The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rep. Pat Fallon claimed SPLC listed 2 veterans organizations as ‘hate groups.’ His source? A satirical news blog.

Rep. Pat Fallon (R-Tex.) cited a post from the satirical news site Duffel Blog during a House committee hearing on extremism in the U.S. military on Wednesday. (House Armed Services Committee)
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As the House Armed Services Committee met Wednesday to consider extremism in the U.S. military, Rep. Pat Fallon (R-Tex.) tried to push back on the credibility of the hate-group researcher testifying before the lawmakers.

“Has your organization named the American Legion as a hate group?” Fallon asked a puzzled Lecia Brooks, chief of staff at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“Were you aware that the organization named the VFW, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, as a hate group?” he continued. “You had in the past.”

A spokesperson for the SPLC confirmed to The Washington Post that it has never listed either veterans organization on its “hate map,” a much-cited, sometimes challenged list of extremist groups. But as Brooks pointed out later in the hearing, Fallon’s claim wasn’t just false — it had been fabricated by a satirical news site, Duffel Blog, that lampoons the U.S. military.

Fallon’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post late on Wednesday.

Although there are growing concerns on Capitol Hill about Republicans spreading misinformation on the topics they oversee, a long list of lawmakers have previously been duped by satirical news stories. Indeed, Fallon is not even the first to mistake a story from Duffel Blog for truthful journalism.

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In 2012, when Duffel Blog published a fake news article claiming that Guantánamo Bay detainees were receiving GI Bill benefits, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) sent a query on the matter to the Pentagon. McConnell reportedly wrote that the report “concerned [him] immensely.”

Two years later, an Arizona GOP congressional candidate was fooled by a Duffel Blog post claiming that a Democratic state senator had used profanity toward troops, sending out a tweet to slam the lawmaker.

Donald Trump also appeared to fall for parody news at least once during his presidency, retweeting an article from the Babylon Bee, a satire website considered by many as a right-wing response to the Onion.

But Duffel Blog, which is run by the editor in chief of the (real) military news outlet Task & Purpose, might be the first parody site to be cited as fact during a hearing on Capitol Hill. The blog has been praised by former defense secretary Jim Mattis and the Onion’s founding editor.

The fake Duffel Blog story on the SPLC, which appeared under the byline “Dick Scuttlebutt,” jokingly claimed that the nonprofit had listed the American Legion and VFW as hate groups. Although it made mention of the SPLC’s former president, J. Richard Cohen, the rest of the article ventured into the absurd.

Among other spoofs, the satirical report said Cohen had been interviewed in “his corporate think-tank steam room, where Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Moscow) was seen relaxing in the nude.” (Needless to say, the SPLC does not appear to operate a sauna, let alone one frequented by an unclothed, Russian Sanders.)

Still, as the Pentagon looks to stamp out internal support for far-right extremism, the fake Duffel Blog report appears to have presaged a hot-button issue for the U.S. military and the lawmakers who oversee it.

In February, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered a military-wide “stand-down” to examine the hold of extremist movements in its ranks, just weeks after the siege of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Dozens of military veterans are among the hundreds charged in the riots, and several others are reservists or National Guard members.

Seeking to combat extremists in ranks, the military struggles to answer a basic question: How many are there?

That effort has also reached the House Armed Services Committee, where Wednesday’s hearing was meant to provide members with “an opportunity to hear from experts about extremism in the military.”

But some Republicans pushed back on the premise of the session. Fallon, who called it an act of “political theater,” appeared to question whether far-right views were prevalent in the military to begin with — and whether someone like Brooks was an appropriate judge of extremism.

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Citing media reports about internal turmoil at the nonprofit, he asked Brooks about the SPLC listing the two veterans organizations among its list of nearly 1,000 hate groups. “I found it,” he told her, “and it did.”

Brooks contested that claim immediately, but it wasn’t until about half an hour later, after she drew similar questions from Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.), that she pointed out the satirical source of Fallon’s error.

Sensing a lesson for Fallon, perhaps, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the committee’s chair, chimed in next.

“That’s why we have these hearings, is to try to get to the facts,” Smith said. “We can debate what to do with them, but we can’t be throwing out a bunch of misinformation.”