Digital Civil War review: a stark call to save American democracy

Peter Daou blames media and the political establishment for failing to combat dishonesty, hypocrisy … and Trump

Voltaire warned that “those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities”. In his new book, Peter Daou offers copious evidence that nothing has ever made that pernicious alchemy easier than the internet.

“Technology,” he writes, “has altered … the field of battle … The unrelenting toxicity of social media is a feature, not a bug, of digital warfare.” He also offers an important corollary: “Nothing in American life is more of a threat to our democracy than the Republican party’s lurch to the far right.”

Daou says he writes not as an historian but as “an eyewitness”. He has been a digital strategist for two Democratic presidential candidates – John Kerry in 2004 and Hillary Clinton in 2008 – but he thinks his earlier history is what makes him the perfect analyst for this conflict: he came of age as a Christian in Lebanon at the height of its own civil war.

Norman Ornstein was one of the first Washington pundits to identify the big problem with the way the mainstream press deals with a sharply altered political universe, writing in 2014: “Insisting on equivalence as the mantra of mainstream journalism leaves the average voter at sea, unable to identify and vote against those perpetrating the problem. The public is left with a deeper disdain for all politics and all politicians.”

Daou strongly agrees. The “mainstream media and the political establishment”, he writes, have failed to “serve as a counterbalance to the dishonesty and hypocrisy poisoning American politics”. Or as progressive analyst Zerlina Maxwell put it, “there will be literal Nazis marching in the streets before the [mainstream media] realizes that calling for civility from both sides is stupid. Wait. Too late.”

Of course, there already were Nazis in the streets of Charlottesville two years ago, when marchers chanted “Jews will not replace us”.

Daou is especially good on the press obsession with “real American” stories, which are actually “a toxic brew of populism, nativism and white supremacy packaged by the GOP, distributed by rightwing media, imbibed by the Republican base and regurgitated by the mainstream press …

“The ‘real American’ story is the thread that runs through virtually every partisan fight in US politics. It maintains that the white working class has been shunned by the Democratic party, patronized by the ‘liberal media’, mocked by Hollywood, stifled by identity politics, smothered by political correctness, and oppressed by big government.”

It is a story full of myths. For example, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough’s assertion that in 2016 Clinton failed to appeal to the working class is starkly contradicted by a single fact: “Clinton won decisively among voters with annual incomes under $50,000.”

Since this is largely a book about Twitter wars, it’s not surprising that many of its most salient points are drawn from tweets. Comedian Andy Richter pointed out that “‘the forgotten American’ has been interviewed 8,000 times”.

On the other hand, after the Democrats captured the House last November, Oliver Willis wondered: “Where are our heartland diner stories? Our profiles of surging voters who ‘upset the status quo’ with ‘maverick politicians’? How come voters in blues states that got bluer and purple states that went blue and red districts that flipped aren’t getting the Trump voter treatment? It would make one think that gosh, this whole thing about the media being liberal is bullshit, and that the mainstream media caters to Republicans’ whims while minimizing the rest of us…”

Correct. As Daou says, the subtext of the mainstream media’s focus on “MAGA” voters is that the opinions of “‘real Americans’ – white working-class small-town Republicans – take precedence over those of other voters, particularly the voters of color who make up the Democratic base.” After Trump’s sycophantic press conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, the New York Times rushed “to get the perspective of Trump’s diehard rust-belt fans”, who “wondered if election meddling was really so terrible”.

The dangers of the internet were especially stark in the last three months of the 2016 campaign, when as Buzzfeed discovered, “the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets.” As former FBI special agent Clint Watts pointed out, that was the moment when the Russians “hacked American minds”.

The New York Times.
The New York Times. Photograph: Mark Lennihan/AP

As soon as WikiLeaks “began dumping stolen Clinton campaign emails online”, Daou writes, “reporters jumped at the chance to extend their 600-day obsession with Clinton’s emails”. Later, a Times investigation even conceded that “every major publication, including the Times” became “a de facto instrument of Russian intelligence.”

That, Daou says, “was a startling admission by the paper of record, one of the rare instances that a major news outlet acknowledged its role in spreading anti-Clinton and pro-Trump propaganda”.

“The Republican party’s hypocrisy on Russia – claiming to be patriots and defenders of the flag while surrendering to Putin – is part of their pattern of treating hypocrisy not as a source of shame but as a tool of ideological warfare,” Daou writes. “The triumvirate of rightwing media, rightwing megadonors, and a rightwing Republican party is an existential threat to the United States of America, undermining the norms, values and principles that define this nation.”

He concludes with a call to arms:

For blue Americans in the 21st century – and for principled patriots across the ideological spectrum – the Digital Civil War is about preventing [a] descent into tyranny by confronting the far-right menace before it’s too late.

We won’t know whether it’s too late until we learn the results of the next presidential election. The fight by Republicans to kill every measure to strengthen the security of the ballot box is just one of many indications that they have abandoned their commitment to democracy.


Charles Kaiser

The GuardianTramp

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