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Heroes and Villains

Every good story needs a hero and a villain. Smart political strategists turn elected officials into characters. Their boss (and his/her supporters) are the hero. The opposition is the villain.

But the Trump Administration has a problem. Who is their villain? Democrats in Congress hold no political power. There’s nothing and no one to villainize. Trump still loves to villainize Hillary Clinton, but she’s not leading the opposition and isn’t all that visible. The White House has tried making the media their new villain, but that hasn’t really worked either. You can’t force the narrator to cast themselves as the villain, and it turns out they get really pissed off when you attempt it.

So this week, the President is trying something new: blame Obama. Trump is now blaming Obama both for the anti-White House protests and all the leaks. Yesterday, he took his Obama-blaming to new heights in an early morning tweetstorm where he accused Obama of personally ordering a wiretap of his phones during the campaign. Of course, he has no evidence for any of this, but as we know by now, a lack of credible evidence isn’t a hindrance.

This isn’t coming out of nowhere. Obama shadow government conspiracy theories have long been a part of the so-called alt-right’s conversation online. They’re convinced he’s still meddling in the administration, staying in DC not because of his youngest daughter’s school, but to run a shadow government. Tabloid author Ed Klein has been the most mainstream spokesperson for this theory, and Fox News even aired a segment with him making his case for it in December. This week, right wing media outlets have all run stories claiming that Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett moved into the Obama’s current home, something Klein claimed would happen back in December. Yesterday’s tweetstorm was more than likely inspired by a story Breitbart ran late Friday night calling on Congress to investigate Obama’s supposedly “silent coup” against Trump.

But while the frog squad are obsessed with Obama’s supposed shadow government, no one else cares. And Obama’s few appearances since leaving office have been mostly apolitical. He’s vacationed with Richard Branson, and taken his daughter to a Broadway show. These are not the images of a man running a shadow government. As villains go, Obama is the least believable one Trump has come up with.

The GOP congress faces a similar villain problem. For the last eight years, their only strategy was to oppose the first black president, and repealing Obamacare was their call to action. But now that Obama is gone, many of their base have lost their appetite for repeal. The Freedom Caucus has decided to look within to find their villain and Paul Ryan is their fall guy. They don’t even know what Ryan’s ACA replacement plan is, but they’ve already dubbed it Ryancare.

Their villain crisis is our opportunity. Donald Trump makes for a perfect villain, and the Republican congress his buffoonish henchmen. But who is our hero? We have the same problem in that Democrats have little power or influence at the moment. But in an age where faith in institutions is at an all-time low, and local activism is surging, I don’t think an elected official, even a beloved one, is the right hero for this moment.

The heroes are all of those Americans demanding town halls, organizing to protect vulnerable populations, fighting on the front lines to combat hate crimes. As I’ve written before, Trump’s campaign amplified supporters online and as a result, gave them validation. We can and we should adopt this tactic. Our heroes aren’t fighting the good fight in DC. They’re the ones pushing DC politicians (both Democrat and Republican) to do the right thing. If Donald Trump is the villain, everyday Americans who have stepped up to resist Trump are the heroes.

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Misinformation and Disinformation

Last weekend, I attended the #Misinfocon summit at MIT Media Lab and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism. They brought together a well-curated group of people which included journalists, technologists, and activists, among others to discuss problems associated with fake news and work on projects that would help solve it.

One thing that was particularly helpful for me: clarifying the difference between misinformation and disinformation. I’ve been using the terms interchangeably but the distinction is important. First Draft News presented a pretty thorough breakdown of the misinformation ecosystem that includes types of content and motivations for disseminating it. It’s a good resource for wrapping your head around fake news, and made for a good overall frame #misinfocon attendees.

Obviously, we didn’t solve the problem of fake news in one weekend. We barely scratched the surface. But I came away with three takeaways:

  • Activists need a way to share best practices globally. Media folks are already doing this. Certainly, the so-called alt-right is doing this. But when it comes to progressive activism, I feel like we’re still flying a bit blind. I’m not sure what this method of sharing looks like, but I’m convinced it’s needed.
  • There was some talk about pressuring ad networks to remove fake news sites from their rotation. This got me thinking a lot about fake news as a form of persuasion. In 2016, as a consultant I encountered a lot of skepticism from clients about the value of non-video persuasion ads. Now I find myself wondering how much that skepticism cost Democrats elections. As campaigns are thinking through their ad budgets for 2018, countering unregulated disinformation has to figure in how they allocate their resources.
  • I worry that there’s too much overall focus on the end result of dis- and misinformation. By the time misinformation reaches your right wing uncle’s Facebook page, it’s too late to do anything about it. You’re not going to convince him it isn’t true. How do we cut off dissemination networks at the source? How do we stop fake news from spreading at all?

If you’re interested in others’ thoughts on #misinfocon some of the participants have included their own takeaways on Medium.

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Shiny and New!

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That’s all until next time. Thanks as always to Nicole Belle, who copy edits this newsletter every week.