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Hand holding a pen with a tiny hand at the end, which is holding another pen.

Forgery: The Maxine Waters Letter

By
Joan Donovan and Brian Friedberg
Media Manipulation Tactics Used
Date Range
January 2016 - December 2018
Region
USA
Network Terrain
Target
Campaign Adaptation

Overview

In December 2017, congressional candidate Omar Navarro instigated a media manipulation campaign to denigrate his political opponent, Congresswoman Maxine Waters. Exploiting prejudice and wedge issues via a forgery, his campaign was seeded by pseudonymous participants and right-wing influencers online. After Waters formally challenged the harassment on Twitter, the campaign was amplified by mainstream press, and investigated by the FBI. Navarro has adjusted tactics to continue harassing Waters and other political opponents after his initial campaign failed to lead to his election.

STAGE 1: Manipulation Campaign Planning and Origins

Omar Navarro attempted a congressional run for California’s 43rd district in 2016 and 2018. Sitting congresswoman Maxine Waters was his political opponent in both races. For his 2018 campaign, Navarro drew support from an assortment of partisan, right-wing politicians, influencers, and strategists — particularly Herman Cain,1 Roger Stone, Laura Loomer, Joe Arpaio, and Alex Jones.2 During both the 2016 and 2018 campaign seasons, he repeatedly attempted to attract Waters’ attention using targeted harassment. He made wild accusations on social media3 and in right wing press,4 and even live-streamed public protests outside her home.5 In December 2017, Navarro instigated a media manipulation campaign to denigrate Waters. Exploiting prejudice and wedge issues via a forgery, this campaign was seeded by pseudonymous participants and right-wing influencers online.

On December 11, 2017, Navarro tweeted the following: “Maxine Waters wants more terrorists, like the one who bombed NYC, in California’s 43rd District. As Congressman of CA’s 43rd District, I will oppose such policies. #VoteNavarro2018.”6 The tweet included an image of a low-resolution scanned letter. This false and inflammatory letter appeared to detail a plan by the congresswoman and the Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) to garner a donation from OneUnited Bank to relocate 41,000 Somali refugees to her district. While Navarro made no claim as to the letter’s authenticity, he also provided no solid information on where it was sourced,7 indicating only that it was provided to his campaign via Facebook.8

This letter, a forgery, exploited multiple social vulnerabilities and racial prejudices. Water’s connection to OneUnited, the largest Black-owned bank in the United States and the subject of several controversies,9 as has the bank itself since 2008.10 In 2012, Waters was cleared of violating House ethics rules in her dealings with the bank,11 though the accusations have continued to be mobilized against her by political opponents since. This forgery shared by Navarro, and filled with easily identified factual errors, attempted not only to rekindle those OneUnited Bank accusations, but compound them by suggesting Waters was purposefully working with Muslim organizations to resettle Muslim refugees to the 43rd district. Immigration is a long-standing wedge issue in California politics,12 as is Islamophobia.13

Omar Navarro's tweet claiming Waters wants more terrorists and includes a low-res image of a document allegedly showing that the congresswoman and the Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) asking for a donation from OneUnited Bank to relocate 41,000 Somali refugees to her district.

This is an Omar Navarro tweet sharing the forged Maxine Waters letter. Credit: Screenshot by TaSC.

STAGE 2: Seeding Campaign Across Social Platforms and Web

Despite Navarro’s appearance on Infowars promoting the forgery on December 22,1 the document did not get much attention on his own account initially. It did not spread widely until after people on social media, image boards, and blogs undertook a seeding campaign to amplify it in January, 2018. In late January, the forgery was posted to 8chan in a now-deleted thread. On January 28, the Hal Turner Radio Show show published an article with a screenshot of the letter, containing a URL indicating the image was originally hosted on 8chan.2 The same day, a user posted the same 8chan-sourced screenshot in a thread on 4chan.3 It was simultaneously posted to Reddit’s the_donald.4 These coordinated posts on sites used for right-wing political organizing accelerated its spread on social media.

On January 29, 2018, Twitter user @SavingAmerica4U shared a screenshot of the letter, which also contained the 8chan URL.5 Later that day, a screenshot of this tweet was uploaded to Imagur,6 and the YouTube account Smile Wild reproduced the Hal Turner article in a video.7 Another 4chan post containing a screenshot of the letter also appeared on January 29, this one without the 8chan URL.8 Variants of the image were also shared by networked factions on Twitter and Facebook, including accounts associated with the QAnon community.

Subsequently, several small right-wing blogs and websites reposted the news from social media.9 The seeding campaign reached a peak on February 11 when conservative influencer Terrance K Williams shared the letter, without the 8chan watermark and including legitimate screenshots of negative reactions from Waters’ Twitter account.10 The tweet received significant interactions and helped to further muddy the waters concerning the leaks legitimacy.

@SavingAmerica4U tweeting a screenshot of the forged letter.

This is @SavingAmerica4u’s tweet of the forged Maxine Waters letter. Credit: Screenshot by TaSC.

STAGE 3: Responses by Industry, Activists, Politicians, and Journalists

Maxine Waters responded to Navarro’s initial post of the forgery three days later. On December 14, she issued a statement on social media condemning the document.1 The Los Angeles Times published an article that day that debunked the letter as a forgery and included an interview with Navarro.2 Though the article was critical, Navarro made clear he considered the increased media exposure a success. In a YouTube video titled “Merry Christmas - We Got Maxine Waters Attention,” Navarro claimed a small victory.3

There was a secondary spike of attention on February 11, 2018, when Waters again reacted by publicly recognizing the forged document with the 8chan URL shared by @SavingAmerica4U and requesting that Twitter remove it. “This illegally forced document has been retweeted over 10,000 times,” Waters wrote. “This letter was first released by Rep. Waters’ opponent. It’s now being pushed by the alt Right & Russian bots. I’ve reported this to the @FBI Please report!”4 Influential behavioral scientist Caroline Orr, who tweets under the handle RVAwonk, pointed out the 8chan URL visible on the screenshot of the forgery.5 Replying to RVAwonk, Waters reached out to Twitter support, journalists, and civil society groups on Twitter, amplifying the forgery further.6

The Los Angeles Times as well as other prominent media outlets extensively covered Waters’ subsequent tweets calling for an FBI and Justice Department investigation into the matter.7 As of June, 2020, Waters’ related tweets have collectively generated more than 13,000 likes and 8,000 retweets, far more than any single post by users sharing the forgery. Despite the negative attention for the forgery, conservative news outlets such as Fox News featured Navarro as a guest for the remainder of his campaign.8 In addition, on March 16, 2018, former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn formally endorsed Navarro at a campaign event.9

Maxine Waters's tweet condemning the forgery and asking people to report the content when they see it.

This is Maxine Waters’ tweet condemning the forgery. Credit: Screenshot by TaSC.

STAGE 4: Mitigation

On August 11, 2018, Navarro announced on Twitter that the FBI was investigating his post,1 a fact later confirmed by the LA Times.2  No charges were pressed at that time. Though @SavingAmerica4U’s original tweet remained on Twitter for over a year, it appears to have been removed as of June, 2020, long after Waters’ calls to action. Tweets from many other Twitter users, including Terrance K Williams, remain online. The manipulation campaign was ultimately ineffective, as Waters easily defeated Navarro in the congressional race, receiving almost 78% of the vote.3

STAGE 5: Adjustments by Manipulators to New Environment

In June, 2020, Navarro was released from a six-month jail sentence for the crime of stalking an ex-girlfriend, and immediately registered to run for Waters’ seat again in 2022.4 He then began harassing not only the congresswoman but also her 2020 Republican opponent Joe Collins, adjusting his tactics, but employing similar smear tactics as he used against Waters in 2018.5 Right-wing Twitter personality Candace Owens then increased the visibility of the anti-Waters campaign further, by retweeting statements disparaging both Waters and Collins.6 Despite the failure of his forgery campaign to win votes in 2018, Navarro’s inflammatory rhetoric and harassment continues to gain attention for his political campaign from right wing influencers online.

Cite this case study

Joan Donovan and Brian Friedberg, "Forgery: The Maxine Waters Letter," The Media Manipulation Case Book, October 20, 2020, https://mediamanipulation.org/case-studies/forgery-maxine-waters-letter.