The Effort to Expose Fake News Has Created Another Serious Problem That Plays Into Trump’s Hands – Updated

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Since Donald Trump’s win on November 8th, there’s been quite a lot of talk concerning the epidemic of fake news and its impact on this election. Specifically, how it played a vital role in helping Trump become president.

Though as more and more people began to openly discuss the problem of fake news, another huge problem presented itself: The term “fake news” being thrown around haphazardly as a weapon to try to discredit facts, other websites, or writers/journalists by those either trying to push lies or a personal agenda against particular websites/writers/journalists.

Now I’m seeing some folks trying to change the definition of the term “fake news” to fit their particular narrative.

Take for instance a former colleague of mine who wrote an article warning liberals to “stop sharing links from these fake news sites.” Which, shockingly, included Forward Progressives among the list of “fake news” sites.

If you look at this list, you’ll see many of the most well-known websites within the so-called “liberal independent media” included. While I don’t disagree with my former colleague that some of them post “news” that’s not always entirely accurate for cheap and easy clicks (and some have posted outright fake news which I’ve highlighted in the past… more on this in a minute), the definition he uses to define “fake news” has nothing to do with actual fake news. He said, in part:

…any site which poses as a news organization when it is not is still “fake news.” This includes websites that derive most of their content from other sources and add hyperbolic headlines like Raw Story does.

I’m sorry, but no one has the right to change the meaning of a term for their own personal agenda. Not only that, but many large news organizations cite other sources for their stories all the time. Heck, CNN and TIME both cited an article I had written here at Forward Progressives when pointing out that a quote Trump had falsely attributed to former Republican Sen. Tom Coburn to attack Sen. Ted Cruz was actually something clearly written by me, not a comment said by the former senator from Oklahoma.

So this idea that a website should be considered “fake,” or that it’s producing “fake news” because it cites other sources for the stories it publishes or discusses isn’t just ridiculous, but it doesn’t even remotely make sense. 

The term “fake news” is meant to address websites that knowingly and blatantly produce outright fake news, usually with the intent of getting it to go viral. Many of these “fake news” sites often push conspiracies that are totally unfounded by the laws of reality. It’s a term that shouldn’t be irresponsibly thrown around considering the dangers we’re currently facing with a legitimate conspiracy theorist as president-elect.

It’s extremely important to point out that there’s a difference between expressing an educated opinion about something that ultimately turns out to be wrong, and purposely pushing inaccurate information in a blatant attempt to misinform readers.

Furthermore, Forward Progressives has never once presented itself as a “news site” or “news organization.”  The stories we discuss mostly consist of an opinionated breakdown of the news and we always try to link a credible primary source or video at the beginning or end of those stories.

The ironic part of all of this is that weeks before my former colleague published this list, I wrote this article outlining a few characteristics people might want to be on the lookout for that many unethical, shady or fake news sites seem to share. Well, within that piece I wrote this:

If you’re in the legitimate news business, like the mainstream media is, then there’s a lot to cover. As a writer/blogger for over four years, there are days I’ve struggled to find more than a handful of “newsworthy” stories to cover and give my opinion on. If these sites want to be in the news business, that’s fine, but most aren’t. Most of us in the “independent media” are more in the opinion business.

As everyone can see, I clearly described what we do at Forward Progressives – and what I feel most other websites that fall into the “independent media” category do – as being in the opinion business. Unless a particular independent media organization or blogger has the resources to investigate and actually break stories, or show up to press conferences and demand answers to pressing questions, then they’re just reporting stories that have already broke and/or giving their opinion and commentary on them.

In the nearly four years Forward Progressives has existed, of the almost 5,000 articles we’ve published, only a small handful have been labeled as some sort of “Breaking News” — and none of them were fake stories. Yet my former colleague placed Forward Progressives into the “fake news” category because, as he put it, “… any site which poses as a news organization when it’s not is still ‘fake news.'”

As I mentioned earlier, that’s not what the term “fake news” actually means.

This has been discussed ad nauseam but clearly it bears repeating. Fake news outlets are the ones that have been caught numerous times pushing blatantly false stories just to get quick and easy clicks.

Does Forward Progressives have an “In The News” section? Yes, of course we do, for progressive commentary about the news. Guess what? So does his website, as do many others.

Either way, I’m more than willing to challenge him to point out where Forward Progressives has knowingly and blatantly produced “fake news” for quick and easy clicks, like InfoWars was just caught doing yet again. When a legitimate story breaks, I usually take my time to sort out all of the facts before I publicize any opinions about it. In fact, I’ve called out liberals for rushing to “be first” to seize on a tragedy for easy clicks, seemingly forgoing any desire to find out the facts about what actually happened before publishing their thoughts on a tragic event. It’s rare you’ll see Forward Progressives get any commentary about a news story up within 20-30 minutes of it breaking like you see with some websites. Readers have told us on numerous occasions that they appreciate that — even many of the ones who don’t always agree with the opinions I put out there.

Though I felt that I should point out that this is a guy whose website and Facebook pages publish just as much (if not more) “satire” than actual op-eds and commentary, usually without any distinction between the two when either are posted. His website’s defense of such behavior is that their “fake news” is listed in their “satire” section and people should be smart enough to know the difference between the two.

Fair enough.

Quick question: If a website doesn’t make a clear distinction between real news/opinion or satire, unless someone clicks on the article to find out what section it’s in, wouldn’t that just be another form of — clickbait?

Why, yes — yes it would.

However, you don’t have to believe me about satire being clickbait. One of the main writers for my former colleague’s website actually admitted that satire is heavily predicated on clickbait:

Satire is a beautiful art form. Yes, it relies heavily on verbal chicanery and the hope that at least some people will believe it at first, at least enough to read past the headline.

For those who might have missed it, that’s a really fancy way to say satirical articles driving traffic to blogs are largely dependent upon clickbait headlines and the “hope” that people will read past the headline.

It’s especially ironic when someone, like my former colleague who incessantly complains about clickbait (even though he uses it quite often), has a website and social media accounts that publish/post “satire” where the only way many of his followers would know for sure that it’s “satire” is by — drumroll — clicking on the article. 

Furthermore, this obsession some have with clickbait is as childish as it is ignorant. Let me break it down just a little bit.

Are there really awful forms of clickbait? Absolutely. But the nature of modern media, especially the marketing aspect of it, is “baiting” people into reading something you’ve published. I have no problem with clickbait as long as it’s not constantly used in a way to mislead people (like this bullcrap Conservative Tribune post from former Congresswoman Michele Bachmann that makes it look like Mexico agreed to pay for Trump’s wall) or blown way out of proportion while begging for “likes” and/or clicks (like this post from something calling itself Truth Examiner that not only wants you to be excited that Trump FINALLY Tweeted about SNL since they’ve been waiting ALL DAY for him to do so, but also wants you to “LIKE” if he’s THE ABSOLUTE WORST!).

The article Bachmann posted absurdly shows Mexico’s president looking worried next to a picture of a wall, saying “We’ll pay.” Of course, reality tells us that Mexico has made it clear they will not pay for the wall, but selling false hope to conservatives means keeping with the Trump narrative for outlets like Michele Bachmann and her friends at the “Conservative Tribune.”

Conversely, the article Truth Examiner posted isn’t necessarily as misleading as the one Bachmann posted, but instead it’s highly sensationalized clickbait designed SPECIFICALLY to drive CLICKS and engagement, complete with a desperate plea for likes that’s straight out of the 2011 Facebook handbook. (Seriously, you’d think Facebook would have put an end to that with their multitude of algorithm changes, but I guess that’s too much to ask for when they’ve got even bigger problems they’ve yet to take care of.)

There’s a distinction here that deserves highlighting, as it correlates with something I said shortly after the election while discussing the role of fake news leading up to Trump’s victory:

This creates a cycle where Trump says or does something horrific, the right-wing media then scrambles to push some sort of blatantly false story to counter it, which is then shared around to millions of people desperately trying to find any way to either defend what he did or pivot away from it by using some myth about the left. These fake sites then become go-to “sources of information” for many conservatives, who are then inundated with a flood of preposterous conspiracy theories and bogus articles.

But then you can’t prove to these same folks that these sites are nothing but pure garbage because Trump’s actually citing their fictional bullshit as “fact” while claiming that those calling him a liar are part of the “rigged system” and “dishonest media.”

That’s why one of my biggest fears is that this constant onslaught of absurd behavior we’re going to see from Donald Trump over the next four years is going to “normalize” things that damn sure shouldn’t be normal. This is also going to cause things that would normally be newsworthy or offensive to get completely ignored because nothing will compare to the latest idiotic thing our next president has said or done.

Also worth noting is the fact that Michele Bachmann is a former Republican Congresswoman and presidential candidate, whereas Truth Examiner is just some blog started a few months ago by people who apparently happened to have plenty of money to invest in Facebook advertising and quickly building their page (something you’re seeing a lot more of now with certain pages).

The often unspoken truth about all of this is, all forms of media use some kind of “clickbait.”

When a radio show does a “tease” for the next segment before going to commercial, that’s a form of clickbait. When a movie trailer makes a bad movie look much better than it actually is, that’s a form of clickbait. When a news channel has a 10 second promo saying, “Tune in at 6 pm to find out what happened..,” that’s a form of clickbait.

Clickbait is essentially marketing — that’s it. As long as marketing has existed, there’s been ethical marketing to sell people on a quality product or service and there’s been unethical marketing which misleads and cons people, or plays to their most highly charged emotions in order to get a desired reaction.

The only real tip I’ll give to anyone about article headlines is this: When a website has a bunch of articles with HEADLINES typed out LIKE THIS (you know, the ALL CAPS in CERTAIN AREAS approach), those are the sites that I’ve often found to be far less credible than the sites that don’t use that method. To prove my point, six out of the last eight articles Michele Bachmann has posted on her Facebook page used headlines that included parts in ALL CAPS, while all 17 of the recent articles I counted published on Truth Examiner’s page used this tactic.

Am I saying that’s a 100 percent verifiable way to distinguish between credible and non-credible sites? No. But I will say that, in my experience, most sites I’ve found to be rather sketchy in some way or another do use the MULTIPLE CAPS approach to headlines quite often to try to get your attention and better appeal to your biases and emotions.

I would also like to point out that it’s extremely important for any website you visit (especially those that have ads all over the place) to have a “Privacy Policy” clearly linked somewhere visible. Without it, you have no idea how your personal information is being used and/or possibly sold to third parties without your consent.

We all need to understand the huge difference between actual “fake news” as opposed to a writer’s opinion about the news, because this is going to be vital over the next 4 years and beyond. If you disagree with my opinion on something, that’s fine, but that doesn’t make something I’ve written “fake” just because you don’t like something I said. You will never see me express an opinion where I don’t explain why I feel a certain way or use a credible source that supports a particular stance I’ve taken. And I’m not going to claim that my degree in Political Science makes me some sort of an infallible expert on the subject of politics (I’ve been wrong about numerous things over the years… who hasn’t?), or that someone without a college degree can’t be a gifted and equally (or better) informed political writer and commentator, but I do have an educational background for the field in which I’ve been offering public opinions now for the past several years.

To further exemplify the difference between presenting a personal agenda instead of credible facts, I’d like to address another point my former colleague has apparently mentioned on several occasions (based upon people messaging me to let me know someone had accused me of something). That is, this notion that I spent a great deal of my time “attacking and bashing” Bernie Sanders.

Funny thing about that. Just a couple of weeks before we severed ties with this former colleague of ours, I actually wrote an article addressing Bernie supporters who had accused me of being “anti-Sanders.” The point of this article was to prove that people believe whatever they wanted to believe, no matter what the actual facts supported.

In that article I went back and counted all the articles I had written pertaining to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders between June 1-December 23, 2015. Here’s what the actual facts said:

In more than six months I’ve written eight articles related to Hillary Clinton – eight – and one of them was critical of her campaign this past summer. But to many Sanders supporters, I’m nothing but a “shill” for Clinton apparently since I’ve written eight articles about her over a 6+ month timespan.

[Meanwhile, I’ve written 11] Sanders-related articles between June 1 and December 23, 2015. Three of them could be considered “negative,” but of those, two were more about his supporters and not Sanders personally. One was obviously negative against Sanders himself, but the issue was put to rest shortly after that article came out.

But, wait – I thought I was a “shill” for Clinton? How can I be that when I’ve written more articles about Sanders over the last 6+ months – the majority of them being positive? In fact, looking at both lists, I’ve written an equal number of “negative” articles about both candidates: One.

So, during the time my former colleague accuses me of “happily bashing Bernie Sanders every chance I got,” I had written a grand total of — at most three out of eleven articles that could be considered negative toward Sanders. However, according to my former colleague, that’s constantly bashing Sanders — even though I wrote more positive stories about him than I did Clinton during that same time.

Though you don’t have to believe me, feel free to check out the article I wrote last year. Everything I wrote about either candidate during that timeframe is listed, explained and very easy to count. Simple math proves that in no way was I “bashing Bernie Sanders every chance I got.” Not unless you consider three negative articles over six months (two of which were about the behavior of his supporters) “constantly bashing him.”

Yes, I was outspoken on my personal Facebook and Twitter accounts during the primary, calling out attacks which I personally felt were unfair coming from Sanders’ camp or his supporters. Defending Hillary Clinton and her record against the onslaught of outlandish conspiracies that culminated in her “loss” this past November was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done politically speaking, because it was nonstop and coming from multiple directions both domestically and internationally. But I also called out Debbie Wasserman Schultz not once, but twice in highly circulated articles that received considerably more attention than any random Tweet I’ve ever sent out, and I frequently iterated my disdain for her handling of certain things on my personal social media pages and in everyday conversations with people as well. I even made it known way back in August of 2015 that I would absolutely love to see Bernie Sanders debate Donald Trump (a debate that could have happened had Trump not eventually chickened out of it because he’s a coward), and I praised Senator Sanders multiple times on my personal feeds while reiterating that I’d gladly fight as hard as I could for him if he won the nomination. Hell, I was quick to call Clinton supporters ridiculous for calling him a sexist as well. It’s all a matter of opinions and which ones you want to cherry-pick to suit your agenda. 

That goes back to my point about credible facts vs. personal agenda presented as “fact.”

The bottom line here is this “list” was nothing more than my former colleague going after (as he seems to do every few months) websites or Facebook pages he doesn’t like for whatever reason. This was in no way an unbiased or credible list of legitimate “fake news” sites. As I pointed out, his definition of “fake news” isn’t even what that term actually means. He concocted his own meaning for the term to fit his agenda against websites or Facebook pages he either doesn’t like or has personal vendettas against of some sort.

I wasn’t the only one who felt this way; Karoli Kuns of Crooks and Liars, a progressive blogging website that’s highly respected among many on the left, wrote a scathing rebuttal to their inclusion on this list. Interestingly, if you look at the list now, Crooks and Liars no longer appears, even though it was originally included. You’ll also notice no addendum or footnote was added as an update to the article indicating that they had been removed. That’s rather hypocritical considering this list was apparently meant to call out websites my former colleague feels aren’t ethical, when removing a site that was originally included without explaining that you did so and why — especially when he initially refused to remove Crooks and Liars when Ms. Kuns first called into question the credibility of his list — is quite unethical.

Though in another humorous ironic twist to all of this nonsense, his website published an article centered around the claim that Trump supporters are calling anything they don’t like “fake.” Something I found fairly hilarious considering that’s exactly what he did when he made his list.

But this certainly isn’t the only instance where I’ve found this sort of irresponsible labeling.

The other day, I stumbled upon a website called MediaBiasFactCheck.com. A site that calls itself “the most comprehensive media bias resource” — whatever that means. While the site doesn’t seem to have any sort of agenda (though I’d need to look into it much more in order to conclusively say that), it didn’t take me long to realize that their methodology is extremely flawed.

For example, according to this site, Forward Progressives is listed under their “Left Bias” section. This section is described as:

These media sources are highly biased toward liberal causes.  They utilize strong loaded words (wording that attempts to influence an audience by using appeal to emotion or stereotypes), publish misleading reports and omit reporting of information that may damage liberal causes. Sources in this category may be untrustworthy.

Then when you click on the site’s link, here’s the only note they have published about Forward Progressives:

Notes: Forward Progressives as a news and opinion website with a left bias in reporting and wording.  They also published some false stories according to Snopes.

Below that you get a “poll” that factors into their ranking system with the options of:

  • Extreme Left
  • Left
  • Left-Center
  • Least Biased
  • Right-Center
  • Right
  • Extremely Right

Only one slight problem: It’s an online poll where literally anyone can vote anything they want. I voted for Forward Progressives to be an “Extreme Right” website just to prove how pointless online polls like this are in determining anything:

BogusPoll

Moreover, this site’s assertion that we “also published some false stories according to Snopes” isn’t even accurate.

Forward Progressives has exactly one story (singular) investigated by Snopes — which was written nearly four years ago.

The article was satire and some readers found it to be humorous (others not so much), but I’ll be the first to admit that I wouldn’t bother writing it today. Though as Snopes pointed out during their fact-check, I clearly indicated that the story was fictional, then explained why I wrote it:

Of course — none of this is true.

I made all of it up. Though the sad part is, up until this point, many probably didn’t think this was satire. Heck, I wouldn’t be shocked if Paula Deen does somehow manage to get a new job that has Fox ties.

But that’s the true sad state of Fox News and the Republican Party — it’s become hard to tell the difference between satire and reality.

That’s another reason why I stopped posting so much satire shortly after that – because even the best Onion-like satire can’t compete with how ridiculous reality has gotten with the Republican party.

However, I’ve also written plenty of stories calling out liberals and liberal blogs when I thought it was necessary and warranted. For example, I:

There have been more than a few instances over the past several years where I’ve called out “the left” when I disagreed with something or felt they were being too much like those they claim to be better than.

So, for Forward Progressives to be ranked just as far on the radical left as they did a website like Breitbart on the far-right is completely absurd.

Though when I dug a little deeper, this site truly showed off its flaws in a response to Bill Palmer from a blog called the Daily News Bin. Apparently Mr. Palmer (someone whom I’ve never spoken to or even chatted with online, so don’t take this as me “defending a friend” or a promotion of his site) took exception to some rather negative things this site had to say about his work. A source they use to support their claims against Mr. Palmer’s site is something called mywot.com, a place that supposedly ranks the “trustworthiness” of websites. But to prove how skeptical one should be of these WOT rankings in relation to media and blogs, here are the “trustworthiness” numbers for a few alt-right/radical conservative news/fake news/conspiracy sites:

  • Breitbart.com: 84
  • AllenBWest.com: 72
  • InfoWars.com: 81
  • WND.com: 83
  • TheBlaze.com: 86
  • TheGatewayPundit.com: 82
  • RushLimbaugh.com: 82
  • Hannity.com: 90

Those are all fringe, right-wing websites — many of which are basically mouthpieces for white nationalism or insane conspiracy theorists — that have extremely high “trustworthiness” rankings on mywot.com. And, I’m sorry, but I refuse to take the credibility of a site seriously that gives InfoWars, a website founded by someone who claimed Sandy Hook might’ve been a hoax and that President Obama and Hillary Clinton are demons who smell like sulfur (that’s not a joke, he literally said that), a ranking of 81.

Furthermore, WOT was apparently caught exposing and selling the private information of its users in November of 2016 – just two months ago.

But that’s a source MediaBiasFactCheck.com finds credible when determining the “trustworthiness” for ranking some of these websites:

The hapless user in this case was Bill Palmer… and “WEB” of Trust is a good source in evaluating websites.

Sorry but, no, it’s really not.

Going even further, their “methodology” is essentially based on subjective opinion. In fact, for most of the rankings I looked into listed on this site, all they did was offer a very brief synopsis for a particular website; didn’t provide the metrics they used to rank each website outside of their generalized rundown of their “methodology” (none of these websites seem to have a detailed explanation as to what ranking they were given for each category and why); and, as I already mentioned, they factor in results of an online poll which are completely useless.

And those are just a few of the major flaws I found on this website’s rankings after spending around 20 minutes looking into it.

The search for solutions in a social media environment where conspiracy theorists and political con artists seemingly reign supreme.

Unfortunately, this is a new problem I’m seeing pop up all over the Internet. Websites, writers, bloggers — whoever, using flawed, or outright unethical, methods to discredit or “rank” websites into particular categories.

For instance, one of the first examples of this was put together by Melissa Zimdars, an assistant professor of communications and media at Merrimack College. She published a spreadsheet of supposedly “fake news” that was eventually taken down after it was soundly discredited. After declaring the list as a “matter-of-fact” statement of a large list of websites, she changed her tune, saying it was just “her opinion.”

The problem is, if you’re going to make a list calling sites unethical, fake or not trustworthy you can’t simply say “this is my opinion” — you actually need extensive and verifiable proof showing that they’ve purposely published lies, conspiracies or fake news.

I found my former colleague’s stance on Trump supporters calling anything they don’t like fake news ironic because that’s exactly what he did when he made his list of “fake sites,” but he was correct when he said that this is a new “weapon” being used by those who want to discredit websites, networks, journalists or writers they don’t like or who are exposing their propaganda.

All someone like Trump has to do is call any news organization or report exposing his lies “fake,” his mindless sheep will believe him, and suddenly credible journalists (or even intelligence reports) are viewed as less credible than people who believed Jade Helm was an Obama plot to invade Texas and declare martial law, or that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are demons who smell like sulfur.

I go back to what I’ve said for years: Never trust anyone who says, “Don’t trust (fill in the blank) – but you can trust me.”

Typically one of the first things liars, propagandists, people with unethical agendas, cult leaders and conspiracy theorists do is attempt to discredit those they oppose or don’t like, and any source that might expose them. They’re often notorious for playing the victim, painting themselves as one of the few beacons of hope in a world of corruption, lies and unethical behavior.

That’s why I’ve always recommended fact-checking as much as you can, always making sure the sources of information you trust are credible (not just feeding you misinformation you want to hear but a lot of the time isn’t accurate), don’t be too proud to admit that you are wrong from time to time, and don’t reject a source of information because it sometimes expresses opinions with which you don’t entirely agree.

And as far as sharing things on Facebook goes, Andrew Courter made a simple, yet excellent suggestion about this a while back on NewCo Shift, one which I’ve also encouraged:

Pledge to only share a story if you’re also sharing a highlight.

When you can’t point to at least one important passage, then one of two things is true:

  1. The story contains no ideas worth amplifying, so it shouldn’t be shared.
  2. You didn’t even read the story, so you shouldn’t share it.

Don’t forget to consider whether the story is even worth clicking in the first place, because you are rewarding these blogs and advertising outlets with your views, your information, and your time and energy — all of which help them grow, earn revenue and eventually rise in search rankings. Forward Progressives included. 

We’re now living in a world where being diligent about making sure the news sources we trust are credible has become just as important as keeping up with what’s going on in our world. While the Internet has brought with it many amazing things, it’s also made the spread of lies, fake news, propaganda and absurd conspiracies easier than ever.

As I’ve hopefully clearly pointed out in this article, it’s not just combating fake news that’s the issue — it’s also being aware of those who are irresponsibly tossing around that term for their own unethical agenda to discredit credible sources of information that might debunk their lies, to go after people or blogs and websites that they personally don’t like for whatever reasons, or to muddy the waters enough so that no one will know what is or isn’t true.

Feel free to hit me up on Twitter or Facebook and share your thoughts, because I’ve tried to lay this out as simply as possible and yet it has still turned into one of my longest articles to date. If you managed to make it through, thank you. I’m absolutely interested to hear what you have to say.

*UPDATE* 3/26/2017

Sometime after this article was published, MediaBiasFactCheck changed how they’ve rated Forward Progressives. While they still label us more biased than I believe we should be based in part on the evidence I’ve presented in this article, they concluded that we “almost always source credible news and information” to validate our opinions. They also rate us as “High” on factual reporting. There’s no doubt that I agree more with this assessment of the site, and it’s good to see one of these “fake news checker” type sites is open to reassessing how they’ve rated a website. However, I still find some of their methodology flawed overall, and I believe they could expand more on the reasoning they’ve listed for many of the sites they evaluate. I’d be happy to discuss this further with anybody via Facebook, Twitter, or email if you prefer.




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Allen Clifton is a native Texan who now lives in the Austin area. He has a degree in Political Science from Sam Houston State University. Allen is a co-founder of Forward Progressives and creator of the popular Right Off A Cliff column and Facebook page. Be sure to follow Allen on Twitter and Facebook, and subscribe to his channel on YouTube as well.

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  • Edward Krebbs

    Unfortunately, an all too predictable series of events starting with an electorate which denounced Science and Facts as the realm of elitists.

    • vera

      Actually, no. We denounce the Elitists as the realm of globalists.

      Btw, how do you like all that broken glass and fisticuffs in DC? Say, who are the fascist thugs again?! 😉

  • GlenTerra

    Great article. Glad I had time to read it.