Nobody would have expected the President to answer the question differently. Anthony Fauci is his chief advisor on the Covid-19 pandemic, a celebrated infectious disease expert and one of the most trusted voices in government for much of his long career. At the White House, however, the fact that the question was actually asked set alarm bells ringing.
Conservatives on social media had spent more than a year trying to discredit Fauci. Increasingly, these efforts were based on exaggeration, misrepresentation and open conspiracies. Now it had wandered off the edge into a presidential forum.
“This question is to be asked [the result of] a successful smear campaign, ”said Tim Durigan, DNC’s chief analyst in its Counter Disinformation Program, of a widespread online attack against Fauci who labeled him a war criminal. “For a mainstream reporter to spread the idea that the president doesn’t trust Dr. Fauci has is a win for those who want to spread the misinformation.
At the immediate level, the attacks on Fauci’s credibility posed problems for the White House, which has relied on the head of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases to combat vaccination hesitation.
On a larger scale, it illustrated a larger hurdle that the administration was facing. Disinformation was widespread during the Biden era. Big problems emerged (the biggest single area of disinformation the Biden White House has focused on is vaccine hesitation), existential (the so-called “Big Lie” – that Biden fraudulently won his 2020 elections) has – is the most important of them) and small (for a short time the White House pushed back reports that it was intended to ration hamburger consumption).
It’s a pervasive problem that Democrats believe will have to be aggressively addressed in 2022 and 2024. And it’s one that the White House isn’t taking on alone. Outside, allied organizations have played different roles in monitoring and determining the content that is consumed on social media.
Tackling misinformation (falsehoods) and disinformation (deliberate falsehoods) can be a massive undertaking that requires intense and meticulous social media tracking. It also means facing social media platforms that can cause the White House problems with the First Amendment if viewed as an attempt to restrict content.
Building Back Together, an advocacy group closely related to Biden, has taken on the role of fighting social media outfits, including Facebook, on behalf of the White House in an attempt to keep the platform away from false election narratives. The DNC has taken on more hand-to-hand combat in defense of Biden and other Democrats, keeping an eye on emerging issues that it has identified as momentum on the right.
One such focus is critical race theory. The academic concept of civil rights activists barely made a difference on social media in 2020. But since January there have been 25 million interactions with critical racial theory on Facebook, according to a DNC analysis. Discussions about transgender sports have also dominated conservative sides, Durigan said. aims to stir up fears that an executive order signed by Biden to protect transgender people from discrimination would “destroy” women’s sport.
Both DNC and BBT cite “the big lie” – the misconception shared by former President Donald Trump and his supporters that Biden was illegally elected president – one of the most widespread examples of misinformation circulating online.
BBT oversees social media companies and recently asked Facebook to conduct a full review of its platform’s role in the lead up to the deadly January 6 uprising in the U.S. Capitol. A senior adviser to BBT described the group’s role in holding platforms like Facebook accountable if Democrats enter halftime and 2024. That meant discussing Facebook’s response to its complaints that it wasn’t moving quickly enough to remove incorrect information.
According to the adviser, BBT regularly updates White House officials with the latest data from the group, including the development of the fraudulent election narrative. The adviser stressed that while the group and the White House have political ties, they do not act as an arm of the White House.
Bob Bauer, the attorney who directs BBT’s voting program, said the group considered the claim that “the electoral process is corrupt” to be the most dangerous false narrative on social media. Bauer, who advised Biden’s presidential campaign and was an advisor to former President Barack Obama in the White House, described a “reinforcement loop” that lives on social media platforms and spreads theories that elections are rigged. Unchecked, they could contribute to a “dangerous loss of confidence in democratic institutions”.
The Biden White House strategy is not dissimilar to the Biden campaign: Let conspiracies or extreme falsehoods live in the dark corners of the internet, with the belief that dealing directly with such claims will only sustain them.
However, that does not mean that it is a hand-off approach. The White House’s Office of Digital Strategy employs about two dozen people who work to monitor and, if necessary, address disinformation, including encouraging various websites to review incorrect content. In most cases, their job is to ward off falsehoods by ensuring a steady flow of factual and positive information on social media platforms.
“For us, it ensures that we publish content really aggressively and share our messages in places where there is a lot of disinformation, both on our channels and on the channels that the people who are in this audience trust,” said Rob Flaherty, director of the White House’s Office of Digital Strategy. “The best leverage we will have on disinformation is to get our message and narrative out into the ecosystem. For this purpose, we have built a robust digital operation in the White House. “
In the Fauci case, the White House did not flood its social media pages with corrections and defenses after posting previous emails – received through the Freedom of Information Act – expressing early skepticism about wearing masks and about the origins of the coronavirus was pushed. Instead, Biden offered his personal assistance, and shortly thereafter, Fauci traveled to New York with First Lady Jill Biden, where they held events encouraging Americans to get vaccinated.
Durigan said the DNC’s data showed widespread falsehoods about Fauci. But the committee did not see it as its job to jump into the middle of this fight, since Fauci is not a political figure.
During the presidential election, the Biden campaign chose not to be heavily involved in attacks with Hunter Biden, especially, Durigan said, because the narrative “stayed right-wing.” The campaign also struggled with altered videos by Biden attempting to portray him as cognitively impaired. The way to combat this is not to correct them, but to get positive images of Biden on social media, Durigan said.
“They’re splicing videos and making the president look like he’s having trouble speaking,” he said. Platforms will generally remove fake videos themselves, Durigan said. But it is just as important and arguably more effective, said Durigan, to post a video in which Biden fights against former President Donald Trump in debates.
In the run-up to 2022, however, the DNC pulled its disinformation program out of a separate operation and incorporated it into the communications shop, a recognition of the daily struggles that lie ahead.
The DNC has also become more involved in other areas, including information on vaccines and allegations of fraudulent election results. Sometimes, Durigan said, it means talking to social media platforms about false information that goes prominently into the algorithms. Sometimes it means holding back despite the impulse to get involved.
“If you answer, reinforce it,” said Durigan. “You have to choose your battles.”