Carlson’s claim that the NSA is spying on him embraced by right-wing media, with radio networks heavily promoting it on Facebook
On the night of June 28, 2021, far-right Fox News personality Tucker Carlson claimed on his prime time show that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) is “monitoring [his] electronic communications and is planning to leak them to take [his] show off the air” — claims that induced a flood of support online.
Carlson’s claims prompted the NSA to release a statement via Twitter the next day denying the allegations, stating that “Tucker Carlson has never been an intelligence target” and it “never had any plans to try to take his program off the air.” Despite this rare rebuke from the NSA, Carlson has continued to claim that he is being monitored.
As explained in a 2013 NSA press release, its intelligence activities are “necessarily constrained” to “central foreign intelligence and counterintelligence purposes,” meaning it is only authorized to surveil foreign targets. Legally, this means the NSA cannot collect intelligence information on a US citizen unless a federal court finds that there is reason to suspect the person is working with a foreign target. This holds even if the US citizen is living abroad. However, if a US citizen is in contact with a foreigner being surveilled, their communications may be collected residually as part of that investigation. Frank Figliuzzi, former FBI assistant director for counterintelligence and a current NBC News contributor, explained to NBC on July 3 that even if the latter was the case, that information would be highly classified and potentially protect Carlson’s identity.
Throughout the course of this episode, right-skewed media outlets and Facebook pages garnered a majority of engagement online, with Facebook dominating other social media platforms. Large networks of affiliated pages attempted to inundate the conversation on Facebook with right-leaning content, posting in unison from seemingly disparate pages. This overt influence allowed right-leaning sources to dominate online discourse surrounding the event.
Right-wing slant of where the narrative spread online
To discern the role played by the far-right online ecosystem, the DFRLab used the social media monitoring tool BuzzSumo to retrieve all Tucker Carlson-related headlines across the internet from June 28 to June 30, 2021, and evaluated the rightward skew of the top 100 websites with the highest levels of engagement using AllSides media bias rankings. The top domain among all headlines was Rumble.com, a rival video sharing platform to YouTube that has been embraced by right-leaning celebrities and politicians, including former U.S. President Donald Trump, in lieu of more mainstream platforms that have increased de-platforming actions against them. The site was shared over ten times more than the domain in second place, YouTube.com.
This phenomenon was also reflected in individual article engagements. The top two articles during the three-day period came from The Daily Wire, a far-right news website known for spreading mis- and disinformation online founded by far-right personality Ben Shapiro. Both articles accumulated more than 90,000 shares each on Facebook. The highest-ranked article that was not from right-leaning site was from NPR, landing in ninth place in terms of engagement with around 21,900 shares.
On June 28, right-skewed articles held a strong majority of article shares, and while other media outlets covered the story on the 29th, right-skewed articles maintained their strong lead. By June 30, the split was almost 50/50, with right-skewed articles still slightly more prominent.
BuzzSumo data also indicated that links shared to Facebook received over 15 times the engagement than those shared to Twitter and Reddit combined. Given this, using Facebook-owned monitoring tool CrowdTangle, the DFRLab retrieved and categorized all content on Facebook pages with the phrases “Tucker Carlson” and “NSA” between June 28 and June 30. On June 28, virtually all engagements originated from right-skewed sources. With the NSA’s statement on June 29, the mainstream media increased its own coverage, but right-skewed sources continued to receive the most engagement. This continued on June 30, when the number of interactions from balanced and left-skewed sources decreased, while right-skewed sources stayed at relatively the same level of interaction.
In order to determine the relative salience of this story on Facebook at large, the DFRLab also retrieved the 200 posts from pages in the United States that received the highest amount of interactions on June 28, 29, and 30. There was no mention of the NSA or Tucker Carlson’s claims in any of these posts, although right-skewed sources still received the most engagement on other topics. This would suggest that this episode took place on the periphery of the platform, which makes the public rebuke from the NSA even more unexpected.
Narrative promoted by media networks on Facebook
Over the course of the three days, media networks utilized their affiliated Facebook pages to promote the narrative on the platform and generate clicks for their third-party sites. The clearest example of this came from a network of 101 radio pages, many of which are verified, posting a link to the Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show with identical captions on 3:56 pm EST on June 29. The Clay Travis and Buck Sexton show is a far-right news podcast “inspired by Rush Limbaugh” that filled Limbaugh’s prime time spot at Premiere Networks, a subsidiary of radio giant iHeart Media. While it is not unusual for radio networks to centralize their social media promotional activities, it is notable that Trump — who was deplatformed from Facebook following the January 6 insurrection — was a guest speaker on the June 29 podcast, and the affiliated pages used identical captions to specifically highlight his presence. This attempt at gaining clicks wasn’t necessarily successful, though: in total, these 101 posts garnered 166 interactions, averaging about 1.66 interactions per post.
Additionally, another network of thirteen conservative radio pages containing the phrase “The Answer” in their name simultaneously posted links to publications from the right-wing publication TownHall, casting supposed doubt on the NSA’s claim and supporting Carlson. These radio stations are affiliated with the Salem Media Group, a self-described Christian radio broadcast company sharing “family-themed content and conservative values.” This affiliation is listed at the bottom of the “About” section for some, but not all, of these pages.
The Daily Wire, meanwhile, used a network of 15 unique pages with unrelated names (such as “Fed-Up Americans,” “Restless Patriot,” and “Don’t Mess With America”) to share a link to pro-Carlson Daily Wire articles as widely as possible. The network showed clear evidence of centralized coordination, posting its stories at identical times on four separate occasions over the course of the event. In order to avoid violating Facebook’s terms of service, however, each page featured a text disclaimer at the bottom of its “About” section explaining its Daily Wire affiliation. These 15 pages would ultimately be responsible for around 73 posts on the topic by the end of June 30.
While not the first, this episode presents yet another example of affiliated right-skewed media pages coordinating online engagement. This coordination is an attempt to drive traffic away from Facebook and toward other platforms frequented by the far right.
Avani Yadav is a research intern with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.
Alyssa Kann is a Research Assistant with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.
Cite this case study:
Avani Yadav and Alyssa Kann, “Tucker Carlson NSA claims spread in right-wing media ecosystem, amplified by radio networks on Facebook,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), July 14, 2021, https://medium.com/dfrlab/tucker-carlson-nsa-claims-spread-in-right-wing-media-ecosystem-amplified-by-radio-networks-on-3b57f9670853.
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