The day after presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden announced Kamala Harris as his choice for vice president, Newsweek ran an opinion piece titled “Some Questions for Kamala Harris About Eligibility,” in which it falsely claimed that her eligibility was up for debate.
It isn’t. Harris was born in California and is eligible to be president or vice president.
The conspiracy made its way to the White House, where President Donald Trump was asked during Thursday’s press conference about the false claim published in Newsweek. “I just heard that, I heard it today that she doesn’t meet the requirements,” he said. “And by the way, the lawyer that wrote that piece is a very highly qualified, very talented lawyer. I have no idea if that’s right, I would’ve assumed the Democrats would’ve checked that out before she gets chosen to run for vice president.”
The Newsweek article was widely condemned. The writer’s tweet promoting the story received 22,000 responses to 6,800 retweets — a spectacular example of a Twitter ratio. Following the outcry, Newsweek’s editors added a note to the bottom of the article claiming sour grapes, saying that the author, John Eastman, had run for the Republican nomination for attorney general in California 10 years ago, losing his bid to Steve Cooley, who in turn lost the race to Harris.
In the opinion piece, Eastman falsely claimed Harris may not be eligible for the vice presidency because “neither [of her parents] was a naturalized U.S. citizen at the time of Harris’ birth.” In reality, Harris was born in Oakland in 1964, which means she was an American citizen at birth and she’s qualified to be vice president. (The outlet also ran another opinion piece accurately saying that Harris was eligible.)
One of the people who tried to forward the false narrative was Jenna Ellis, a Trump campaign legal adviser, who falsely told an ABC reporter on August 13 that Harris’s eligibility was “an open question.”
An editor’s note at the top of the Newsweek piece now reads: “Some readers reacted strongly to this essay, seeing it as an attempt to ignite a racist conspiracy theory. That is entirely inaccurate.”
But that’s far from true. The opinion piece played directly into existing falsehoods about the senator from California, which have circulated since she stepped onto the national stage with her own bid for the Democratic nomination for president last year.
Ellis and Eastman are part of a slew of people making baseless claims about the senator. Right-wing commentator Dinesh D’Souza targeted Harris’s ethnicity on Fox News. Mark Levin, one of the primary sources of baseless claims of wiretapping allegations of the Trump campaign, did the same on BlazeTV.
And rumors have spread on Facebook, which has recently been accused of bending its own rules in favor of conservatives.
A post calling Harris an “anchor baby” spread on the site a week before Biden’s announcement, according to fact-checkers who have debunked it. In at least one case, a Facebook account that publicly posted 172 times in a single day according to First Draft, a disinformation tracking organization, published the debunked message to nine different conspiracy groups.
Facebook did not respond to questions on the authenticity of the account.
Although the false narrative has been reinvigorated by Biden’s announcement, it is not new. It began in January 2019, when Harris announced that she was running for president.
At the time, the false information was pushed primarily by disgraced right-wing hoaxer Jacob Wohl, a slew of conspiracy websites run by a Montessori school operator, and a neo-Nazi site, which BuzzFeed News is choosing not to name.
Those attacks were reminiscent of the false birther conspiracy that plagued Barack Obama throughout his presidency. Harris addressed the similarities in a CNN interview last February.
“This is the same thing they did to Barack, this is not new to us,” she said. They are “powerful voices trying to sow hate and division among us,” Harris said, “and so we need to recognize when we’re being played.”
The second time around, the message has not been as effective. Links to websites promoting the false claim haven’t received much traction on Facebook, according to data from social media monitoring tool CrowdTangle, possibly because they’ve already been debunked.
Andre Banks, the founder of A/B Partners, a firm helping address disinformation aimed at Black voters, told BuzzFeed News that audiences were now more aware of falsehoods being spread on social media than they were in 2016 or 2018.
Banks said the strategy of falsehoods surrounding Harris has been, as Steve Bannon famously said, to “flood the zone with shit,” which is why he, and other organizations, focuses on teaching voters about reliable sources and online tactics that could be used to target them. For Banks, the false information about Harris is meant as a distraction — and not one that will end soon.
“Given the track record of how the disinformation has shown up, we don’t expect it to end, we expect it to dial up,” said Banks.