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Behind The 'Disinformation Campaign' Backing Trump In The 2020 Election

Feb 7, 2020
Originally published on February 7, 2020 2:12 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As Democrats in Iowa and beyond try to figure out what went wrong with the state's election app and how to move forward from this week's debacle, Republicans are in a different place. President Trump's team is presiding over a sophisticated, multimillion-dollar digital operation, an operation that carries his campaign's message across just about every digital platform available. And that message, says journalist McKay Coppins, could result in the most extensive disinformation campaign in U.S. history. He's been writing about this for The Atlantic. He is here in our studios now.

McKay Coppins, welcome.

MCKAY COPPINS: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: So I want to, in a moment, get to the substance of what the Trump campaign is putting out. Talk me first through how it reaches voters.

COPPINS: So Brad Parscale, the campaign manager for President Trump, was the digital director in 2016 and, during that last election, became a mastermind of the dark arts of politics on social media. He specifically used Facebook to great effect in 2016 by using microtargeting, which is the process of basically slicing up the electorate into very small, very specific distinct niches and creating online ads that directly target them.

KELLY: So if I play golf and I live in a certain part of a certain state and they know I like to wear Gap jeans, I'm going to get a certain...

COPPINS: That's exactly...

KELLY: ...Type of ads.

COPPINS: Literally, it's actually that granular. There have been reports that the Republican National Committee and Trump campaign actually have 3,000 data points on almost every voter in America, and they use those data points to determine how exactly to pitch their message. So a message, for example, on defunding Planned Parenthood might not go over well in certain parts of the country, but if you microtarget it to 800 pro-life women in Dubuque, Iowa, it's going to get a positive result. And that's how they kind of have waged their campaign.

KELLY: Well, and to that point, I mean, you called it a dark arts campaign, but it is, A, legal and, B, spectacularly successful.

COPPINS: Very successful. And in fact, Democrats and Republicans have begun to use it more and more, this microtargeting on Facebook. Facebook has developed new tools for campaigns to use this. The difference is that the Trump campaign - their effort with microtargeting and digital efforts is much more expansive and much more brazen, frankly. You know, one example in 2016 was the Trump campaign, toward the end of the race, microtargeted ads to black voters in Florida with an ad that said, Hillary thinks African Americans are super-predators. And the goal was not even really to win over black voters. It was to depress black turnout in Florida. And, you know, we only knew about that specific case because a Trump campaign official decided to boast about it to a reporter back then, but we know very little about the vast amount of microtargeted advertising that they've done in 2016. And even this year, we only know so much.

KELLY: You decided to wade into this and try to get firsthand experience, and you write in this article about creating a brand-new Facebook account for yourself. What did you set up, and then what happened?

COPPINS: This was in the midst of the impeachment battle. And I wanted to get a sense of what the Trump campaign was pumping out into the bloodstream that I may not be seeing as just kind of an ordinary person or as a journalist, so I created a fake Facebook account. I chose a forgettable name, got a picture with my face obscured. And then I just started clicking like on the president's reelection campaign and various associated pages. This created sort of...

KELLY: Signaling you would be open to pro-Trump messaging.

COPPINS: Exactly. And this created sort of a news feed on Facebook that was Trump-ified (ph), MAGA-fied (ph), if you will (laughter). And so for several weeks, I spent time just scrolling through it to see what kind of information they were putting out there.

KELLY: And?

COPPINS: It was fairly alarming, I have to say. I mean, of course there's always a certain amount of partisan spin. This comes from both sides. But what I found was that as I was following the impeachment proceedings in my normal life day to day, I would be watching the proceedings - an impeachment hearing, for example - on TV, and I would see what I thought was pretty damning testimony about the president's conduct. And that was the conclusion I came away with. And then later in the day, I would check in on this Facebook feed and just see an overwhelming torrent of content that was recasting what had happened that day in completely different terms. In fact, even at times, the Trump campaign would create videos that were supercuts of the same testimony I had watched earlier that day but made to look like something completely different happened. And I even found myself wondering sometimes, is that actually what happened? Did I misunderstand what happened in the hearings?

KELLY: Started making you question facts, truth...

COPPINS: It made...

KELLY: ...What - where is the truth.

COPPINS: Absolutely. It made me question what I was seeing with my own two eyes. And over time, it kind of eroded my trust in all news and all content. I found myself becoming reflexively suspicious and cynical about everything that I saw because I started to just - you know, it was almost like the notion of observable reality was kind of drifting out of reach.

KELLY: And you write that, in your view, this presents a threat to democracy. But let me push back. If you're a presidential campaign, you're out to win. Why not use every tool at your disposal?

COPPINS: This is actually a debate that Democrats are having right now. I write about that in the piece, too. There are a lot of Democratic strategists who say, look.

KELLY: If this is what we're competing with, do we need to be in the same sphere?

COPPINS: We need to do the same thing. And this is the world we have, and we - and this is a war for power, and this is what it is. What I would say is that nobody benefits in the end if our entire information ecosystem collapses into kind of this dystopia of disinformation and propaganda and lies and conspiracy theories where nobody can sort out reality. This has happened in other countries. And there are a lot of countries where the average person has no idea day to day what to believe, what's true. And it's very hard for them to grasp kind of at reality. And in the end, it erodes our confidence in our democratic institutions. It erodes our ability to sort out fact from fiction. And it actually makes it harder for Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, to compete in the marketplace of ideas because reality doesn't exist as a regulating force.

KELLY: How does all this compare to what Democratic presidential campaigns are doing on the digital and social media fronts?

COPPINS: The Republicans, and especially the Trump campaign, are much more sophisticated, much more advanced and, so far, have been more - for lack of a better word - shameless. They're much more willing to push boundaries and do things that are outside of our political norms than Democrats. There are some Democratic strategists who say, we need to fight fire with fire. But at least so far, most of the Democratic campaigns and candidates haven't quite been willing to go as far as the Trump campaign.

KELLY: I mean, if you, as a journalist, as a sophisticated consumer and chronicler of news, had trouble sorting fact from fiction, what can the average American do?

COPPINS: This is the question that was in the back of my mind throughout this whole process. You know, the one thing that I would say is that we all need to be inherently skeptical of anything we see on the Internet that confirms our worldview too much. The thing that I've learned from reporting on this subject is that there is a vast industry of people whose entire job is to create content to tell you that you're right and the rest of the world is wrong. And so when you come across that information, be skeptical of it and find - seek out second and third sources to confirm, especially before you share it or make voting decisions based on it.

KELLY: We should all be spending more time reading things that annoy us (laughter).

COPPINS: Yeah, get outside of your information bubble a little bit. Yeah, I think so.

KELLY: That is McKay Coppins. He writes for The Atlantic, and his latest article is titled "The 2020 Disinformation War."

McKay Coppins, thank you.

COPPINS: Thank you.

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