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Maybe you heard that U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said owning a gun is not a right, because "if it was a right, it would be in the Constitution." The quote appeared in multiple posts on Facebook, printed over a picture of the congresswoman’s face. They were shared in news feeds where commenters couldn’t believe someone could be so stupid.
Only Ocasio-Cortez didn’t make that statement. She also didn’t say: "We’ll never have to worry about China attacking us! They are 12 hours ahead so we’ll have plenty of time to shoot down their missiles!," as another Facebook post alleges.
Then there are the fake photos, like a doctored image of Ocasio-Cortez holding her legs open or the picture of a woman in a Facebook post that claims Ocasio-Cortez was fired from Hot Dog on a Stick for incompetence. Other posts falsely claim Ocasio-Cortez disparaged socialism or celebrated the American woman who joined ISIS. One post spread a fake rumor that she had a credit score of 430 and was evicted twice.
They’re all false. And they all seem designed to discredit the youngest U.S. House representative, or to make her look stupid.
"The day just isn’t complete without a AOC meme," wrote one Facebook account while posting a photo of the congresswoman with the words: "This yellow snow is proof the sun is melting."
We found no evidence that Ocasio-Cortez said this. But social media posts attributing false statements to her have multiplied, making her one of the most targeted politicians for hoax claims, despite the fact that she just entered Congress as a freshman. We wondered about the attacks’ origins, and their effect.
We turned to Benjamin Decker, a research fellow at the Shorenstein Center at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, who studies disinformation in the digital age and tracks the spread of fake news. He recently identified a manipulated pornographic image campaign that targeted Ocasio-Cortez.
"A 2018 screenshot from a porn video was photoshopped into 4chan /pol/ thread in Feb 2019, which was then shared onto Twitter, Voat and additional 4chan threads," he tweeted on March 12.
The creators of other posts are harder to trace. Decker thinks they’re probably a domestic — aka not Russian — collection of partisan media, Internet trolls and, he said, "toxic communities of hate." Younger, meme-savvy Americans comfortable with "hard-core partisan rhetoric" and dark-money political action committees are probably also involved, Decker said.
The alleged photo of AOC with her legs spread was posted on Facebook but Decker also spotted it on 4chan, and he said he wouldn’t be surprised if it originated there or on Reddit.
Some memes start on forums like 4chan’s "politically-incorrect board" (the /pol/ mentioned in Decker’s tweet) and sub-Reddits like The_Donald.
"These are spaces where a lot of really hateful conversation around Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez happens regularly," he said. Then it pushes out onto platforms like Facebook and Twitter. There, they’ll often reinforce someone’s pre-existing opinions about the congresswoman or liberals. And it doesn’t seem to matter if the claim is unbelievable as long as it fits into someone’s overall political ideology. Social media platforms then become an easy space to get what Decker calls a "quick dopamine hit of confirmation."
Even though the internet makes it easier to see hateful speech against elected officials, or anyone, such attacks predate social media networks. Consider Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to serve in Congress. When Chisholm ran for president in 1972, her campaign materials were vandalized with racist slurs. She was accused of playing "vaginal politics."
"If in 1972 you had the same social media access as you did today, you’d see horrible things," said Kelly Dittmar, a political science assistant professor at Rutgers University-Camden and a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics.
Women with more experience than Ocasio-Cortez have also endured intense scrutiny, from U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Attacks against female lawmakers seem aimed at undermining their qualifications, Dittmar said. Whether misogyny alone is at the root of those attacks seems to depend on the attack itself. Some rely more heavily on racist tropes, for example, especially against women of color.
"It’s nearly impossible to separate out the degree to which the attacks and criticisms are due to racism and misogyny and in many cases a combination or intersection," Dittmar said. "In most cases I find it hard to believe it’s not in part fueled by misogyny."
Dittmar said she sees efforts to delegitimize Ocasio-Cortez as inextricably tied to the politician’s race and gender. As a young Latina, Ocasio-Cortez represents several things that some people hate: millennials, women and minorities. FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver tweeted in December that her race and gender are foremost among the reasons she drives Republicans crazy.
Ocasio-Cortez has been criticized for misstating the facts. And fact-checkers, including those at the Washington Post, have challenged her. As of March 25, PolitiFact has fact-checked seven of the congresswoman’s statements. Four received a False rating, and one was Pants on Fire.
Some have bemoaned the media isn’t harder on Ocasio-Cortez.
Writing for the Washington Post, columnist Marc A. Thiessen suggests that she’s getting off easier than a Republican woman would and — in a nod to the 2008 Atlantic story titled, "The incredible, thuggish stupidity of Sarah Palin" — wonders where the articles are bemoaning "the incredible, thuggish stupidity of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez."
But others argue the attacks levied against Ocasio-Cortez are disproportionate. In The Nation, for example, Katha Pollitt writes that "the foolish, careless, deceitful, ignorant, bigoted, or simply false claims of Ocasio-Cortez’s fellow lawmakers" aren’t subject to the same scrutiny as "her occasional mistake."
A spokesman for Ocasio-Cortez declined to comment for this story.
Today, Ocasio-Cortez is among several freshmen lawmakers whose identities have been targeted. Both Ilhan Omar, a Somali-American Muslim woman, and Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American Muslim woman, have faced smears related to their religion. Some attacks against Ayanna Pressley, Massachusetts’ first black congresswoman, mine the "angry black woman" trope, Dittmar said. And Ocasio-Cortez belongs to multiple identity groups that have been historically stereotyped as less qualified.
But the 29-year-old is still somewhat unique, according to Dittmar, because it’s relatively unusual for a young woman of color to make it to Congress. In that way, Dittmar said, "she’s really navigating relatively uncharted territory."
The Daily Caller, "Tucker Carlson calls Ocasio-Cortez ‘dumb and totally ignorant of everything,’" Feb. 12, 2019
The Nation, "She’s with stupid," Feb. 7, 2019
New York Post, "Why Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez drives conservatives crazy," Dec. 15, 2018
The Washington Post, "If Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were a conservative," Jan. 24, 2019
Nate Silver tweet, Dec. 11, 2018
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is so dumb Facebook page, visited March 11, 2019
March 11, 2019, interview with Benjamin T. Decker, research fellow at the Shorenstein Center at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government
March 13, 2019, interview with Kelly Dittmar, assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University-Camden and scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics
PolitiFact, "No, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez didn’t say we have time to shoot down Chinese missiles," March 13, 2019
PolitiFact, "No, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did not repeat a quote that disparages socialism," Dec. 12, 2018
PolitiFact, "No, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez did not say that owning guns is not a right," Jan. 24, 2019
PolitiFact, "No, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was not photographed holding her legs open," Feb. 26, 2019
PolitiFact, "AOC wasn’t fired from ‘Hot Dog on a Stick,’ as meme says," March 12, 2019
PolitiFact, "No, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez didn’t call the woman who joined ISIS a hero," Feb. 27, 2019
PolitiFact, "Fake rumor spreads about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s credit score, bank accounts," Jan. 23, 2019
Politico, "What a Kamala Harris meme can teach us about fighting fake news in 2020," March 3, 2019
Benjamin Decker tweet, March 12, 2019
The Verge, "A million Facebook users watched a video that blurs the line between bad satire and ‘fake news,’" July 24, 2018
Facebook post, March 20, 2019
History.com, "‘Unbought and Unbossed’: Why Shirley Chisholm ran for president," Dec. 4, 2018