Email newsletter devoted to understanding how the right operates online and developing strategies and tactics for fighting back. Subscribe here.
Welcome and thank you for subscribing to Ctrl Alt Right Delete. This newsletter is my attempt to tie together some of the threads and patterns that I’ve been seeing online and think through tactics. To be honest, I don’t have a final vision for what this will become but I do have some guidelines that I’d like to share.
- I’m an activist and a political operative. I don’t for a moment consider myself a journalist or a researcher. My objective is to help progressives win.
- I want to spur deeper conversations about where technology and politics intersect. It is my belief that Democrats lost in part because we weren’t even fighting on the same battlefield in 2016. We can’t fully regroup until we understand how and why that happened.
- Right now, I have more questions than answers. Expect this newsletter to be long on ideas and short on conclusions, especially in the beginning.
- Finally, I don’t want this to be a one-way conversation. I want to hear your thoughts and ideas, and I plan to highlight other voices in this space too. You can always reply directly to this email with feedback.
I’m really excited to get going, and I appreciate that you’re here for the journey. Thanks to everyone who has encouraged me to start writing about this. Thank you and credit to Nicole Belle for copy-editing this email. And a special thanks to Meredith for coming up with the name. Let’s do this!
Truthiness & Trumpiness
“This is the problem with the media. You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally. The American people didn’t. They understood it. They understood that sometimes — when you have a conversation with people, whether it’s around the dinner table or at a bar — you’re going to say things and sometimes you don’t have all the facts to back it up.”
WaPo referred to this quote from Trump’s former campaign manager as the “strangest criticism of the media.” I have to disagree. It’s actually one of the more revealing quotes about how Donald Trump and his campaign saw the universe. They banked on their supporters caring more about authenticity than truth. And it turned out to be a smart gamble.
Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” in 2005 during the pilot of The Colbert Report. I’ve re-watched the segment a few times since the election. He was being satirical but the joke is funny because it’s true. Right wing media and organizations have mastered truthiness. We laugh about it but right now the joke’s on us.
Colbert revisited the concept on his current show this year and suggested that Trump had taken things even a step beyond truthiness. In his segment on what he coined “Trumpiness,” Colbert made the point that some Trump supporters didn’t believe much of what Trump said. More startling is that they didn’t seem to care. Colbert concluded that the Trump campaign was “an emotional megaphone for voters full of rage at a government that achieves nothing.”
This topic has been covered pretty extensively on the left, but perhaps the most interesting piece I’ve seen to date is from Charlie Sykes, a right-wing talk radio host in Wisconsin. I don’t agree with any of Sykes’ political views, but his take on where we’re headed is spot on:
Trump’s victory means that the most extreme and recklessly irresponsible voices on the right now feel emboldened and empowered. And more worrisome than that, they have an ally in the White House. For years, Rush Limbaugh has gibed about what he calls the “state-controlled media” — the fawning liberal news outlets that Limbaugh has long decried for their lack of critical coverage of President Barack Obama — but we may be about to see what one actually looks like — an alt-reality news outlet operating from within 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The new media will not only provide propaganda cover for the administration, but also direct the fire of a loose confederation of conservative outlets against critics and dissenters. Already, Fox’s Sean Hannity has urged Trump to freeze out the mainstream media and talk directly to the nation.
The “fake news” that we are now obsessing over is only the latest leading indicator of the perils of our new post-truth media/political world. Indeed, what we learned this year was that the walls are down, the gatekeepers dismissed, the norms and standards of journalism and fact-based discourse trashed.
One of the most common myths I encounter from progressives is that voters just don’t have the facts and if they only did, they’d obviously vote differently. The internet is littered with websites, apps, and other attempts to fact-check and offer policy positions. During the debates, Hillary Clinton would repeatedly encourage viewers to learn about the facts on her campaign website.
But if we’re going to make any headway, progressives need to let go of this notion. Fact checks and policy positions aren’t going to gain us any ground. Authenticity (at least the perception of it) matters more than truth. And winning again requires us to adopt that mindset for our own purposes.
Plus, being correct doesn’t necessarily win us votes. You might have seen the news story this week about Teena Colebrook, a Trump supporter who now regrets her vote after he nominated Steven Mnuchin for Treasury Secretary. Colebrook blames Mnuchin for foreclosing her home in his previous role as a bank CEO. The most telling quote in the AP news story was this:
“I just wish that I had not voted,” said Colebrook, 59. “I have no faith in our government anymore at all. They all promise you the world at the end of a stick and take it away once they get in.”
So how do we operate? How do we make headway in an environment where truth has no meaning? As frequent Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes reminded us this week there’s no such thing as facts anymore. And interviews with Trump’s supporters seem to corroborate this.
Lewandowski’s point about how people talk to one another around the dinner table or at the bar is a good place to start. Making connections is more important than getting everything right. If Donald Trump has shown us anything, it’s that voters don’t mind when you’re wrong about facts and figures. Authenticity holds more value than truth.
This week, seven Democratic senators sent the White House a letter requesting that information about the Russian government’s role in the U.S. election be declassified. This is notable because six of the seven senators are on the Intelligence Committee, which means they’ve seen the information they’re seeking to have released.
I’m obsessed with Russian propaganda and its potential impact on our political conversation. Not because I have any insight into how much sway propaganda had on our election but because I have so many questions. What tactics were used? How widespread was it? How much of the pro-Trump activity online during the election did they generate? What was the overall impact and can it even be measured?
Not every progressive agrees with me about this. A few have gone so far as calling it a form of “red-baiting.” Some journalists are skeptical as well. I’d have more consideration for this view if it was a reaction to conclusions. But at this point, we’re still looking for information and asking questions.
We know this is happening in other countries. The New York Times wrote about the spread of fake news by Kremlin operatives back in August. More recently Buzzfeed has reported on alarm in Europe about fake news and the impact on upcoming elections. And this story about Italy’s most popular political party as a conduit for fake news suggests that Russian operatives aren’t even trying that hard to keep their efforts a secret.
The problem with admitting to ourselves that Americans are susceptible to propaganda also means admitting that we might have been duped. Because we’re not just talking about Trump voters anymore. If propaganda played a large role in the narrative around our election, we were all duped, which is a bitter pill to swallow.
But that’s why it’s so important to dig into this. Declassifying the intelligence is a good first step. Pressuring tech companies like Facebook and Twitter to share what data and insights they have with the public is probably the next step. Until we know what exactly we’re up against online, we can’t develop a real plan to fight back against it.
If you want to learn more, this tweetstorm reading list from journalist @SummerBrennan is the best primer on Russian propaganda and elections that I’ve found.
- Gizmodo: Reddit is Tearing Itself Apart
- Buzzfeed: How Snapchat Kept Fake News Out
- Mother Jones: Breitbart Just Declared “War” on Kellogg After Company Pulled Advertising
Question for you
Each week I plan to end with a question. I’ll feature some of your answers in future editions. Let’s start with the term “alt-right”: News organizations and advocacy groups are pushing back against the term. The thinking is that the alt-right is really just white supremacy rebranded, and that we shouldn’t normalize the softer term because of this.
Others aren’t convinced and argue that one thing that separates the alt-right from your grandfather’s white supremacists is the anti-democracy aspects of their agenda. The argument is yes, they’re white supremacists but they’re also out to destroy democracy. (I’m going to dive into this issue next week.) We need a descriptor that encompases all of their movement. And right now “alt-right” is the best there is.
What are your thoughts on using “alt-right”? I’ll feature some of them next week!
Ctrl Alt Right Delete is a newsletter devoted to understanding how the right operates online and developing strategies and tactics to fight back. I’ll be posting at least the first few of them to Medium to help promote.