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How a YouTuber's failed Wall Street Journal attack fed the right-wing hate machine

You can’t fight fake news with fake news

A still from the video “Why We Removed our WSJ Video”

It’s unlikely that Ethan Klein, the face behind the h3h3 Productions YouTube account with 3.7 million subscribers, set out to create a fake news sensation.

But it’s clear he was targeting the Wall Street Journal over the outlet’s reporting on YouTube. Klein created a 13-minute video blasting Jack Nicas, the author of a Wall Street Journal report on brands advertising against offensive videos on YouTube. Companies such as Coca-Cola, Amazon and Microsoft have pulled ads from YouTube in the wake of the story.

Klein’s next video claimed that the Wall Street Journal doctored images to support its story, and that’s where things started to blow up.

Serious allegations with comical evidence

The evidence that the Wall Street Journal photoshopped images of Coke ads on a racist video was based on the lack of revenue from the video compared to the number of views. Klein claimed the soda ads couldn’t have been on the video in question, or the creator of the video would have made more money.

Klein had reason to believe he could take on the reporter and win. A previous, in-depth video helped bring attention to Counter-Strike Go’s gambling problem, and his channel has exposed other frauds in the past.

“Take Joey Salads, for example — the master of the contentious ‘social experiment’ — who Ethan exposed as a faker who uses actors to stir up racial tension,” Vice wrote. “During their interview he got Salads to admit what he and everyone else already knew: that his video featuring guys from the ‘hood’ (read: black men) destroying a car with Trump paraphernalia on it was a hoax.”

But, in the case of the alleged photoshopped image, Klein got it wrong. It wasn’t long until that fact was pointed out.

“Sources familiar with YouTube’s ad systems at the company confirmed to The Daily Beast that ads did, in fact, run on the video. So did several users who later debunked the video and forced Klein to pull it down on Sunday,” the Daily Beast reported. “Ads ran on the racist video in question, but due to a copyright claim, the revenue went to a rights holder of an equally racist song, called ‘Alabama N—er,’ that was edited into the background and flagged by YouTube’s copyright claim algorithm.”

The Wall Street Journal likewise responded quickly.

“The Wall Street Journal stands by its March 24th report that major brand advertisements were running alongside objectionable videos on YouTube,” the newspaper said in a statement. “Any claim that the related screenshots or any other reporting was in any way fabricated or doctored is outrageous and false. The screenshots related to the article — which represent only some of those that were found — were captured on March 23rd and March 24th.”

Klein took down his original attack video and replaced it with a video in which he admitted that he couldn’t prove any of his claims were true.

But the damage had already been done. The “alt-right” media and personalities, an offshoot of conservatism mixing racism, white nationalism and populism, had already begun crowing about the destruction of the Wall Street Journal, and latched onto the story as proof the “mainstream” media is fake. Nicas, as Klein’s target, received countless abusive tweets and threats.

This is just a taste at the ire directed at Nicas
Twitter via Polygon

InfoWars is a conspiracy theory site owned by Alex Jones, and editor Paul Joseph Watson tweeted about the situation to his 557,000 followers.

This story has been spun into a larger point of a conspiracy theory about YouTube in general.

The Gateway Pundit, a site the Columbia Journalism Review stated “mostly aggregates alt-right catnip and frequently traffics in conspiracy and innuendo,” reported that “this is a massive failure on the part of the Wall Street Journal and a detrimental misstep for the failing mainstream media.”

Erstwhile GamerGate opportunist Mike Cernovich, who was recently shown on 60 Minutes in a segment about the creators of fake news, also tweeted Klein’s claims.

Cernovich has most recently gained respect from the Trump family for his conspiracy theories about former United States National Security Advisor Susan Rice.

Klein has found himself in this disinformation funnel that, as surreal as it sounds to write, goes straight to the President of the United States.

As of this writing, there have been no updates to these stories now that Klein’s evidence of impropriety has been debunked. Klein, for his part, refers to all this as a “gaff.”

Our new media landscape

It’s disturbing to see how many of the leaders who weaponized angry, young men during the GamerGate movement have so effortlessly shifted into Trump supporters while jumping onto every conspiracy theory that suggests outlets like the Wall Street Journal can’t be trusted.

Klein is now caught in the YouTube trap of wanting to be able to profit from his massive audience without being held responsible for what he says or how he says it.

"What you see in the comments is — what can you do, it's YouTube. You can't control who's there," he told Vice in a previous interview. "It bothers me when I make a video making fun of feminists, then all the time I see all these alt-right comments, and it's like — I don't want to identify with them. I don't want to necessarily court these people ... It's just, what can you do? It's almost like you're suggesting that you have to choose a side, and that's something that I found really frustrating."

The statement above is a bit self-serving: If you’re going to make videos to make fun of feminists, as he states, you’re going to get viewers who don’t like women very much. At some point you do have to take some responsibility for what you put into the world and your audience’s reaction to it.

Klein set out to mock the Wall Street Journal and attack a writer he disagreed with, but it’s unlikely he could have predicted his story being picked up by white nationalists and the far-right even as it was being proven false. He was mad at what he thought of as “fake news,” and a story that might have limited his ability to make money, and in a hurried attempt to discredit a reporter he created a firestorm based on false information that continues to burn.

A commenter on the reddit thread about the original video may have said it best: “Its rather depressing seeing everyone all about journalistic ethics and the horrors of politically motivated hit pieces fall for one so easily.”

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