WASHINGTON: A Fox News host suggested this week that Taylor Swift is a "front for a covert political agenda," echoing disinformation that has percolated in right-wing circles for months - and which experts say will likely get worse before the 2024 US election.
The Jesse Watters segment warning Swift could be a "Pentagon asset" offered the latest conspiracy theory exploiting the singer-songwriter's fame and her past support for Democrats such as President Joe Biden.
Attacks targeting Swift in recent months have ranged from personal barbs to accusations of witchcraft and speculation about her political involvement.
"Have you ever wondered why or how she blew up like this? Well, around four years ago, the Pentagon psychological operations unit floated turning Taylor Swift into an asset during a NATO meeting," Watters said Tuesday, resurfacing a clip from a 2019 summit by NATO's cyber defense hub.
But the video's only mention of Swift comes during a presentation on how social influence could counter misinformation, when a researcher unaffiliated with NATO cited the singer as an example of a popular celebrity.
Have you ever wondered why or how she blew up like this? Well, around four years ago, the Pentagon psychological operations unit floated turning Taylor Swift into an asset during a NATO meeting
"As for this conspiracy theory, we are going to shake it off," Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh told AFP, referencing one of Swift's hits.
Watters also brought up a reported traffic surge on Vote.org in September - immediately after Swift posted an Instagram story encouraging fans to participate in National Voter Registration Day - to posit that someone "got to her from the White House or from wherever."
Reached by AFP, Swift publicist Tree Paine pointed to the nonprofit CEO's response to Watters's claims.
"Our partnership with @taylorswift13 is helping all Americans make their voices heard at the ballot box," Andrea Hailey said on X, formerly Twitter. "Not a psy-op or a Pentagon asset."
Watters - whose primetime show is the second-most watched cable news show in the United States, drawing an average audience of nearly 2.5 million viewers - conceded later during the segment that he "obviously has no evidence" for the claims.
Fox News declined to comment on the record for this story.
Stardom and backlash
Already a megastar, Swift's stature grew in 2023, as she broke music records, performed the highest-grossing music tour in history and began dating American football player Travis Kelce. Time magazine named her Person of the Year.
As Swift's star rose, so did attacks against her. Fringe influencers such as far-right radio host Stew Peters accused her of witchcraft at concerts and claimed she was "responsible for murder" after Kelce appeared in a vaccine ad.
Doctored images shared online falsely linked her to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, while several conservative commentators have insulted her private life and appearance. Activist Charlie Kirk asked on one podcast if she has "any eggs left."
"The way in which it is happening is very gendered because it is relatively easier to attach incredulous disinformation claims to female celebrities," said Swapnil Rai, an assistant media professor at the University of Michigan.
Claims that Swift is a Democratic operative were bubbling up online before Watters mainstreamed them.
"I SAID IT FROM THE BEGINNING," a top promoter of the QAnon conspiracy theory said after Watters's segment. "Not only is Taylor ADMITTEDLY a satanic witch, but she's also being used as a PENTAGON PSYOP ASSET to swing MANY THOUSANDS of youth votes over to the Democrats."
'MAGA vs Swifties'
Laura Loomer, a far-right former congressional candidate who has repeatedly amplified the "psyop" claims, has said that "2024 will be MAGA vs Swifties."
The superstar is likely to play a role in the election - albeit not as a "Pentagon asset."
"I cannot think of another celebrity whose endorsement and activities on behalf of a candidate would be more coveted," said David Jackson, a political science professor at Bowling Green State University, adding that he expects more attacks as the election approaches.
'Conservatives are concerned'
The famously tight-lipped Swift remained quiet during former president Donald Trump's 2016 campaign, but she later criticized him and endorsed Biden in 2020.
More recently, she spoke against the Supreme Court's decision to overturn abortion rights, and urged concertgoers to research which politicians support LGBTQ communities and vote against legislation "harmful" to them.
"I suspect that conservatives are concerned about the power she might have to rejuvenate interest among younger Democratic voters," said Johanna Blakley, a media scholar at the University of Southern California.
"Putting a disinformation (or) psyops spin on her role in the election seems like a thoroughly disingenuous effort to undermine and potentially pre-empt Swift's likely endorsement of Biden."