7 min read

Stop Helping Conservatives Spread Propaganda About Protests

The ongoing protests against police violence in America are among the largest civil rights demonstrations in history. They’ve rapidly…
Stop Helping Conservatives Spread Propaganda About Protests

The ongoing protests against police violence in America are among the largest civil rights demonstrations in history. They’ve rapidly shifted the debate on racial justice and policing and they’ve been overwhelmingly peaceful, except for when police and policymakers instigate violence or try to restrict people’s First Amendment rights.

But as we get closer to the election, right wing propaganda sites and Republican operatives will increasingly try to frame property destruction and physical confrontations in the streets as representative of the Democratic party and “Joe Biden’s America.” That’s because they don’t have a record to run on. Donald Trump’s administration is deeply unpopular and is overseeing an economic crisis and a bungled pandemic response that has left 180,000 Americans—and counting—dead.

Liberal and center-right media outlets — and anxious liberals themselves—should stop amplifying conservative propaganda by buying into speculation about how protests will affect the election or offering unsolicited advice to protesters. Instead, they should call out this propaganda for what it is and put the focus back on the issues.

Right Wing Propaganda Conflates Protests with Democratic Voters and Candidates

Ongoing protests against police violence are not about the general election, they are about stopping police violence. Between now and the election, there will be hundreds if not thousands of demonstrations against police violence all over the country. Right wing propaganda outlets will attempt to frame these protests as representative of the Democratic party or Democratic candidates.

Of course, frontline protesters are not holding demonstrations outside police stations to help elect Democrats. In many cases, protesters are trying to get Democratic mayors and city councils to respond to their demands. Meanwhile, more radical protesters who engage in property destruction, for instance burning down police infrastructure, are not engaging in electoral politics, either.

But right wing propaganda tries to lay all these actions at the feet of “Democrats,” conflating tens of thousands of protesters with the country’s ~60 million Democratic voters and with powerful elected officials.

Tweet from the Daily Wire trying to conflate protestors yelling at Sen. Rand Paul with the entire Democratic party.

Right wing propaganda operates independently of reality on the ground. When demonstrations ebb, right wing sites and Fox News Channel simply recycle old footage or make things up.

Fox News re-running old footage of protests to attack Democrats.

Trump’s campaign is using this same propaganda, conflating protests and uprisings with Democrats and Joe Biden. For instance, in his acceptance speech, Trump falsely claimed “…Joe Biden and his supporters remained completely silent about the rioters and criminals spreading mayhem in Democrat-run cities.” And like other authoritarian leaders, Trump continues to align himself with police officers and police associations as he works to politicize local and federal police forces.

Police officers applauding Trump in 2017 after he encouraged them not to be “too nice” to suspect.

Liberal and Center-Right Punditry Launders Right Wing Propaganda Through Speculation

Conservative operatives are skilled at framing their propaganda as free political advice for Democrats. They do this to maintain some personal distance from espousing actual hard-right views themselves, but it also helps them launder their hot takes through mainstream horse race media coverage. Instead of debating issues or policy, they want to encourage media speculation about how successful right wing propaganda will be with swing voters and how Democrats should respond. Such media coverage operates entirely within their rhetorical frame of “protests = Democrats.”

George W. Bush press secretary and Iraq war propagandist calling for Democrats to denounce things they’ve already denounced. If you spend all your time denouncing, you’re not talking about your platform.

Unfortunately, center-right and liberal pundits who think very highly of their own strategic acumen despite never having worked on policy, protests or elections often fall for this trap, too.

Some Democratic policymakers and operatives also engage in this form of punditry, effectively amplifying right wing framing to national audiences.

A Politico headline quoting a former Democratic elected official in Wisconsin. Counter-takes in the article of course did not make the headline!

Finally, some pundits have a rather funny habit of attempting to give free advice to lefty protestors who definitely don’t care what they think.

Pretty sure anti-fascist activists don’t care what Iraq War proponents with Atlantic columns think about pre-emptive strikes.

Importantly, these hot takes affect grassroots sentiment among Democratic volunteers and voters. Loyal Democrats largely consume information from mainstream, independent corporate media source like the New York Times and MSNBC. It’s obvious but worth stating that these outlets are not wings of the progressive movement or allies of the Democratic party. They’re news outlets and their opinion content dramatically over-emphasizes the views of “Never Trump” conservatives like Jennifer Rubin and David Brooks. By contrast, loyal Republican voters live in a propaganda bubble of Facebook pages and Fox News Channel, where content is specifically developed for them by conservative operatives. Similarly, Democratic elected officials do not call up, for example, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes for political counsel, but Donald Trump routinely harangues Fox New’s Sean Hannity, who he correctly views to be a key political ally at his chief propaganda arm.

Liberals, therefore, are consistently exposed to anxiety-inducing messages from mainstream media about the efficacy of right wing framing on an imagined set of swing voters. That coverage often pushes liberals to engage in their own forms of mini-punditry, what one political scientist has termed “political hobbyism.” This is not only a waste of time, it’s amplifies right wing propaganda messages *among Democratic base voters* and even among Congressional staff. And to be clear, there is no corollary for this dynamic on the right. Conservative voters do not engage in bed-wetting and pearl-clutching as President Trump oversees a devastating COVID-19 response.

Stop Helping The Right Wage Their Propaganda War

So what to do about this?

Pundits should stop laundering right wing propaganda. Instead of speculating about how effective a right wing message will be, they should interrogate the actual mechanisms of right wing propaganda operations, for instance ongoing disputes at Facebook about sites like the fracking-funded Daily Wire, which are among the platform’s largest non-campaign political advertisers.

Pundits could instead focus on actual issues at stake in the election. I won’t hold my breath for that, of course, but even if they do insist on engaging in horserace speculation, they could at least have the courtesy to ask questions that aren’t driven by right wing propaganda outlets, such as:

  • Will ongoing right wing violence against protestors, including the two people killed in Kenosha, turn off swing voters and reenforce Biden’s messages about Charlottesville and Trump’s moral failings?
  • Will police violence against Black people and protestors hurt Trump and other conservatives who have aligned themselves with police associations and reactionary “Blue Lives Matter” movement?
  • Who is actually persuadable right now and how can progressives deploy messages that mobilize their base and win over swing voters, understanding that they will never win over their hard opposition?

More deeply, media outlets should question how they cover protests, including how they assign agency to protestors, police and policymakers.

A remarkable Slate headline that went viral for subverting the usual formulations of protest coverage.

Democrats and progressive and left activists should also stop falling into these traps:

  1. If you don’t have any influence over protestors, stop attempting to give them free advice or made demands on how they change their tactics. Instead, focus on how Democratic policymakers at the local level can be responsive to their demands.
  2. Don’t amplify right wing propaganda or argue in right wing frames. Call it out for what it is: dark-money funded lies that seek to divide us. Don’t treat right wing propagandists as organic representatives of real sentiment; they are paid to lie and if they stopped lying the dark money that funds them would move on to other spokespeople. Check out the Race / Class narrative for more on how to effectively talk about economic and racial justice and fight back against the powerful interests that use racism and fear to divide us.
  3. Focus on YOUR MESSAGE. Amplify candidates and advocates who speak to you. Talk about why the issues you care about matter. Focus relentlessly on the personal and moral stakes of policy choices.
  4. Share resources for taking action with your friends and family. Don’t despair and don’t let fear paralyze you. Our democracy is under grave threat, but millions of people are rising together to boot Trump from office and advance racial and economic justice.