On Thursday, the propaganda wing of the Democratic Party, also known as MSNBC, freaked out over a recent hit piece in The Atlantic that warned of President Trump’s reelection campaign launching a “Death Star” of “propaganda, misinformation, lies, conspiracy theories” on social media. Anchor Stephanie Ruhle desperately asked: “Is there anything that can be done to stop it?”
After playing a 2018 clip of Trump “attacking the news media,” Ruhle opened the segment by telling viewers that the President was “not stopping there.” She then touted: “A chilling new article and expose is shedding light on the fierce battle the Trump reelection campaign is waging online, actively spreading disinformation, otherwise known as lies, ahead of this November’s election.”
The anchor welcomed Coppins on the 9:00 a.m. ET hour program by explaining that the liberal journalist had “created a new Facebook account” and “clicked like on the official pages of Donald Trump and his reelection campaign” in order to see what kind of information was being promoted by the President’s 2020 political team.
Ruhle chimed in: “One Republican strategist calls this campaign, specifically the digital campaign, the ‘Death Star.’”
9:27 AM ET
DONALD TRUMP: What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.
STEPHANIE RUHLE: That was President Trump back in 2018, attacking the news media. But the President, he’s not stopping there. A chilling new article and expose is shedding light on the fierce battle the Trump reelection campaign is waging online, actively spreading disinformation, otherwise known as lies, ahead of this November’s election. In fact, the Trump campaign is planning to spend more than $1 billion with the help of partisan media, outside political groups, and freelance operatives.
The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins writes this: “These pro-Trump forces are poised to wage what could be the most extensive disinformation campaign in U.S. History. Whether or not it succeeds in reelecting the president, the wreckage it leaves behind could be irreparable.”
McKay joins us now. McKay, this is some piece. I want to start at the beginning, you created a new Facebook account and you clicked like on the official pages of Donald Trump and his reelection campaign. And soon you found yourself questioning every headline.
MCKAY COPPINS: Yeah, it was frankly kind of a surprising result. You know, I had engaged in this exercise with the idea that I would be able to track the information and content that the Trump campaign was kind of pumping out on Facebook. And what happened was over the course of several weeks during the impeachment proceedings, I found myself almost drowning in this torrent of propaganda, misinformation, lies, conspiracy theories.
And it got to the point where even I was so suspicious and cynical about the content that I was seeing that I became suspicious about even every headline I saw. Even, you know, journalism produced by reputable outlets. It almost got to the point where sorting through the kind of rubble of mangled facts and misinformation made it so that observable reality itself about the Ukraine affair or impeachment or any other political issue was almost out of reach. And I, as a journalist, thought that I would kind of be inoculated against that because of my inherent skepticism, and you know, media literacy. But it turned out that I was more susceptible than I even thought.
RUHLE: One Republican strategist calls this campaign, specifically the digital campaign, the “Death Star.” Explain.
COPPINS: Yeah, you know, we already know that President Trump, ever since he started running for office in 2015, he engages in conspiracy theories, he says things that are not true all the time. This is not new information. But the difference is that, in 2016, he was running a fairly bootstrapped operation with kind of a band of B-team operatives working out of Trump Tower. Now his campaign is extremely well funded, they plan to spend a billion dollars on this election cycle, they’re also very technologically sophisticated. They have tapped into all the new tools that are available on social media to advance their message and they’re way far ahead of any of the other Democratic campaigns in using those tools, and they’re spending heavily already.
RUHLE: Explain this: Both the Republican National Committee and Trump campaign have reportedly compiled, and stay with me, 3,000 data points on every voter in America. What are they doing with that information? I was at a Trump rally Monday night and it is all about the data collection of every person in that arena, not just how loud they’re shouting for the President.
COPPINS: Yeah, that’s right. This is a key element of their strategy. The data points that they have range from what kind of stores you like to shop at, what kind of TV shows you like to watch, whether you own a gun, and they use those data points to micro-target ads to you on Facebook.
So if you – so the example I give in the story is, if they wanted to make an ad designed to call for the de-funding of Planned Parenthood, they know that that’s a divisive issue, it’s not gonna test well if they just mass kind of blast it to a large audience. But if they micro-target it to 800 pro-life Roman Catholic women in Dubuque, Iowa who have shown a predilection for this kind of messaging, they know that the message will be received well.
And so, micro-targeting isn’t new, this isn’t something that the Trump campaign invented, but they’re using it at a much more sophisticated scale and they’re doing things with it that previous campaigns have not been willing to do or not been able to do.
RUHLE: They didn’t invent it, but they’ve mastered it.
COPPINS: Yeah, that’s right.
RUHLE: Is there anything that can be done to stop it?
COPPINS: You know, micro-targeting probably not. The wave of disinformation that’s coming through, you know, there’s an open debate among Democratic strategists right now, that I report in the piece, where some are arguing that to beat President Trump, they need to fight fire with fire. And there are Democratic operatives openly calling for adopting some of the same tactics that the Trump campaign is using.
Now, I don’t have a partisan dog in this fight, but as a reporter, my bias is toward, you know, truth and accuracy. And I think that there’s a real risk going forward, no matter who wins this year, that the information ecosystem in our country will be so polluted after this cycle that nobody will be able to know what’s true on a day-to-day basis. And that is the concern that I most have going forward.
COPPINS: Well, this is a really important piece that you did. Thank you for doing it. McKay Coppins from The Atlantic.
COPPINS: Thank you.
RUHLE: For more on this, let’s bring in former Democratic Congresswoman from the state of Maryland, Donna Edwards, and Shermichael Singleton, he worked on the campaigns of Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Dr. Ben Carson. And he worked in the Trump administration as deputy chief of staff of Department of Home – excuse me, Department of Housing and Urban Development. Congresswoman Edwards, what’s your reaction?
DONNA EDWARDS: Well, I think this sends a red light flashing, flashing, flashing to Democrats, to Democratic candidates, to outside organizations, about how behind we are in terms of not creating our own disinformation, but creating digital capacity that allows us to get to our voters so that we can, you know, provide a backstop to what’s coming out of the trump campaign.
Look, I’ve already seen it in my social media feeds. I mean, I get a text from the Trump campaign every single day. And so I think that this really should be, you know, the clarion call to Democrats to step up what we’re doing, both for the Democratic Party, but also for our candidates to develop a digital capacity so that we know that they can at least compete come November.
RUHL: But what does that actually look like? Is it not too little, too late? If the Trump campaign has got 3,000 data points on every single voter, what are the Democrats to do at this point, Donna?
EDWARDS: Well, I mean, I do – part of it is about resources. And I think, for example, you know, a lot of Democratic donors, whether they’re giving to outside organizations or giving to candidates, they are not focusing their resources on developing the kind of capacity that we need. And so I’m going to say to them, you know right now, looking in the camera, you gotta to do that because otherwise we don’t stand a chance.
Look, the Russians helped Trump in 2016 and now the Trump campaign has the capacity to help itself. What are Democrats gonna do so that we can help ourselves to combat this and to make sure we have sophisticated voters who are able to sift through this. And so part of their disinformation is that they’re trying to divide and conquer the Democratic Party, trying to suppress the Democratic vote. And so we have work to do, both at the doors and online to be able to meet this with fire.
RUHLE: Shermichael, your reaction?
SHERMICHAEL SINGLETON: I think it’s really interesting and unique, Stephanie. And I say that because utilizing the social media metadata, which does in turn allow for micro-targeting which enables a campaign with pinpoint precision to figure out that needs, the perceptions, and perspectives of potential voters that they may want to target and mobilize for their agenda.
But what it also in turn does, Stephanie, is allow those same individuals to utilize that data to create discord, as the Congresswoman was just noting. So for example, just to give an example, one could say they could target African-American voters and they may look at someone like a Bloomberg as a potential threat. And perhaps cut a two-minute video of Bloomberg and some of his more recent controversial remarks. And so that may, in theory, convince some African Americans to not participate come November if Bloomberg were to become the hypothetical nominee, if you will. And so those are just two examples of how such data and precision targeting can be utilized in a good way, but also in a very negative way.
And I think in a media environment that we live in now, where voters want a lot of information, but conduced in very short packages, really does enable in many ways, I would argue, for propaganda to spread without anyone being able to fact check the legitimacy or authority where that information actually came from.
RUHLE: Fact checking matters, and any efforts to suppress a vote would be a bad thing.