Let’s Get This Started Again (Slow Social Media Newsletter)
It’s been a while.
Things got… overwhelmingly busy (and they still are to be honest) so I had to pause this for a while. But with the US election coming up in a few weeks, it feels right to crank this engine into gear again for a while. It’s a ridiculously uncertain time.
With COVID capturing our attention through 2020, I thought we’d have your usual, you know, batshit crazy US election. But the news of Trump’s positive COVID test has seen a rise in conspiracy thinking and misinformation that I think only compares to the death of Jeffrey Epstein in recent years. Yes, even after a year of head-melting COVID-denialism.
So let’s try this again, shall we? The goal, like before, is to reflect on the week in all its “fast news” and try to synthesise it together with some curation. It’s a useful exercise for me, and I’d love to hear how it can be more useful for you.
Previously I was putting loads of links in. It’s hard not to do that because I come across so much of this as part of my work with Kinzen. But with a narrower focus on the US election for the next few weeks this may feel like a more focused digest. Thoughts welcome!
TRUMP and COVID
As I said earlier, the last 36 hours or so has seen a sheer quantity of conspiracy thinking that’s breathtaking to behold. (Not in a good way.)
There’s been accusations from both Left and Right about this that are totally unfounded. Here’s a short synopsis of claims that I wrote for work on Friday morning: Trump is not in fact positive but playing a long con; Trump infected himself to prove that hydroxychloroquine works as a treatment; Democrats infected him purposely; Trump infected himself to avoid further debates; Trump infected himself as an attempt to infect Biden at the recent debate; and so on. And that’s not to mention all the QAnon folks who believe this is the beginning of The Storm.
Jane Lytvynenko of Buzzfeed has compiled all the false and misleading information about Trump’s diagnosis here if you’re looking for a thorough understanding of all the bullshit that’s flying around the internet about this.
Postal Voting and Project Veritas
It’s been clear for some time that the key misinformation narrative for the election is about mail-in ballots. Trump himself and the (official and unofficial) Trump campaign have been shouting about this as loudly as possible for weeks if not months now. Of course, all the fact checkers and political scientists will tell you that in reality there is a small chance of errors, just like there is with in-person voting. But it’s nowhere near the level described by Trump et al. And in times of a global pandemic, surely being able to post in your vote makes perfect sense for a lot of people, particularly those who are vulnerable to the disease. (Like Trump and many of his voters.)
So it was interesting this week to watch Project Veritas drop their latest “sting”. They have a history of peddling conspiracies and misleading information so most newsrooms were careful not to cover their claims without doing a more thorough investigation. What was even more interesting about this case is the timing. It was dropped just at the time that the New York Times published an explosive report into Trump not paying his taxes for 10 out of the last 15 years. So, yeah, that’s interesting. Also interesting that, in alleging voter fraud, the story attacked Ilhan Omar, a Muslim woman of colour.
One of the earliest debunks of the Project Veritas story came from Popular Information, which is authored by Jedd Legum. Yes, he has a liberal point of view, but his points were useful nonetheless.
I always look for local sources of news when it comes to issues like this. The local Fox affiliate in Minnesota reported that there was “scant evidence” for the claims made by Project Veritas.
Then researchers at Stanford University and the University of Washington reported that the whole thing was likely part of a coordinated disinformation campaign. (This is a good read if you’re interested in how these things go viral after being posted by “superspreaders” like Donald Trump Jr.)
I tweeted about this episode earlier in the week, noting that at the time the Veritas video had 3.2 million views on Twitter. Meanwhile, the big “Trump Taxes” story was pounced on by the Biden campaign, but its corresponding video had only 2.4 million views. For many journalists and people who follow mainstream news, the Trump Taxes story was HUGE. But the Project Veritas video was even bigger for the percentage of the population who’ve sworn away from anything mainstream. (At time of writing the Biden ad has 4 million views; the Veritas video has nearly 6 million.)
All this, and we haven’t even got to the debate yet.
And Trump’s comments about the violent group the Proud Boys. When he told them to “stand back and stand by” there was much celebration within the Telegram group of the far-right neo-fascist male-only movement, as they quickly updated their logo to feature the quote. They quickly started selling t-shirts with the phrase “Proud Boys Standing By.” When you piece together the postal voting misinformation, the possibility for uncertainty on the night of the election, and violent militias emboldened by Trump’s dog whistles, it’s fair to feel anxious about what could possibly happen in America in a few weeks if Trump refuses to accept the result.
As for the debate itself, there were all sorts of claims going around about Biden wearing an earpiece and getting the questions early, but that feels like centuries ago now.
As for fact checking the debate itself, Politifact has a round up here.
Talk to you again next week.