Axios has reported that “President Trump’s campaign and key allies plan to make allegations of bias by social media platforms a core part of their 2020 strategy”. The supposed goal? To tarnish social media the same way the Right has discredited mainstream media in the eyes of its supporters. What better way to inoculate them against Democrat-favoring stories that might leak through the Fox/Limbaugh bubble via Facebook and Twitter?
But wait: Trump’s own campaign relied on Facebook for fundraising, persuasion and voter mobilization in 2016. And doesn’t his own Twitter feed set the agenda for cable news far more than it would in a rational world? This strategy may embody a delicious irony, but don’t expect cognitive dissonance to slow down a “populist” campaign to reelect a billionaire determined to wring every dime out of the office he can.
The planned focus on “bias” against conversatives actually fits perfectly with the broader strategy on the Right to convince grassroots supporters that the deck is stacked against them in our entire culture. Who cares if their politicians control the entire federal executive, half the federal legislature (and all of its agenda), the majority of state governments and increasingly the federal courts? “Elites” look down on them, and a politics of resentment can feed on itself for another cycle.
But what if Republicans pull the trigger and find that the gunbarrel is pointing back at their own campaigns? If they discredit social media platforms that their own supporters use every day, will activists on the Right stop sharing pro-Trump and anti-immigrant content, too? As Alan Rosenblatt noted,
I have tracked many of the key issues of the day [on social media]. Pro-Trump, Republican & rightwing voices most often dominate the share of voice. And when they do so on issues that actually poll left, it suggests a disproportionate right-wing bias on social media.
My own work analyzing the discussion around climate-change legislation in a past Congress found something similar: Democrats largely ceded the online conversation to conservative voices, allowing a minority opinion to shape media coverage and public perception. The internet naturally favors a noisy band of dedicated activists, and Trump supporters had passion on their side in 2016. Does the Trump campaign think that attacking Facebook and Twitter is going to encourage them to take to the virtual streets again? Perhaps cognitive dissonance will work in the president’s favor once more, this time encouraging the grassroots to ignore the occasional “biased” Washington Post story in Facebook feeds otherwise filed with pro-Trump memes.
Alternately, this entire story could simply be an attempt to “game the refs”, to put the same fear of appearing “biased” into the minds of tech CEOs that too many mainstream journalists have internalized. The choice of Axios to break the story would fit that strategy, since it’s a perfect outlet for a whisper campaign or a trial balloon. Still, serious or not, I encourage our Republican colleagues to attack popular social media channels all day long. Next, they should encourage small-dollar conservative donors to shatter their cell phones and tear up their credit cards. Just a thought.