Fake news has come to Showtime’s cable drama series Homeland. A new character, Brett O’Keefe (played by Jake Weber), an alt-right, online radio host, generates the stuff. He is the namesake of a real O’Keefe (James) who, in 2009, with Breitbart News and Fox News, brought down the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), a populist national anti-poverty group, with a doctored video.
Homeland’s writers are nothing if not topical. The counterfeit news techniques that assaulted ACORN also helped derail Hillary Clinton and now threaten to deflect the inquiry into the allegations of a Russian-Trumpian election plot.
Enter ACORN and the Firestorm, a new documentary by Reuben Atlas, my son, and Sam Pollard that’s inspired by my book, Seeds of Change: The Story of ACORN. The film, which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival, tells the real story of how the real O’Keefe sought to take down ACORN, and in doing so, helped catapult imitation news’ propaganda operation into the political mainstream. The film will have its Washington, D.C., premiere at the AFI DOCS Festival on June 15 at the Landmark Theater.
Homeland’s plot is based on real news, sadly: how deceptive news stories brought down ACORN and helped doom Clinton’s 2016 candidacy. The show’s protagonist, former CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) working at a Muslim-American aid foundation, is advising Elizabeth Keane (Elizabeth Marvel), the president-elect, on foreign policy. Mathison’s former colleague and nemesis Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham), a CIA black-ops director, believes Keane to be dangerously weak on terrorism and unsupportive of the secret work of the CIA.
The sham news subplot kicks in when Max (Maury Sterling), Mathison’s socially awkward tech-savvy friend, goes deep cover for an investigation Mathison is conducting of a suspicious company run by O’Keefe, who needs an expert to fix his computer network.
Max finds himself inside a huge IT war-room full of millennials sitting at their computer desks waiting for Max. He reboots the system and suddenly sees social-media accounts—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and others—displayed on a vast wall. O’Keefe’s minions are using angry online sham “sock puppet” accounts with user names like “IraqBob,” “NavyWife,” and “Deltaforcegroupie.” They start clicking away at their keyboards, generating fake stories that seem to substantiate the charges O’Keefe is leveling on his show, and also make it appear that there is a popular upsurge supporting the right-wing attacks.
Later, Max meets with Mathison. “Listen to me, Carrie. Somebody is paying O’Keefe a shitload of money to build a massive domestic propaganda machine. … Plus, this isn’t just about fake news and manipulating public opinion, it’s about stifling dissent.”
O’Keefe, who is working with Adal, releases a scandalous, patched-together, cleverly edited, false assault story about President-elect Keane’s son. The video goes viral and the mainstream media, always seeking controversy, does not fact-check it, takes the bait, and energizes angry demonstrations against Keane.
The Homeland heavies can be seen as fictionalized composites of the right-wingers who led the attack on ACORN: the late internet firebrand Andrew Breitbart, Fox News’ (now departed) Bill O’Reilly, and right-wing videographer James O’Keefe. They, along with other conservative ideologues and billionaires, targeted ACORN because it mobilized the poor against the conservative agenda of tax cuts for the rich and austerity for everyone else. In the wake of Barack Obama’s election, in which the poor mobilized by groups like ACORN played a key role, the right had determined that ACORN had to go.
The new documentary reveals how Breitbart, Fox News, and O’Keefe (James, not Brett) targeted ACORN with a sophisticated internet campaign devised by Breitbart that began with a salacious and doctored video produced by O’Keefe. Breitbart then deployed an army of bloggers to make sure the video went viral, and Fox News ran the story 24/7. Their target audience was the mainstream media, including The New York Times and CNN, which dutifully joined the right-wing chorus denouncing ACORN rather than independently investigating the story.
After 2009, the same forces refined and applied the strategies that defamed ACORN in attempts to destroy other progressive groups like Planned Parenthood, the teachers unions and public radio, as well as the candidacies of Louisiana Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu and, more recently, Hillary Clinton.
Homeland’s cautionary series and the ACORN documentary provide a clear warning to progressives in the era of bots and sock puppets—as well as a challenge to today’s journalists.