Hello. Welcome to On Politics, your information to the day in nationwide politics. I’m Nick Corasaniti, your host on Tuesdays for our protection of all issues media and messaging.
Though it seems like a new phrase blaring from President Trump’s Twitter megaphone and the news coverage that follows, the disinformation-meets-conspiracy theory cocktail known as “Obamagate” has origins that date to Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign.
It has acted as a catchall phrase for Mr. Obama’s online enemies whenever they perceived wrongdoing, particularly in the aftermath of the 2012 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Yet it has remained largely dormant for years, passed around only on the fringes of internet message boards and social media platforms, save the occasional flare-up on Fox News or conservative radio. Now the term has become a vessel for the president to fill with undefined and unsubstantiated charges against his predecessor.
Understanding how disinformation metastasizes is vital to the digital campaign world that we’re living in. To map out how this conspiracy theory spread, I turned again to my colleague Ben Decker, a researcher who works with The New York Times and helps us make sense of all the digital noise.
Attaching a “-gate” suffix to a political nemesis’s name may seem obvious. But the rapid, viral and organic spread of Obamagate followed an increasingly common playbook for those seeking to sow chaos and confusion. This conspiracy theory starts with a grass-roots groundswell, often within conspiracy-minded message boards, and bubbles on Twitter (where like-minded accounts only really talk to each other). But then it gets picked up by a widely followed Twitter account (usually one with a “verified” blue check mark) and is amplified by other verified partisan accounts. Then the mainstream media notices, and it’s off to the races.
Here is a step-by-step look that Ben and I put together of how the rise and spread of the Obamagate conspiracy has played out.
2017: The embers burn
Usage of Obamagate spiked in March 2017, after Mr. Trump had been in office for less than two months, when he falsely tweeted about his phones having been wiretapped. The phrase was used by partisan media outlets like Breitbart and in conspiracy communities like QAnon as a means of describing the “deep state” and pinning the blame on Mr. Obama for any troubles that befell Mr. Trump.
Search interest in the phrase peaked again in January 2018 amid news reports about the investigation by the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. The #obamagate hashtag was eventually tweeted by Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, on Feb. 2, and confirmed up later that month in a QAnon submit on 8chan.
Ben notes that the first family has a history of amplifying QAnon-related content on social media. In August 2019, the Trump campaign released a “Women for Trump” video that featured Trump followers holding QAnon indicators, and in December 2019, the president retweeted a QAnon video that includes one of many conspiracy narrative’s hottest hashtags.
In any other case, curiosity within the time period remained largely on the fringes till this month, when Mr. Trump and his circle started utilizing it. Up to now month, search curiosity for the time period has been exponentially higher than at any level in its historical past.
April 2020: Blue test marks and coordinated pages
Legal professionals for Mr. Trump’s former nationwide safety adviser Michael Flynn set right-wing information and social media networks abuzz in mid-April, when they claimed that the Justice Division had discovered “gorgeous” proof of F.B.I. misconduct. (Mr. Flynn had twice pleaded responsible to mendacity to the F.B.I. about his conversations with a Russian diplomat.)
However the Obamagate time period started to unfold quickly after The Each day Wire, a well-liked conservative web site with a blue test mark on Fb, used the phrase in a Facebook show discussing the prison case towards Mr. Flynn. The video, posted on April 28, was considered practically 160,000 occasions on Fb and was shared greater than 1,200 occasions.
The following day, Sebastian Gorka, a well-liked determine amongst Mr. Trump’s on-line following, spent an hour of his “America First” radio show discussing comparable Obamagate conspiracy theories. His present was considered greater than 533,000 occasions on YouTube.
And the verified Twitter account for The Gateway Pundit, one other right-wing web site, picked up on the phrase in a submit highlighting a 2018 article on the deep state conspiracy, sharing it with practically 260,000 followers.
Ben notes that networks of Fb pages coordinating pro-Trump messaging is a tactic seen constantly by way of the final two election cycles by each home and international info operations, in addition to conspiracy communities. This explicit community contains no less than 27 Fb pages with a mixed viewers of over 900,000 Fb customers. Whereas the quantity could appear comparatively small, it allows disinformation actors to strategically propagate content material.
Two days after the Justice Division made its announcement about Mr. Flynn’s case, Mr. Trump joined the Obamagate chorus with a single-word tweet. He has repeated the time period in no less than 10 different tweets.
Could 2020: Mass attain
Mainstream media shops have tried to clarify what the president meant in his Obamagate! tweets — and, in so doing, have helped make the phrase mainstream.
Since Could 1, there have been no less than 245 mentions of the phrase Obamagate on cable information, in line with knowledge from TVEyes, and 1000’s extra on native and nationwide community information (when a nationwide information present runs on native associates, some mentions could also be counted a number of occasions).
At a White Home information convention on Could 11, Mr. Trump was requested by a reporter to clarify the time period, however he didn’t straight reply the query or specify an allegation towards Mr. Obama — providing solely that “some horrible issues occurred.”
Widespread protection additionally helps provoke responses from the other facet of the political spectrum, which helps maintain the conspiracy concept within the zeitgeist.
“The fitting is getting an unlimited quantity of sign boosting from center-left reporting, for instance, and likewise folks on the left who’re reacting to all of the conspiracy concept stuff that’s occurring proper now,” stated Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor of media research and communication at Syracuse College. “There’s a sure share of the inhabitants that basically believes in Obamagate, however that circulates largely as a result of folks on the left are reacting to it.”
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Michigan moves toward more voting by mail
Michigan, a key battleground state in the presidential race, will mail absentee ballot applications to all registered voters for its congressional and legislative primary elections in August and the general election in November.
The goal of the move, officials said, is to help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, which has hit Michigan particularly hard. The decision takes advantage of the state’s new rule, passed by voters in 2018, that allows all voters to cast absentee ballots.
“By mailing applications, we have ensured that no Michigander has to choose between their health and their right to vote,” said Jocelyn Benson, Michigan’s secretary of state, who is a Democrat.
Increasing absentee and mail-in voting in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic is being studied by states across the nation, but has come under withering criticism from President Trump and Republicans, who have announced plans to devote millions of dollars to fight efforts to loosen restrictions on voting.
Though previous studies have shown that all-mail voting does not confer an advantage to Democrats, a liberal candidate for Wisconsin’s Supreme Court won mail votes by a substantial margin last month.
Increased turnout through mail-in voting could be particularly troubling for Republicans in key battleground states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where Mr. Trump won in 2016 by tiny margins, delivering the electoral votes he needed to win the White House.
In Michigan’s March 10 presidential primary, half of the 2.3 million people who cast ballots used the absentee route. And elections officials reported that 99 percent of people who voted in local elections on May 5 used absentee ballots, increasing turnout to 25 percent from an average of 12 percent for Michigan’s May elections over the last nine years.
Local clerks in Michigan already send out absentee ballot applications to 1.3 million voters, but the state will mail applications to the rest of the state’s 7.7 million registered voters, using $4.5 million in federal funds allocated to the state through the federal stimulus package passed in March.
Both Wisconsin and Pennsylvania allow anyone to cast absentee or mail-in ballots. The Wisconsin Election Commission is scheduled to meet Wednesday and will decide if the state will send absentee ballot applications to all of the state’s 3.3 million registered voters.
— Kathleen Gray
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