The Slatest

The Joy, and Utter Thoughtlessness, of a Viral Prank Against an Anti-Muslim Activist

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 20:  Michael Avenatti (L) and Laura Loomer attend Politicon 2018 at Los Angeles Convention Center on October 20, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for Politicon)
Laura Loomer, cell phone camera blazing, in October.
Phillip Faraone/Getty Images

On Jan. 8, the Wall Street Journal published a detailed investigative report on how Twitter “referees” political speech. The report included an account of how a racist conspiracy theorist, Laura Loomer, was banned from the platform. (She was the one who handcuffed herself to Twitter’s New York office.) The piece suggested that the civil rights advocacy group Council on American-Islamic Relations secretly conspired against her with Twitter executives, pushing the site to ban her. “Conservative Jewish activist Laura Loomer says she didn’t know until recently that outside groups and individuals had privately lobbied Twitter executives to remove her from the site in late November,” the Journal report said.

This detail made the rounds, eventually finding its way into headlines on right-wing sites like Breitbart, WND, and Conservative Review. And how did Loomer come to know about CAIR’s involvement? Because of an elaborate prank, it seems. In a very entertaining exposé by Jared Holt of Right Wing Watch, two Twitter users took credit for the ruse, saying they contacted Loomer and convinced her that secret meetings between CAIR and Twitter led to her ban. The piece includes a cringe-worthy phone conversation with Loomer learning of the made-up “conspiracy.” The pranksters also shared a fabricated calendar used to trick Loomer into believing that Twitter founder Jack Dorsey met with CAIR just days before she was banned. In a series of text messages between them, Loomer took credit for informing the Wall Street Journal about the Twitter/CAIR conspiracy. (The Journal stood by its reporting.)

As a Muslim who is online too much, I certainly took pleasure in watching Loomer be ridiculed for the compulsive, uncritical fraud she is. There is something poetic about exposing a Project Veritas alum with a secret recording. But as I listened more, it didn’t feel so funny. At the prankster’s first mention of CAIR, Loomer immediately feels vindicated: “Everything I said was true! It’s fucking Muslim Brotherhood Sharia money! It’s disgusting.” She calls CAIR “a terrorist organization,” an oft-repeated and just-as-often debunked claim. Hearing this, I had a sinking feeling: It makes no difference to Loomer if this was a prank. She will continue to peddle her lies about CAIR and “Muslim Brotherhood Sharia money” to her audience, and it will continue to believe them. (Her response to the Right Wing Watch piece pretty much confirms this.) No one capable of critical thought believed Loomer was credible before this; the prank changed zero minds. And so it sort of seems like the real loser in this scenario is not Loomer, but people like me.

Instigators like Loomer exploit the atmosphere of fear surrounding American Muslims to bring attention to themselves and claw for fleeting moments of relevance. This prank ultimately helped Loomer do that, by giving her more fodder for her deranged worldview—and putting more conspiracies into circulation about a civil rights organization—without an obvious upside. The pranksters’ explicit goal was to test Loomer’s gullibility and see if their bogus claim about CAIR would end up on the fringe sites like Infowars, but would exposing that have changed the minds of anyone who consumes Inforwars content anyway? Almost certainly not. Instead, the stunt seems to come from the understandable but misguided impulse to troll a troll, with no regard for its potential to stoke the already-dangerous atmosphere for Muslims in America.

Whispers of CAIR’s supposed backroom dealings to ban Loomer (and, really, any self-proclaimed far-right “truth teller”) from Twitter will not go away because the ruse has been unveiled. They’re no different than the still-repeated myths that activist Linda Sarsour withheld crowd-funded money from Jewish beneficiaries, or that Muslims celebrated in Jersey City as the Twin Towers came down on 9/11. These fantasies are powerful because they appeal to bias, and breathing new life into them helps no one.

I will always be here for a good public shaming of conspiratorial bigots, but I hope white-knight pranksters can leave Muslims out of it next time. This came at our expense. I spent an entire video series at Slate trying to learn about and debunk conspiracy theories just like this one, and I’ve had people personally tell me that CAIR is a front for terrorism more often that I can tell you. Getting that message in front of more people, no matter the intentions, is not the way to change their minds.