Hamburgers, Fauci and election fraud: how Biden World fights disinformation
No one would have expected the President to answer the question differently. Anthony Fauci is his chief advisor on the Covid-19 pandemic, a famous expert in infectious diseases and, for much of his long career, one of the most trusted voices in all of government. For the White House, however, the fact that the question was even asked raised alarm bells.
Conservatives on social media for more than a year had embarked on efforts to discredit Fauci. Increasingly, these efforts have relied on exaggerations, false claims and outright conspiracies. Now it had gone from the sidelines to a presidential forum.
“Raising this question is [the result of] a successful smear campaign, ”said Tim Durigan, the DNC’s senior analyst on its anti-disinformation program, said of a large online attack on Fauci that included calling him a war criminal. “For a mainstream journalist to raise the idea that the president does not trust Dr. Fauci is a victory” for those who intend to spread disinformation.
In the immediate term, attacks on Fauci’s credibility posed problems for the White House, which relied on the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to fight vaccine hesitation.
On a broader level, he exemplified a larger obstacle that the administration was forced to face. Misinformation was rampant during the Biden era. It has arisen around big issues (the biggest area of disinformation the White House Biden has focused on is reluctance to vaccinate), existential (the so-called “Big Lie” – that Biden fraudulently won his election. of 2020 – is the main one) and small (for a brief period, the White House pushed back reports that it intended to ration people’s hamburger consumption).
It’s a pervasive problem that Democrats believe they need to grapple with aggressively in 2022 and 2024. And it’s an issue the White House is not addressing on its own. Externally, allied organizations have taken on different roles in monitoring and determining the content consumed on social media.
Tackling disinformation (false) and disinformation (false intentions) can be a large-scale endeavor that requires intense and meticulous social media monitoring. It also means grappling with social media platforms, which can create First Amendment issues for the White House, if seen to be trying to restrict content.
Building Back Together, an advocacy group closely linked to Biden, has taken on the role of tackling social media groups, including Facebook, on behalf of the White House, in an ongoing effort to prevent bogus election narratives from the platform. -form. The DNC has undertaken more hand-to-hand fighting in defense of Biden and other Democrats, as well as following emerging themes it has identified as building momentum on the Right.
One of these focal points is critical race theory. The academic concept of civil rights scholars was barely an oversight on social media in 2020. But since January, there have been 25 million interactions involving critical race theory on Facebook, according to a DNC analysis. Discussions of transgender sports have also dominated conservative sites, said Durigan, aiming to stir up fears that a decree signed by Biden protecting transgender people from discrimination “would destroy women’s sport”.
The DNC and BBT both call ‘the big lie’ – the misconception perpetuated by former President Donald Trump and his supporters that Biden was not legitimately elected president – one of the most common examples of misinformation circulating online.
BBT is monitoring social media companies and recently asked Facebook to launch a full review of its platform’s role in the run-up to the deadly Jan.6 insurgency on the U.S. Capitol. A senior BBT adviser has described the group’s role of holding platforms like Facebook accountable as Democrats enter midway through 2024. That means discussing Facebook’s response to its complaints that it is not moving far enough. quickly to remove false information.
BBT regularly informs White House officials of the group’s latest data, according to the adviser, including the evolving story of the fraudulent elections. The adviser stressed that while there are political ties between the group and the White House, it does not act as an arm of the White House.
Bob Bauer, the lawyer who heads the voting rights program for BBT, said the group considered the most dangerous false story on social media to be the claim that “the electoral process is corrupt.” Bauer, who advised Biden’s presidential campaign and was the White House attorney for former President Barack Obama, described a “reinforcement loop” that lives on on social media platforms, pushing theories that elections are rigged. Left unchecked, he added, they could contribute to a “dangerous corrosion of confidence in democratic institutions”.
Biden’s strategy in the White House is reminiscent of that of the Biden campaign: to let extreme plots or lies live in the dark corners of the internet, with the belief that tackling such claims head-on will not. will only support them.
This does not mean a hands-off approach, however. The White House’s Office of Digital Strategy employs around two dozen staff who work to monitor and, if necessary, combat disinformation, including by encouraging different sites to check for fake content. In most cases, their mandate is to push back the lies by ensuring a constant flow of factual and positive information on social media platforms.
“For us, it’s about making sure that we are delivering content in a really aggressive way and that we are sharing our posts in places where there is a lot of misinformation, both on our channels and on the channels people are using. who are among those audiences trust, ”said Rob Flaherty, director of the White House’s Office of Digital Strategy. “The best lever that we will have in terms of disinformation will be to spread our message and our story in the ecosystem. We built a robust digital operation in the White House specifically for this. “
In the Fauci case, the White House did not flood its social media pages with corrections and defenses after posting earlier emails – obtained through the Freedom of Information Act – in which it expressed its skepticism at the start of wearing the mask and was pressed on the origins of the coronavirus. Instead, Biden offered his personal endorsement and soon after, Fauci traveled to New York with First Lady Jill Biden, where they held events encouraging Americans to get vaccinated.
Durigan said DNC data showed a wide spread of lies about Fauci. But the committee did not see it as its role to jump in the middle of this fray, since Fauci is not a political figure.
During the presidential election, the Biden campaign chose not to engage heavily in attacks involving Hunter Biden, primarily, Durigan said, because the narrative “stayed on the right.” Likewise, the campaign has had to deal with edited videos of Biden, trying to portray him as cognitively impaired. The way to combat this, Durigan said, was not to correct them but to spread positive images of Biden on social media.
“They paste the video and make it look like the president is having trouble speaking,” he said. The platforms usually remove fake videos on their own, said Durigan. But it was just as important and arguably more effective, Durigan said, to broadcast a video of Biden fighting former Donald Trump in debates.
As 2022 approaches, however, the DNC pulled its disinformation program out of a separate operation and merged it into the communications store, recognition of the daily fights to come.
The DNC has also become more involved in other areas, including with information on vaccines and allegations of fraudulent election results. Sometimes, said Durigan, that means talking to social media platforms about fake news that prominently feeds algorithms. Sometimes that means holding back despite the urge to engage.
“When you respond, you amplify it,” Durigan said. “You must choose your battles.”