Amy Walter: It's Politics with Amy Walter on The Takeaway. Good to be with you all. Wisconsin was the epicenter for 2020 politics this week. President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden both visited the city of Kenosha which, of course, has been rocked by weeks of violence in the wake of the shooting of an unarmed Black man, Jacob Blake, by police officers. Not surprisingly, Trump and Biden delivered very different messages.
Joe Biden: The idea that this President continues to try to divide us give succor to the white supremacist, talks about how there's really good people on both sides, talks in ways that are just absolutely, I've never used this regarding the President before, not only incorrect but immoral and just simply wrong.
President Donald Trump: You take a look what's been happening for the last 94 days. We would put it out within one hour. It would take one hour, maybe less. That's really what happened here and it happened in Minneapolis also. Came in-- It went for nine days and we came in. It ended almost from the minute we came in.
Amy: Now, these last two weeks have provided President Trump the best opportunity to reset a race in which he's been badly trailing Biden all summer. His Republican convention offered a rosy and inaccurate portrayal of a president who effectively tackled the coronavirus pandemic. Both during and since the convention, Republicans and the President have focused intensely on the unrest in Kenosha, arguing that it was a snapshot into what the country would look like with Joe Biden in the White House. Polls released this week show that, for now at least, Trump's attempts at a reset have failed. Biden's lead is anywhere from seven to 10 points, not much different from where the race stood in early August. To talk through all of this and more, I sat down with Maya King, politics reporter at Politico; and Katie Glueck, national politics reporter for The New York Times. Here's Katie.
Katie Glueck: Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden headed to Kenosha this week and put forward radically different visions about how to confront questions of law enforcement and racial injustice. President Trump went first and his focus was really heavily on questions of law enforcement, on what he cast as chaos in the streets. He did not meet with the family of Jacob Blake. He was dismissive of questions around systemic racism and he really tailored his message to focus on law enforcement. Biden went there a couple of days after President Trump did and he sought to engage perhaps a broader audience. Certainly, he nodded to law enforcement. He condemned the degree to which any protests have on either side veered into violence, but he also made a really concerted appeal to Black voters. He met with Jacob Blake's family. He spoke with Mr. Blake by phone. He offered a really forceful promise to dismantle systemic racism should he become president.
Amy: It's interesting, Katie, there were calls really almost from the beginning for Joe Biden to go to Kenosha. He did, obviously, but not until after Trump had gone. What was the thinking from the Biden campaign about going there now?
Katie: Sure. Of course, Biden has been extremely cautious about his travel during the pandemic. With the exception of the campaign stops in his home state of Delaware and in neighboring Pennsylvania, we really have not seen him get out there much since March when the coronavirus pandemic shuttered the campaign trail. Biden himself has said that he would like to be out there more, but he's very conscious of trying to set a good example. That's part of his message, setting a good example for taking this virus seriously, social distancing, wearing a mask. His team has certainly been very critical of the big rallies that Donald Trump had over the summer. At the same time, we were certainly hearing, during the Republican National Convention and after, a number of Joe Biden's allies making the case that he does need to be getting out there more, especially they felt that he needed to be pushing back a little bit more directly on some of the characterizations of Biden that the Republicans were making around his approach too as they put in law-and-order issues. A combination of those dynamics, but also really the calendar. Biden had said that he had intended to get out into these swing states more vigorously after Labor Day. This searing event came into view and they ended up accelerating that.
Amy: Maya, I want to talk about this question too that Katie's answer sort of amplified as well. It's how the national media seems to have framed the issue of Kenosha as a campaign issue. It's mostly been around this question of how the violence we're seeing there, but also in Portland, is going to impact swing voters, which is really code for white voters. It seems like there's been very little attention paid to the ways in which what we're seeing in Kenosha or other cities around the country are impacting Black voters. How do you see it?
Maya King: Well, it's interesting. I think you're right to point out that a lot of times, the conversation around swing voters really is referring to white voters. That's a coalition or, excuse me, a demographic that has really been added in a large number to Biden's coalition. Politico has polling with Morning Consult that shows even as support for Black Lives Matter has fallen from June to now, to September, by about nine points, Biden still has a significant lead over President Trump on the issue of race. I think that's an important thing to point out because African Americans still remain a very strong demographic for the former vice president. I think African-American voters have long pointed out the issues in policing and in public safety, have long been calling for changes to the criminal justice system. It's an issue that Democrats have certainly given a lot of lip service to but haven't necessarily acted upon really with significant policy changes in many years, arguably many decades. I think also what makes Joe Biden's trip to Kenosha so significant is that he's really leaning into, of course, his retail politics skills by making sure that he's engaging with Black voters and voters in that area. He's also calling the thing what it is, which is something that President Trump has not really been able to capture, which is the real existence of systemic racism and then taking that a step further by saying, not only does he plan to acknowledge the existence of this issue but that he plans to, in his administration and the Biden administration, address and rectify these issues, which is really, again, I think, a very significant moment for him in his campaign. Because a number of Black voters, particularly at the margins, I'm thinking about African-American men, in particular, are still very familiar with what this ticket represents. As a former prosecutor on the vice-presidential slot and, of course, the architect of the '94 crime bill is the presidential pick.
Amy: Now, that's a really good point, Maya. Also, I think a lot of us, especially those of us who grew up in 1990s politics, what we would have seen from another Democratic candidate going to Kenosha would be leaning in almost exclusively on, as Katie said, pushing back on this question about whether the Democrat is soft on crime and spending very little time talking about systemic racism. What you were saying is, actually, Joe Biden is doing both of those things, which is kind of rare for any candidate to be doing.
Maya: Yes, absolutely. Again, just these two candidates, Joe Biden and Donald Trump, could not be any more different. I think Kenosha is a really great example of just how fundamentally different these two men, these two leaders are. We have the law-and-order candidate, of course, in Donald Trump and the racial reconciliation candidate really in Joe Biden. Maybe that's a bit of a reach actually to call him that, but that is the message that he was pushing while in Kenosha. Of course, Katie can verify this, but it really seems as though that is what the campaign would like Biden and a Biden-Harris ticket to really be looked at as racial reconciliation. Let's figure out how we're going to make this better. Let's figure out exactly how we're going to tackle systemic racism and eradicate it or at least make conditions in this country easier and safer for African Americans.
Amy: Katie, do you think that we're going to see the vice-presidential nominee, Senator Harris, on the trail more talking about things like this?
Katie: Well, we just saw her featured in an ad that just came out this week that addressed matters around policing head-on. She was in that ad with Joe Biden. Certainly, she can speak from a different life perspective that she brings to the table. She's also a little bit more fluent as a California Senator in the language of the left, the language of the protest movement in a way that Joe Biden just isn't. They came up in different political environments, different political generations. Certainly, she is seen as someone who-- Certainly, she was a prosecutor, a former attorney general. Very much also a figure of the establishment in many ways, but she does bring a degree of comfort that's a little bit different in terms of engaging with protest movements, for example, in terms of how she talks about policing, and so it's really just kind of a different perspective that she brings there. It certainly seems that she may be out there. I know that the campaign sees her as someone who may well be helpful in helping the ticket connect in communities of color with African-American communities, Latino communities. Again, as a California Senator, have a lot of experience representing Latino voters and they believe that she may help them connect in communities in the West in particular. Of course, Arizona, Nevada will be very important. Definitely, as we see Joe Biden getting out there, I think it's fair to imagine we will start seeing more from Harris at some point as well.
Amy: Maya, just wrapping up these last past two weeks and the focus of the Trump campaign on the so-called law and order. He's been hammering this message now both during the convention and his trips to Kenosha and then interviews about, "Joe Biden's America is going to be a birding hellscape. You better elect me." Yet this week, we also got our first slew of real high-quality national polls that show Joe Biden's still with a pretty hefty lead. Is this just not working?
Maya: Well, coming out of the conventions, it was very clear that the message that Republicans have now decided to latch onto with President Trump is this idea of violence and unrest coming to your suburbs, which we know is a phrase and is an idea that is just loaded with lots of euphemisms and dog whistles. I think the reason why we see the polls still holding up in the face of these sort of scare tactics is because the voters are able to recognize that the future, the irony of the message that this is Biden's future America, of course, is the fact that we're looking at Trump's current America. The unrest that they're showing in the streets is happening under this current president. It doesn't really comfort or make any difference. I think now we know through the polls, that message doesn't really fly because folks are able to see, "Well, this is what's happening now under this current administration." It's still very unclear what the Trump administration's plan here is to alleviate a lot of this unrest and make sure that Americans do feel safe in their communities outside of just these blanket law-and-order statements and promises to punish protesters and looters and rioters to the highest extent of the law, which is also something that only a few people have really seen.
Amy: Yes. It's funny when you're an incumbent, how people expect you to do stuff. When you're the challenger, you can make a lot of promises. When you're the incumbent that's actually in front of voters all the time, voters are kind of smart. Katie, I want to pivot now to what we can expect for the next couple of months here. Labor Day weekend has, for so many years, been this unofficial kickoff to the campaign season even though this campaign feels like it's been going on for 125 years. Let's talk a little bit more about Joe Biden going on the campaign trail. Biden has been very reticent to hit the trail. Now, he's been to Kenosha, went to Western Pennsylvania. What is his schedule going to look like? Will all these interactions with voters in these states look similar where it's just like these small round tables, no rallies, no rope lines, things like that?
Katie: It's such a good question and an important question, especially for a candidate like Joe Biden, who is such a tactile politician. He loves the rope lines. He loves engaging with voters. If you saw earlier this week, he actually couldn't help himself and ended up shaking a campaign staffer's hand when he got to Wisconsin, and then later had to correct that and didn't shake someone else's hand. He's someone who so gets his energy from crowds that are responding to him. The degree to which he does have to be confined to smaller events does perhaps present a bit of a challenge. They've said that a lot of this seems to be a little bit of a work in progress, but he said that he does not intend to do the massive rallies that Trump is doing. They're very conscious of, again, this role model idea that as they seek at every turn to critique Donald Trump's stewardship of the coronavirus, he suggests that that shows all of, as he suggests, his failures of leadership. They feel that they cannot be the ones out there violating social distancing practices. They have to bear all of that in mind. At the same time, there does seem to be a recognition that he does need to start getting out there more. They've announced that he's headed to Michigan, that he's headed to an event in Pennsylvania. He has said that he's interested in going to places like Arizona, and then interestingly, also Minnesota was another state that he mentioned. Certainly, a work in progress. I don't know that we can expect to see those three-states-in-a-day type of campaigning approach that, certainly, we come to expect in other presidential elections where the candidate is just zipping all over the place just because there are so many more logistical details at play. Certainly, next month could look very different. What we do know for now is there is an interest from the candidate and from the campaign and getting out there in person more. We've certainly seen that interest reflected in a lot of congressional allies and other supporters of Biden who say that this is the time he does need to start getting on the ground. We will see more of that next week.
Amy: Maya, as you are thinking about these last 60 days, you have a president right now who is running behind. What is your expectation for what the Trump campaign does from here on out to try to catch up with Joe Biden?
Maya: Well, I think we'll see a lot of what we've already been seeing, and that there will be this continued effort to try to find a message and just latch onto it and ride it out for as long as possible, hoping that that moves the polls in any single direction. Right now, of course, with Kenosha front of mind for a number of voters that a line order message versus being soft on crime is something that I think is the campaign's goal or just one of the messages that they've really tried to lean into at this point. Depending on what September brings or even October really now that we're seeing a more ramped-up message on this potentially life-saving vaccine that could be coming very conveniently in time for November, I think that's something we can certainly expect the Trump campaign to really at least ramp up messaging on saying that, "It's coming, it's coming." That's something that, of course, will give, I think, some voters a sense of hope. At the same time, again, I think we have to also factor in the fact that voters have been watching this thing unfold along with the rest of us. I think a number of them, a majority even, I would argue, according to what we're seeing in the polls again are saying, "I'll believe this when I see it." I think these last 60 days are a lead-up to an election that is a referendum on a president's handling of the coronavirus, his handling on race and race relations. Just the general direction of the country and people's confidence in democracy at this point, I think, is really what we're looking at. Biden is leading on all of these referendum issues. It'll just be, I think, a continued march for the Trump White House to try to find something that is very concrete that they can latch onto, they can create ads for, that President Trump could tweet about to make this less an election of a referendum and more choice between two very different people.
Amy: Maya King, thank you very much. Katie Glueck, thank you.
Katie: Thank you.
Maya: Thanks for having me. [music]
Amy: Back-to-school time is normally a very busy time for campaign organizers who would be swarming college campuses looking to register new voters. As part of our continuing series about how COVID-19 has changed campaigns, I reached out to an organization who's been doing this sort of campus-organizing for years.
Jared DeLoof: NextGen is focused on three main things: voter registration, voter education, and then, ultimately, the turnout of young voters 18 to 35.
Amy: Jared DeLoof is the states director of NextGen America.
Jared: In a normal year, most of our organizing the course at about over 230 campuses where our organizers and our volunteers can be found all over campus, right? They are standing outside your classroom, outside your 8:00 AM with coffee and doughnuts. We're outside of your cafeteria in the afternoon. At some point maybe even later on the day, one of our volunteers will knock on your dorm door and ask you if you're registered to vote there yet. This, obviously, as with all things with COVID, it seems this year, has really been upended. With so many campuses being closed or being remote, we've moved to 100% virtual remote model for this year.
Amy: Talk to us about what 100% virtual looks like.
Jared: We'll show up in your Zoom. Instead of passing out a paper form, we will drop a link where you can register online or if you don't have online voter registration, find the actual form that you can print out later at the library and return yourself. Some of the other things are very new and very creative. When we get to work with 22, 23, 24-year-olds, there's tons of great ideas that folks have. Just recently, we actually have organizers and volunteers that have started creating dating profiles on popular apps like Bumble or Tinder and actually starting conversations with people on there about whether they're registered, how they can request a vote by mail ballot.
Amy: Wait a minute, wait a minute. Are you saying that you're just setting up fake accounts to say like, "Oh, hey, my name's Jared. Are you interested in learning about how to register to vote?" or are these people who are already on there?
Jared: These are people that are already on these apps. These are people that are already using them in their day-to-day life. Instead of maybe talking about the latest movie that you saw or what the weather is like or something fun you did on the weekend, making sure that you're including and part of the conversation, "Hey, this is a super important election. Have you registered yet and have you thought about how you're voting in a pandemic?" It's not just dating sites. It's any of the places which young people exist and go about their daily lives, whether that's for entertainment, whether that's for education, whether that's in their jobs.
Amy: Is there any way to measure though whether you are able to get these younger people registered to vote versus where you would be at this point in another universe where you were able to do this in person?
Jared: That's a great question and the answer is it is much more difficult. As opposed to where we would set up a table and pass out doughnuts and students would fill out a voter registration form where we're right there and can make sure that they sign in the right spot or that they put the date where it needs to be, we are having to turn a lot of that stuff back over to folks. However, we still largely contract this. We have an online platform set up where we can share that with everyone that we talk to. It's a link. You can drop into any sort of online conversation. The first thing that it does is it gathers the person's information and just checks whether they're registered or not. From there, they can go on. Either if they're not registered, they can register or get more information about voting. If they are registered, they can go and find out more information in their state about requesting a vote by mail or finding how to vote early in person or how to make a plan for how they're going to vote on election day. We really consider that our online platform is this one-stop shop.
Amy: How much work then are you all doing just educating about the process versus the kind of work that you'd be doing probably once they're signed up just getting them to turn out and vote?
Jared: Education is, I would say, 99% of everything we're doing right now. Our job is to turn young people out and get them to vote for the Democrats. We've made our argument there with these young people and we have won it. They are going to get out and support Democrats. The question really for us is, how do we make sure that they can vote? There's all sorts of questions, right? If my school doesn't come back but I registered there with you in 2018, what does that mean? It's really different kind for everybody. That requires a ton of work on our part and I think why we spend so much time investing in recruiting and training volunteers who are essentially other young people, these people's peers that can help them navigate some of this process. Our job is to make sure that we're providing folks with the tools and information to make the choice that's going to be, ultimately, the safest for them that makes sure that their vote gets counted this year.
Amy: Tell me what you are seeing about this interest and whether you are concerned that Joe Biden still has some work to do in order to get some of those younger voters and younger voters of color interested in registering and then turning out for him.
Jared: We just released our most recent youth tracking poll a few days ago here at the end of August. What we have found is that of young people, 18 to 35, who say that they are definitely voting this year, that number is at 77%. For a little bit of context, that same number at the similar point of time in 2016 was 69%. We have seen an eight-point jump. That's huge. Remember, Donald Trump won Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin by about 77,000 votes. This is that. This is that margin and so young people are definitely fired up. I think we are seeing actually that ever since the George Floyd protests and those sorts of things have happened in terms of both voter registration numbers and just the intensity that we're seeing, it is absolutely made effect in terms of young people really turning to politics as an avenue for them to make the change that they want to see. I can tell you just anecdotally. As we started to do more events really around taking action on issues of systemic racism and police brutality, those have been some of the most well-attended events that we've done throughout the year. This is a huge motivating issue for young people this year. I think given the way that Trump has conducted himself as a stoker and chief of the violence that's going on, I think there's no question about where those young people will place their vote this year that care about these issues.
Amy: After my conversation with Jared, I decided to check in with someone doing the on-the-ground work with students. Danielle Fitzgerald is the organizing director for NextGen Nevada. Prior to the pandemic, NextGen organizers would appear in classrooms on the UNLV campus. As classes have moved online, so has the organizing.
Danielle Fitzgerald: One area of our program that we'd be doing in person, class speeches where we'd be going in person to talk to students. Now that most classes are being held on Zoom, we're still contacting those professors to speak to their students, just not in the flesh.
Amy: They've had to get creative and meet students where they are.
Danielle: We hosted virtual animal-crossing rallies through the characters of our staff members and invited people on the game to come attend. I believe even one of our users had a little speech about why it's important to vote.
Amy: It's not only social distancing that has changed things. Inequities laid bare by the pandemic are also on the ballot.
Danielle: I think due to the pandemic, the conversations that we're having with our volunteers are a little more emotional because it seems like all of the issues that matter to us and are affecting us are on high, but I think that has also helped motivate people to get involved.
Amy: This is Politics with Amy Walter. Stick with us. We'll be right back. [music] [advertisement]
President Trump: We had somebody get on a plane from a certain city this weekend. In the plane, it was almost completely loaded with thugs wearing these dark uniforms, black uniforms with gear, and this and that. They're on a plane.
Laura Ingraham: Where is--
President Trump: I'll tell you sometime, but it's under investigation right now.
Amy: That's President Trump speaking on Monday with Fox News host Laura Ingraham. Trump's claim of a plane, "almost completely loaded with thugs," is a conspiracy theory. Something that started online a few months ago made its way like a toxic game of telephone to the President. Now, the idea that disinformation and conspiracy theories thrive online is nothing new. As the presidential election ramps up and we hear things like this coming out of the President's mouth, I wondered, has anything in this realm changed since 2016?
Ben Collins: I think the difference between now and 2016 is that this has become an industry unto its own.
Amy: That's Ben Collins, a reporter for NBC News covering disinformation, extremism, and the internet.
Ben: Disinformation is a very good and easy way for people to make money on the internet or to become famous on the internet. Back in 2016, that was only known really by foreign actors in a bunch of domestic trolls who didn't even really know that they could make money from it, who didn't really understand this is a cottage industry yet. Now, it's enormous. What you see on Facebook that is the most prevalent stuff is the most egregious and over-the-top hysterical things that you can push out. That was true in 2016, but the profit incentive was really only known by Macedonian teenagers. Now, it's known by pretty much everybody.
Amy: You're saying these are domestic influencers. These are folks that the Russians have set up. This is like homegrown people in this country who are basically, knowingly spreading conspiracy theories and misinformation so that they can make some money.
Ben: Yes. With QAnon specifically, that's probably the biggest-- that's the big ticket for 2020. It's the WikiLeaks plus Pizzagate. It's every possible combination of every conspiracy theory combined. It's like a hydra. It's the final-level boss of the video game, right? Those people are largely domestic actors. The people making money off it are domestic actors. They're selling T-shirts on Amazon. They're selling books in the e-book store. They have 24-hour live streams on YouTube that are buffeted by advertisements and Patreon, which is like a donation service. These are Americans. These are Americans sitting around trying to get people to join their cause, to take down the deep state by posting garbage information on the internet. Now, there are political operatives, people like Jacob Wohl who have turned their ability to lie badly into a job or into like a donations funnel for themselves. It's still unclear how those people make money, but they do because they have lots of it. There are the high-level pariahs that have put themselves in this position to do nothing but spread disinformation, but then there are these small-level grifters too who probably believe in it. A lot of them believe in these conspiracy theories and they think they're doing it for the cause. A nice side effect for them is that it's extremely profitable.
Amy: How are they making money? It's not just by selling T-shirts. How do you make money by going up and becoming a viral sensation pushing these theories?
Ben: You can sell advertisements on the videos that you push out. YouTube tries to block a lot of ads that are sold on these things, but it doesn't completely work. Another way you can do it is just Patreon, which is a donation service. You can say, "Hey, look, we need your support to keep this live stream going." People are making thousands and thousands of dollars that way. Sometimes more than that. There's another way of doing it of accruing email lists. This is what happened with that. Remember that We Build the Wall thing, the thing that Steve Bannon was indicted for a couple of weeks ago? Those people made an enormous, millions, large email list. They were then selling to political groups. Those political groups would pay top money. This was a list of people that were willing to pay for a wall that probably wouldn't exist and hand over money with nothing coming back to them. There was no incentive for these people. If you have a list of those people of your campaign, you want that list. That became a very lucrative thing for them.
Amy: I'm so glad you brought this up because this is one of the questions I have too, is when it comes right down to it in terms of the bigger threat to all of us but certainly to this election, is it that-- As you said, these are homegrown Americans using these platforms to make money by spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories, or is it still that, at the end of the day, Russia and other nefarious foreign actors, they're so good at this and they're very clear in what they want to be doing in terms of pushing Americans to believe certain things about candidates or issues? Which one of these things do you think as you are processing what this could mean for November, which one is more harmful to this election?
Ben: I don't think you're going to discount the foreign interference element, but I do think it's like a multi-level marketing thing like a pyramid scheme where, at some point, other people get involved in the pyramid scheme and take over the playbook of the guy at the top. The Russians outlined a really perfect way to spread disinformation on the internet. That was then just copied by all these domestic actors. Get a fantastical lie. Try to take over trending topics on Twitter. Have a small bot army that amplifies this message behind you. Work in direct messages. Work with people to amplify messages at a specific time in the middle of the night. By the time people wake up, it is in trending topics or a right-wing blog takes it and then brings it to Fox News or something. This is a playbook that has been created by these bad foreign actors. These domestic actors, all they have to do is copy it now. Foreign actors are always at the forefront of the new ways of doing this stuff and they are going to create more playbooks. We're going to see a new playbook in 2020. We don't even know what it is yet. For example, QAnon is basically just Pizzagate and Pizzagate came out of the Podesta leaks from 2016. We're now seeing the fruits of that labor four years later. There are going to be seeds planted this time that we'll see in 2024 and we're still recovering from all those foreign disinformation seeds from 2016 right now.
Amy: Ben, this has been fascinating. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me about it.
Ben: Thank you so much. I really do appreciate it.
Amy: Ben Collins covers disinformation, extremism, and the internet for NBC News. Ben will be part of a special hour this Sunday at 9:00 AM Eastern on MSNBC entitled Velshi: The Disinformation Epidemic. [music]
Amy: In 2016, Russia used the partisanship and extreme polarization in the US to its advantage. Existing divisions along cultural lines were easy to exploit and became touchdowns in their efforts to undermine American democracy. Russia is not the only nefarious actor in this space. I sat down with Cindy Otis, vice president of analysis at the Alethea Group and author of True or False: A CIA Analyst's Guide to Spotting Fake News. I talked with her to understand more about who the foreign threats are today.
Cindy Otis: The national security community has a responsibility to lay out publicly all the threats as they see them. It's absolutely accurate to say that it's not just Russia out there using disinformation as a tool and a tactic to advance a particular foreign policy goal. China, Iran, Saudi, countries like that are increasingly seeing the effectiveness of using disinformation and because they themselves have domestic capabilities where they use propaganda to control their own populations and limit freedoms at home. They do already have that capability that they can then turn to advance their foreign objectives as well. It's accurate to say that these other countries are involved as well, but they're going about it in very different ways and they also have very different levels of capability. Russia is on the more sophisticated end of the foreign actors that are out there trying to use disinformation. They learned a lot from 2016 about how to cover their tracks better. They've shifted some of their tactics and refined their capabilities to be effective. You have a country like China, for example, which uses very overt means to spread false information and conspiracy theories about very particular areas of concern for them. We see them use things like social media influencers, their own government-run media, et cetera, very overtly to push back and to spread false information about the coronavirus pandemic, for example, or to push back on what they see as damaging rhetoric from the White House on things like the trade issues, TikTok, et cetera. There's a foreign government piece and then there's also these foreign commercial entities as well that have popped up particularly in recent years in, for example, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe that call themselves things like PR firms or digital marketing firms, but they sell things like troll farms that you can hire to wage online influence campaigns.
Amy: We know disinformation is being used by both foreign and domestic networks to sow distrust. Of course, looming over all of this is the fact that we are about two months away from presidential election, an election that we might not know the results of on election night and which President Donald Trump has, without evidence, continually suggested could be rigged. One thing about all this that concerns me is, what will fill the vacuum? Who will be out there debunking false claims once the election night is over?
Cindy: We don't have the resources at this point. We simply don't and we've learned a lot in the United States in the last couple of years, but we haven't entirely put all of the resources in place in terms of both within the social media companies at the federal government level. A lot of what is happening is that these two sides of things are deferring or relying on the media, nonprofits, academic institutions, disinformation researchers to do a lot of the combatting, investigation, and messaging themselves. It's not a fair position to put these people into, first of all, because they're not usually given the resources as well to do that kind of role. They're doing it for free in most cases and it's just not sustainable with the amount of content that we experience on a daily basis and we'll see throughout the election and afterwards. I think we're going to see exactly the kinds of things that you mentioned, pictures going viral that are taken out of context or were snapped by a real actual person at the moment they claim to be taking the picture, but they're making conclusions that aren't accurate. They're making linkages and that sort of thing.
Amy: Yes, it is going to be a challenge for anybody, but you're right. The idea that either nonprofits or even for traditional mainstream media, can they do enough? Do you think to prepare Americans for this moment or do you think that because their influence is just not as powerful as it once was that it's going to reach some people but that the social media platforms reach many more?
Cindy: It's really going to take a whole of community effort. I haven't seen that coming together yet where mainstream media outlets are partnering with tech platforms and partnering with government, civil society, et cetera to put out consistent messaging about some of the things that we outline. We're not going to necessarily know the election results in maybe any of the elections that you have voted in and any of the races that you voted in right on election day. This is going to take some time. Here's how the process works. Here's how mail-in voting works. Here's how absentee works. This is legitimate, but it's a process to help educate people so that then when they see the claims of tampering or, "Well, my candidate won on election day, but now you're saying they didn't win because of what I've been told is a rigged process," we're just in such dangerous territory when we're not doing that consistent messaging to help educate people ahead of time so that they know to spot these things or to question the kinds of narratives that they will absolutely be seeing on election day and afterwards.
Amy: That's your point too, Cindy, that it can't just be Facebook alone and it can't just be the media alone or a group like yours saying these things. There needs to be a coordinated effort, but that seems unlikely. Would this be different if there were different leadership at the White House or is it even more complicated than that?
Cindy: I do think it would be different. It hasn't been a priority for this administration for various reasons and without some sort of overarching coordinating mechanism bringing all of the relevant parties together coming up with a strategy and then implementing that strategy many, many months in advance of an event like this. It's going to turn out exactly as it has, which is multiple different groups trying to do multiple different things and hoping that it has some positive effect at the end of the day. In the disinformation community, there's a lot of coordination that takes place, but it is very fractured at times. It can end up being very niche where we scurry off and go work on a relevant piece. Whether it's building a tool to find deep fakes or working on the policy angle of this or doing investigations into particular threat actors, we tend to fall back on our niche. We really need that coordinating mechanism and that would be a perfect role and, indeed, a responsibility of government typically.
Amy: Cindy Otis, vice president of analysis at the Alethea Group and author of True or False: A CIA Analyst's Guide to Spotting Fake News. [music]
Amy: On Thursday, in a post, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced further actions the network would take to counter misinformation on its platform, including a ban on new political ads one week prior to the election. Zuckerberg also addressed the possibility that we might not know the election results on election night and pointed to their Voter Information Center as a resource. Here's what I've been thinking about lately. Those of us who work in traditional journalism are used to the attacks by politicians, especially this president, on our profession, but the constant stream of fake news has also driven many voters away from their traditional sources of information to those they feel they can trust, namely friends and family. That's made platforms like Facebook even more powerful. It's why even attempts by Facebook to patrol the material on its site are often ineffective. After all, if you don't believe the national news media is telling you the truth, why would you believe Mark Zuckerberg is? That's why it's so important for us to patrol our own social media feeds and push back on posts we know to be untrue, just like many of our callers said they are doing.
John: My name is John. I'm from East Hampton, New York. Unfortunately, I have a lot of friends who have decided to start sharing some pretty crazy stuff. I call them out all the time. They tell me I'm naive.
Lorenzo: This is Lorenzo from Hollywood, Florida. I feel that social media is the battleground and I'm a soldier on the frontlines in the war against misinformation. I call out misinformation all the time for both sides, but it is heavily skewed towards pro-Trump.
Jamie: Hi, this is Jamie Sanders. I'm calling from Dallas, Texas. If it's someone who has gone off the rails with QAnon or cannibalism or some of the more bizarre things that I really wouldn't even want to repeat, then they're beyond hope.
Amy: The more we let misrepresentations sit out there, the more likely they are to be believed. That's all for us today. Props to the folks who make this show with me every week. Our senior producer is Amber Hall. Patricia Yacob is our associate producer. Major assist this week from producer Asher Stockler. Polly Irungu is our digital editor. David Gebel is our executive assistant. Jay Cowit is our director and sound designer. Debbie Daughtry and Vince Fairchild are our board ops. Our executive producer is Lee Hill. Thanks so much for listening. It's Politics with Amy Walter on The Takeaway. [music]
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