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As Joe Biden walked out of a recent briefing, a reporter called out one last, unrelated question.
“Mr. President, do you still have confidence in Dr. Fauci?”
Biden popped his head back into the room, “Yes, I'm very confident in Dr. Fauci,” Biden said.
No one would have expected the president to answer the question any differently. Anthony Fauci is his chief adviser on the Covid-19 pandemic, a celebrated infectious disease expert, and, for much of his lengthy career, one of the most trusted voices in all of government. For the White House, however, the fact that the question was even asked set off alarm bells.
Conservatives on social media for more than a year had undertaken efforts to discredit Fauci. Increasingly, those efforts had relied on exaggerations, misrepresentations and outright conspiracies. Now it had moved from the fringes to a presidential forum.
“Raising that question is [the result of] a successful smear campaign,” said Tim Durigan, the DNC’s lead analyst in its Counter Disinformation Program, said of a wide-ranging online onslaught against Fauci that included calling him a war criminal. “That a mainstream reporter is raising the idea that the president doesn’t have confidence in Dr. Fauci is a win” for those intent on spreading the misinformation.
On an immediate level, the attacks on Fauci’s credibility posed problems for the White House, which has relied on the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to combat vaccine hesitancy.
On a larger level, it illustrated a broader hurdle the administration has been forced to confront. Disinformation has been rampant during the Biden era. It has popped up around issues big (the biggest single area of disinformation that the Biden White House has focused on is vaccine hesitation), existential (the so-called “Big Lie” — that Biden fraudulently won his 2020 election — is chief among them) and small (for a brief period, the White House was beating back reports that it intended to ration people’s hamburger intake).
It’s a pervasive problem that Democrats believe they must aggressively confront in 2022 and 2024. And it’s one that the White House isn’t taking on alone. Outside, allied organizations have assumed different roles in monitoring and determining what content is consumed on social media.
Combating misinformation (falsehoods) and disinformation (intentional falsehoods) can be a massive undertaking that requires intense and meticulous social media tracking. It also means confronting social media platforms, which can create First Amendment issues for the White House, if it is viewed as trying to restrict content.
Building Back Together, an advocacy group closely aligned with Biden, has assumed the role of battling social media outfits, including Facebook, on behalf of the White House, in an ongoing effort to keep false election narratives off the platform. The DNC has taken on more of the hand-to-hand combat in defense of Biden and other Democrats, as well as keeping track of emerging themes it has identified as building momentum on the right.
One such focal point is critical race theory. The academic concept of civil rights scholars was barely a blip on social media in 2020. But since January, there have been 25 million interactions involving critical race theory on Facebook, according to a DNC analysis. Discussions about transgender sports, too, have dominated conservative sites, said Durigan, aimed at stoking fears that an executive order Biden signed protecting transgender people from discrimination would “destroy women’s sports.”
Both the DNC and BBT call “the Big Lie” — the false idea perpetuated by former President Donald Trump and his supporters that Biden was not rightfully elected president — one of the most pervasive examples of misinformation circulating online.
BBT is monitoring social media companies and recently called on Facebook to launch a comprehensive review of the role its platform played in the run-up to the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol building. A BBT senior adviser described the group’s role as holding platforms like Facebook accountable as Democrats move into the midterms and 2024. That has meant discussing Facebook’s response to its complaints that it isn’t moving quickly enough to take down false information.
BBT regularly updates the White House officials on the group’s latest data, according to the adviser, including how the narrative of fraudulent elections is evolving. The adviser stressed that while there are political ties between the group and the White House, it does not act as an arm of the White House.
Bob Bauer, the attorney who is heading up the voting rights program for BBT, said the group considered the most dangerous false narrative on social media to be the claim that “the electoral process is corrupt.” Bauer, who advised Biden’s presidential campaign and was White House counsel for former President Barack Obama, described a “reinforcement loop” that lives on social media platforms, pushing theories that elections are rigged. Left unchecked, he added, they could contribute to a “dangerous corrosion of confidence in democratic institutions.”
The Biden White House strategy is not unlike that of the Biden campaign: let conspiracies or extreme falsehoods live in the dark corners of the Internet, with the belief that addressing such claims head-on will only prop them up.
That doesn’t mean a hand’s off approach though. The White House’s Office of Digital Strategy employs about two dozen staffers who work to monitor and, if needed, combat disinformation, including encouraging different sites to fact-check false content. In most cases, their mandate is to fend off falsehoods by ensuring a steady stream of factual and positive information flows onto social media platforms.
“For us, it's making sure that we are really aggressively putting out content and sharing our messages into places where there is a lot of disinformation, both on our channels, and on the channels that those folks who are in those audiences trust,” said Rob Flaherty, director of the White House’s Office of Digital Strategy. “The best lever we’re going to have in terms of disinformation is getting our message and our narrative out into the ecosystem. We built out a robust digital operation in the White House specifically for that.”
In the Fauci case, the White House did not flood its social media pages with corrections and defenses after publication of past emails — obtained through the Freedom of Information Act — in which he expressed early skepticism about mask-wearing and was pressed about the origins of the coronavirus. Instead, Biden offered his personal endorsement and soon after, 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 dissemination of falsehoods about Fauci. But the committee didn’t see it as its role to jump into the middle of that fray, since Fauci isn’t a political figure.
During the presidential election, the Biden campaign opted not to engage heavily on attacks involving Hunter Biden, mainly, Durigan said, because the narrative “stayed on the right.” Likewise, the campaign had to contend with altered videos of Biden, attempting to paint him as cognitively impaired. The way to fight that, Durigan said, was not to run a correction on them but to feed positive images of Biden onto social media.
“They’re splicing video and making the president seem like he’s struggling to speak,” he said. Platforms generally will take down fake videos on their own, Durigan said. But it was just as important and arguably more effective, Durigan said, to push out video of Biden battling former President Donald Trump at debates.
In the run-up to 2022, however, the DNC has moved its disinformation program out of a separate operation and merged it into the communications shop, an acknowledgment of the day-to-day fights ahead.
The DNC has grown more involved in other areas, too, including with information around vaccines and allegations of fraudulent election outcomes. At times, Durigan said, that means talking to social media platforms about false information that’s feeding prominently into the algorithms. At times, it means holding back despite the impulse to engage.
“When you respond, you’re amplifying it,” Durigan said. “You have to pick your battles.”