Author and former Democratic political consultant Naomi Wolf published a series of Facebook posts on Saturday in which she questioned the veracity of the ISIS videos showing the murders and beheadings of two Americans and two Britons, strongly implying that the videos had been staged by the US government and that the victims and their parents were actors.
Wolf published a separate Facebook post, also on Saturday, suggesting that the US was sending troops to West Africa not to assist with Ebola treatment but to bring Ebola back to the US to justify a military takeover of American society. She also suggested that the Scottish independence referendum, in which Scots voted to remain in the United Kingdom, had been faked.
Wild-eyed conspiracy theories are common on Facebook. You may naturally wonder, then, why you are reading about these ones. Partly it's because Wolf's posts on ISIS deeply offended many people who knew one or more of the four murdered Westerners whom Wolf accused of being actors. And as American victims James Foley and Steven Sotloff were journalists, their outraged friends included a number of fellow journalists, so you may have seen them discussing Wolf's posts online and wondered what had happened.
Perhaps more importantly, though, despite Wolf's turn into conspiracy theory, she is still more widely known for her earlier and much-respected work on feminism, as well as her political consulting for the 1996 Bill Clinton and 2000 Al Gore presidential campaigns on reaching female voters. I was taught parts of Wolf's 1990 book "The Beauty Myth" in school and admit that, until researching her more recent views more fully for this post, still mostly associated her with this and other well-respected work. In other words, I was carrying the assumption that Wolf is a respected and authoritative figure to be taken seriously. I can only assume that I was not alone in this.
Her initial posts on ISIS repeatedly stated that confirmation of the authenticity of their beheading videos "has not happened yet." Wolf said that the media was ignoring "journalistic red flags" in that the sole source of the videos had been "SITE, which is run by an anti-Muslim activist with half a million dollars in US funding in 2004." (In fact, the videos were widely distributed on open-source jihadist online outlets. Maryland-based nonprofit SITE monitors extremist social media.) She also detailed an alleged incident, which I was not able to confirm, of a website "based in Doha, address registered at a private intelligence firm in the UK" that she said had spread news of a Canadian journalist, who turned out not to exist, taken hostage in Syria.
This culminated in a now-deleted post, reproduced below, suggesting that the ISIS beheading videos had been staged, as had the initial abductions of the two American journalists and two British aid workers killed on camera. She hints that she believes this was done by the US military.
@penkill Here it is, for your reference. pic.twitter.com/H5RxHZEXAp
— Graeme Wood (@gcaw) October 4, 2014
Like many other journalists who cover the Middle East, I had previously met both murdered American journalist James Foley and his parents (in my case, in 2011) and can attest, although I deeply regret that it is necessary to do so, that they are not actors.
Wolf deleted the post at the urging of New York Times foreign correspondent Rukmini Callimachi, who commented beneath it on Facebook. Callimachi, who has reported extensively on these cases, later explained on Twitter (I've cleaned up the abbreviations that are common Twitter shorthand), "What she fails to understand is that the kidnappings — 23 in total — have been under blackout for much of the past two years because ISIS told families of Henning, Foley, Kassig, etc., their sons would be killed if it became public."
After deleting her post at Callimachi's request, Wolf posted again, reiterating her earlier accusations and promising to "repost" with "new reporting." She also posed a series of questions to the New York Times implying that the newspaper was complicit in fabricating the story. She focused her criticism on the idea that all information on the ISIS kidnappings and videos had been sourced only to SITE, which she again noted had once received a US government grant. She implied that the media had been unable or unwilling to find a second source because the entire story had been staged. (In fact, the kidnappings and murders have been reported based on dozens of sources, including Syrians in the ISIS headquarters of Raqqa and a number of fellow hostages who have been released.)
Later, Wolf scolded the New York Times for not answering her questions and accused it of failing to meet "basic j-school two source journalism." In another post, Wolf stated, "I stand by what I wrote today" about ISIS. She then described a "Pakistani lawyer who is a fourth-generation scion of a major Pakistani political family" who had told her that ISIS was funded by the United States and Israel, along with Saudi Arabia. She described the lawyer as a "credible source" and uncritically presented his claims as "the news behind the news."
In the course of Saturday, Wolf also commented on Australia, where she said "ISIS hype" was being used to justify "loss of freedoms," and on supposed fraud in the Scottish independence referendum, including a letter she sent to the Scottish Electoral Commission accusing it of a cover-up.
She also posted at great length on Ebola, including a post arguing that the US troops traveling to Liberia were not actually sent to help fight Ebola, but rather to further the aim of a "militarized Africa" and because this "creates a direct vector into the US" for Ebola, meant "to justify military condoning [sic] of US population."
Wolf's record of respectability gives her a platform and helps advance her conspiracy theories further than they would travel otherwise. This is not to argue that all of Wolf's earlier work must be discarded on the basis of these Facebook posts, but rather to urge others to see the broader context of Wolf and her thinking. In other words, it is important for readers who may encounter Wolf's ideas to understand the distinction between her earlier work, which rose on its merits, and her newer conspiracy theories, which are unhinged, damaging, and dangerous.