Minneapolis is a city with many distinctions. There the police response to a petty theft committed by a man named George Floyd led to a shocking video and a death that launched a summer of “mostly peaceful” riots and looting throughout the country.
As riots raged out of control in the city, the “defund the police” movement achieved its first great victory when the City Council voted to disband its police force. What followed was ground-zero for a radical experiment and a resulting crime wave that anti-cop politicians blamed on the very police who were being defunded.
Now, Minneapolis sought to break new ground in other respects. City officials understand the upcoming trial of Derek Chauvin — the former police officer who stands accused of Floyd’s murder — presents a particularly difficult challenge for public order. They spent most of last year backing down to the demands of mobs who used Floyd’s death as an excuse for violence and justification for enacting a radical agenda rooted in the pernicious myths of critical race theory.
Unlike the police-defunding debacle, however, Chauvin can’t be convicted by the demands of mobs in the streets. He also can’t be convicted on a vote by City Council members who think citizens expecting police to come when criminals are invading their homes proves “white privilege.”
As such, the city was looking for novel ways to influence public opinion as it seeks to prevent riots if Chauvin isn’t convicted (or, frankly, even if he is). Their answer wasn’t typical among U.S. governments. The city is allocating money to pay for “social influencers” to combat what the administration of beleaguered Mayor Jacob Frey calls “disinformation” that could lead to civil unrest.
A New Level of ‘Astroturfing’
While paying those with social media accounts to promote products or ideas is typical 21st-century marketing, this is the sort of deceptive practice that, when applied to politics and public discussions, has been widely decried as the tactics of totalitarian thugs. It has been used by the Communist government of China to promote support at home and to silence and discredit critics abroad. It takes the practice known as “astroturfing,” in which the sponsors of a particular message are masked behind a false front of manufactured public opinion, to a new level of deceit in a political context.
That is why the pushback against it was so strong, forcing the city to quickly abandon the plan. Yet the city’s decision won’t be the last we’ll hear of the issue.
On the contrary, the real danger now is whether the next attempt by the left to astroturf public opinion will be done in a less open manner. When the business of state-sponsored spin is, instead, done by groups acting at the behest of governments rather than directly paid by them, it will be even harder to both discern and oppose the way leftists — who are increasingly seeking to silence conservative opponents on the internet and cable spectrum — are abusing power.
Frey’s problem was that a fair trial for Chauvin could provoke criticism of the justice system from those who already claim institutional racism pervades all of American society. Even worse for him, the televised proceedings will inevitably broadcast the defense’s case.
Under the circumstances, Chauvin’s lawyers have a daunting assignment. The entire country has seen the video of Floyd’s death, an edited version of which seemingly played continuously in the days and weeks after it happened, meaning a jury pool not only in Minneapolis but anywhere else is already tainted.
Indeed, it’s an open question whether there is a jury in Minneapolis — whose mayor, along with many other national and local public officials, pre-emptively declared Chauvin guilty of murder — prepared to brave the public condemnation that will rain on them if they do anything other than convict Chauvin on all counts.
Despite the seemingly damning video of Chauvin restraining Floyd for nine minutes with his knee on the arrested man’s neck, the toxicology report showed Floyd had what in any other circumstances would have been termed a lethal amount of fentanyl and other drugs in his system. Given other pre-existing conditions including heart disease, sickle cell trait, and COVID-19 — as well as the fact that the full tape of his ordeal shows that he was insisting that he couldn’t breathe well before Chauvin put his knee on Floyd’s neck — that gives the defense a fighting chance of, at least, getting the defendant off on the most serious charge of second-degree murder.
If that happens, there is a real threat of a new round of violence, in Minneapolis and elsewhere, that may make last summer’s “mostly peaceful” riots and looting look like a picnic.
A Dangerous Path
But does Frey or anyone in Minneapolis really think even a well-executed social media campaign aimed at stopping the spread of “disinformation” could persuade would-be rioters to stand down? Indeed, Minneapolis’s openness about its attempt to astroturf its citizens doomed the effort.
As much as it is to be hoped Frey will find some way to beguile his citizens to keep the peace by any legal means, there’s a far greater danger in going down this path than just the possibility of violence. For an American government on any level to openly embrace an effort to commission state-sponsored propaganda — even if the intent is to help keep the peace — sends the country down a dangerous path completely contrary to the norms of free discourse in a republic.
Floyd’s death set off a moral panic that fueled outrage mobs and cancel campaigns aimed at revising American history and shunning then silencing anyone who dissented from the new narrative about institutional racism. That trend has made itself felt in the media as well as on college campuses, artistic institutions, and government.
It has helped convince the Silicon Valley oligarchs who more or less own the public information highway to shut down discourse of which they disapprove. This includes the Twitter account of former President Donald Trump and many others, social media platforms friendly to conservatives such as Parler, and news stories that might have altered the outcome of the 2020 election. For governments to now take one more cynical step and pay agents to spread whatever official spin their masters wish further undermines faith in democracy.
For years, manufactured opinion on Twitter has helped drive public discussions in Washington and distorted debates about vital issues in ways that had little to do with the opinions of the public and much to do with what the chattering classes wanted politicians to believe. That has further undermined confidence in the system and created a huge gap between officeholders and their staff and the voters, something that has been particularly evident among the leadership of the Republican Party.
It’s already difficult to know if what we’re seeing online — especially topics highlighted on Twitter as “trending” — represents a genuine surge of interest or just a case of paid influencers or the platform telling us what to think. But if we embark on a new era in which even municipalities astroturf public opinion with campaigns paid with taxpayer dollars, we will be taking one more step into an anti-democratic abyss of cynical spin.
Frey’s tactic was not going to save Minneapolis from more riots, but if other municipal, state, or even federal agencies follow in his footsteps, the next such effort won’t be above board. It will instead — like the efforts to silence conservatives on social media or to kill stories that embarrass Democrats in the name of stopping “disinformation” — be done in a more subtle and less easily exposed manner. Soon, it may well be quite difficult to dissuade disillusioned citizens from thinking that everything they are reading or viewing is the result of a rigged system in which they are increasingly voiceless and powerless.