TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(Reading) The Trump campaign is planning to spend more than $1 billion, and it will be aided by a vast coalition of partisan media, outside political groups and freelance operatives who are poised to wage what could be the most extensive disinformation campaign in U.S. history. Whether or not it succeeds in reelecting the president, the wreckage leaves behind could be irreparable.
That's what my guest, McKay Coppins, writes in his article "The 2020 Disinformation War: Deepfakes, Anonymous Text Messages, Potemkin Local-News Sites, And Opposition Research On Reporters - A Field Guide To The Year's Election And What It Could Do To The Country." It's published in the March issue of The Atlantic, where Coppins is a staff writer. While researching the piece, he tried to live in the same information world as Trump supporters so that he'd receive the same disinformation supporters did. In his article, he explains the surprising impact that had on him. Coppins wrote a 2015 book called "The Wilderness: Deep Inside The Republican Party's Combative, Contentious, Chaotic Quest To Take Back The White House."
McKay Coppins, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So what was your mission when you started this piece trying to understand how disinformation works?
MCKAY COPPINS: Well, I guess it came from a place of curiosity, primarily because as a political reporter, I kept encountering people either on the campaign trail or at rallies or just even in my day-to-day life who believed things that just were provably false. These weren't, you know, matters of different opinion. They weren't different ideological views. They were just - they were factual things that a lot of people seemed to believe that were not true (laughter). And, you know, as a reporter, I'm always interested in kind of the systems that lead to these views rather than kind of just interrogating individual people.
So I knew, of course, that the Trump campaign was - you know, had a shaky relationship with the truth, to put it lightly. And I knew that they were very digitally sophisticated, much more so than in 2016. And so I wanted to kind of go inside that world and see what they were doing to shape their supporters' view of the world and also to get their message out.
GROSS: So to do this, you had to get on the right lists. So you'd get the texts, you'd see the tweets, you'd get - you know, you'd see the right Facebook accounts and Facebook ads. What did you do to get on the right lists?
COPPINS: Well, you know, it started - I just gave my cellphone number to the Trump campaign so I would get their texts. And I did a few other things, but what was most illuminating was this Facebook account that I created. I kind of sat down and built a separate profile from my own with a fake name, a kind of picture of my face obscured and started clicking like on Donald Trump's official page and his reelection campaign's page and various other associated pages, basically signaling to Facebook that I was interested in pro-Trump content.
From there, the algorithm kind of prodded me to follow various other conservative pages - conservative pundit Ann Coulter, Fox Business, fan pages for Trump. I also joined a couple of private groups on Facebook for, you know, Trump superfans. And combined, this created a news feed on my Facebook account that was, you know, just filled with pro-Trump content. And (laughter) I got a good sense of kind of the - what the campaign was pumping out on a day-to-day basis.
GROSS: Tell us some of the typical messages that you got and some of the more outrageous ones.
COPPINS: Well, as you can imagine, a lot of them were sort of traditional, if especially shouty and aggressive partisan messages. You know, this is a hoax. This is a witch hunt. You know, the Democrats are out to invalidate the 2016 election - things like that that maybe as a political reporter, I've become desensitized to, but they're not completely outside the bounds of typical messaging around an impeachment battle, frankly. I think that what I saw that was different was - first of all, the volume of the content that they're putting out on Facebook is pretty overwhelming.
You know, the way that Facebook is structured, when you're scrolling through a news feed, there - it never ends, right? It just keeps repopulating with more and more content. And as I would kind of spend time lying in bed at night or in my office scrolling through, it would almost become overwhelming. There's just this torrent of messaging and, you know, kind of propagandistic posts. And the more that you saw, the more that you kind of became desensitized to it. And some of it was partisan spin, but a lot of it, frankly, was just completely false or posts that were designed to recast the - what was happening in the impeachment proceedings and make people think that something entirely different was happening.
GROSS: So give us a sense of the more fictitious narratives that you were reading.
COPPINS: So the overall narrative that they were pushing was that President Trump was, in this Ukraine matter, primarily interested in cracking down on foreign corruption and that Democrats were trying to use this to plot or execute a coup. This is a word that comes up over and over again. That was kind of the message that they were pushing. But throughout the impeachment proceedings, every day that there was a new witness or a new development in the case, the Trump campaign would put out these new videos or these ads that were designed to convince you almost that the opposite had happened.
So there were days when I would watch the impeachment hearings live on TV and I would see what I felt like was pretty damning testimony about the president's conduct in the Ukraine matter, and then I would check in on this Facebook feed and I would see a video that the Trump campaign had put out that took elements of that testimony but cut them together and recast them to make it look like it was an exoneration of the president. There would also be campaign videos that made it appear that all of the witnesses in the impeachment proceedings were just offering their opinions or how they felt and that they weren't presenting any new facts, which was also clearly not true.
But if you were an average Trump-supporting news consumer who wasn't following along on the impeachment proceedings day to day and just saw these videos, you would think that that was the fact, that was what was happening.
GROSS: Well, you were following the impeachment proceedings. What impact did this counternarrative, an often fictitious counternarrative, what impact did that have on you?
COPPINS: Yeah. I mean, I have to say, I was actually pretty surprised by the effect it had in part because I went into this exercise as a journalist knowing what I was doing, and I felt that, you know, my inherent skepticism of the Trump campaign's messaging and kind of my media literacy as somebody who's a journalist and does this professionally would kind of inoculate me against any of these distortions. But in fact, I found that I became, over time, reflexively suspicious of every headline I encountered.
It wasn't that I believed the president and his allies were telling the truth or that their narrative was true; it was more that I had this heightened suspicion or cynicism about all of the content surrounding the impeachment proceedings, and I started to question everything, frankly. It made it - it was almost like the truth about impeachment or the Ukraine affair or any other political issue felt difficult to find amid the rubble of kind of mangled facts and partisan spin. And the more time that I spent in this Facebook feed, the more it felt like observable reality itself had almost drifted out of reach.
GROSS: It turns out there's a word for this, an expression for this - scholars call this censorship through noise. Explain what censorship through noise is.
COPPINS: Yeah, it's interesting. It's a term scholars use to describe what illiberal political leaders have done in other countries, which is, you know, in the past, the way that illiberal autocrats or dictators or whatever function is that they would do what they could to censor dissenting information. They would shut down opposition newspapers. They would jail journalists. They would cut off access to information that challenged their authority or power.
And that still happens sometimes, but a lot of these illiberal leaders have discovered that in the Internet age, in the social media age, in what scholars call the information abundance age, it's a lot easier to harness the power of social media for their own means. So rather than shutting down dissenting voices, they've learned to use the democratizing power of social media to jam the signals or sow confusion. They don't have to, you know, silence the dissident who's shouting in the streets; they can actually just drown him out. And I think that over time, you've seen this in other countries - certainly in the Baltic states, in Eastern Europe, Russia.
If journalism and facts are treated as equal in credibility to partisan propaganda or lies from political leaders, if it's all one level playing field, then it becomes almost impossible for political leaders to be held accountable for their actions because you have a population that's either disengaged or distracted or confused and unable to kind of respond to the various corruptions and scandals and things that they're getting away with.
GROSS: You say that the Trump campaign might be the most extensive disinformation campaign in U.S. history. What are some of the signs of that?
COPPINS: You combine the fact that this president is willing to lie and traffics in conspiracy theories and says things that are untrue at a rate that is kind of unprecedented for a president, with all of these new tools and these new technologies and social media. And what you have is a presidential campaign that is pushing lies and distortions and conspiracy theories into the bloodstream at an unprecedented rate, with tools that enable them to do it much more efficiently and effectively than any kind of, you know, demagogic leader in generations past.
And that's what I mean when I say that this is going to be unprecedented. There's going to be a lot more money involved. The tools are a lot more powerful. And we have a president who has the powers of incumbency, the federal government behind him, willing to do things that most presidents have not shown a willingness to do.
GROSS: So Trump has more money and more influence now to spread disinformation than he did during the 2016 campaign.
COPPINS: Absolutely. I mean, you have to remember in 2016, Donald Trump, first of all, was - started out as one of 16 Republican presidential candidates. He was not somebody who had a large, sophisticated campaign staff. In fact, most of the people who went to work for him were kind of B-team operatives who didn't get hired by any of the other front-runners early in the primaries. He also was, you know, a reality TV star. He certainly had a lot of reach because he was famous, but he wasn't the president of the United States. Now he's an incumbent. He has the ability to use and leverage his incumbency for reelection.
And he's already shown a willingness to use that power in ways that are pretty brazen. You know, I talk about the 2018 midterm elections, where he actually seized on these stories about a migrant caravan traveling to the southern border from Central America and made that a central campaign issue in the final weeks of the election. And to draw attention to it, he militarized the border. He dispatched troops to the southern border. Now, I should say, the president, of course, defended those actions, saying that this was all in the name of national security, to keep the country protected. But within weeks after the midterms, he quietly began calling back those troops from the southern border.
And so I think a lot of skeptics saw that and realized that this president has a lot of power, a willingness to use it, and if he was willing to do that, just to pick up a few seats in the midterms, it begs the question what he's willing to do to win reelection.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is McKay Coppins. He's a staff writer for The Atlantic, and his new article is called "The Disinformation War." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is McKay Coppins, a staff writer for The Atlantic. His new article is called "The Disinformation War: Deepfakes, Anonymous Text Messages, Potemkin Local-News Sites, And Opposition Research On Reporters - A Field Guide To This Year's Election And What It Could Do To The Country."
So we've been talking about how the Trump campaign is using social media and using it in part to sow disinformation. The person presiding over the Trump campaign digital effort is Brad Parscale, who was also the digital director of Trump's 2016 campaign. What are some of the techniques that you think he came up with?
COPPINS: Well, you know, it's interesting. Brad Parscale is not somebody with a background in politics. In fact, in 2016, the way he got into the campaign was he was hired to design a simple landing page for the Trump presidential exploratory committee, which, you know, seemed at the time like - if anything, was a publicity stunt, maybe a lark, but did not seem like a serious thing. But because Parscale had this history with the Trump family - he had worked for them in the past - and because he was cheap and didn't have a lot of the pretensions that other political operatives had, Trump kind of liked him and brought him into the inner circle. But when you talk to people who worked with him on that campaign, they say that his political experience was actually an advantage because he was really willing to experiment with new tools that other presidential campaigns kind of looked at disdainfully or thought were kind of generally untested or unproven.
One of the things that he got really good at was using Facebook ads and particularly microtargeted Facebook ads to raise money and fire up the faithful and target persuadable voters. And so microtargeting is the process of - basically, you take the electorate, you slice it up into very small, distinct, specific niches, and then you create ads that speak directly to those niches. And Facebook allows campaigns to create these ads and serve them to very small groups. So whereas in the past, a presidential campaign would have to create an ad and put it on TV and all kinds of different people would see it, now they can create an ad, let's say, that calls for the defunding of Planned Parenthood - which is, you know, a divisive political issue or a stance - and rather than kind of blasting it on national TV, they can serve it directly to 800 Roman Catholic, pro-life women in Dubuque, Iowa. And they know that it'll probably get a more positive result that way.
GROSS: And the Republican Party has information on just about every voter to help them figure out who to target.
COPPINS: Yeah, it's been reported that the RNC and the Trump campaign have compiled an average of 3,000 data points on every voter in America. And so that means everything from what you like to watch on TV, what kind of stores you shop at, whether you've been to a gun show or own a gun. They've compiled all this data, and they can use it to carefully tailor messages just for you. And I should say that this is not unique to the Trump campaign. This isn't something Brad Parscale invented. Barack Obama's campaign famously did it in 2012. The Clinton campaign did it as well in 2016. But the Trump campaign's effort was different, both because it was much more extensive and also, frankly, a lot more brazen.
One example I give in the piece is - in 2016, the Trump campaign, in the final weeks of the race, tried to depress black turnout in Florida by microtargeting ads to black voters in that state that said, Hillary thinks African Americans are superpredators, so drawing from that famous controversial comment that Clinton had made in the '90s, but obviously taking it out of context and generalizing it a bit more than I think the average fact-checker would say is OK. They microtargeted these to black voters not even really to win them over or get them to vote for Trump but to keep them away from the polls. And we only know about that specific case because a Trump campaign official boasted about it at the time and said, this is one of three major voter suppression efforts that we have that are underway.
But the campaign puts out so many Facebook ads that it's really difficult for journalists or watchdog groups to wade through all of them. Just as an example, in the 10 weeks after the impeachment proceedings began, the Trump campaign ran 14,000 ads on Facebook containing the word impeachment.
GROSS: So as a comparison between what Republicans have done and Democrats, you write that from June to November, during Trump's campaign in 2016, Trump's campaign took out 5.9 million ads on Facebook; Hillary Clinton's campaign took out 66,000. So, again, that's 5.9 million ads versus 66,000 ads on Facebook. What does that say to you? And do you expect that this time around those numbers will be similarly disproportionate?
COPPINS: Well, probably not. I mean, part of the reason that the Trump campaign was willing to go so heavy on Facebook ads was, frankly, because they didn't have the money that the Clinton campaign did to put up TV ads, which are more expensive and more difficult to place. And so this was actually kind of something they stumbled upon that really worked for them. In 2020, Democrats seem much more attuned to the realities of our information ecosystem and realize that to reach voters, they're going to have to be on Facebook and Google and really go heavy on online advertising.
But I will say that the president still has a distinct advantage, in part because he has so much more money than any of the Democratic candidates. He formed his reelection campaign immediately after he was inaugurated, and they started raising money right away. And so they have a huge war chest, and so it seems likely that the Trump campaign will still come out ahead.
GROSS: My guest is McKay Coppins, a staff writer for The Atlantic. His new article is titled "The 2020 Disinformation War." After a break, we'll talk about how Trump allies have scraped the social media accounts of hundreds of political journalists, searching for embarrassing posts to be used against them when a story is deemed unfair or politically damaging. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with McKay Coppins, whose new article, "The 2020 Disinformation War," is in the current issue of The Atlantic, where Coppins is a staff writer. He writes about how the Trump campaign and a vast coalition of partisan media, outside political groups and freelance operatives are poised to wage what could be the most extensive disinformation campaign in U.S. history. As part of his research, Coppins tried to live in the same media and social media world as Trump supporters so he could monitor the information or disinformation they were receiving.
Mark Zuckerberg is allowing candidates to place false political ads. He's not - he's decided Facebook should not have editorial control over that. How does that compare with commercial ads on Facebook?
COPPINS: Yeah, this is a very important point because when a company places an ad on Facebook, it is subject to fact-checking. It's not allowed to say obviously false things about its product. And if it does, Facebook will remove that ad and, you know, punish that client. That is not true of political ads.
Mark Zuckerberg came under a lot of pressure after the 2016 election to crack down on the spread of misinformation on his platform. And he rolled out a flurry of reforms but, in the end, decided that it was not their place to prevent political ads that are dishonest or even just completely unfactual (ph). He believes that because political ads receive a lot of scrutiny already from the press and from opposition parties and from watchdogs, that it's not Facebooks role to censor them, that he lets politicians put out whatever ads they want and let's kind of the electorate decide whether they're true or not.
GROSS: It sounds like during this campaign that the Trump campaign is emphasizing texting more than it did in 2016, and you were receiving Trump campaign texts. How is the texting platform seen as a particularly good one for the campaign?
COPPINS: Yeah. And I bet a lot of your listeners have experienced this. You know, there's been a huge uptick in unsolicited political text messages this campaign season, and there's a reason for that. So until pretty recently, you had to opt in to receive mass text messages from politicians or campaigns. But there are these new apps called peer-to-peer texting apps that allow people - volunteers, campaign staffers, whoever - to send hundreds of messages an hour. They just literally have to sit there and press, click over and over and over again. And that's considered by the FCC to be not mass texting, but one-on-one texting.
And so a lot of campaigns have taken advantage of this loophole and begun using these peer-to-peer texting apps to send out - you know, send out messages to millions of people, unsolicited. The Trump campaign has gone in on this strategy much more than other campaigns have. That's in part because one of their senior officials, Gary Coby, developed one of these peer-to-peer texting apps. But the reason that they're seen as so valuable is because unlike robocalls that get sent to voicemail or email blasts that get ignored or trapped in spam folders, these peer-to-peer texting companies say that at least 90% of their messages are opened. And so this is a very effective way to reach a lot of voters.
GROSS: One of the things you learned about in writing about the disinformation war was how the Trump inner circle amplifies their attacks against journalists who they see as being anti-Trump. So give us an example of one of the stories, you know, that a journalist wrote that resulted in a whole campaign against him.
COPPINS: Yeah. Well, I was kind of made aware of this effort last year. I was on the phone with a Republican operative who is close to the Trump family, working on a separate story. And he casually mentioned over the course of our conversation that there was a reporter at Business Insider, the website, that was about to have a very bad day. And the journalist in this case had tweeted something that annoyed Donald Trump Jr., the president's son, and that had prompted the president's son's kind of inner circle, his friends and allies, to work together to put together a hit piece on this journalist.
And when I was talking to this operative, he was kind of bragging that, you know, oh, this story is going to demolish the journalist's credibility; just wait - it's going to be great. And honestly, I didn't really know what to make of it. A lot of the sources that I talked to in Trump world tend to boast and gloat a lot, and there's not always a lot of follow-through. But a few hours after that, the operative sent me a link to this Breitbart news story targeting this particular journalist and his history of intense Trump hatred - that was the headline.
And what the story was based on was a series of Instagram posts that the journalist had posted in which he was seen kind of making fun of the president or making political jokes or expressing solidarity with liberal causes. And the Breitbart story quickly kind of ricocheted around the conservative social media sphere. Don Jr. tweeted this story to his followers, calling the journalist a raging lib, and other conservatives piled on and called for him to be fired. And, you know, his employer released a statement saying that the posts were not appropriate.
And I talked to this journalist after the whole thing happened. And he said that, you know, it was very bizarre and unsettling, and he had the feeling that this was somehow a coordinated effort, but he couldn't quite prove it. What I ended up finding as I did some more reporting on this is that there is a very organized project by a coalition of Trump allies to air embarrassing information about reporters who produce critical coverage of Trump.
GROSS: Well, in fact, you say that the Trump organization has basically vacuumed up a lot of information and old social media posts by a lot of journalists, particularly ones who they think might say negative things about Trump so that they have this negative information that they could use against the journalist as needed.
COPPINS: Yeah. So what's been described to me is that they have this dossier where, like you said, yes, they've scraped all these social media posts. And I've even been told that they have - they hired a programmer to turn it into a searchable database. So basically, anytime a story is published that is deemed kind of especially unfair or politically damaging to President Trump, they will search this database for the journalists involved - the journalists who wrote the story, maybe editors at the same outlet and see if they have anything embarrassing about those journalists. And if they do, they can turn that over to the right-wing press - Breitbart usually is involved - and turn it into a story that will hopefully, in their view, discredit the journalist or at least embarrass them and, ideally, make them lose their jobs.
GROSS: Have you found a specific example where Trump operatives or allies have used information from one of these dossiers to attack a journalist?
COPPINS: Yeah, there have been a few examples. They've gone after journalists at CNN, Washington Post, New York Times. These are kind of some of the outlets that the president complains about most often. In one case, they exposed a reporter for using a homophobic slur in college. In another, they found anti-Semitic and racist jokes that the reporter had posted a decade earlier. And in both of those cases, the reporters apologized. They didn't lose their jobs, so these weren't, like, career-ending revelations. But what I've heard is that they have a lot more information, and they're planning to deploy it strategically over the next nine or 10 months as the campaign heats up.
GROSS: And then you found a whole mechanism - once information from the dossier is plucked out to be used against the journalist, there's a whole mechanism for amplifying it. What's that mechanism?
COPPINS: Well, so often, what happens, I'm told, is that Donald Trump Jr. will flag a story in a text thread that he uses for this purpose. He often texts with, you know, GOP operatives and conservative media people. And once a story's been marked for attack, someone will search the dossier for material on the journalist involved. If they find something, they'll turn it over to Breitbart. They'll turn that into a headline. And then once that's out on the internet, White House officials and campaign surrogates can share it on social media to try to discredit the journalist while still maintaining a distance from the effort. The White House has denied that they're involved in this, but they have shared stories attacking journalists using kind of Breitbart content in the past.
GROSS: So what you're describing is this feedback loop where somebody like Don Jr. or a Trump operative sends a story to Breitbart, Breitbart writes the story and then the headline can be tweeted out by Republican operatives or Don Jr. in addition to Fox News. So, like, you send the story to Breitbart. Breitbart writes the headline. Then you retweet it, and it looks like, look what Breitbart said; we're just amplifying that, when they're just amplifying the message of Don Jr. and the Republican operatives.
COPPINS: That's exactly right. And, you know, what's notable about this - because I think that some people read about this effort or might hear about this effort and say, look; you know, there's nothing wrong with exposing that a journalist has a liberal political bias if they're not forthright about that. But I think what's notable about this is that, you know, in the past, conservatives have complained about a liberal slant in the media. And I think that that's often merited. I think that they have some good points about that. But the people involved in this effort are not trying to critique the mainstream media or reform it or bring more balance or conservative voices into it. They are very deliberately trying to discredit and dismantle the mainstream media altogether.
In fact, Matthew Boyle, an editor at Breitbart who is often involved in this effort, gave a speech at the Heritage Foundation in 2017 where he said, journalistic integrity is dead. There is no such thing anymore. So everything now is about weaponization of information. And that's really at the root of this whole enterprise. They're not trying to make journalists be better or get them to do their jobs better. They're trying to discredit them and weaponize information and make it so that journalism and facts are seen as on par with political talking points and propaganda.
GROSS: So that you just give up trying to discern the difference between the two.
COPPINS: Exactly, so that everybody feels like, you know, this is all just a matter of opinion. It's all a matter of worldview. It's not a matter of facts. I'll have my set of facts, you have your set of facts, and that's fine.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk more about the disinformation war in the presidential campaign. If you're just joining us, my guest is McKay Coppins, a staff writer for The Atlantic, and "The Disinformation War" is the title of his new article. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is McKay Coppins, a staff writer for The Atlantic. His new piece is called "The Disinformation War: A Field Guide To This Year's Election And What It Could Do To The Country."
I want to get back to the discrediting of journalists and digging up embarrassing information and storing it and then using it when the time is right to attack them. Do you think that this is having a chilling effect on journalists because - let's face it. A lot of journalists now are not only getting attacked on social media. They're getting death threats. I mean, their families are in - are being threatened, too. It's really a terrible period in that sense.
COPPINS: Yeah, so I would say two things. One is that the journalists I know who cover the administration do try to keep this noise out of their mind when they're doing their jobs, but it is hard, right? In the back of your mind, you can't help but wonder, you know, when are these people going to come after me? What do they have on me? What are they going to say or make up to try to embarrass me or get me in trouble with my bosses? It's just natural that you would have those thoughts pinging around in the back of your mind, even while you try to keep them at bay as you focus on doing your job.
The other thing I would say is that, you know, there are certainly more dangerous places to be a journalist. And I don't think that the average Washington journalist or political reporter in America is facing anything like the kinds of threats that reporters face in other countries, where you have a much more fragile democracy and civil rights are much more fragile. That said, it is clear that these Trump allies' efforts to discredit the institution of the press are drawing direct lessons from a lot of those countries, you know - because illiberal leaders have long ago learned that when the press as an institution is discredited or weakened, it makes it a lot easier for them to get away with the things they want to get away with.
GROSS: Have any Trump operatives gone after you because of your piece on the disinformation war in The Atlantic?
COPPINS: Not yet. You know, there have certainly been criticisms from the right. And the Trump campaign put out a statement saying that my story was itself disinformation, which kind of neatly encapsulates, I think, what we've been talking about here. But no, nobody has come after me directly, though I have had my brushes with pro-Trump operatives and allies in the past.
GROSS: Give us an example.
COPPINS: Well, actually, the first example was years and years ago, before he was even running for president. I wrote a profile of him in 2014, when he was first thinking about running for president. And I ended up spending a couple days at Mar-a-Lago with him through a kind of fluke blizzard that caused him to reroute his plane to Mar-a-Lago while I was on it with him.
Suffice it to say, he did not like the profile that I wrote. And it was interesting 'cause, now looking back on it, he was sort of foreshadowing all the attacks that he would wage on the press once he ascended to political power. But at the time, you know, he tweeted a lot of nasty things about me. He actually did place a story in Breitbart that was completely fictitious, accusing me of behaving boorishly when I was at his resort, specifically toward the women there - and, you know, made a lot of other false claims about me.
At the time, he was just kind of this reality TV show guy. And it was a little disconcerting to experience it, but it all felt kind of like a game almost. I knew that the things he was saying were untrue. Most of the people in my life just laughed it off, and we all kind of moved on with our lives. But now that he's using the same tactics as president of the United States with a lot more resources and a lot more power, I think it's much more alarming and this kind of treatment of the press should be given a lot more attention.
GROSS: I want to get back to some of the techniques that are being used now to spread disinformation. You write that the Trump campaign is planning to open up a new front, which is local news. What's the plan?
COPPINS: Yeah. Brad Parscale, Trump's campaign manager, spoke to donors in Miami last year and actually said that one of the things he wants to do is train swarms of surrogates - those are his words - to undermine negative coverage from local TV stations and newspapers. I actually got a recording of this speech that The Palm Beach Post gave to me, wherein he said, we can actually build up and fight with the local newspapers so we're not just fighting on Fox News, CNN and MSNBC with the same 700,000 people watching every day.
And you know, this is a pretty cunning if, I think, troubling approach - because if you look at polls, it's been true for a long time that Americans trust the local press more than they do the national press. And a lot of the negative coverage that's probably most damaging to the president comes from hometown newspapers or local newspapers in election years. So Brad Parscale has talked about building an apparatus, basically, to take the war with the press to a local level.
GROSS: They're also apparently creating versions of the local press that aren't really local.
COPPINS: Yeah, this is a kind of strange trend that people began noticing a couple years ago. There have been all these websites popping up across the Internet with innocuous names like the Arizona Monitor and The Kalamazoo Times. And if you look at them, they look like local news websites. You know, they have coverage of schools and coverage of gas prices and community notices. But if you actually study them, there are often no bylines on the stories, no mastheads. There's no local addresses.
And it turns out that a lot of these are actually owned and operated by Republican lobbying groups or just third-party businesses. There's one company called Locality Labs, which is run by a conservative activist in Illinois, that's behind a lot of these websites. And readers are given no indication that these sites have a political agenda, which is kind of what makes them valuable.
So I spoke to one political strategist who told me that the way that these are often used is that a candidate who's looking to plant a negative story about, say, a Democratic opponent can actually pay to have the headline that they want posted on some of these these "news" sites - I use news in quotes - these faux news sites. And by working through a third-party consulting firm instead of paying the sites directly, they actually are able to obscure their involvement in the scheme when they file their finance reports to the Federal Election Commission.
So basically, you have political candidates dictating the coverage they want, getting it placed in these faux local news sites. And the average reader who sees it probably just assumes it's a real local news site - especially as the real local press has become hollowed out over the past couple of decades, these sites have filled that vacuum but as, basically, political propaganda outfits.
GROSS: So this is where we are now. When it comes to some local stories, you not only have to ask yourself, is this story true? - but is the website real? Is this publication a real local publication?
COPPINS: Yeah, that's right. And look, it's asking an enormous amount of the average news consumer, who does not spend hours a day like I do, frankly, you know, reading the news and reading various publications. They're just trying to check in on something or they're scrolling through Facebook looking at photos of their, you know, grandkids, and they come across a headline like this. They're inclined, probably, to believe it, especially if it's on a website like the ones that are being designed. But yeah, frankly, you should not trust a website that you're not familiar with and that you don't know to be trustworthy just because it looks like it's a local news site.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is McKay Coppins, a staff writer for The New Yorker. His new piece is called "The Disinformation War: A Field Guide To This Year's Election And What It Could Do To The Country." We'll be back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEASTIE BOYS' "NAMASTE (ALTERNATE MIX/NO VOCALS)")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is McKay Coppins, a staff writer for The Atlantic. His new piece is called "The Disinformation War: Deepfakes, Anonymous Text Messages, Potemkin Local-News Sites And Opposition Research On Reporters - A Field Guide To This Year's Election And What It Could Do To The Country."
The question has been raised, if Republicans are using dirty tricks - and especially dirty tricks in the digital sphere - does that mean in order to win, that Democrats have to do that, too?
COPPINS: This is an active debate among Democratic strategists right now. There are some who say this is precisely the wrong time for Democrats to abandon their principles of fairness and honesty and that we need to be the party of truth and honesty. But there are others who have argued pretty forcefully and pretty transparently that the only way to contend with the president's reelection effort is to co-opt his tactics and improve upon them.
There is one guy, Dmitri Mehlhorn, who's a Democratic consultant who's kind of notorious for experimenting with digital dirty tricks. During the Alabama special election in 2017, he helped fund two different false flag operations against Roy Moore - you remember, the Republican Senate candidate. In one scheme, faux Russian Twitter bots actually followed the candidate's account en masse to make it look like Russia was backing Moore. And in another, there was a social media campaign dubbed Dry Alabama that was designed to make it look like Moore had the support of Baptist teetotalers who wanted to ban alcohol. And it was all fictional.
I should note that Mehlhorn has actually said he was unaware of these efforts, doesn't support the use of the misinformation. But his group did help fund them. And more broadly, there are Democrats that are pointing to these efforts and say, we need to do more of that and do it on a much bigger scale if we're going to defeat Trump.
GROSS: What's your reaction to that?
COPPINS: You know (laughter), as a journalist, my bias is strongly toward truth and accuracy. And I have a lot of concern about what will happen to our information ecosystem if the Democrats decide to escalate and do - and mimic the tactics that President Trump and his allies are undertaking. I think that right now - my biggest concern going forward after the 2020 election is not really who wins - which party wins, who comes away with power in the short term - it's what happens to our information ecosystem now.
If we get to a situation where Democrats and Republicans have both fully bought into the idea that truth is irrelevant, that advancing disinformation is the only way to win an election, we'll end up in a situation that a lot of other countries have found themselves in, where the average voter, on a day-to-day basis, has no idea what is true in the news, what to believe and generally disengages and just throws up their hands. And that, I think, is a very dangerous situation for our democracy.
GROSS: McKay Coppins, thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR.
COPPINS: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: McKay Coppins is a staff writer for The Atlantic. His new article is titled "The 2020 Disinformation War."
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be MSNBC legal analyst Jill Wine-Banks, who was a young lawyer in the special prosecutor's office during the Watergate investigation. She'll talk about confronting Nixon administration insiders on the witness stand, enduring sexism in the courtroom and how the Watergate probe differs from investigations into President Trump. She's written a new book called "The Watergate Girl." I hope you can join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Mooj Zadie and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.
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