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Presidential campaign messaging war: It’s ugly and going to get worse | COMMENTARY

This photo combo of images shows, clockwise, from upper left: President Donald Trump speaking during a news conference at the White House on July 22, 2020, in Washington, the Twitter app, Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden speaking during a campaign event on July 14, 2020, in Wilmington, Del., and the Facebook app. The campaigns of Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden are ramping up their attacks of one another in online ads and social media this week of the Democratic National Convention. (AP Photo)
This photo combo of images shows, clockwise, from upper left: President Donald Trump speaking during a news conference at the White House on July 22, 2020, in Washington, the Twitter app, Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden speaking during a campaign event on July 14, 2020, in Wilmington, Del., and the Facebook app. The campaigns of Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden are ramping up their attacks of one another in online ads and social media this week of the Democratic National Convention. (AP Photo) (Uncredited/AP)

If you are concerned about the way smears, lies, character assassination and disinformation have polluted the conversation of American civic life, brace yourself. It’s going to get worse starting this week as Team Trump punches back on Facebook and YouTube against the digital Democratic National Convention and the ticket of former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris.

The New York Times was the first to report an advertising buy made by the president’s campaign team to saturate Facebook, YouTube and other digital sites with pro-Trump, anti-Biden content. The tab could run as high as $10 million for an effort that will include taking over the banner on the YouTube homepage and forcing YouTube users to wade through pre-roll, Trump-bought content before getting to play the video they came to see. That campaign starts Tuesday, the second day of the convention, and will run for 96 hours, according to the newspaper.

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But you didn’t have to wait until Tuesday to see what Team Trump would be saying on Facebook and YouTube. A crush of ads paid for by Donald Trump for President, Inc. appeared on Facebook over the weekend.

“Joe Biden MEANS 11 MILLION Illegal Immigrants competing for American jobs. They will all be eligible for FREE health care, Social Security and Medicare. America CANNOT afford Joe Biden,” one ad begins.

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Those words along with a picture of Mr. Trump appear over a large depiction of Mr. Biden and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with the headline: “JOE BIDEN PUT A SOCIALIST IN CHARGE OF HIS ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT PLAN.”

The words “A SOCIALIST” are in larger type and red ink, and there is a squiggly red arrow pointing at Ms. Ocasio-Cortez in case anyone reading doesn’t get who the socialist is. There are also three triangles along the right side of her head. I have no idea what they are there for.

There are 20 versions of that ad on Facebook.

It does not matter on Facebook whether any of the statements in the ad are true. Trump for President, Inc. can say anything it wants about Mr. Biden and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, because Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg says political advertisers are allowed to lie on his platform. That’s because not allowing political advertisers to lie would be a violation of their free speech, according to Mr. Zuckerberg. I am going to leave that right there before my head explodes.

These are early versions of the main narrative Mr. Trump’s campaign is trying to seed the media with in the wake of Mr. Biden picking Ms. Harris as his running mate. It goes something like this: Joe Biden has been taken over by the radical left extremist wing of the Democratic Party, and a vote for him is a vote for socialism. Police will be defunded, anarchy will erupt throughout the land and immigrants will get your jobs and government benefits.

The multimillion-dollar campaign in social media this week is an attempt both to distract from the Democrats’ online convention and to contextualize everything said about Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris during the digital event in negative terms. Team Trump is spending $10 million on digital media to get as many people as possible to see the Democratic ticket through its lens.

Mr. Trump himself might be doing some distracting and contextualizing, if reports are accurate that he is going to speak in Pennsylvania Thursday near Mr. Biden’s hometown of Scranton just hours before the former vice president accepts his party’s nomination at the convention.

Mr. Trump has already helped establish a media echo chamber.

Hours after Ms. Harris was announced last Tuesday as the vice presidential pick, Mr. Trump was on Fox News telling Sean Hannity, “A lot of people think it’s a dangerous choice.”

Ms. Harris will help “destroy the country” if Democrats win the White House in November, the president alleged.

“This pick solidifies what’s the most extreme, radical, far-left, out-of-the-mainstream ticket of any major political party in American history,” Mr. Hannity agreed.

Democrats are not as out of it in social media as they were in 2016. They have media weapons as well. The Lincoln Project, a collection of current and former Republicans out to defeat Mr. Trump, is proving it can punch every bit as hard as the president. And Facebook is filled with a plethora of anti-Trump ads attacking his record in office.

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This week will tell us a lot about where the media campaigns are headed this fall. But we already know it’s going to be an expensive and, to use one of Mr. Trump’s favorite words, nasty place.

David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.

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