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Corporate Media Push Conspiracy Theories To Discredit Students

Above photo: New York Post graphic (4/26/24) alleging that Jewish billionaire George Soros is bankrolling “Israel hate camps.”

Across corporate media, journalists and pundits introduced conspiracy theories to discredit the pro-Palestine student protest movement, particularly that they are funded by foreign countries or “outside agitators.”

MSNBC‘s Joe Scarborough (5/9/24) went on a rant about the college students who have been staging the protests, suggesting to guest Hillary Clinton that they were influenced by China or Qatar:

I’m going to talk about radicalism on college campuses. The sort of radicalism that has mainstream students getting propaganda, whether it’s from their professors or whether it’s from Communist Chinese government through TikTok, calling the president of the United States “Genocide Joe.” Calling you and President Clinton war criminals.

Eventually, he called the students “extremists—I’m sorry—funded by Qatar.”

Clinton responded: “You raised things that need to be vented about.”

Scarborough’s claim that Qatar funds the students likely comes from a Jerusalem Post article (4/30/24), which called the protests “despicable.” The story reported, “Qatar has invested $5.6 billion in 81 American universities since 2007, including the most prestigious ones: Harvard, Yale, Cornell and Stanford.” Of course, funding  universities is not the same as funding student protests; the university administrations that actually received the Qatari funding have often been quite hostile to the protesters.

‘Mr. Putin’s Message’

House Speaker Emeritus Nancy Pelosi (D–Calif.) suggested on CNN’s State of the Union (1/28/24) that Russia has played a role in the protests:

And what we have to do is try to stop the suffering and gossip….. But for them to call for a ceasefire is Mr. Putin’s message…. I think some of these protesters are spontaneous and organic and sincere. Some I think are connected to Russia.

CNN’s Dana Bash asked, “you think some of these protests are Russian plants?” Pelosi responded: “I don’t think they’re plants; I think some financing should be investigated.”

Like MSNBC, Fox News (5/2/24) has also pushed the narrative suggesting that China is behind the protests: “China may be playing a significant role in the anti-Israel protests by using TikTok to foment division on college campuses,” Alicia Warren wrote.

Gordon Chang, a senior fellow at the far-right, anti-Muslim Gatestone Institute, told Fox that “China is using the curation algorithm of TikTok to instigate protests.”

The presence of pro-Palestinian advocacy on TikTok has been cited by lawmakers as a justification for censoring the social media platform (, 5/8/24). But the messages on TikTok, which is popular among younger people, may simply reflect public opinion among that demographic. According to the Pew Research Center, “Younger adults are much less supportive of the US providing military aid to Israel than are older people.”

In a story headlined, “Campus Protests Give Russia, China and Iran Fuel to Exploit US Divide,” the New York Times (5/2/24) described “overt and covert efforts by the countries to  amplify the protests.” The story included some speculation about foreign influence: “There is little evidence—at least so far—that the countries have provided material or organizational support to the protests,” Steven Lee Myers and Tiffany Hsu wrote. If there was any evidence, they did not present it.

The journalists blamed the protests for having “allowed” these “foreign influence campaigns…to shift their propaganda to focus on the Biden administration’s strong support for Israel.”

‘Professional Outside Agitators’

Beyond foreign influence, another conspiracy theory pushed by corporate media about student protesters is that they are influenced by “outside agitators.” While people who are not students have joined the protests, the term has long been used to delegitimize movements and portray them as led by nefarious actors.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams was an early source of this claim, announcing at a press conference (4/30/24) that Columbia students have “been co-opted by professional outside agitators.” He made a similar statement in mid-April as well (4/21/24).

On MSNBC (5/1/24), NYPD deputy police commissioner Kaz Daughtry defended the claim, holding up a bicycle lock with a substantial metal chain that police had found at Columbia. “This is not what students bring to school,” he said. In fact, Columbia sells the bike lock at a discount to students (, 5/9/24).

CNN‘s Anderson Cooper (4/29/24) asked the Anti Defamation League’s Jonathan Greenblatt about the outside agitators, “How many of them are actually students?” “A lot of them are not students,” Greenblatt replied, adding unironically: “You can’t even tell who’s an outside agitator and who’s an actual student.”

CNN senior political commentator David Axelrod tweeted (4/30/24): “It will be interesting to learn how many of those arrested in Hamilton Hall at Columbia are actually students.”

Former president Donald Trump made a similar claim on Fox (4/30/24). “I really think you have a lot of paid agitators, professional agitators in here too, and I see it all over. And you know, when you see signs and they’re all identical, that means they’re being paid by a source,” he told Fox host Sean Hannity. He continued: “These are all signs that are identical. They’re made by the same printer.”

It’s worth noting that a political movement is not like an intercollegiate athletic competition, where it’s cheating for non-students to play on a college team; it’s not illegitimate for members of the broader community to join an on-campus protest, any more than it’s unethical for students to take part in demonstrations in their neighborhoods.

“If you’re a protester who’s planned it, you want all outsiders to join you,” Justin Hansford of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center told PolitiFact (5/6/24). “That’s why this is such a silly concept.”

That didn’t stop the New York Post (5/7/24) from publishing an op-ed by former New York Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey  headlined “Pursue Anti-Israel ‘Outside Agitators’ Disrupting Colleges—and End the Nonsense for Good.” McCaughey wrote, “Ray Kelly, former NYPD commissioner, nailed it Sunday when he said the nationwide turmoil ‘looks like a conspiracy.’” It looks like a conspiracy theory, anyway.

Tents Situation

One key piece of evidence offered for the “outside agitators” claim was the uniformity of many of the encampments’ tents. When Fox 5 New York (4/23/24) invited two NYPD representatives to discuss the protests, NYPD’s Daughtry said: “Look at the tents. They all were the same color. They all were the same type of tents.” He continued: “To me, I think somebody’s funding this. Also, there are professional agitators in there that are just looking for something to be agitated about, which are the protests.”

“Somebody’s behind this, and we’re going to find out who it is,” Daughtry said.

That students might be observing the world and their role in it, and acting accordingly, was not considered.

Newsweek (4/23/24) quoted Daughtry’s claim with no rebuttal or attempt to evaluate its veracity, under the headline, “Police Investigating People ‘Behind’ Pro-Palestinian Protests.” Fox News anchor Bret Baier (4/23/24) also cited the tents as a smoking gun: “We do see, it is pretty organized. The tents all look the same. And it’s expanding.”

The problem with this conspiracy theory is that the look-alike tents at most encampments were not expensive at all. As HellGateNYC (4/24/24) pointed out, the two-person tents seen at Columbia cost $28 on Amazon (where they’re the first listing that comes up when you search “cheap camping tent”), and the ones at NYU were even cheaper, at $15. While many Columbia students receive financial aid, the basic  cost of tuition, fees, room and board at the school is $85,000 a year. What’s another $15?

‘Soros Paying Student Radicals’

And finally, some news outlets alleged that the student protesters are funded by financier George Soros. For example, Fox (4/26/24) reported that a group that funds National Students for Justice in Palestine (NSJP) received a donation from an unnamed nonprofit that is funded by Soros. Fox was apparently referring to the Tides Foundation, a philanthropy that Soros has given money to; Tides gave $132,000 to WESPAC, a Westchester, N.Y., peace group that serves as a financial sponsor to NSJP in Palestine (PolitiFact, 5/2/24; Washington Post, 4/26/24). In standard conspiratorial reasoning, this three-times-removed connection means that, as Fox put it, protests attended by SJP members are “backed by dark money and liberal mega-donor George Soros.”

The New York Post (4/26/24) published a similar piece, headlined “George Soros Is Paying Student Radicals Who Are Fueling Nationwide Explosion of Israel-Hating Protests.”

On NewsNation (5/1/24), House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) also suggested Soros may be connected, saying that the FBI should investigate:

I think the FBI needs to be all over this. I think they need to look at the root causes and find out if some of this was funded by—I don’t know—George Soros or overseas entities. There’s sort of a common theme and a common strategy that seems to be pursued on many of these campuses.

“It looked pretty orchestrated to me,” NewsNation host Blake Burman agreed.

Soros is a billionaire philanthropist who survived the Holocaust. He has come to represent an antisemitic trope among right wingers of a puppet master controlling events behind the scenes (see, 3/7/22). To put it simply, these supposedly antisemitic protesters are now on the receiving end of antisemitism.

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