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WINS 2020 Election Roundtable Part 4 – Partisan Media Eco-Systems & Disinformation As A Threat To Democracy

This discussion is one segment of a multi-part series centered around the 2020 Presidential Election.

Interviews have been transcribed from a digital roundtable that took place on 11/19 that included panelists, Democratic pollsters, and WINS team members Bernard Whitman and Matt McDermott.  The roundtable was moderated by Scott Kotchko.

SCOTT:  A lot of times in politics we talk about the candidates, about the message.  But one thing that seems increasingly important and is asymmetrical across parties is the actual mechanisms we have to deliver our candidates, our messages, and our narratives to voters.  And this worries me, because when you look at what Fox News has become, when you look at the network of Brietbart-style right-wing outlets that can launder partisan misinformation into the Fox News ecosystem and therefore the media writ-large, and then mix in GOP social, digital communities, and things like QAnon – you literally have an entire closed eco system that isn’t just about getting a message out a week before the election, or asking for fundraising dollars, but fundamentally about indoctrinating wide swaths of the American population.

Meanwhile Democrats have, what?  Digital fundraising, Pod Save America and a bunch of centrist major newspapers that are only readable behind a paywall?

There is a question in here, I promise.  How big of a concern is this?  And what should Democrats do about it?  Rail against it?  Or fight fire with fire?

MATT:   These are issues not just facing the Democratic Party, but the future of our democracy.  I call them The Two Fs – Fox and Facebook.  If Democrats don’t get serious about substantial efforts to undermine the effectiveness of these two platforms in propagating disinformation, our democracy is really on the brink of ruin.

I don’t mean that metaphorically.  It is an honest, objective, candid assessment of the situation we are in right now, where millions of Americans in this country get false, fake, libelous, lying information just served right up to them through Fox News which has tens of millions of viewers across the country, and Facebook, which we’re all on and is completely unregulated.

So I think the incoming Biden Administration is going to have to look long and hard at figuring out a system for regulation of these social media companies.  There are a few members of Congress like David Cicilline who have been active in trying to figure out what a regulatory system could look like in this space.

On the Fox News question…Democrats have tried for years to build some counterbalance to Fox and the megaphone it provides the Republican Party.  And I don’t believe its feasible.  You’d need billions of dollars to make it happen, and I don’t believe there’s an appetite on the left, its just now how we consume information.  So the only alternative is to delegitimize Fox as a news organization.  The Biden Administration should bar them from the press room.  They are not a news network, and we should stop pretending they are.

BERNARD:  The Democrats also need to learn how to play long games.  We tend to think about the next election, and not as much about building for the long-term.

We didn’t counter the decades-long GOP plans to control state legislatures (and therefore voting and redistricting), nor the judiciary.  We aren’t really thinking long-term about the fight against misinformation.

Democrats need to think not about 12-18 month efforts, but three, five, ten years down the road when it comes to countering Fox and disinformation, and establish more effective communications eco-systems of our own.

There will be opportunities here, by the way.  As Donald Trump exists the presidency, he’s likely to seek to destroy Fox News and establish his own smaller, more rabid, more hyper-partisan news network.  And this could fracture the right-wing news apparatus.

SCOTT:  Part of me worries about digital strategy and organizing on the Democratic side.  It ends up being so transactional, so campaign-based, so tech-focused rather than voter-focused.  We scale it up every cycle, tear it down the day after the election, and pretend that resulting mailing lists, and next-cycle snake oil are worth their weight in gold.

Meanwhile, here’s QAnon.  It’s a conspiracy theory!  But it really appeals to a lot of people with serious doubts about the direction of the country and their role in a changing America.  And it tells you, hey don’t worry – there’s a bunch of stuff going on behind the scenes, its gonna be OK but we need your help. You have a role!  It’s total bullshit, but it’s a damn compelling story and its exposing you to a worldview that canonizes Donald Trump and the Republicans.

My point is that things like QAnon are incredibly effective propaganda – and propaganda has been part of politics for centuries.

MATT:   What the right is doing is propaganda.  The conspiracy theories are propaganda.  They’re using disinformation to sow discord, distrust, and build an appetite for lunatic conspiracy theories.

Democrats should absolutely NOT seek to “copy and paste” this approach.

The lesson we should learn, though, is to have an always-on strategy.

It’s what Trump did, in my opinion smartly, immediately after winning the 2016 election.  They literally announced their reelection campaign the next day.

SCOTT:   They got made fun of for it, but it was brilliant. Or maybe obvious.  Regardless…

MATT:   That always-on is something Democrats need to adopt. It is unacceptable that we don’t mobilize or engage voters outside of election cycles.

It’s unacceptable, to me at least, right now, that there are no efforts underway in the Democratic Party to mobilize a group of grassroots people who are obviously infuriated by the fact that Donald Trump is reporting to have won this election when he didn’t. Or threatening martial law to stay in power.

There’s no effort underway to mobilize those people in some sort of constructive way – and that’s political malpractice.  We need an always-on strategy to harness the power of our people to make meaningful change.


Continue to Part 5:  Should Nancy Pelosi Be Speaker?  And The House Dems’ Diversity Problems