Who would have believed that I would write a post about social media being used a weapon against democracy? Looking back, I should have been more pragmatic about the power of social media and community.
Here we are ten years from when it all started, and corporate marketing and PR teams have co-opted social platforms. But worse than that, social media tools and community have been weaponized by political leaders.
This post is a lookback at how chaos-makers have been able to co-opt the power of social media.
Prelude: Early Days of Social Media
The early days of social media started gaining steam the end of the 2000’s. Facebook went public in 2006 and Twitter followed in 2007. Many of us believed that social media tools would usher in a new era of democratized information.
These tools provided a way to move information around the gatekeepers, to skip the PR cycles to get real information out there. In fact, the reason I was hired away from EMC was to build a community at Dell for their new Storage product team. For a while, we were able to connect customers directly into a product team. It was an amazing time.
However, while some of us were working to free information, there others with the vision of using the tools as a weapon against democracy. In my opinion, this started with Andrew Breitbart.
“Politics Is Downstream of Culture”
Breitbart believed that “politics is downstream of culture”. What does that mean?
“Breitbart knew instinctively, as people in Washington and most other places did not, that movies, television programs, and popular music send out deeply political messages every hour of every day. They shape the culture, and then the culture shapes politics. Influence those films and TV shows and songs, and you’ll eventually influence politics.”via Washington Examiner
Breitbart by all accounts had an innate talent when it came to framing stories for consumption via the Internet. He worked on the Drudge report before he helped start The Huffington Report. Then in 2007 he started Breitbart News. That site was the top-level site for his sites Big Government, Big Hollywood, and Big Journalism. Steve Bannon helped out with money and office space and was on the original board [via Bloomberg].
Bloomberg’s analysis of Breitbart’s skill seems spot-on:
“[Breitbart understood] that most readers don’t approach the news as a clinical exercise in absorbing facts, but experience it viscerally as an ongoing drama, with distinct story lines, heroes, and villains. Breitbart excelled at creating these narratives..’.Bloomberg
Breitbart set his storytelling skills on taking down the “liberal elites” that he believed were controlling the political landscape.
First Shots Fired: An Attack on Southern Storytelling
On March of 2010 Shirley Sherrod, a low-level Deptartment of Agriculture employee in Albany GA gave a speech at an NAACP event. In Southern style, she talked first about how she struggled in her job to help white farmers get funding they needed to keep their family farms. Breitbart News grabbed the first part of her speech and used it to prove there was racism against white people within government agencies.
However, the clip Breitbart snagged was a couple of minutes from a forty minute speech. And in true Southern fashion, Sherrod finished the story by explaining how she realized how wrong it would be to discriminate against anyone based on skin color, and how this incident changed her view. She also talked about becoming life-long friends with the white farmers she originally struggled with wanting to help.
It didn’t matter. Breitbart made so much noise about the edited clip that Sherrod was fired from her position. She later won a defamation suit against Breitbart. But Breitbart had his first taste of victory with his new weapon against democracy, and now he knew how to refine it.
When I gave a presentation about this incident at Bitnorth, and I framed it as a new form of digital literacy. What happens if the media manipulates information so it can make a part of the story appear to be the whole truth? I wish I would have pulled harder on that thread!
Transition of Power
Once it became clear that Breitbart had falsely portrayed the story Sherrod was telling, Breitbart News lost steam. The team needed to regroup, and refocus how they used this weapon against democracy.
Work began on a relaunch of the website, but Breitbart died in unexpectedly in 2012 before it was completed. Steve Bannon emerged as his successor.
Breitbart once called Bannon “Leni Riefenstahl of the Tea Party movement, a reference to the German filmmaker who became the Nazi regime’s leading propagandist” [via Globe and Mail]. This was foreshadowing to the work Bannon would do leading up to the 2016 election.
Loading the Misinformation Cannons: Cambridge Analytica
In 2013, Bannon co-founded Cambridge Analytica with backing from Robert Mercer. Cambridge Analytica was Bannon’s new arsenal to fight the culture war in America.
Cambridge Analytica used personality profiling (with data fraudulently requested for “academic research” from Facebook’s marketing tool ) to customize political messages. The messages were content crafted from bits of video and sound to tell a different story than the video subjects had originally told, much like Breitbart had done with Sherrod in 2010.
In a particularly cruel twist of fate, black women Democrats in bright red Northwest Florida had these types of videos sent to them. The videos portrayed Hillary Clinton as a racist, with the intention of persuading the women not to vote at all. It worked.
Cambridge Analytica didn’t have to persuade anyone to vote for a candidate, they only had to convince them not to vote at all. Details on how they did it in this NY Times article. This became a lethal weapon against democracy.
After Trump’s victory in the 2016 election, Bannon took a leave of absence from Breitbart News and joined the Trump Campaign. Later he became the CEO of the campaign.
Flood the Zone – Another Weapon Against Democracy
After the 2016 election, Trump created the role of Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor for Bannon. In 2018, Steve Bannon took his aim at who he considered to be the real enemy. It is reported that he said this:
“The Democrats don’t matter. The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”Via Vox.
Instead of reinforcing a consistent narrative, zone-flooding overwhelms information seekers with an avalanche of news. It exhausts them to the point that they don’t (can’t) pay attention anymore. Have you felt that way during political news cycles? I know I sure have.
This is just a continuation of the work started by Breitbart, but on grander scale. And the social media platforms have made it even easier to use flooding the zone as a weapon against democracy.
On the major platforms, it is possible to create content specifically for certain types of people. Marketers call this marketing to personas, but political groups can use the same marketing tools. The specific messages are created just like Breitbart did when he crafted the story unjustly vilifying Sherrod.
The field of marketing and PR has been completely co-opted by this faction. Bannon and his followers use the tools of these professions as weapons in the perceived culture wars. But in lead up to the elections of 2020, they went a step further.
After the 2016 elections, people got wise to the threat of marketing and PR tools being used to spread misinformation and discourage voters from coming to the polls. Voters were warned that they would be discouraged from voting, but to ignore this and exercise their right.
In 2020, voters came out in record numbers for the November 3rd election. And despite a pandemic and much disinformation, voters showed up at the polls. What would the play be if the misinformation didn’t work to discourage voters?
Just like the aftermath the Sherrod debacle, the teams wielding information as a weapon against democracy evolved. This time they focused their efforts on community building.
Trump launched a Trump Army site requesting his supporters to help him win the war at the polls. Many people were were afraid goons would show up at the to physically intimidate voters at polling sites. But of course that wasn’t the plan!
Crowdsourcing the Building Blocks of Misinformation
Instead of using strong arm tactics, supporters who volunteered for Trump’s Army were instructed to take videos and call in details if they saw voter fraud. This should be a great thing! More citizens involved in the electoral process theoretically makes for a stronger democracy.
Unfortunately, this group that wants to change the culture now has a decade of experience crafting misinformation content for the campaigns. Their favorite weapon against democracy is to explode small misunderstandings and use them as groundswell collateral to flood the zone.
This thread from Twitter user Justin Hendrix has great insight into how they did this during the 2020 election cycle:
In this article, Hendrix outlines six misinformation threats we will see in the post-election period. One of them is the danger of “an army of Trump “election observers” that produce a trove of “evidence” that obsesses the right for years”.
There are already examples of how this army, armed with smartphones, have provided the raw story for big news stories like mail-in ballot misinformation in Sonoma County, recounting ballots per procedure because of election software glitches, or a poll worker who threw away voting instructions a voter mistakenly sent back with their ballot.
Each of these stories were problems that poll workers are trained to take care of, but each were blown into something controversial. Simply put, citizens saw something that wasn’t quite right, and the Trump Army generals took the information and crafted it into a misinformation story.
PR, Marketing, and Community for Evil
The stories are all part of a marketing campaign to discredit votes. The PR players are blowing it into news stories that dominate the cycle. This is what Breitbart did to Sherrod, but on a much grander level with even higher stakes.
These citizens are being used to farm nuggets that become ammunition for the zone. And that zone is 100% FUD – fear, uncertainty, and doubt.
This citizens with real election responsibilities have now been burdened with fighting the garbage that is in the zone. These public servants stepped up to clear up the misinformation in order to calm confused and scared everyday people. They did this in addition to their post-election duties.
Maybe slowing down the recount part of the strategy in this battle? Was that the real weapon against democracy deployed?
I find it very sad that the field I thought would democratize information has been overtaken by those who are intent on controlling the future of our country. They have been at it for a decade now, and they are better at PR and community than many tech companies.
Probably the saddest part of this for me is that people who were asked to do this reporting did so out of a true sense of patriotism. They felt they found their community and found a way to contribute. They may not yet understand that they were used by the same elites that they despise.
The only way out of this situation is digital literacy. You must know how to evaluate and consume digital information. The big media organizations must also get smart about fighting the garbage in the zone. Who knows how this will evolve if they are given another 4 years to harden their strategy.