I often struggle to zero in on specific outrages in the Trump era. There’s just too much. Every day brings new destruction, new threats to democracy, and we’re almost inured to every bombshell report or embarrassing interview that would end any other presidency.
But focusing on a particular aspect within a narrow time frame — whether it’s voter suppression and intimidation tactics, the failure of the Republican-led Senate to govern, or right-wing propaganda — can bring a certain level of clarity. Finding an angle helps create a framework to organize thoughts.
Here, I chose to focus on disinformation on social media and how to cut off its oxygen. These three tweets, all in August, speak to my broader frustration about three particular trends: irresponsible social media companies (Eric Trump tweet); Republicans’ false Us vs. Them framing (Jim Jordan tweet); and media’s tendency to repeat lies, often on Twitter, under the guise of “balanced” reporting (The Hill tweet).
Verified Accounts Should Be Fact-Checked At The Most Basic Level
Eric Trump tweeted a bogus comparison of stock market figures during the Obama era and Trump era. The lie reached 3.9 million followers. And while the entire tweet was taken out of context — he cut Trump’s term at Jan. 2020 and the numbers reflect the country each man inherited — none of it captured the danger of social media, even without foreign interference, quite like this part:
Eric started Obama’s term in January 2008 and Trump’s term in January 2016. The problem is, Obama was not president in 2008; Bush was. Trump wasn’t president in 2016; Obama was. And given the state of the economy post-Bush compared to post-Obama — the 2009 Recovery Act sparked the longest period of expansion since 1939, after Obama inherited a recession — this intentional error is obviously relevant.
But even to those who are numb to the post-truth White House and dismiss this as a minor fib — our collective desensitization to lies is a terrifying sign in and of itself — the point is that Eric’s tweet shows how easy it is to lie about the most clear-cut facts to millions of people. It shouldn’t be this way.
Twitter must install stricter regulations for verified accounts lest prominent figures continue to spew lies with its help. This isn’t new, of course — in fact there’s a direct line from our broken information ecosystem to the rise of a charlatan. But that doesn’t mean we should just accept social media’s flaws. Eric Trump’s tweet served as another reminder of how we got here. Twitter must do better.
(I’m glad smarter people are on the platform to push back, as former Obama speechwriter Cody Keenan expertly does here. That’s a critical step to combating disinformation. It’s a move executed well by many Obama alumni, including Ben Rhodes, Dan Pfeiffer, Samantha Power, and Jon Favreau. Still, they don’t have as big a megaphone as right-wing trolls like Eric Trump, so most of the damage is done by the time he hits send.)
Jim Jordan Shows Us How Republicans Rely on Fear and False Divides
Jim Jordan, a powerful Republican, is playing to the lowest common denominator. He’s accusing Americans of rooting for the consequences of COVID 19 and counting on voters to believe this ridiculous claim. This is a glimpse into the Right’s larger mission to divide and blame.
It’s a two-part strategy.
Part 1 aims to shift attention away from the cause of our crisis — an incompetent White House — to the disastrous results, i.e. mass death that’s led to closings and cancellations. Then Part 2 is to suggest that “Democrats,” en masse, are behind each closing and cancellation in society. Diversion then divisiveness.
Rather than focusing on what’s real and important — a health crisis, exacerbated by failed leadership — Jordan turns it all into a culture war in which a monolithic Left is conspiring to upend the white Christian lifestyle. Put another way, a prominent House leader is exploiting a mismanaged crisis to pit people against each other. He’s not alone. Divisiveness is central to Trumpism, and sadly it can be effective.
Because while many see through the distractions, false divides can take root if left unchallenged. And they often are, because if an elected official is acting responsibly, then by definition their energy is focused on mitigating the fallout from the crisis. They don’t have time to wade into Twitter fights.
But I do, so here’s my attempt to dismantle Jordan’s theory:
I’m a Democrat and I want football to start. Football is my favorite sport and was once the subject of my job in the media. There are millions of football fans in the Resistance — many of whom include elected officials, and many others whose income depends on the sport — and we’ll be as depressed as anyone if our favorite escape becomes a casualty of government incompetence. (And it goes without saying that Democrats don’t want schools or churches closed either, or any of what Jordan is saying to try to feed resentment and distract from reality.)
Joe Biden and NCAA Commissioners and School Boards are not working in concert. They’re following the science and heeding expert advice, which happens to lead to the same conclusion: America isn’t ready to return to normal. But none of us wants this outcome. If football is indeed canceled, it will be because the Trump administration thoroughly failed to control the outbreak. Jim Jordan doesn’t want you to remember that.
The Hill Must Do Better, Follow The Lead of The Post and Times
This is a prominent news organization repeating a lie, uttered in obvious bad faith, by Mitch McConnell.
There are mounds of evidence that contradict any notion that Republicans have “tried everything possible to find common ground and deliver more help” to struggling Americans. Yet The Hill parrots McConnell’s statement without adding a shred of context. This is journalistic malpractice, an example of the toxic desire to sound “unbiased” in the traditional sense during a time that requires more scrutiny.
Reporting what both sides said to achieve the false idol of “balance” is not fair coverage but rather an invitation for corrupt politicians to lie with impunity. They know journalists fear looking partisan, that they’ll strain to find a false equivalence to avoid it. Republicans have exploited this fear for years, leveling bad-faith opposition during the Obama era to a cooperative press.
But the Trump era should serve as a wakeup call. Too many journalists adhere to guidelines that were established when the powerful were forced to operate within a rubric of truth, when the need for earned-media exposure restrained their worst impulses. But the internet and Fox News and AM radio have changed that. Republicans can build a base without traditional coverage.
The new information ecosystem has given way to shameless lying, and complete crazies, at the highest levels of government. Journalists, then, must adjust how they operate to better cover government and politics. Luckily, reporters like Daniel Dale and the Washington Post’s Fact-Checking team have demonstrated it can be done, especially on Twitter.
The best newspapers — the Washington Post and New York Times — have also evolved as organizations. The Post White House team, led by incredible reporters like Philip Rucker and Ashley Parker, is exposing critical stories in vivid detail every day, without sidestepping facts or ignoring context to maintain false “balance.” The Post shows what journalism is at its best.
And though the Times still occasionally misleads with headlines, there are signs it’s progressing. Monday’s top story reflected that. Esteemed reporter Peter Baker’s hard news article, Trump as Candidate: Racist Attacks, Conspiracy Theories, War on the Post Office, read like our idea of an Op-Ed. And for good reason, because painting an accurate portrait of this presidency means recognizing the objective lies, incompetence, and corruption.
This is no longer a time when pushback should be viewed as editorializing. News outlets like The Hill should follow the lead of the Post and Times. A good start would be to nix the practice of quoting without offering context.
(Check out the sites below for state-by-state info on how to register, request absentee ballots, vote safely, or even volunteer.)