though, was forgotten as Trump entered office — and as Abramson began crafting his excruciatingly long Twitter threads, all while picking up media appearances on CNN, CBS, BBC, and elsewhere. It didn’t seem to matter that Abramson had negligible expertise on any of the topics at hand — there are any thousands of other lawyers, still active members of the bar, who could comment on Mueller’s investigation — or that his history of conspiratorial fallacies nearly match the others. (Abramson has denied that he’s a conspiracy theorist.)
Thankfully, where cable news outlets have ignored Abramson’s history, print and digital media have begun pushing back against his misleading claims or supposed expertise. In one of the earliest pieces focused on the holes in Abramson’s ongoing narratives, Paste Magazine’s Jacob Weindling wrote that “Abramson is poisoning a very legitimate narrative by inserting a wave of falsehoods and wishful thinking into the minds of a populace genuinely afraid and confused as to our president’s association with a foreign adversary.”
Over the past few months, other outlets have begun picking up the ball and voicing their criticism of Abramson. For Fast Company, Abramson “operates… [by] making grand generalizations about news already reported, but misconstruing even the easiest-to-understand parts in the name of an ideological goal.” For Slate, “[Abramson’s] schtick is less credulous fabulism than hyperbolic sleight of hand.” And for the Washington Post, “Abramson’s tweets link copiously to sources, but they range in quality from investigative news articles to off-the-wall Facebook posts and tweets from Tom Arnold. The New Republic and Atlantic have both dismissed the professor as a conspiracy theorist.” GQ, Deadspin. The Outline, and Vice have also publicly called out Abramson’s conspiracy-mongering.
When it comes to Abramson’s continued ability to land media appearances — as opposed to Mensch — Weindling pointed to Abramson’s willingness to bend facts to fit his narrative, rather than craft new realities wholesale.
“As far as why [Abramson] has outlasted Mensch, he gets basic details in stories wrong where it’s easy to muddy the waters, while she says that the Grand Wizard of the Supreme Court is going to execute Steve Bannon,” Weindling told ThinkProgress. “My hope is… that he’s been taken for the spectacle that he is, rather than the reporter that he claims to be.”
Laughing to the bank
The explanation for the rise — and subsequent implosion — of the “Blue Detective” battalion seems far more straightforward than any of the red-arrow charts they constantly pump to followers: self-promotion, squared straight at audiences thirsting for an explanation, any explanation, as to why Donald Trump managed to trounce Hillary Clinton.
Money, fame, and hundreds of thousands of followers — a heady cocktail aimed less at uncovering any kind of truth, however banal it may be, and more at creating a personal brand, and a new career. Or as one regional analyst described them, “grifters.”
“We seek out what we want to hear, not what we want to know.”
For instance, in addition to working as an assistant English professor, Abramson now claims he’s also an “independent journalist,” and has asked followers for donations to continue his “work.” But since Abramson has a job with the University of New Hampshire — and the fact that he appears to do no original reporting of his own — it’s unclear why he would ask for donations. When Paste Magazine asked where Abramson’s donations went, he proceeded to block their reporter on Twitter.
Khan, in his Twitter bio, also calls himself an “independent journalist,” and insists that followers “*Turn notifications on for breaking Trump news*” even though he has never broken any news pertaining to the Russia investigation, or on Trump’s relations with any Kremlin-linked figures. For good measure, he makes sure to link in his bio to a book he wrote: one that will introduce readers to “ADVANCED ways to hack your Twitter growth,” allowing readers to pursue their goal of “attracting the attention of journalists,” among others. (Taylor, as it is, says he “doesn’t think of himself as a journalist, he says, but rather as a ‘bomb-thrower,’ whatever that means,” according to The Washingtonian.)
But given that they’ve broken no news anytime recently — to say nothing of the fact that Trump remains ensconced in the White House, and that increased media scrutiny has revealed the conspiracies buttressing the “Blue Detectives” — it’s unclear how much longer any donations will come in.
Even if the money dries up, though, this Trump-Russia citizen-journalist platoon has already done untold damage to the discourse surrounding the investigations into the Trump campaign, both in providing a cudgel to critics and getting the hopes of gullible followers up at every turn. Mensch, Taylor, and Khan may now be laughed out of any serious conversation in Washington, but that’s not after months of coddling from journalists and analysts who should have known better.
“The negative effect here is that cynicism about information sources will increase as each of these waves [of conspiracy theorists] passes through,” Nichols said. “I think that’s actually the goal of some of the state actors dumping misinformation on the net: to exhaust the readers into paralysis, so that they believe nothing.”
Meanwhile, the news outlets that continue inviting the likes of Abramson to pontificate, to push their conspiracy theories for a broader audience, only exacerbate the situation — and only lend credence to criticisms of major media outlets.
“There’s a lot to be distrustful of in major media, they’ve gotten some big things wrong in this ordeal, and this is the vacuum that these Twitter explainers like Abramson step in to,” Weindling added. “He’s just another version of Fox News or MSNBC. It’s simply the natural result of the fusion of capitalism and journalism: we seek out what we want to hear, not what we want to know.”