Given the dizzying pace of news cycles driven by tweets from Donald Trump, his attack on Baltimore and Congressman Elijah Cummings might seem like ancient history. That’s especially true after the mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso.
But the Baltimore-is-hell-and-black-Democratic-leaders-are-to-blame narrative that President Trump lit a fire under with his tweets is still very much with us in social media, particularly in Facebook ads and YouTube videos. And upon closer examination and comparison with Team Trump’s characterization of immigration at the southern border as an “invasion,” it looks like Baltimore bashing might become a key part of the president’s 2020 election strategy.
Baltimore and El Paso are already connected in the kind of false reality concocted in social media by the Trump campaign and its surrogates on right-wing media platforms. Both cities are used as shorthand weapons of denigration, demonization and dehumanization of people of color. In Baltimore, blacks are the targets. In El Paso, it’s Hispanics. The strategy is divisive, destructive, inflammatory and racist.
During the last election, I felt like I had Trump’s use of media figured out: His power came from him finding a sweet spot between old and new media. His old media mastery of the live, cable-TV interview got him unlimited airtime, while his nasty, reckless tweets were tailor-made for the ugly dominant discourse of Twitter.
That was good as far as it went, but it didn’t go far enough. I have since come to appreciate the third and fourth legs of his strategy: rallies as a form of media and the use of Facebook advertising to test narratives and then pound social media with those themes and story lines that gain traction.
“Trump uses Facebook to repeat, repeat, repeat,” says Bill Atkinson, a partner in 212 Communications, a Baltimore-based strategic communications firm.
“His media effectiveness comes from him using multiple media layers, and Facebook is part of that. He tweets something, then he says it at a rally and in an interview on Fox. And then he says it again on Facebook, and has all these other advocates in all those media echoing it it over and over," adds Atkinson, a former business columnist at the Baltimore Sun.
The New York Times this week reported on the more than 2,000 Facebook ads Trump’s re-election campaign bought this year urging support for the border wall the president wants to build. All of the ads used the word “invasion” to describe immigrants arriving at the southern border. That’s how Trump and his surrogates spread their lies and darkness through the information ecosystem, poisoning the flow of truthful, vetted information a democracy needs to effectively function on behalf of its citizens.
On the other hand, some of the ads attacking Baltimore as a rat-infested, garbage-strewn wasteland thanks to years of betrayal and neglect by Democratic politicians were still active as of Wednesday, almost two weeks after Trump’s tweets.
One ad produced by Turning Point USA, a right-wing platform, is headlined: “BLACK CONSERVATIVE HAS BRUTAL MESSAGE FOR RAT-INFESTED BALTIMORE.”
It features Rob Smith, an African-American contributor who is described online at Turning Point as a “veteran and conservative warrior that’s fought for freedom,” standing in a field of overgrown weeds behind a row of three abandoned buildings with broken and missing windows in what he says is Baltimore.
“You can’t keep telling people it is racist to criticize the people whose policies created all this,” Smith begins. “This is Baltimore. Baltimore is over 60 percent black. Baltimore’s mayor is black. Baltimore’s last mayor is black. The mayor before that was black. The elected officials were black. Baltimore has a poverty rate of over two times the state average of Maryland. Baltimore has trash in the streets. Baltimore has dilapidated homes. Baltimore has African-Americans who don’t feel safe ...”
Then, as the screen fills with images of Cummings, Smith says, “But the left wants to tell you that to criticize the African-American lawmakers on the left who have let this problem go on for decades and decades is racist. Holding black elected officials accountable is now racist. That is an absolute scam.”
A few things to notice about this ad, which like many also plays on YouTube where it had been seen 127,000 times as of Wednesday.
First, it started Running Aug. 2, almost a week after Trump’s tweets attacking Cummings and Baltimore, and was clearly made in reaction to the blistering blowback Trump received in mainstream media, led by The Baltimore Sun. It included some platforms calling him and his tweets racist for the first time instead of dancing around that word.
I thought the intensity of that criticism would deter Trump and his followers from any more racist attacks on Baltimore. But I was wrong. They just went deeper into the strange land of right-wing social media messaging.
Facebook allows highly targeted delivery of ads, and according to the Facebook Ad Library, the Rob Smith ad was directed almost exclusively at young men, some in their teens. It also targeted certain states: Texas, California, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, New York and Florida. All are large electoral vote states. It was not directed at Maryland voters. This looks like it is not only pushback against Trump being called a racist by mainstream media, but also working on male voters in big electoral states for the 2020 election.
Another ad aimed at reaching men in those same states with its criticism of Baltimore and Cummings comes from America Strong, which self-describes on its Facebook page as “The OFFICIAL page of American patriots.” This ad, which has been running since July 29, begins by saying, “The day of reckoning is at hand. No more free passes for anyone, any color, any race. If you want to play in the big leagues, suit up. If you haven’t performed or aren’t performing there’s a dozen others ready to take your place."
It shows a split screen of Trump and Cummings, and goes on to link to a Fox News report with 31 seconds of archived video from a 1999 hearing in which Cummings described his Baltimore neighborhood as “drug infested.” The video was liked 53,000 times on the Fox News website and viewed more than 2 million times on Donald Trump’s Facebook page.
There are local media aspects of interest to some of the Facebook ads that are still running. The Sinclair Broadcast Group, headquartered in Hunt Valley, has been paying since July 30th to re-run a “Bottom Line with Boris” segment featuring its chief political analyst, Boris Epshteyn, saying the criticism of Trump’s anti-Baltimore tweets is “dishonest and totally manufactured." Epshteyn, a former communications staffer for Trump, accuses Cummings of “peddling conspiracies.”
Some anti-Baltimore ads are no longer active but can still be seen on the platforms that paid to place them on Facebook. Liberty Nation ran an ad titled “Let’s get real about Baltimore," which features a photograph of several young black men stomping a Baltimore police car. (No photo credit is given.) The ad was on Facebook from July 31 to August 5. It describes Baltimore as "a dumpster fire of a city, engulfed in the flames of corruption, destitution, and mortification.”
Throughout the various ads, there are repeated images of rats and regular use of the word “infested."
Invasion for El Paso. Infestation for Baltimore.
The effort to trash Baltimore and Cummings with Facebook ads is not exactly the same as the Trump campaign team’s Facebook effort earlier in the year to gather support for The Wall while characterizing the arrival of immigrants at the southern border as an invasion. The latter looks like a full blown campaign paid for by Team Trump, whereas I believe what’s happening with Baltimore and Cummings is test marketing to see if the congressman and his city can be used as as objects of fear, derision and hate to help get Trump re-elected.
With its low cost and highly targeted delivery, Facebook is an excellent place for test marketing themes and narratives. Gov. Larry Hogan’s team skillfully used it that way in his re-election effort.
Trump surrogates and allies are serving as cutouts in buying and placing the ads at this point.
Remember the summit Trump had at the White House last month for social media operatives at which he gave them the green light to go all out for him on the 2020 campaign? This is one way of doing that.
“You’re challenging the media gatekeepers and corporate censors to bring the truth to the American people," he told them. " You communicate directly with our citizens without going through the fake news filter.”