It’s time to counter Trump’s disinformation in Texas

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A year out from the 2020 election, one side has the camo face paint on, weapons loaded, and tanks gassed up. The other side is still getting suited up.   

Team Trump and its phalanx of MAGA soldiers are furiously pumping out information sewage into battleground states, including Texas, through digital advertising. 

“Mr. Trump is not just spending heavily on advertising [$26 million so far nationally on Facebook and Google] he is also benefiting from a conservative media echo chamber that amplifies his message,” reported the New York Times this week. 

To begin combatting Trump’s always-on media machine, a new $75 million digital ad effort in key battleground states by the progressive group Acronym is welcome news for Democrats. Not enough are woke to the fact that you can’t cede the digital terrain to Trump and his motley crew of Republicans.

“We’re absolutely, as a party, not doing enough and I don’t know that $75 million is enough,” Tara McGowan, Acronym’s founder and chief executive, told the Times. “We can’t afford to not do this work right now.”

Progressives in other battleground states, like Texas, should — must — get into the media game in a more significant way. Trump is underperforming here. Nearly half of voters in a recent Texas Tribune/University of Texas poll want Trump not just impeached but removed from office. And his approval ratings in the state have plummeted 18 points since taking office.

Information warfare

Bald-faced lies, misinformation and disinformation in American politics is nothing new. Conservative talk radio and outside groups — remember the “Swiftboat Veterans for Truth,” funded by a Texan, that helped take down presidential candidate John Kerry? — used to be the big purveyors of poisonous propaganda. Now, the Republican presidential campaign itself is unabashedly joining the ranks. 

According to a tally by the Signal, Team Trump ran more than 100 variations of impeachment-related Facebook ads in a 24-hour period in Texas. One completely false ad claimed an “overwhelming number of Americans” oppose impeachment and cast Joe Biden as the corrupt one in the Ukraine imbroglio. Since March, in fact, Trump has spent $1.1 million on digital ads in Texas — the most of any state in the country, according to Bully Pulpit Interactive.

It’s not just the president playing on Texas’ digital terrain. A U.S. government report uncovered a Russian-led disinformation campaign here intent on influencing the 2016 election. And what the Russians did isn’t dissimilar from what our state’s GOP leaders and conservative political groups do: kick and scream about nonexistent voter fraud, constantly smear transgender people, and promote dangerous anti-vaxxer views.

“Disinformation almost always hits its target because the target — you, me, everyone–rises up to meet it,” Richard Stengel, former Obama Administration fighter of global disinformation and, prior to that, editor of Time, writes in his new book. “Social scientists call this confirmation bias… The internet is the greatest delivery system for confirmation bias in history.” 

In politics, truth doesn’t always prevail, and, even when it does, that doesn’t mean Democrats win elections. The famous line “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes” has never been more relevant.

The hard reality is that perceptions matter more than single facts and data points. Those perceptions are shaped through the cumulative avalanche of daily internet churn from videos, memes and news sites. Whoever is louder and has an emotionally compelling message is more likely to prevail.

So what to do about it?

We can’t turn the spigot of sludge off. And Facebook refuses to do it, given its criminal policy of allowing the Trump campaign to pay to lie on their platform. But that doesn’t mean liberals don’t fully engage on Facebook and the other major platforms where voters are in 2020. As the battle that Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, and others are waging against the company continues, progressives must meet the challenge head on by going on offense with our own massive digital ad campaign. The goal would be to counter Trump’s disinformation and paint him, his policies, and his values as bad for Texas. 

Yes, that takes a real financial investment in a state as big as Texas, but it’s a helluva lot cheaper, more efficient, more effective, and more measurable than running TV ads statewide. 

Even though it’s said frivolously every four years that a presidential election is the “most important of our lifetimes,” 2020 actually is. Time to suit up.

Photo: Oleg Chumakov/Getty Images

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