A Blog by Jonathan Low


Oct 2, 2020

Why a Chaotic Debate and Trump's Infection Enhance Social Media's Importance

Fewer people were already expected to watch the next Presidential debates due to the universal condemnation of the way the first one was conducted, which means digital and social media would become more important sources of information.

And now that Trump has tested positive after months of disparaging the virus and basic healthcare protection, the demand for instant communication on his condition as well as ongoing debates about Covid's severity will rise on platforms chronically condemned for their refusal to edit mis-and-disinformation. JL

Cat Zakrzewski reports in the Washington Post:

Called the “worst presidential debate in living memory", it's unclear how many voters will tune in to the remaining two showdowns between Trump and Biden. That means more people could be turning to social media for information about the candidates that ever before.The intense back and forth (in) an increasingly polarized political environment could intensify existing issues with online discourse. Social media companies  are under pressure to ensure that misinformation – especially about voting processes – does not spread on their platforms.

The first 2020 presidential debate was incoherent, chaotic and difficult to watch. That put more pressure on President Trump and Joe Biden's campaigns to make the night count on social media. 
Biden sought to up his game on Twitter and Facebook as he sometimes struggled to get a word in edgewise as Trump constantly steamrolled him with interruptions and insults. 

On social media, Biden highlighted his best soundbites and offered fact checks of Trump’s repeated false claims. His campaign team also tried to seize on potentially viral moments and was swiftly out with a link to buy a t-shirt with the line of the night, “Will you shut up, man."
Meanwhile Trump was using powerful Facebook advertising tools to amplify misinformation. He was running dozens of ads last night that implied Biden was wearing an earpiece during the debate – after such false rumors festered on social media and were covered by conservative news outlets. 
Facebook declined to comment on the ad, but the company does not fact check ads from politicians. The company's fact-checking partners did debunk and label similar claims from accounts that did not belong to politicians. The travesty of a debate further proves campaigns' digital strategies matter more than ever in 2020. 
The coronavirus pandemic has forced most campaign events – especially on the left – to go virtual already this year. The presidential debates would have been among the few political events this year that changed little from their traditional format during this unorthodox year.

But now that last night's performance is being called the “worst presidential debate in living memory” by many observers, it's unclear how many voters will tune in to the remaining two showdowns between Trump and Biden. That means more people could be turning to social media for information about the candidates that ever before – for better or worse. 
Social media companies were among the clear losers of the night. 
CNN's fact checker said the president spread “an avalanche of lying” during the debate. That's only going to increase the challenge for social media companies who are under pressure to ensure that misinformation – especially about voting processes – does not spread on their platforms. Trump's lengthy and largely false diatribe about mail-in voting on TV comes as the companies have been criticized for not doing enough to rein in his false claims on their platform. 
The intense back and forth could also lead to an increasingly polarized political environment, which could intensify some of the existing issues with online discourse. The Biden campaign was preparing for this dynamic. 
Trump's brash style increased the pressure on his campaign and the Democratic National Committee war room to provide lengthier fact checks on Twitter – particularly through the @Truth account they unveiled ahead of the debate to fact check the presidents’ remarks. 

“Donald Trump has lied to the American people more than any president in our history -- by far,” Biden spokesman Andrew Bates said ahead of the debate. “The American people deserve to remember what it's like to have a president who tells the truth again."
Throughout the night, that account was trying to provide more context to Biden's pushback of Trump onstage, often linking to news stories from outlets including The Washington Post and CNN that debunked the president's claims. 
The Biden campaign had some strong viral moments before the debate started. 
Biden has traditionally struggled to keep pace with Trump on social and has a significantly smaller online following than the president. But last night he appeared to be upping his game as he hit back against viral misinformation about the earpiece and suggestions that he might take performance enhancing drugs with his Twitter account: 
Meanwhile, Rob Flaherty, Biden’s digital director, was ready with a very 2020 tweet. He commissioned a video of former Trump 2016 campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to give Biden a pump-up speech via the Cameo, an app that allows people to commission videos from celebrities and online influencers.
Trump, meanwhile, used his Twitter and Facebook presence to make false claims about what happened in the debate. 
In addition to the Facebook ad, Trump also shared a highly edited video on Twitter that suggested Biden wanted to defund the police – even after Biden strongly denied onstage that he supported defunding the police. 

Trump also sought to focus on “law and order” in his messaging on social media, falsely suggesting that Biden wouldn't even say the words:
Biden actually said he was in favor of “law and order with justice, where people get treated fairly.”

The president made the comments in an effort to deflect a question from moderator Chris Wallace asking him if he would condemn violent militias and white supremacists who have become a dangerous presence at recent protests.
“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by, Trump said. But I'll tell you what  I'll tell you what, somebody's got to do something about antifa and the left because this is not a right-wing problem.
The right-wing extremist group took the president's comments to “stand back and stand by” as marching orders instead, Ben Collins and Brandy Zadrozny at NBC News report.  Proud Boys' main group, which has been kicked off most major social media platforms including Facebook, posted about the comments on Telegram.  

“President Trump told the Proud Boys to stand by because someone needs to deal with ANTIFA … well sir! we're ready!!" Proud Boys organizer Joe Biggs also posted. Another member incorporated Trump's comments into a new logo for the group.
Proud Boys, a far-right “Western chauvinist” group that has been associated with white nationalist rhetoric, have recently involved themselves in violent protests that have erupted in Portland over police brutality. Antifa is an ideological movement and not an organized group.
Biden, who condemned white supremacists during the debate, called that post “Trump's America.”


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