Maybe you heard that U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said owning a gun is not a right, because "if it was a right, it would be in the Constitution." The quote appeared in multiple posts on Facebook, printed over a picture of the congresswoman’s face. They were shared in news feeds where commenters couldn’t believe someone could be so stupid.
Only Ocasio-Cortez didn’t make that statement. She also didn’t say: "We’ll never have to worry about China attacking us! They are 12 hours ahead so we’ll have plenty of time to shoot down their missiles!," as another Facebook post alleges.
Then there are the fake photos, like a doctored image of Ocasio-Cortez holding her legs open or the picture of a woman in a Facebook post that claims Ocasio-Cortez was fired from Hot Dog on a Stick for incompetence. One post spread a fake rumor that she had a credit score of 430 and was evicted twice.
They’re all false. And they all seem designed to discredit the youngest U.S. House representative, or to make her look stupid. She's become one of the most targeted politicians for hoax claims, despite the fact that she just entered Congress as a freshman.
We turned to Benjamin Decker, a research fellow at the Shorenstein Center at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, who studies disinformation in the digital age and tracks the spread of fake news.
Decker thinks the posts' creators are probably a domestic — aka not Russian — collection of partisan media and Internet trolls. Younger, meme-savvy Americans comfortable with hard-core partisan rhetoric and dark-money political action committees are probably also involved.
Women with more experience than Ocasio-Cortez have also endured intense scrutiny, from U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Kelly Dittmar, a political science assistant professor at Rutgers University-Camden and a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics, said she sees efforts to delegitimize Ocasio-Cortez as inextricably tied to the politician’s race and gender. As a young Latina, Ocasio-Cortez represents several things that some people hate: millennials, women and minorities.
"It’s nearly impossible to separate out the degree to which the attacks and criticisms are due to racism and misogyny and in many cases a combination or intersection," Dittmar said. "In most cases I find it hard to believe it’s not in part fueled by misogyny."
Ocasio-Cortez has been criticized for misstating the facts. And fact-checkers have challenged her. As of March 25, PolitiFact has fact-checked seven of the congresswoman’s statements. Four received a False rating, and one was Pants on Fire. A spokesman for Ocasio-Cortez declined to comment for this story.
But the 29-year-old is still somewhat unique, according to Dittmar, because it’s relatively unusual for a young woman of color to make it to Congress. In that way, Dittmar said, "she’s really navigating relatively uncharted territory."