On April 28, 2017, self-described journalist Cassandra Fairbanks tweeted a picture of herself and Mike Cernovich at the podium of the White House press room. Fairbanks posed for the camera, holding up her right hand and pressing her thumb and index finger together forming a circle — an innocuous gesture recognized in many parts of the world as meaning “OK.” Shortly thereafter, Ms. Fairbanks was accused of making a white supremacist hand sign, and now she’s suing the person who reported on it.
There’s admittedly a bit to unpack here, beginning with what sparked this controversy. In February 2017, the denizens of /pol/ began plotting to trick the media into falling for another one of their stupid hoaxes — this time by convincing them that the “OK” sign had been appropriated by racists. They dubbed their hoax “Operation O-KKK,” and began formulating infographics and hashtags to lend it a veneer of credibility.
“[I]s it #notok???” asked one anonymous user. “#notok is too common on twitter [sic],” replied another, suggesting that they make #okkk trend instead. One posted a picture of the “OK” symbol, with lines drawn on it forming a “w” and “p” for “white power.” Another posted a Nazi flag with the “OK” gesture in place of the swastika, and explained that “To any who haven’t seen the original thread, our goal is to convince people on twitter that the ‘ok’ hand sign has been co-opted by neo-nazis.”
What made it perfect is that so many people use the gesture, including — as their pictures demonstrate — Donald Trump and Mel Gibson. From there, the rumor spread across social media, eventually making its way to devoted followers of President Trump. Trump supporters, from alt-lite figures to hardcore racists, began adopting the symbol. They took pictures of themselves making the “OK” sign, and incorporated the emoji of it in their Twitter names, thus blurring the line between hoax and fact.
Many of them did so with full knowledge that they were pulling one over on the “elite media,” which explains why several right-wing figures flashed the symbol at the White House press room, including Fairbanks, Mike Cernovich (who was photographed next to her), Gateway Pundit’s Jim Hoft, and Lucian Wintrich of “Twinks4Trump” fame.
It was that photograph of Fairbanks and Cernovich — the latter of whom openly associated with the white supremacist alt-right movement until just recently — that prompted Fusion’s Emma Roller to tweet that the pair were “doing a white power hand gesture.” From there, it was picked up by The Independent which published an article titled “Two members of alt-right accused of making white supremacist hand signs in White House after receiving press passes.”
It wasn’t long after the publication of this article that the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) put out a press release clarifying that the gesture was not related to “white power” at all. According to the ADL, the fact that this and other hoaxes have gained prominence as of late is “a reaction to the surge of media attention given to white supremacy, especially the alt right, in the wake of the 2016 election campaign” as well as a “willingness of many on the left in the United States to believe that the Trump administration is full of hardcore white supremacists.”
And now, with the help of Malibu-based attorney Robert Barnes, Fairbanks is suing Emma Roller for her now-deleted tweet. (She is not, however, suing The Independent.) Barnes’ complaint begins with the whiny, anti-media tripe that characterized the 2016 presidential election. It calls Roller a reporter “with a loud megaphone to the world” and accused her of having “defamed another writer, commentator and journalist.” He wrote:
Many members of prominent media organizations see themselves as the exclusive arbiters of truth. Protecting their self-declared monopoly, many of these “journalists” use their perch of public influence to defame, slander and libel those they disagree with politically and ideologically. They see the First Amendment as a sword, not a shield; they view the First Amendment as only protecting those with elites on their rolodex, and view the First Amendment as a wholly owned property of elite-backed journalists to smear and slime their adversaries at will with libels and defamation.
He also ludicrously referred to Fairbanks as a “long-time civil rights writer, journalist, and advocate, who backed Trump’s candidate [sic] for the Presidency only also after protesting civil rights violations against a wide range of citizens, including women and African-Americans.” He further alleged that by calling her “OK” gesture a “white power” sign, Roller “proximately caused injury” to Fairbanks’ “professional reputation and credibility.”
Of course, none of this is accurate. Cassandra Fairbanks is not a “civil rights writer,” and is only a “journalist” in the loosest sense of the word. It would be more apt to call Fairbanks a right-wing propagandist who used to work for the Russian government-owned Sputnik news outlet. Today she spends her time penning sycophantic pro-Trump columns for a site called Big League Politics.
To give you an idea of what Ms. Fairbanks calls “journalism,” consider an article she recently wrote attempting to divine what President Trump meant when he accidentally tweeted “Despite the constant negative press covfefe.”
With a bit of sloppy guesswork, Ms. Fairbanks had her answer: Trump wrote “covfefe” because he really meant the Arabic phrase “Cov fe’fe,” which translates roughly to “I will stand up.” She added that the reason for the ostensible Arabic saying was a bombing in Kabul. In other words, to prevent Dear Leader from looking foolish, Fairbanks came up with a crackpot hypothesis that Trump — who barely speaks his own native tongue — knows Arabic, used an Arabic phrase to reference a country that doesn’t speak that language, and still misspelled it. Yes, hard-hitting journalism indeed.
She has also lent credence to a number of bizarre and discredited conspiracy theories as part of her “journalistic career.” On November 3, 2016 Fairbanks wrote a piece sympathetic to the Pizzagate hoax for the website We Are Change, and tied then-candidate Hillary Clinton to a woman implicated in the illegal transportation of Haitian children. She’s also written several pieces promoting the false claim that DNC staffer Seth Rich was murdered after passing information along to WikiLeaks.
In addition, Fairbanks has appalling and bigoted views of Muslims, including Muslim Americans. In an April 26, 2017 tweet, Fairbanks claimed that far-right French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen would be victorious because French voters “don’t like having to accept importing terrorism.” On May 1, 2017, she wrote that “followers of Judaism and Christianity aren’t causing global chaos through terrorism so they can die & fuck virgins.” On May 9, 2017 she called Islam a “sick religion that dehumanizes women” and blamed Muslim refugees for “rape epidemic[s].”
And on May 24, 2017, she promoted what she called a protest “against Islam” that would be held the next day in New York City. Organized by fellow alt-lite provocateur and Islamophobe Milo Yiannopoulos — desperate for attention after his fall from grace earlier this year — the event showcased speakers and participants from anti-Muslim and white nationalist hate groups, including Pamela Geller of Stop Islamization of America (SIOA) and Mike Peinovich of The Right Stuff.
And a look at Fairbanks’ own Twitter feed shows her to be follower of several racist or otherwise extremist figures. For example, there’s Salvatore “Sal” Cipolla, a member of the far-right “Proud Boys” organization known for brawling with antifa activists and members of the press.
Sal was arrested at a Greenwich Village protest of Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes in February. According to DNAinfo, Sal was arrested after “yanking” a reporter’s press pass, “grabbing him by the collar, pushing him and yelling at him.” And in a May protest in Boston, Cipolla was once again apprehended for punching a 19-year-old antifa woman.
Cipolla’s Twitter background is a doctored photo of a lynching, with the faces of Yiannopoulos and McInnes pasted over the victims. He spends his time there calling his enemies “fags” and boasting of how he will water the “seeds of liberty” with the blood of NYC antifa members. As for McInnes, the Vice Media co-founder has a long track record of promoting white supremacy, misogyny, transphobia, and anti-Islamic extremism. Fairbanks follows Cipolla, McInnes, and the official Proud Boys Twitter account:
She follows /pol/ News Forever, which, as its name implies, shares news stories from 4chan’s /pol/ along with screenshots and links to news articles. Mostly the feed is a repository for conspiracies and racist commentary — for example, advocating the execution of suspected Islamic terrorists by guillotine:
And there’s Kyle Chapman, an alt-right activist and convicted felon who gained notoriety this year by playing dress-up and hitting a protester with a stick:
And there’s indie animator-turned-Neo-Nazi Emily Youcis:
And Henrik Palmgren, host of the anti-Semitic, white nationalist podcast Red Ice Radio:
And she follows Brittany Pettibone, an early promoter of the Pizzagate hoax and co-host of the alt-right program Virtue of the West. Additionally, in a May 25, 2017 tweet, Fairbanks shared a photo of herself alongside Pettibone, McInnes, Wintrich, and Laura Loomer of Project Veritas. Both Wintrich and Loomer were making the “OK” gesture:
In a separate photo she tweeted out on the same day, she and Loomer posed with an unidentified person wearing a Pepe the Frog mask and red “Make America Great Again” hat. Both Loomer and Fairbanks were making the “OK” gesture, and the masked individual held up the black, white, and green flag of “Kekistan” — a flag used by racists and trolls which was actually modeled after the Nazi Reichskriegsflagge:
Also damning is the circumstantial evidence that Fairbanks knew what she was doing when she made that gesture, and counted on a media overreaction. For one thing, Fairbanks indicated on Twitter that this was just a way of trolling journalists.
Shortly after Roller’s initial Twitter statement, one of Fairbanks’ fans wrote that “the Lefties ‘Coded Racism’ hype has now morphed into ‘Subliminal White Supremacist Gestures’…” Fairbanks retweeted this statement, and replied by boasting that “They’ve become so easy to troll that you don’t even have to make an effort anymore.” And, when another person asked her directly whether she and Cernovich “made the OK sign to troll off this fantastic lefty hysteria,” Fairbanks’ response was to simply post a winking emoji with its tongue sticking out:
In other words, it strains credulity to believe that someone with this many ties to the alt-right who receives news from 4chan’s /pol/ — the website that started the “OK” hoax — could have so little knowledge of what she was doing by making that gesture in a public setting with Mike Cernovich. It is especially difficult to believe knowing that she and other alt-right figures have been photographed making this sign during real-life meetups. Add to that her coy reaction to accusations of trolling and it appears Ms. Fairbanks knew more about how people would react to this than she is letting on.
Perhaps her goal is to take a page from the Peter Thiel playbook and file meritless lawsuits in order to crush “elite” journalists who’ve offended her, or who she already had longstanding disagreements with.
Either way, Ms. Fairbanks might eventually have her day in court to prove she had been “defamed” by Ms. Roller. She might have an opportunity to plead her case as to how much this has damaged her journalistic career. But between her shoddy journalism, her bigoted views toward Muslims, her connections to known racists, her promotion of conspiracy theorists, and the evidence that she was attempting to troll — or bait — mainstream journalists into falling for an obvious hoax, she certainly has her work cut out for her.
* Update: This article originally misspelled Emma Roller’s name. I have also updated it with a link to Techdirt’s breakdown of Cassandra Fairbanks’ frivolous lawsuit.