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The Big Beef Lie and a New Model of Rapid Response
The hamburger conspiracy is an absurdly typical GOP disinformation campaign and it's good practice what's to come
Ron Klain, the White House Chief of Staff, is a busy man. In fact, I would venture that he might be the busiest person in the whole government. But despite the approximately 12,000 items on his plate, Klain took a moment on Monday morning to retweet a fact check from CNN’s Daniel Dale to his 422,000 followers rebutting an absurd Right Wing conspiracy theory claiming that Biden was trying to limit beef consumption.
Smashing the RT button isn’t the biggest time suck, but it’s notable that Klain viewed this issue as something worthy of a nanosecond of his time. Later that day, Mike Gwin, the White House Rapid Response Director, tweeted a photo of Biden flipping burgers to further rebut the false attack. Other White House officials cheekily lifted up Gwin’s tweet.
Many communications professionals, reporters, and political hobbyists on Twitter wondered why the White House would dignify this patently absurd attack with a response. Doesn’t the White House responding to something this absurd give it credibility and oxygen? Don’t the tweets take the conspiracy theory from the MAGA media and spread it to millions who wouldn’t otherwise see it? Did Klain et al. give the White House Press Corps the permission to cover something it would otherwise ignore?
These are all fair questions, but they are representative of a very outdated view of the way the media ecosystem works.
The entire “ban the beef” imbroglio is a perfect microcosm of the power of the Right Wing media and new rules for rapid response.
What the Beef Thing is All About
The substance and origin of the conspiracy theory are so painfully stupid that it hurts my brain to even try to explain it, but here’s the short version. Last week, the Daily Mail, a garbage British tabloid that makes the New York Post look like the New Yorker, wrote a completely incorrect and irresponsible story about Joe Biden’s plan to reduce carbon emissions in half by 2030 with the following passage:
How Biden’s climate plan could limit you to eat just one burger a MONTH, cost $3.5K a year per person in taxes, force you to spend $55K on an electric car and ‘crush’ American jobs.”
The article was based on a University of Michigan study about how changes in behavior could impact climate change, including reducing beef consumption. The information arsonists at the Daily Mail took this study which had no connection to Biden’s plan and asserted that to meet Biden’s emissions goal, Americans could be limited to one burger a month.
All of the dumbest, worst people in America — many of whom work for Fox News — latched onto this story and incorrectly asserted that Biden’s climate plan would force Americans to stop eating red meat.
Kate Riga of Talking Points Memo has a great rundown of how the story came to be, but needless to say, the beef story became THE story in conservative media. It was amplified by members of Congress, Right Wing media figures, and the Trump family.
Why Republicans Are Pushing It
Republicans win by scaring the living shit out of their voters. They do this by otherizing the opponent — Obama is a socialist Muslim, Hillary is a crooked murderer, Crazy Bernie! The Squad etc. Joe Biden, an older White guy from Scranton, is really hard to demonize. The Trump campaign tried every trick in the book in 2020 and failed pretty miserably. There was sky-high Republican turnout, but the exit polls indicate that most Republicans turned out to vote for Trump as opposed to against Biden. Of the 24 percent of voters who said they voted mainly against the opponent, 68 percent were Biden voters, and only 30 percent were Trump voters.
Without Trump on the ballot in 2022, Republicans need to find a way to make Biden scary to the Trump voters who turned out in ‘16 and ‘20 but stayed home in ‘18. The beef attack should be viewed as an attempt to achieve that Republican goal.
It’s tempting to dismiss this attack as too absurd to be believed. I doubt anyone outside of the most diehard Watters World fans would ever believe that Joe Biden would pass a law limiting the number of hamburgers that Americans can eat. But too often, Democrats focus on the absurdity of the specifics and ignore the believability of the general impression. Republicans may not be able to convince voters that Biden is a radical, but they might be able to convince voters that Biden’s policies will lead to radical changes in their lives. Even if no one believes that Biden will ration red meat, they very well might believe that his plans will negatively impact their way of life.
That’s why we have to respond.
A New Model of Rapid Response
In the old days before Mark Zuckerberg ruined everything, ignoring crazy conspiracy theories was a smart strategy. If a politician or campaign acknowledged the absurd, the press would cover it, and more people would learn about it. It doesn't work that way anymore. The media no longer serves as gatekeepers of information. Even if CNN, the New York Times, and the local news never covered the faux controversy, tens of millions of Americans will be exposed to the conspiracy theory. Facebook’s conservative-friendly algorithm will ensure that the story is seen by millions who don’t opt into the MAGA media. Many of those people will never click the link or see the fact checks. `
Ignoring the dumb stuff that emanates from the dark corners of the Internet is no longer an option. Democrats must fight back aggressively and strategically, but fighting back in the mainstream media is woefully insufficient. The battle against disinformation is won or lost on social media and particularly on Facebook.
I have no doubt the White House or the DNC called many reporters and pitched them on stories about how Biden’s plan doesn’t limit hamburgers. This is the right thing to do. However, given how information bubbles work, those stories will mostly be seen by people who would never believe the attack. It’s preaching to the choir. The mainstream media has neither the reach nor the credibility to play referee against disinformation and conspiracy theories. This assertion will annoy many reporters, but look at how woefully ineffective the media was at pushing back against the Big Lie about the election.
Getting the stories written is the first step. It is incumbent on Democrats to get the stories, fact-checks, and other pushback in front of the public and in the hands of our supporters. Ron Klain and the White House were pushing out the CNN fact-check and the burger-flipping photo because they weren’t counting on the public to find the information organically by picking up a newspaper or logging onto a website. They were giving us the tools to help them fight back.
The last and most important step is where we come in. Whether it’s sharing the fact checks on Facebook or posting the burger-flipping photo in response to your MAGA uncle calling Biden “the Hamburgler,” we can push back against the lie. In the coming months, Democrats need to build an army of rapid responders who will fight back against the online smears. The old top-down, media-centric ways don’t work anymore.
This grassroots, distributed messaging strategy is the only antidote to the very powerful and dangerous Right-Wing Media Machine. Helping build out that model of communications is the primary reason I started this newsletter (If you want to support that work, please consider subscribing).
Ultimately, the 2022 elections will not be won or lost over this burger thing, but it is a good fire drill for what is to come. Political communications is now information warfare. The Daily Mail story was weaponized by the Right Wing media to hurt Joe Biden. It won’t be the last. The next GOP disinformation campaign could be less stupid and more effects which is why we need to finetune our strategies for fighting back.