If a dumpster is already on fire, is there any harm in throwing some more trash into it?
Mike Bloomberg’s campaign has spent the last month unapologetically performing the digital equivalent of dumping buckets of fresh garbage into the trash fire that is internet discourse in 2020, apparently with little or no concern for the toxic side effects.
It’s a cynical approach, and if left unchecked, it threatens to poison the atmosphere for good.
The first sign that the Bloomberg campaign was prepared to test the unwritten rules around digital campaigning came in mid-February, when a coordinated “influencer” campaign flooded Instagram with paid content promoting the image of the 78-year-old billionaire as a bumbling but lovable dad just trying to get down with the kids. The Bloomberg “memes” conveniently sidestepped the transparency rules Facebook and Instagram put in place after the 2016 election, while attracting huge amounts of attention and media coverage.
Next came the campaign’s infamous post-debate video, which used editing tricks to fabricate a moment of triumph for Bloomberg out of decidedly less triumphant raw material. The video showed Bloomberg’s Democratic rivals struck dumb for 20 seconds after Bloomberg asserted that he was the only person on stage to have started a business; Bloomberg did make that statement, but the extended silence was faked.
The campaign argues that the video was “tongue-in-cheek” – and that the inclusion of cricket chirps in the audio made that fakery clear to viewers. I disagree – it’s hard for the average viewer who hasn’t seen the debate to discern which parts of the video are real and which are fake, making it a potent and misleading piece of propaganda.
Bloomberg is also paying a team of “deputy field organizers” to post scripted campaign messaging to their social media accounts. Some of the accounts spreading these messages were suspended by Twitter for violating the rules against platform manipulation and spam, the Los Angeles Times reported, though Twitter told me that it has yet to determine who is behind the accounts it suspended.
Finally (so far), on Monday the Bloomberg campaign’s Twitter account published a series of fabricated “quotes” that purported to “guess” Bernie Sanders’ views on various “despots”. The fake quotes were published in separate tweets, while a final tweet in the thread disclosed that they were “satire” – an insufficient disclaimer on a platform where any individual tweet is designed to be removed from its context. The #BernieOnDespots tweets hit the trifecta of being misleading, homophobic, and unfunny – and were subsequently deleted by the campaign.
The dumpster fire is creating billowing clouds of noxious smoke, and it’s making it harder for all of us to breathe
Viewed individually, each of these tactics is questionable without being necessarily condemnable. “They’re pushing the boundaries of what we deem acceptable as political speech,” said Claire Wardle, an expert in disinformation and the director of First Draft Media. Tactics such as misleadingly editing video were not new to American politics, she said, but the combination of such tactics with social media was novel.
Wardle argued that the Bloomberg ad was “exactly the same” as a manipulated video of Nancy Pelosi recently released by the Trump campaign that created the false impression that Pelosi ripped up Trump’s State of the Union speech just as Trump was honoring a Tuskegee airman.
Such content takes advantage of the way that our media ecosystem works, she explained. Some people will actually be fooled by the faked video; others will recognize that it’s false and react with anger or attempts at correcting the record. Either way, the result is more eyes on the video and the broader campaign – a formula for monopolizing attention that Trump has used to his advantage for years now.
“We see people hiding behind the label of satire,” Wardle said. “You push something out, get a ton of press coverage, then when someone pushes you on it, you say it was ‘tongue-in-cheek’. You win on both levels.”
A Bloomberg aide who would only speak to the Guardian on background said that there was a huge difference between the debate video and a manipulated video that made Nancy Pelosi appear to slur her words that went viral in 2019. “They changed something; we just cut different shots,” the aide said.
The Bloomberg campaign has instructed all “deputy field organizers” to identify themselves as campaign staffers and deleted the #BernieOnDespots tweets after facing criticism, the aide added. Above all, the aide argued, the campaign was not trying to be dishonest.
Perhaps. But in the aggregate, a troubling pattern of behavior emerges.
“It feels like a bunch of extremely online, talented, well-informed social media marketer types who are utilizing their skills to propagate messages about Mike Bloomberg in a way that feels like it has no moral center,” said Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor of communications and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University. “It’s the embracing of a cynical outlook: ‘lol nothing matters’ … It’s leaning into nihilism.”
Phillips has developed a framework for understanding internet discourse as an “information ecology” in which disinformation, misinformation and other negative behaviors are forms of pollution. I’ve found it a very helpful way to grasp what’s happening in the ineffable world of the internet; that dumpster fire is creating billowing clouds of noxious smoke, and it’s making it harder for all of us to breathe.
“In an already polluted information landscape, politicians have a special obligation to not contribute to that pollution,” she told me. “The reason that the Bloomberg campaign is so distressing to me is that it points to precisely what we’re up against, which is that pollution works.”
Indeed, in many ways the Bloomberg campaign is only mimicking tactics that Donald Trump successfully harnessed in 2016, when his campaign enjoyed what Phillips described as a “symbiotic relationship” with the far-right meme machine.
“My fear is that we’re going to see an avalanche of this stuff,” Wardle said. “Why shouldn’t people do it? You can do it really quickly, it’s cheap, and you hopefully mislead a bunch of people. The people who aren’t misled by it still hear about it because the media is angry about it.”
It’s a vicious cycle and the only way out is for the campaigns – and the media – to show restraint.
“What happens if Mike Bloomberg is successful?” asked Phillips. “If all you need to become president of the United States is to win the attention economy?”
A race to the bottom, I suggested.
“It would be a race to nothing,” she said. “A race to emptiness.”