Forget Russia’s bots: Home-grown alt-facts are infiltrating the 2018 primaries.
A technology consultant with ties to domestic outlets known for publishing hyperpartisan clickbait—with names like Liberty Writers and Swamp Drain—is running for one of Texas’ eight open congressional seats. And he says he’s doing it to get back at Facebook for shutting down pages for some of those sites.
“[If] I get elected, Mark Zuckerberg is going to sit across the table from me in the halls of Congress,” candidate Thomas Dillingham said in an interview with Mother Jones. “He’s got some explaining to do.”
Dillingham, 43, faces a crowded race. Ten other Republicans are also vying to represent his Dallas-area district in a March 6 primary.
A self-described “Bible-believing Christian,” Dillingham most recently made a living by providing web hosting services for 23 sites similar to Liberty Writers, whose homepage blares “Trump Started Speaking at Disney, SUDDENLY Liberal Thug Did Something Sick.” That ended, he says, when Facebook’s crackdown on fabricated and misleading news drove down readership. Liberty Writers announced on November 9 that its Facebook page was suspended, and the site hasn’t been updated since December. Shortly thereafter, Dillingham says, his business tanked.
Days after the Facebook pages were shuttered, Dillingham took aim at the Facebook on his personal blog: “I believe Facebook hates Christians. I believe Facebook hates Conservatives. And most of all…I believe Facebook hates our president, President Donald J. Trump.”
The north Texas native started hosting what he characterized as both liberal and conservative political blogs during the 2016 presidential campaign, as Trump’s candidacy ramped up readers’ appetite for fake news, though he admits the pro-Trump sites tended to bring in the most traffic. “These guys were paying 80 percent of my bills,” he says.
Dillingham says he doesn’t have permission to name the blogs he hosted, and he shrugged off questions of whether the false information they were spreading was damaging. “I was just a website hosting service,” he told Mother Jones.
On top of hosting, Dillingham also started his own right-leaning news site, Nation One News. Since the outlet’s inception in 2016, Nation One News has garnered 100,000 likes on Facebook. Its most prolific journalist, Michael Moates, has about 34,500 followers on Twitter. (Dillingham says he hasn’t been involved in the site recently, transferring ownership of the outlet to a nonprofit foundation after closing up shop on his web hosting business.)
In a crowded primary, Dillingham is a long-shot candidate. The Dallas Morning News’ editorial board called his campaign “all-but-invisible” in its endorsement of one of Dillingham’s competitors, retired Naval pilot J.K. Ellzey. And the president of the local GOP called another candidate, former Arlington city council member Ron Wright, the race’s front-runner.
But Dillingham remains undeterred. Initially, he says, he planned to run a purely ideological campaign against Ted Cruz in an effort to spread the word about what he believes is Silicon Valley’s bias against Christians, conservatives, and Trump supporters. But when the District 6 seat opened up, Dillingham says, he saw an opportunity to have even more of an impact—and has expanded his platform to be consistent with Trump’s “America First” agenda.
The district will likely remain in Republican hands, making the primary the most competitive part of the upcoming election. The open seat comes after longtime congressman Joe Barton decided not to run again, thanks to the click-baitiest of reasons: Nude photos of the congressman leaked to the media.