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Hawley's attacks on Ketanji Brown Jackson fuel a surge in online conspiracy chatter

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., questions Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson during her confirmation hearing on March 22.
Chip Somodevilla
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Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., questions Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson during her confirmation hearing on March 22.

A misleading line of attack from Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., helped fuel online discussion, some of it violent, linking Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson to concerns about pedophilia, according to an analysis of data from Pyrra Technologies, a threat-monitoring company that tracks alternative social media platforms.

Hawley used much of his question time during Jackson's confirmation hearings this week to distort her sentencing record in cases related to child pornography. He previewed that line of questioning last week with a long Twitter thread in which he painted Jackson as sympathetic to child pornography defendants.

Fact-checkers and some conservative legal experts have labeled his claims misleading and note that his comments are tied to conspiracy theories, including the far-right QAnon.

The White House referred to his rhetoric as an "embarrassing QAnon-signaling smear."

Hawley responded: "If they want to dismiss parents' concerns about their children's safety and they want to dismiss concerns about crime as a conspiracy theory, take that argument to the polls." His office didn't respond to NPR's requests for an interview.

While a direct link can't be proved, Welton Chang, Pyrra's CEO, said there was a "large, sustained spike" in mentions of Jackson shortly after Hawley tweeted his accusations.

"What we saw was pretty shortly thereafter, because it usually takes a little bit of time for that information to filter to these platforms," Chang told NPR. "But people were digesting that information and then started posting a lot about it on the 17th of March," the day after Hawley's tweets.

Since then, Chang says, it has been a "steady drumbeat of amplification of the viral clips and the sound bites that are coming out of the nomination hearing."

The platforms that Pyrra monitors include 8kun, Gab, GETTR and Telegram, which range from having a few thousand users apiece to millions of users. While alt-right and far-right groups frequent these platforms, so do many other users.

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The upward trend continued when Hawley questioned Jackson during her hearing.

Chang said the type of language and arguments Hawley used echoes the language used in conspiracy theories popular among the far right.

"If you follow the fringe on social media, there's essentially an obsession with the idea that elites and, specifically in the U.S., Democrats are involved in some kind of pedophile activity," he said.

"So with that context, you start to understand why a baseless series of accusations against Ketanji Brown Jackson would resonate with these communities," Chang said. "It has the kind of fuel for the fire for these folks in terms of hitting on the kinds of topics that they're very interested in."

Some posts used violent language, though explicit calls to violence against Jackson were rare. One Rumble user wrote, "We need to get out there and blow her up." A user on Minds wrote, "The jury box has failed, the ballot box has failed. It's time to tap that third box." On GETTR, a user wrote, "f*** kbj - nasty predator protector. She should get locked up with them!!!!!!"

Hawley wasn't the only Republican senator to raise questions about Jackson's sentencing in child pornography cases during the hearings. But Chang says by the time the hearings began, the message had already taken on a life of its own on these platforms.

"It's not even necessary for Senator Cruz or Senator Blackburn to jump in here and amplify Senator Hawley's message, because that is already being done for Senator Hawley by these other outlets," Chang said.

Chang warned there's danger that conspiracy theories that marinate in online forums can lead to real-world consequences. In late 2016, a North Carolina man opened fire in a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant, saying that he was "investigating" claims that the restaurant was the center of a child sex ring involving top Democrats, in a conspiracy theory known as Pizzagate that was a precursor to QAnon.

While Jackson was the sentencing judge for the Pizzagate shooter, she wasn't well known on fringe platforms before Hawley's tweets, Chang said.

"She was never somebody who was a figure or character in [that] story until Hawley drew her in with this line of attack."

It wasn't just fringe platforms where Hawley's claims resonated. His Twitter thread was retweeted and liked tens of thousands of times. News outlets picked up his tweets, and the most shared links were reshared to public Facebook groups with millions of followers, data from CrowdTangle shows.

"People read this information and feel like there might be something going on in reality and may take action on it," Chang said. "That's what's so dangerous, especially if you continue to associate somebody that's going to be as high profile as a Supreme Court justice with completely baseless accusations."

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