The Republicans of the Lincoln Project might have an advantage over Trump’s left-leaning opponents.
“100,000 Dead,” an ad from the anti-Trump super PAC known as The Lincoln Project, comes at you like a miniature horror film. It starts with a shot of seven white body bags, detailed enough that you can see the outline of limbs underneath, and the voice of President Donald Trump at a press briefing in February. The nation’s Covid-19 caseload will soon be “close to zero,” Trump says; his words repeat in an increasingly distorted voice, as the camera pulls back to reveal row upon row of body bags in the shape of an American flag. New words land on the screen with audible thumps: “100,000 dead Americans. One wrong president.” It ends with the faint sound of wind whistling, as if through a graveyard.
Down to the smallest detail, it’s a masterful nugget of compact filmmaking. And it helped draw attention to a renegade corps of Republican strategists, veterans of campaigns for George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney, who are applying their attack-ad skills to their own party’s president—and going for the kill shot, every time. “Mourning in America,” their ad released in May, starts with a pointed reference to the Ronald Reagan slogan, then blames Trump for the full range of post-Covid despair, using images of hospital hallways, decrepit buildings and an upside-down flag. (Facebook slapped the ad with a “partly false” warning label, since it assigns Trump all of the blame for relief bills that were passed by the vast majority of Democrats in Congress.) “Debt,” released in late June, starts off like a History Channel documentary about the sacrifices made during World War II, and ends with an image of a Greatest Generation member, hooked up to a ventilator.
Some of the ads are running on TV, on Fox News or in battleground states. Some are simply released online, at a rapid pace. Many are based on assumptions that may or may not turn out to be true: that swing voters will be as unforgiving as Democrats about Trump’s Covid response, for instance, or that they’ll be bothered any more by Trump’s coarse rhetoric than they were, or weren’t, four years ago. Still, the Lincoln Project is clearly getting under the skin of the president and his supporters. And the evidence is not just raging tweets; in one of those Washington funhouse mirror moments, the Trump-friendly super PAC Club for Growth just released an ad attacking the Lincoln Project founders as if they were candidates themselves.
How has one renegade super PAC managed to trigger Trump and his allies so thoroughly? Part of it is surely frustration that a group of Republicans would issue a full-throated endorsement of Joe Biden. Part of it is skill: the Lincoln Project ads are slick, quick and filled with damning quotes and unflattering photos. But part of it might just be that Republicans are better at this than Democrats. Trump may sense that these ads are especially dangerous because they pack an emotional punch, using imagery designed to provoke anxiety, anger and fear—aimed at the very voters who were driven to him by those same feelings in 2016. And history, even science, suggests that might in fact be the case—that Republicans have a knack for scaring the hell out of people, and that makes for some potent ads.
Not every Lincoln Project video peddles in fear. Some are traditional political ads, overenthusiastically produced and applied to issues that might irk the president: supporting Democrat Steve Bullock for U.S. Senate in Montana, attacking Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. Some are 30-to-60-second versions of the kind of schoolyard taunting you might expect from Trump himself. In “Shrinking,” released after the president’s disappointing rally in Tulsa, a female voice mocks the size of the crowd: “You’ve probably heard this before, but it was smaller than we expected.”
The group’s most memorable ads, though, are the ones that are self-serious and brutal. Within days of news that Vladimir Putin paid the Taliban to target American soldiers, the Lincoln Project released two ads that hammer Trump as a lackey of foreign enemies, using language that, in another year, Republicans might have used to make Democrats look weak. “Betrayal” features Dan Barkhuff, a former Navy SEAL who declares that “any commander-in-chief with a spine would be stomping the living shit out of some Russians right now—diplomatically, economically, or, if necessary, with the sort of asymmetric warfare they’re using to send our kids home in body bags.” “Bounty” starts with images of flag-draped coffins and the sound of tapping drums, then pivots to a standard attack-ad trick: carefully-spliced clips of Trump and Putin at joint press conferences, the action drawn out so that every smile and handshake looks doubly sinister.
Stoking fear is a tried-and-true tactic of political advertising, stemming back to the Lyndon Johnson campaign’s 1964 anti-Barry Goldwater ad “Daisy.” But many of the most indelible ones have stemmed from the Republican camp, and over time, they’ve grown increasingly blunt. Ronald Reagan’s 1984 “Bear” ad used a grizzly as metaphor for the Soviet nuclear threat: “Isn’t it smart to be as strong as the bear—if there is a bear?” the voice over intoned. That ad inspired George W. Bush’s “Wolves” from 2004, which accused John Kerry of being soft on terrorism. George H.W. Bush’s infamous 1988 Willie Horton ad linked Michael Dukakis to a prisoner who committed brutal crimes on a weekend pass, flashing the words “Kidnapping,” “Stabbing,” and “Raping” on the screen. (The ad has since been scorned, not just for exploiting racial stereotypes, but also for paving the way for tough-on-crime bills that had lasting social repercussions.)
The secret of fearmongering is a willingness to go there, and that’s where the Republicans of the Lincoln Project might have an advantage over Trump’s left-leaning opponents. The group’s founders aren’t calibrating their ads around a Democratic base that mistrusts the military, delves into nuance, or shies away from causing offense. That leaves ample room for dog-whistle symbols that range from clichés to horror-movie tropes: One ad accuses Trump of being played by China, and ends with the image of the White House, the entire screen tinted red.
Research shows there’s a reason these ads could be effective with Republicans voters: Conservatives are an especially fear-prone group. In a 2008 paper in the journal Science, researchers subjected a group of adults with strong political beliefs to a set of startling noises and graphic images. Those with the strongest physical reactions were more likely to support capital punishment, defense spending and the war in Iraq. A 2011 paper in the journal Cell found a correlation between conservative leanings and the size of the right amygdala, the portion of the brain that processes emotions in response to fearful stimuli. In her book Irony and Outrage, University of Delaware professor Dannagal Young points out that liberals and conservatives respond differently to entertainment rhetoric: Liberals have a higher tolerance for open-ended ambiguity, while conservatives look for closure and want problems to be solved.
That research helps explain why some attack ads move the needle with the right populations—and why some, in retrospect, don’t. Take the Hillary Clinton campaign ad, “Mirrors,” which aired about a month before the 2016 election. Hailed, in certain circles, as an instant classic, it showed a series of young girls looking at their own reflections as Trump’s voice played in the background, saying things like, “I’d look her right in that fat ugly face of hers.” Mother Jones deemed the ad “powerful”; Bustle called it “brilliant.” But it didn’t convert the white suburban women Clinton’s advisers surely hoped to reach, because it not only preached to the choir, but spoke in the language of the choir. It was too subtle, Young might say, asking viewers to connect the dots, rather than hammering in a dramatic point. And it played to voters’ conscience and values—the kinds of things voters have to think about—rather than their raw emotions.
Trump’s ads, by comparison, have required little thought; the dots are pre-connected in thick Sharpie ink. His first 2016 ad, “Great Again,” touted his willingness to utter the words “RADICAL ISLAMIC TERRORISM,” which the ad displayed in all caps over images of masked fighters and photos of the San Bernardino shooters. (The same ad pledged that Trump would “cut the head off ISIS.”) His campaign’s fear-stoking 2018 anti-immigration ad, featuring an illegal immigrant convicted of murder and caravan footage that evoked an invasion, was so incendiary that many networks, including Fox News, refused to run it.
The Lincoln Project, too, knows how to deliver an unsubtle message, and Trump has given them some useful raw material. Recent news footage makes him look weak and despondent—as when he descended from a helicopter after his Tulsa rally, a MAGA hat drooping from his hand like a dead trout. (The Lincoln Project’s ad sets the scene to “Jurassic Park” theme music, played badly on melodica.) The image of Trump holding up a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, intended as a metaphor of strength, now plays as shorthand for tone-deaf insincerity. Another ad, “#Trumpisnotwell,” mashes recent video of Trump gingerly walking down a West Point ramp with 2018 footage of him climbing onto Air Force One, with toilet paper apparently stuck to his shoe. In a line straight out of the Trump playbook, the ad suggests that the media is hiding information about his health. “The most powerful office in the world needs more than a weak, unfit, shaky president,” the narrator says, over echo-y tones of slasher-movie music.
It’s enough to inspire a presidential tweetstorm, or six. Lately, Trump and his surrogates have tried to fight back, calling the Lincoln Project founders “RINOS,” painting the group as elitists who think of Trump fans as deplorables. Trump has offered counter-images: This week, he retweeted a meme of himself in an Uncle Sam pose, pointing menacingly at the camera, between the words “In reality, they’re not after me, they’re after you. I’m just in the way.”
But the genius of the Lincoln Project ads is that they’re quite specifically after Trump, using his own favored tools of shamelessness and fearmongering, and turning them back on their source. Who knows? It could actually work.
BREAKING: A top Republican Senator just tried to embarrass Kamala Harris over police reform on the Senate floor. It backfired horribly.
Public health experts have savaged President Donald Trump’s decision to cut U.S. funding to the World Health Organization (WHO), which he says failed in its “basic duty” during the coronavirus pandemic by promoting “disinformation” from China.
“Today I’m instructing my administration to halt funding of the World Health Organization while a review is conducted to assess [its] role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus,” Trump said at an April 14 briefing.
The move represents another stunning turnaround for Trump, who in late February praised the WHO for “working hard and very smart,” before souring on the world body in recent days as the U.S. death toll soared. Still, it remains in line with his longstanding distrust of multilateral institutions more generally.
Critics have accused the President of attempting to shift blame away from his own torpid response to the pandemic. The WHO declared a public health emergency on Jan. 30, after which Trump continued to speak at rallies and belittle COVID-19 as “the flu.”
Trump’s funding announcement has already drawn condemnation from all quarters. U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said in a statement that this is “not the time to reduce the resources for the operations of the [WHO] or any other humanitarian organization in the fight against the virus.”
Richard Horton, the editor-in-chief of the Lancet medical journal, wrote that Trump’s decision was “a crime against humanity. Every scientist, every health worker, every citizen must resist and rebel against this appalling betrayal of global solidarity.”
Critics agree the WHO’s response suffered missteps at the outset of the coronavirus outbreak. There was a
- focus on government information rather than non-official sources, such as whistleblowers like Dr. Li Wenliang.
- Officials could have investigated how many healthcare workers had become infected, which was
- clear evidence of human-to-human transmission before official confirmation came Jan. 23.
- It advised nations not to close borders.
“The WHO could have been more diligent in determining the nature of the outbreak and how serious the problem was,” says Dr. Yanzhong Huang, a global health expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Trump’s scapegoating of the WHO comes after he spent two months ignoring warnings about a disease that has now killed more than 26,000 people in the U.S., the highest national death toll. In late January, influential White House economic advisor Peter Navarro wrote a memo to Trump that warned COVID-19 had the potential to claim hundreds of thousands of American lives and derail the national economy unless immediate and sweeping containment efforts were implemented.
Trump’s sluggish response stands out against the examples of other nations. South Korea, for one, confirmed its first case of COVID-19 just one day before the U.S. Yet a robust public health response that tested three times as many citizens per capita has kept reported cases under 11,000 compared to more than 600,000 in the U.S., which also has a triple the fatality rate.
“President Trump is trying to rewrite history to divert criticism from his own administration’s failures,” Adam Kamradt-Scott, associate professor specializing in global health security at the University of Sydney, tells TIME. “Lives will be lost as a result.”
Yet most public health professionals agree that the WHO is desperately in need of reform. It has been for a very long time. Despite a sprawling global mandate, the U.N. agency, which was founded in 1949, has an annual budget of just $2.2 billion—smaller than the largest American hospitals and a fraction of the $11.9 billion allocated to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
The U.S. is the largest single donor to the WHO, contributing over $400 million in 2019 including both assessed (mandatory) contributions and voluntary top-up donations from government and private sources (Though, in fact, the U.S. is currently $200 million in arrears.)
The WHO’s shoestring budget is largely because assessed contributions were frozen in the early 1980s amid the Reagan Administration’s outrage that U.N. bodies—particularly UNESCO—appeared to be tilting toward Moscow as more Kremlin-aligned third-world states joined up. As a result, assessed contributions have not risen in real terms since then and continue to be based on a combination of GDP and population. The U.S. today still provides around twice the assessed contributions of second place China.
But assessed contributions only account for $246.8 million in 2020, meaning over 80% of the WHO’s total budget comes from voluntary contributions. The U.S. comes top again while China’s voluntary contributions are negligible. But the greater problem with voluntary funds is that they are ringfenced for specific purposes and so cannot be diverted to address sudden crises, such as Ebola or COVID-19.
Ultimately, the WHO has little freedom to decide for itself where to spend its meagre resources; those decisions are made by the donors, whether government or charitable entities like the Gates Foundation. This is why 27% of the WHO’s total budget is spent towards polio eradication despite just dozens of cases annually. “The funding structure is unpredictable and allows donors to dictate the agenda,” says Huang.
This lack of resources contributes to various missteps. In 2009, the WHO was criticized for declaring a pandemic for H1N1 flu too early and for a virus that wasn’t sufficiently virulent. During the 2014 West Africa Ebola Outbreak, it was condemned for delaying the declaration of a public health emergency.
The irony of Trump’s funding cut is that, by its own questionable record, the WHO’s COVID-19 response was “fairly good,” says Kamradt-Scott.
In turns of accountability, the WHO does now livestream its World Health Assembly meetings every year to boost transparency. But the lack of criticism—and fulsome praise—of China’s COVID-19 response despite obvious problems with the reported numbers of infected and dead has galvanized suspicions of politicization. WHO Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised China’s “extraordinary” efforts against COVID-19 that were “setting a new standard for outbreak response.”
There is unquestionably an effort to avoid an adversarial culture within the WHO’s 194 member states. It has consistently sought to try and cajole and co-opt countries into doing the right thing as opposed to publicly naming and shaming.
The notable exception was in 2003-04, when various WHO officials criticized China for downplaying the SARS outbreak. “It would have been much better if the Chinese government had been more open in the early stages,” said WHO director-general Gro Harlem Brundtland said at the time.
In the review that followed that crisis it was decided that the WHO should in future take a less confrontational approach when dealing with member states. The U.S. was party to that conversation and has, arguably, been a key beneficiary over the years. The periodic rolling back of family planning provisions in the U.S. during conservative administrations has escaped censure from the WHO despite a documented deleterious impact on the health and wellbeing of women and children. The same could be said about the lack of comprehensive universal healthcare like that enjoyed in so many other developed nations.
Ultimately, of course, it’s not strictly up to Trump whether to keep funding the WHO. The White House is not technically allowed to block funding of international institutions mandated by Congress, though the administration has found creative ways around constitutional hurdles through the application of sanctions or diverting funds by other means.
Still, the very threat of slashing funding has the potential to turn Trump’s specious claims about a “China-centric” WHO into a reality. Beijing has steadily been increasing its influence and putting nationals into key posts in nearly all multinational institutions—from the U.N. and Interpol, to the IMF. As Trump orients the U.S. away from the world stage, a presumptive superpower like China stands poised to fill the gap. Says Kamradt-Scott: “It would seem that Trump has just given China an opportunity on a silver platter.”
Trolls encourage you to believe they want to be shown the truth, but in fact they don’t. They just want to troll you.
- I haven’t written about trolls much on Scripting News, mostly because they have cost me so much, and I learned after a lot of experience that talking about them invites them in. And once they’re in, they make you pay.
- But now we have to study trolls, at least enough to help everyone understand how our political system is being dominated by one. And there is a simple fix, but it’s hard to implement.
- It’s so important a lesson, learned so many times by so many people, through so much pain, that it has been codified into a mantra, so we never forget.
- Don’t feed the troll.
- Don’t feed the troll.
- Don’t feed the troll.
- Don’t feed the troll.
- Don’t feed the troll.
- Probably because most people think the best of everyone, and if someone is saying something that’s obviously wrong, we think they certainly want to be shown the right way to think. And trolls do everything to encourage us to believe they want to be shown the truth, but in fact they don’t. They just want to troll you. They want your attention, your energy, and if possible they want you to draw more people to them.
- The greatest troll of all time is Donald Trump.
- I say that with some certainty even though trolling has probably existed as long as the human species. Never before have trolls had the awesome tool of the Internet to support their craft.
- The Internet is to trolling what airplanes are to global travel.
- Sure you could do it before, but now you can do it so much better.
- And the tools for trolling keep getting better.
- Mail lists were the ultimate sporting venue for trolls, because they gave everyone an equal voice. At any time a troll could halt the discussion and make everyone pay attention to him. Without moderation all mail lists become dominated by trolls, eventually. This is a fundamental rule of Internet discourse.
- Twitter makes trolling a little more difficult because people have to follow you before they get your announcements. But if you can get people to RT you, then you’ll get people to see your stuff even if they don’t follow you.
- One way to get people to RT is to say something they strongly agree with. An even better way to get RTs is to say something outrageous, so people can express their rage. Trump uses the latter form, more effectively than anyone before him.
- However, immunity to outrage builds up over time. What pissed people off six months ago will barely show up as a blip today. Luckily for Trump as he rises in stature, from poll-leader, to presumptive nominee, to one of two possible Presidents, his tweets automatically get more outrageous, because now they have half the weight of the office of POTUS behind them. The idea of a potential President saying such and such adds a rage quotient that’s hard to beat. (Note: This was written before the 2016 election.)
- So we have the awkward situation where during the DNC, as the Democrats are putting on an incredible show, Trump is still commanding more attention than all the Democratic speakers combined. Because he said something more outrageous than you could ever imagine him possibly saying (which shows our imaginations still have to evolve).
- On day two, he says he was just being sarcastic. Now we can debate whether or not that’s possible. On day three, who knows what he says, but it’ll be good. Etc etc. As long as we feed him, he keeps escalating the outrage, and we keep carrying his message, crowding out any other ideas. It’s like a media filibuster. No one gets to say anything unless it’s about what the troll just said.
- Key point — the only people who care about your condemnation are people who are already totally stoked with outrage about the troll. The people who love him love the fact that he tweaks you. Even people who hate him are fascinated by your rage. It’s like stopping to look at a terrible car accident. Or a beheading by a terrorist. It’s hard to avert your eyes. And eventually you become immune to it, and need a bigger thrill to draw the attention.
- In sailing, it doesn’t matter which way the wind is blowing, you can always adjust your sails to move in the direction you want to go. Same with trolls. As long as they’re controlling you it doesn’t matter if you like them or not. The only thing that makes a troll happy is attention. They probably prefer it if you hate them.
- Try a mental exercise. Take a deep breath to calm whatever residual rage you feel about the troll. Now imagine what would happen if instead of erupting in rage over his comments about Russian spying, we had simply said Oh there’s Trump doing his thing. It’s not news. (It’s not, it’s like a dog biting a man, the most predictable thing ever.)
- Now imagine if he never got any self-generated press ever again? That would be the end of Trump. You can report on polls. You can report on FBI investigations of him. Or his trial with Trump U. Or that HRC calls for him not to get security briefings, all that’s fair. But you can’t report any Trump-generated news. If it came from him, it’s trolling. If it’s news about him that he didn’t control, it’s fair game.
- You stopped feeding the troll. And science has proven over and over if you do that, the troll will go away.
- I got into a fairly heated discussion with a cartoonist for the New Yorker, who thought at first that it was his right to call out Trump. Otherwise he would continue to make messes with impunity. I understand. He’s acting as if Trump were a normal person and not a troll. If he didn’t crave the attention so, and not give a damn if you know he’s a bastard, your condemnation would register, and would cause him to tone it down. But in his case, since he is a troll, he just amps it up. Delighting his fans, and most important — crowding out any other ideas and messages that need to get out. And in the past that has meant he wins. And it might mean it for the future as well (I don’t think it actually will, but I do worry).
- The way to send Trump back to his tower after the election is to do the hard thing. When you feel the impulse to condemn him, instead go to the window, open it, and yell I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore. Then close the window, delete the tweet and continue with your life.
Yet in anonymously trying to exploit the fissures within the Democratic ranks — fissures that ran through this past week’s debates — Mr. Mauldin’s website hews far closer to the disinformation spread by Russian trolls in 2016 than typical political messaging. With nothing to indicate its creator’s motives or employer, the website offers a preview of what election experts and national security officials say Americans can expect to be bombarded with for the next year and a half: anonymous and hard-to-trace digital messaging spread by sophisticated political operatives whose aim is to sow discord through deceit. Trolling, that is, as a political strategy.
Mr. Mauldin, who has not been previously identified as the creator of the website, said he had built and paid for it on his own, and not for the Trump campaign. But the campaign knows about the websites, raising the prospect that the president’s re-election effort condoned what is, in essence, a disinformation operation run by one of its own.
“We appreciate their efforts in their own time with parodies like this that help the cause,” he added.
Inside the campaign, Mr. Mauldin, 30, is seen as a rising star, prized for his mischievous sense of humor and digital know-how, according to two people familiar with the operation. He also appears to be very much on point in his choice of targets: Mr. Biden is the Democrat polling strongest against Mr. Trump and has been repeatedly singled out on Twitter by the president.
Mr. Biden’s campaign knew about the fake website for months, but had not been of aware of who was behind it, said T.J. Ducklo, a campaign spokesman. “Imagine our surprise that a site full of obvious disinformation,” he said, “is the handiwork of an operative tied to the Trump campaign.”
Mr. Ducklo sought to place the website firmly in the context of Mr. Trump’s own social media habits — such as tweeting doctored videos — and what he said was the president’s lack of interest in measures to ensure the integrity of American elections.
In addition to Mr. Biden, Mr. Mauldin has anonymously set up faux campaign websites for at least three other Democratic front-runners. “Millionaire Bernie” seeks to tar Mr. Sanders as a greedy socialist; “Elizabeth Warren for Chief” mocks her claim of Native American ancestry; and “Kamala Harris for Arresting the People” highlights her work as a prosecutor who, the site says, “put parents in jail for children skipping school — and laughed about it.”
None, though, has proved as successful as the Biden website. Mr. Mauldin boasted in the interview that he had fooled people into thinking his Biden website was the real campaign page. Some offered to donate money, he said, and others wanted to volunteer.
Mr. Mauldin insisted there was nothing duplicitous about it. “I don’t make any claims on the site to lean one way or the other,” he said, adding, “Facts are not partisan.”
It is buyer beware, and not just for unwitting Democrats. In 2017, a group of Democrats took a page out of the Russian playbook and posed as conservatives to try to divide Republicans in Alabama’s special Senate election, a race narrowly won by a Democrat. And as the 2020 campaign gets underway, election experts say they see signs that Americans from both sides of the political divide are getting ready to do the same. National security officials are also warning that Russia will again try to disrupt the election by spreading disinformation.
Meddling by foreigners is illegal. But trolling or disinformation spread by American citizens is protected by the First Amendment, and if Mr. Mauldin’s work is any guide, Americans may well do a far better job deceiving one another than any Russian troll could hope for.
A Viral Hit
Unlike much of the Russian disinformation, which often has been crude and off-key — remember the Facebook ad promoting Mr. Sanders as a gay-rights superhero? — the faux Biden site has been a viral hit. Mr. Mauldin even started selling mock Biden 2020 T-shirts through the website to capitalize on its success.
From mid-March, when Mr. Mauldin first began promoting the website on Reddit, through the end of May, it had more than 390,000 unique visitors, according to data compiled by SimilarWeb, a firm that analyzes web traffic. Mr. Biden’s official campaign website had about 310,000.
Of the people who found the websites through search engines, 83 percent landed on Mr. Mauldin’s page, according to SimilarWeb. None of it was paid traffic.
The website’s success was not accidental. Mr. Mauldin put it up well before Mr. Biden’s official website and aggressively pushed it out on Reddit, getting clicks and links and exposure. It had a big boost in May when a handful of media outlets — The Daily Callerand CNET, among others — wrote stories about the fake page beating Mr. Biden’s and linked to it. Links from established media websites are weighted heavily by search engines. The New York Times is not linking to Mr. Mauldin’s websites to avoid further boosting them in search rankings.The Trump consultant, Patrick Mauldin, has built websites featuring a number of candidates, including Senator Elizabeth Warren.
In recent weeks, as search companies became aware that Mr. Mauldin’s website was fake, it has fallen below the real Biden page. But it remains among the top results, and it already appears to have fooled people.
“I know a lot of Biden supporters were furious when they saw that website,” said David Goldstein, the chief executive of Tovo Labs, a Democratic digital consulting firm in New York. “They suspected other Dem candidates were behind it.”
Then there were the less politically astute. In late April, Mr. Mauldin anonymously took to Reddit to boast that people were confusing his website for the real one. He posted in r/The_Donald, a popular spot for right-wing trolls to trade tips and show off, using the handle NPC_12345.
“How many Democrats can we red pill with my fake Joe Biden site?” Mr. Mauldin wrote in one post.
Another post included messages from duped Democrats. One person wanted Mr. Biden to speak at her son’s school. Another suggested the former vice president look to an old soul group, the Fifth Dimension, for his campaign song.
There were even messages asking Mr. Biden not to criticize other Democrats, Mr. Mauldin said in the interview. “They want it to be all ‘Kumbaya’ with the Democrats.”
He was not having it. “It’s important for everyone to realize aspects of their own side or candidate that maybe they don’t know about or don’t want to look at,” he said.
By “their own side,” Mr. Mauldin meant Democrats. He is not trolling any Republicans.
For decades, conventional wisdom in politics held that trying to undermine your opponent’s base would only motivate that group to vote against you. But in 2016, Russian disinformation and the Trump team’s own targeting of disenchanted Democrats led many campaign veterans on the left and the right to conclude that sowing dissent inside an opponent’s ranks could work. It worked especially well if the criticism appeared to come from their own side.Mr. Mauldin posted on Reddit about his fake websites, helping to drive traffic to them.Credit
With websites like the faux Biden page, “essentially you’re trying to sow chaos and you’re trying to basically do voter suppression,” said Mr. Goldstein, the Democratic consultant.
“You want their supporters to get sad, to get angry, to get turned off from their chosen candidate,” he continued. “The way voters tend to work: They don’t turn off from a candidate and pick up someone else; they turn off from a candidate and turn off politics.”
Mr. Goldstein’s firm, Tovo, tried to prove as much during Alabama’s special Senate election in 2017. With targeted ads, Tovo led conservative Republicans to a website featuring articles by conservatives who opposed the far-right candidate, Roy Moore. Moderate Republicans were directed to a site that suggested they write in a different candidate. The effort relied only on genuine content from conservatives, and it was entirely separate from the Democrats who used Facebook to pose as conservatives.
Tovo later published its findings. It claimed to have driven down moderate Republican turnout by 2.5 percent, and conservative Republican turnout by 4.4 percent.
Unlike Tovo, Mr. Mauldin makes no claims of trying to prove any concepts, and he had no intention of outing himself. When approached by The Times, he argued that he should not be identified because he had not sought the spotlight, and because he feared threats and harassment. He preferred “to work behind the scenes,” he wrote in an email.
Mr. Maulden registered the Biden site privately so that his name and contact details would not appear in any public searches. But The Times was able to confirm Mr. Mauldin’s identity because the Biden page shared the same Google analytics tags with a number of other active and defunct websites, including the ones he has made for the three other Democratic candidates. Some of those sites that shared the Google tags were registered under Mr. Mauldin’s name.
Sipping a Crown Royal and Coke at a bar in downtown Austin, Mr. Mauldin bore little resemblance to the boasting troll he played on Reddit. He is slight, and has boyish features. He wore his shirt neatly tucked into jeans, and paused to consider questions before answering. When he did not want to answer, he quietly said, “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember” — even when asked about things it was hard to imagine he had forgotten, like what he told the Trump campaign about his websites.Mr. Mauldin works on President’s Trump’s re-election campaign, which kicked off this past month in Orlando, Fla.CreditErin Schaff/The New York Times
Mr. Mauldin grew up in eastern Texas, and described his political views as “closest to libertarian.” He studied marketing at Texas A&M, and taught himself digital design skills, building on a childhood love of drawing.
He and his brother founded Vici after helping a family friend win a state representative race. Their big break came in June 2016, when the Trump campaign’s digital operation, short of manpower and scrambling, hired Vici.
Mr. Mauldin quickly impressed. His specialty was making the kind of viral videos that riffed on pop culture and were relentlessly pumped out on social media by the Trump campaign. One came after Hillary Clinton dropped a reference to the augmented-reality game Pokémon Go into a speech, urging voters to “Pokemon Go to the polls.” Mr. Mauldin responded with a video that featured Mrs. Clinton as a Pokemon creature players had to catch, providing the kind of tit for tat needed to feed a day of news stories.
In a testimonial on Vici’s website, Brad Parscale, Mr. Trump’s 2016 digital director and now his campaign manager, called Mr. Mauldin “an indispensable part of our digital operation” in the president’s first campaign.
People with ties to the re-election campaign, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because of nondisclosure agreements, said that Mr. Mauldin was brought back on retainer for the 2020 race.
Mr. Mauldin would not discuss specifics of his role with the campaign, citing his own nondisclosure agreement. He was only slightly more talkative about his websites.
Pressed on whether he thought they were deceptive, Mr. Mauldin complained that people put too much emphasis on identity “instead of examining the facts themselves.” He brushed off a question about whether GIFs of Mr. Biden touching women, devoid of any context, represented facts.
The point, Mr. Mauldin said, was to help Democrats see their candidates for who they were — warts and all — and not try to pretend that they all agreed and were in lock step on every issue.
As he sees it now, “there’s a party line and you either toe it or you’re a traitor,” he said, adding that this applied to both Democrats and Republicans.
But weren’t his sites encouraging Democrats to look for traitors?
“I mean, they could do it themselves,” Mr. Mauldin said with a laugh. “But they’re not. That’s the problem.”
Politicians are trolling the media to advance their own agendas.
It’s social media in the age of “patriotic trolling” in the Philippines, where the government is waging a campaign to destroy a critic—with a little help from Facebook itself.
The phenomenon, sometimes referred to as “patriotic trolling,” involves the use of targeted harassment and propaganda meant to go viral and to give the impression that there is a groundswell of organic support for the government. Much of the trolling is carried out by true believers, but there is evidence that some governments, including Duterte’s, pay people to execute attacks against opponents. Trolls use all the social media platforms—including Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, in addition to the comments sections of news sites. But in the Philippines, Facebook is dominant.
Ressa exposed herself to this in September 2016, a little more than three months after the election. On a Friday night, a bomb ripped through a night market in Davao City, Duterte’s hometown, killing 14 and injuring dozens more. Within hours, Duterte implemented a nationwide state of emergency. That weekend, the most-read story on Rappler was an archived item about the arrest of a man caught planting an improvised explosive device, also in Davao City. The article had been written six months earlier, and the incident had no connection to the night market bombing—but it was circulating on the same Facebook pages that promoted Duterte’s presidency, and people were commenting on it as if to justify the state of emergency.
.. The Rappler data team had spent months keeping track of the Facebook accounts that were going after critics of Duterte. Now Ressa found herself following the trail of her own critics as well. She identified 26 accounts that were particularly virulent. They were all fake (one account used a photo of a young woman who was actually a Korean pop star) and all followed one another. The 26 accounts were posting nearly the exact same content, which was also appearing on faux-news sites such as Global Friends of Rody Duterte and Pinoy Viral News.
The messages being posted consistently linked back to pro-Duterte pages. Ressa and her team put all these accounts into a database, which grew rapidly as they began automating the collection of information, scraping Facebook pages and other public sites. They took to calling their database the Shark Tank. Today it contains more than 12 million accounts that have created or distributed pro-Duterte messages or fake news. Ressa isn’t sure how many of these accounts are fake
Even in the U.S., where Facebook has been hauled before Congress to explain its role in a Russian disinformation campaign designed to influence the U.S. presidential election, the company doesn’t have a clear answer for how it will stem abuse. It says it will add 10,000 workers worldwide to handle security issues, increase its use of third-party fact-checkers to identify fake news, and coordinate more closely with governments to find sources of misinformation and abuse. But the most challenging questions—such as what happens when the government itself is a bad actor and where to draw the line between free speech and a credible threat of violence—are beyond the scope of these fixes. What stays and what goes from the site is still decided subjectively, often by third-party contractors—many of them stationed, as it happens, in the Philippines, a long-standing outsourcing hub.
Facebook is inherently conflicted. It promises advertisers it will deliver interested and engaged users—and often what is interesting and engaging is salacious, aggressive, or simply false. “I don’t think you can underestimate how much of a role they play in societal discourse,” says Carly Nyst, a London-based consultant on technology and human rights who has studied patriotic trolling around the world. “This is a real moment that they have to take some responsibility. These tools they’ve promised as tools of communication and connection are being abused.”
.. Facebook’s executives say the company isn’t interested in being an arbiter of truth, in part because it doesn’t want to assume the role of censor or be seen as having an editorial opinion that may alienate users. Nonetheless, it’s been under increasing pressure to act. In the Philippines, it began conducting safety workshops in 2016 to educate journalists and nongovernmental organization workers. These cover the basics: an overview of the company’s community standards policies, how to block a harasser, how to report abusive content, how to spot fake accounts and other sources of misinformation. The company has increased the number of Tagalog speakers on its global Community Operations team in an effort to better root out local slurs and other abusive language.
Still, Facebook maintains that an aspect of the problem in the Philippines is simply that the country has come online fast and hasn’t yet learned the emergent rules of the internet. In October the company offered a “Think Before You Share” workshop for Filipino students, which focused on teaching them “digital literacy” skills, including critical thinking, empowerment, kindness, and empathy.
Nyst says this amounts to “suggesting that digital literacy should also encapsulate the ability to distinguish between state-sponsored harassment and fake news and genuine content.” The company, she says, “is taking the position that it is individuals who are at fault for being manipulated by the content that appears on Facebook’s platform.”
.. Rappler was born on Facebook and lives there still—it’s the predominant source of Rappler’s traffic. So Ressa finds herself in an awkward spot. She has avoided rocking the boat, because she worries that one of the most powerful companies in the world could essentially crush her. What if Facebook tweaked the algorithm for the Rappler page, causing traffic to plummet? What if it selectively removed monetization features critical to the site’s success? “There’s absolutely no way we can tell what they’re doing, and they certainly do not like being criticized,” she says. But after more than a year of polite dialogue with Facebook, she grew impatient and frustrated.
In a trip to Washington in early November, she met with several lawmakers, telling them that she believes Facebook is being used by autocrats and repressive regimes to manipulate public opinion and that the platform has become a tool for online hooliganism. She did the same in a speech at a dinner hosted by the National Democratic Institute, where Rappler was presented with an award for “being on the front lines of fighting the global challenge of disinformation and false news.”
As she accepted her award, Ressa recalled that she started as a journalist in the Philippines in 1986, the year of the People Power Revolution, an uprising that ultimately led to the departure of Ferdinand Marcos and the move from authoritarian rule to democracy. Now she’s worried that the pendulum is swinging back and that Facebook is hastening the trend. “They haven’t done anything to deal with the fundamental problem, which is they’re allowing lies to be treated the same way as truth and spreading it,” she says. “Either they’re negligent or they’re complicit in state-sponsored hate.”
.. In November, Facebook announced a new partnership with the Duterte government. As part of its efforts to lay undersea cables around the world, Facebook agreed to team up with the government to work on completing a stretch bypassing the notoriously challenging Luzon Strait, where submarine cables in the past have been damaged by typhoons and earthquakes. Facebook will fund the underwater links to the Philippines and provide a set amount of bandwidth to the government. The government will build cable landing stations and other necessary infrastructure.
That’s the sort of big project Facebook embraces. It’s also testing a solar-powered drone that will beam the internet to sub-Saharan Africa and has a team of engineers working on a brain implant to allow users to type with their minds. To Ressa, Facebook looks like a company that will take on anything, except protecting people like her. —With Sarah Frier and Michael Riley