Facebook‘s top Trending Topic on Friday morning buried the controversial past of a man who made a career out of championing 9/11 conspiracy theories, blaming Bill and Hillary Clinton for murder, and denying the Holocaust.
Victor Thorn, a prolific author whose catalog of books includes 2012’s The Holocaust Hoax Exposed among some 50 others, took his own life this week. He was 54 years old.
News of Thorn’s death rose to become the No. 1 Trending Topic for unnumbered Facebook users on Friday, who were greeted by this description:
The description of Thorn as a “Clinton researcher” struck some users and experts on anti-Semitism in the United States as misleading at best and wholly dishonest at worst due to Thorn’s extensive history as an anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist.
“The problem is that it’s wildly misleading. No reasonable news organization would describe Mr. Thorn as a ‘Clinton researcher,’” Rob Cottingham, a writer and communications strategist who noticed the Facebook trend, told the Daily Dot in an email. “It’s the same reason they wouldn’t describe his Holocaust denial as the work of a ‘Second World War scholar.’ They’d call him a far-right anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist, and they’d be correct.”
Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), echoed Cottingham’s criticism.
“Victor Thorn was a lunatic. He was an addled conspiracy theorist who accused the Clintons of murder, who believes 9/11 was a conspiracy theory,” Potok said in a phone interview. He added: “The phrase ‘writer and Clinton researcher’ is unbelievably dishonest. Thorn was akin to being a Nazi and was certainly a Nazi apologist.”
Thorn published many of his titles through American Free Press (AFP), a weekly newspaper originally published by Willis Carto, whom the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) described in an email to the Daily Dot as a “long-time anti-Semite and Holocaust denier.” SPLC considers AFP a hate group due to its promotion of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
“Thorn was akin to being a Nazi and was certainly a Nazi apologist.”
In AFP’s obituary for Thorn, it promoted his “Clinton trilogy,” which includes the “Sex Volume,” the “Drugs Volume,” and the “Murder Volume.” The claims in the books, which Potok described as “hogwash,” have largely been disproven. Despite this, AFP used the opportunity of Thorn’s death to inject greater suspicion of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, into the 2016 election.
“Some supporters have voiced concerns that yet another prominent critic of the Clintons has turned up dead—this time just after Hillary Clinton secured the Democratic nomination,” AFP wrote in its Thorn obituary. “Family has countered that there was no evidence of foul play at the scene and that Thorn most likely took his own life. At this time, however, we are looking into all possibilities.”
AFP did not immediately respond to our request for comment about Facebook’s description of Thorn.
The promotion of news about Thorn’s death through its Trending Topics feature follows a recent controversy over allegations that Facebook improperly suppresses conservative news and publications due to editor bias. The company has denied any policy that would result in the suppression of conservative news.
It is unclear whether the promotion of the Thorn Trending Topic, which features a broad array of conspiracy theory publications, was part of an intentional effort to add other voices and sources to this feature or a purely algorithmic choice by Facebook’s system. Regardless, the descriptions for Trending Topics are written by humans, not computers.
Facebook did not respond to our request for comment on the matter.
Cottingham said the problem here, as a consumer of news, is that the Trending Topic means “this story is framed the way a tiny handful of extremists want it to be.”
He added: “That’s not serving users well, it’s not serving the community well, and it’s not serving the truth well. … Whether it’s because Facebook wildly overcompensated in the face of accusations of anti-conservative bias, or because someone’s gaming the algorithm, or because the algorithm has a serious flaw, they need to fix this.”
A few hours after Victor Thorn dominated Facebook’s Trending Topics, according to its internal trending tool, Signal, his name could not be found anywhere on the list.
Update 3:01pm CT, Aug. 6: The Victor Thorn Trending Topic reappeared for some users Friday afternoon with an updated description identifying Thorn simply as a “writer.”