Photo credit: Robert O’Neill/Wikimedia Commons
My disappointment with Glenn Greenwald, who I once admired for his work on the Snowden revelations, escalates.
Watch as Greenwald, who has 1.6 million followers, deliberately exposes a recent college graduate, a woman, to a screaming mob of trolls on March 28, 2021:
What a bully. More importantly, because Greenwald is not telling you the truth about the story that Brenna Smith co-authored, I will.
On March 28, 2021, Smith, a USA Today intern, shared a byline with senior technology writer Jessica Guynn and investigative reporter Will Carless. It was her first story in a major daily: the topic was far-right insurrectionists, who are fighting federal charges related to the events of January 6, 2021, and trying to crowdfund their defenses.
But it is not so easy, since major crowdfunding platforms ban hate groups that advocate violence —which these defendants are associated with. The USA Today story describes “a game of cat-and-mouse” as these extremists “spring from one fundraising tool to another, utilizing new sites, usernames, and accounts.”
Two principles are worth establishing early. The first is that crowdfunding platforms are corporations, not public utilities, that have every right to bar hate groups and violent insurrectionists from their platforms. The second is that when people barred from a platform try to use it anyway, and profit from violating the terms of service agreement, it is not called freedom, or democracy, or a constitutional right—it is called fraud. And because Greenwald is a lawyer, he knows perfectly well that funds obtained fraudulently or by other criminal activities are called “tainted assets” and cannot be used to fund a defense.
Then there is a third principle we need to establish: the USA Today article was not an opinion piece. This fraudulent activity was news, and Brenna and a team of senior journalists reported the news. Everyone involved was given a chance to comment, and no reporter revealed a point of view about either the crowdfunding platforms or the criminal defendants.
Final principle: The individuals who have been raising money online have not been barred from crowdfunding their appeal on platforms that will permit them to do so. The USA Today story notes, again without expressing a point of view, that while mainstream crowdfunding platforms, PayPal and Stripe (full disclosure: Stripe processes my Substack payments) were working hard to fight this fraud, “GiveSendGo, which bills itself as the `#1 free Christian crowdfunding site’” welcomed these criminal defendants. AllFundIt and Our Freedom Funding were also taking payments for the accused seditionists who attacked Congress in an attempt to overthrow the 2020 election.
Other than Greenwald choosing the least powerful person on the USA Today reporting team to pillory by name and send his trolls to badger, he is also a fount of disinformation. For example:
- The article pressured no one about anything. Literally.
- Many of the people charged in the January 6 attack indeed have money problems: an astonishingly large number owe federal taxes (one owes $400,000), which suggests that there are tax resisters in this group. Business owners and white-collar workers, some of whom arrived in Washington to overthrow the government on private planes and chartered buses, make up the rest. But impoverished? How did “impoverished” people get all that money for transportation, lodging, weapons, and Trump paraphernalia? Please.
- It is not true that anyone in the United States is entitled to a high-priced private defense attorney: everyone is entitled, at minimum, to a public defender.
The latter two bullets are where Jesse Singal jumped in yesterday with an equally fallacious attack on the USA Today reporting team. Bringing his own army of trolls to the party, he ignored the fact that some platforms are welcoming these defendants’ business. He then mischaracterized the notion that platforms could legally bar people from using their resources to raise money as “illiberal.”
As Singal wrote:
I’ve now read the piece twice and I am no closer to having an answer as to why the defendants in these upcoming cases should not be allowed to raise money for their defenses online. The USA Today authors seem to just take it as some sort of given that this group of defendants should, in at least some cases, face their upcoming trials while possessing extremely limited financial resources. In the American legal system, unfortunately, not having money often means you won’t have a great defense — and doubly so if you’re facing a high-profile trial against an (understandably) enraged federal government that is (understandably) looking to make an example of you and your co-rioters. It’s not good that we have a two-tiered system, but a two-tiered system it is.
Again, the USA Today reporters expressed no opinion about this one way or another. However, reading the piece twice should have revealed the following information, which Singal failed to engage.
- “In the wake of the insurrection, the popular crowdfunding site GoFundMe said it banned fundraising for travel to political events that have a `risk for violence.’”
- “Crowdfunding websites that were less squeamish about extremists stepped into the breach.” And: “Wednesday, a USA Today reporter was able to donate $10 to Biggs’ fundraiser on Our Freedom Funding, using Stripe to process the payment.”
- In the wake of Heather Heyer’s death in Charlottesville, numerous internet and financial services companies adopted new terms of service: “Crowdfunding and payment apps were among a wave of companies that set more stringent rules, resulting in the removal of white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups, as well as individuals who spouted hate and threatened violence.”
In other words, scum puppies of all kinds can, in fact, raise money online—they just cannot do it anywhere and everywhere they please. Ethical platforms won’t have them. And to underline the point again: nothing in the USA Today story argues that people should—or should not—be banned from these platforms. It simply reports that they are doing it and explains why.
Singal also first chides Greenwald for his behavior, then minimizes it, then completely excuses him for it. To wit:
As is sometimes the case with Greenwald (and, to be clear, half a million other people online), I do think he could have phrased this in a more charitable way. While I’ve been guilty of mean quote-retweeting myself, it’s arguably better, and will lead to a better heat-to-light ratio, to instead reply (fewer people see a reply) with a question to the author. This can be illuminating: Would the author say that a left-wing protester accused of vandalism shouldn’t be able to raise funds online? Something like that. And of course it’s unpleasant for an intern who proudly posted her first bylined piece at USA Today to come in for this treatment.
Note that there is no mention of the trolls who happily attack any enemy that Greenwald directs them to. “Unpleasant” really does not speak to what Brenna Smith is experiencing right now, and Singal knows that; nor is it right to challenge a reporter to express her opinion on social media when the story was a news report that deliberately expressed no opinion. To do so in another venue would arguably be considered unprofessional by some outlets.
But, Singal continues, Greenwald really did nothing wrong. “When the person being quote-retweeted is seen as an enemy,” he explains, “this is known as a ‘dunk.’ This isn’t actually verboten behavior, even in the case of a very big account like Greenwald’s quote-retweeting a significantly smaller one.”
This isn’t exactly verboten behavior? Well, where I live, it is. It’s called punching down. It’s also called lying.
Singal goes on to trash ethical journalists who are outraged by Greenwald’s attack on Brenna Smith, as well as the story itself—without rebutting anything it reported and explaining why it was wrong:
it seems like The Story now is that Glenn Greenwald singled out this poor helpless USA Today journalist, now she’s getting harassed (which surely is happening, because that’s how online outrage works), and shouldn’t everyone be FURIOUS at him? That’s what many professional journalists are saying, and they’re spending far more of their time discussing this than discussing the merits of the article (if it has any).
Clearly, misrepresenting a young person’s work, mocking and making a straw man out of her isn’t verboten behavior either.
But it is shameful.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). This post originally appeared on her Substack, Political Junkies.