Eric Swalwell, the high-profile Democratic congressman from Northern California, has found himself at the center of a disinformation storm. Pushed by right-wing media and supporters of President Trump, it centers on his past association with a suspected Chinese agent.

“After entangling with this spy for years, Swalwell hypocritically went on to be one of the lead instigators of the Russian collusion hoax and the impeachment sham,” White House Press Secretary Kaleigh McEnany told reporters on December 15 from the briefing room lectern.

McEnany’s focus on Swalwell echoes a growing Trumpland obsession with a story first published by Axios the previous week, detailing how a suspected Chinese intelligence operative targeted public officials five years ago including small-town mayors, California Democrat Representative Ro Khanna and Swalwell, among others. 

On his Fox News show, Sean Hannity summed up what quickly became the default narrative: “Democrats — they refuse to hold Swalwell accountable for what is blatant hypocrisy, rampant lies, even after he spread the Russia hoax for years.”

The FBI alerted Swalwell to suspicions that a young Chinese national named Christine Fang was connected to Chinese intelligence. Swalwell ceased communication with her, and has been accused of no wrongdoing. U.S. intelligence officers told Axios they do not believe Fang obtained or passed on classified information.

Journalists and news organizations are increasingly seeing their stories distorted and used as political fodder. In line with this trend, right-wing media and the Trump team seized upon the Axios report. 

“There’s no way that you could publish this without knowing that it was going to be weaponized,” said Maria Bustillos, a contributing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review. 

The feedback loop between conservative media, the Trump administration and Republican politicians is well-established, but the stakes are rising. “They are all playing the same political board game,” said Kelly McBride, senior vice-president and chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at the Poynter Institute. “It becomes a building block for this overarching narrative that they are constantly beating a drum on around what’s happening in America, in ways that are not true.” 

Axios wrote in a statement to Coda Story that “The best antidote to distortion is fact. Our story was rigorously reported, conscientiously edited, and accurate. No person mentioned in the story disputed any fact we presented. To the contrary, both Eric Swalwell and Nancy Pelosi have publicly confirmed key elements of our reporting. This is the gold standard for investigative reporting.”

Swalwell, a prominent critic of Donald Trump during the investigation into ties between the presidency and Russia, sits on the House Intelligence Committee and ran for president in 2020. His connection to a suspected Chinese spy is an enticing opportunity for Trump allies eager to portray the president’s critics as hypocrites: guilty of purveying the same sort of foreign influence and collusion they accuse Trump of.

“It’s a dream come true,” said Steve Livingston, the founding director of the Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics and a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. “Here we have one of the most vocal critics of Trump being revealed as a possible person who was too comfortably close to Chinese operatives, so it has that juicy ironic element to it.” 

In the hours and days following the Axios story, right-wing media including Fox News, Brietbart, the New York Post and the Daily Caller jumped on it, attempting to discredit Swalwell by painting him as a Chinese agent. 

“At every turn, Swalwell has remained a reliable source of Chinese government propaganda,” said Tucker Carlson, in a monologue on his Fox show. 

Political repercussions were almost immediate. Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told Fox & Friends that Swalwell is a “national security threat.” Seventeen top Republicans, including Senator Rick Scott of Florida, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, and Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama have called for Swalwell to be removed from the House Intelligence Committee.  

The right-wing reaction to the story is a textbook example of distortion as disinformation. 

“Axios is just doing its job. It’s a legitimate story,” said Livingston. “It was also an opportunity for that right-wing information ecosystem to take that as a weapon to use to delegitimize other news organizations, or in this case, this congressman.”  

In a media environment where legitimate reporting is often turned into disinformation, there is no clear consensus as to whether or how newsrooms should consider the likelihood of a given story being transformed into political spin.

Experts like Erik Wemple, media critic for the Washington Post, and Gabriel Snyder of Columbia Journalism Review, argue that reporters are not responsible for what others choose to do with their stories. 

But not everyone agrees. “I do think that journalists are responsible for distortions that emanate from a launchpad that they worked on,” said Todd Gitlin, a professor at Columbia Journalism School. “I think it’s a moral obligation to correct the record.” 

The right-wing co-option of the Axios story also raises larger questions about fact-based and ideologically driven approaches to journalism in an increasingly polarized media landscape. 

“When you operate in a world where people are often looking to twist facts to suit whatever their agenda is,” said Snyder. “The traditional journalistic approach of ‘I’m just going to lay the facts out there, and everyone else can decide’ is really poorly suited to this information environment. That creates a vacuum that other people can fill.”