Super Tuesday is only a few days away and Michael Bloomberg’s 2020 presidential campaign, bankrolled by Mr. Bloomberg himself, has already spent over $500 million on media ad buys. “At a time when candidates are shifting their ad spend to digital, Bloomberg has spent $409 million — 77% of his total outlay — on broadcast and cable TV ads,” Scott Nover recently wrote in Ad Week.
For comparison, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump each spent $769M and $409M respectively over the course of the 2016 U.S. presidential race, according to the Center for Public Integrity.
By all indications Mr. Bloomberg, the business tycoon and former mayor of New York City who is worth $64 billion, will shatter political records through his campaign’s unparalleled ad spending. But would that be enough to derail Bernie Sanders, the current Democratic front-runner, and beat Trump?
Similarly to other candidates, Bloomberg’s investments are going to Facebook, Google, Twitter, corporate media buys, and wherever else big marketing firms (with ex-Facebook employees) disseminate highly-targeted information to influence the U.S. electorate. The scale of Bloomberg’s marketing efforts is unmatched — his well-connected campaign even provoked a change in Facebook’s ad policy, after Bloomberg hired hundreds of celebrities and influential users to work for him. One week later, Twitter suspended 70 pro-Bloomberg “spam” accounts connected to the billionaire.
As I write this, news outlets are sounding the alarm that Bloomberg, who in 2014 donated $250,000 to a PAC backing Lindsay Graham, will unleash a “cash-flood media operation” against Bernie Sanders, following the progressive politician’s decisive victory in the Nevada Democratic caucuses.
Bloomberg’s media dominance was predictable, given who currently occupies the White House. Two years ago, I wrote that “Trump’s rise to power has proven that traditional and new media companies are OK with letting oligarchs hijack their platforms for the right price.” Little did I know that some Democrats, in their technocratic might, will welcome a much wealthier oligarch who’d not only spend significantly more on TV and social media ads, but would also cause companies like Facebook to adjust their ad policies.
What Bloomberg is doing generally works — even after his terrible debate performance in Las Vegas, “17% of Democratic primary voters said Michael Bloomberg was their first choice,” according to Morning Consult. The same poll placed Bernie at 30% and Biden at 19%. Though he has yet to release his financial information or participate in a primary, Bloomberg (who is investing heavily in Super Tuesday states) is proving that the U.S. elections could be bought, along with the services of social media companies, journalists, celebrities, and others who are willing to make “President Bloomberg” happen.
To anyone who was awake in 2016, the practices of exploiting ad polices, engaging in platform manipulation, and operating bot accounts sound very similar to what we’ve been hearing about Russian interference in the U.S. elections. However, much like in 2016, the possibility of election interference is analyzed not in the context of corrupt social media companies, dark money infusions, and the game-changing “Citizens United” decision, but through the lens of unnamed government officials.
That is to say, nearly four years after “Russiagate” entered our lives, corporate networks continue to promote unsubstantiated stories about foreign interference in the U.S. elections. Just this month, on the eve of the crucial Nevada caucuses, The Washington Post and CNN stated that “Russia is trying to help” Bernie’s campaign. What happened next shouldn’t surprise anyone who is familiar with the life cycle of most Russiagate articles — the unconfirmed story was exploited by the mainstream media to attack Sanders and then quickly rebutted by those same outlets.
The following Sunday, February 23, CNN claimed that “US intelligence briefer appears to have overstated assessment of 2020 Russian interference.” As is tradition, the clarification to the story didn’t generate nearly as much hype as the initial accusation, which is what allows corporate news networks to regularly deploy the “Russia” routine — now against the Democratic front-runner — without any repercussions. Even though the story was “corrected” on Sunday, commentators once again implied that “Russia” is helping Bernie during the CBS debates the following Tuesday, when Gayle King asked Mayor Pete: “Why would the Russians want to be working on behalf of Bernie Sanders?”
A day before that, during a CNN Town Hall, a young man asked Sanders to respond to those who say his nomination would mean a “victory for Republicans and Russia.”
To get a sense of how these red-baiting sentiments enter the mainstream in 2020, here’s a quick run down with more examples (and there are many!) from Aaron Mate’s recent article titled “The Failed Russiagate Playbook Can’t Stop Bernie Sanders”:
“The Russians are coming,” MSNBC’s Chris Matthews and Joe Scarborough pronounced, and Trump — who “is a Russian operative” (MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell) and “Putin’s puppet” (Hillary Clinton) “is trying to cover it up” (CNN’s Don Lemon). Obama alum and Pod Save America host Dan Pfeiffer declared on Meet the Press that the Kremlin is “trying to give Trump the opponent that Trump wants.” Clinton strategist and newfound Kremlinologist James Carville concurred: With Sanders winning Nevada, Carville told MSNBC, “the happiest person right now is Vladimir Putin.”
The amplification and separation of these two narratives — obscene amounts of money in U.S. politics and “Russian interference” — isn’t new. They might even be connected. The xenophobic sentiments, unconfirmed intelligence, and sensationalism that follow Russiagate talking points seem necessary to keep attention away from the actual ways in which billionaires of any nationality affect the U.S. political process. When was the last time you heard a popular liberal commentator talk about money in politics or extreme wealth inequality?
Without the “Russia” storyline, TV pundits would have to take a long, hard look at how the alleged “interfering” is happening outside of vacuous accusations. This means investigating the widespread practices of microtargeting, selling users’ data, amplifying social media accounts without any transparency, and other uncomfortable topics that didn’t seem to interest corporate news outlets when they blamed Russian memes for breaking America’s brain.
Since the U.S. political establishment won’t hold social media companies accountable (after all, the tech bros play a crucial role in most political campaigns today), subservient news pundits have no choice but to keep peddling Russian hacker stories authored by five people, while salivating over candidates’ ballooning ad spending — and the institutional partnerships that are actually changing the political landscape of the U.S. Ironically, it’s the incessant, evidence-free hype about “Russian interference” that is sowing chaos in U.S. culture.
Unfortunately, the use of non-falsifiable talking points in the mainstream goes much further than obfuscating politics as usual. The flimsy nature of Russiagate — made obvious after Mueller’s report found no evidence that Trump conspired with the Russian government — has transformed the narrative into a useful tool for discrediting not only Bernie Sanders, but other countries, commentators, and events that make the U.S. ruling class uncomfortable.
As Matt Taibbi recently pointed out in The Nation, the initial narrative keeps evolving — from alleging that Trump colluded with Russia, to then claiming that “Russian trolls” might be involved in the “Corbyn movement in England, the gilets jaunes, protesters in Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Colombia, militias in Africa, pro-government disinformation campaigns in Hong Kong, the presidential campaign of Tulsi Gabbard, and countless other undesirables to what has amounted to an ongoing, cumulative blacklist.”
To be clear, the use of Russiagate in the news does not mean such interference is not taking place. It’s no surprise to anyone that the U.S. and Russia meddle in each other’s politics, and if there’s any evidence of foreign interference beyond amateur social media memes, I’d love to see it. As someone who grew up in a country shaped by U.S. and Russian interests, I know the damage that foreign interference can do to a nation, especially when it’s sustained through media campaigns and backroom deals at the highest levels of office. As it stands now, however, the use of such stories to launch attacks against U.S. politicians makes this a classic case of “the boy who cried wolf,” where the boy is an unnamed U.S. official who somehow keeps finding a platform on major news shows.
No matter how you cut it, most of us haven’t witnessed this level of carelessness coming from the political and media class. Even Sanders has bought into the Russiagate state of mind by not contesting the premise of the allegations against him. Then again, those who do so don’t get much air time on mainstream media, which is why their views are often confined to Twitter and YouTube. The result is a media climate shaped by neocons who are keen on re-enacting the Cold War, while billionaires are redefining U.S. politics simply because they can.
It’s clear that Democrats would be taking a considerable gamble if they chose to unite against Sanders, who currently beats Trump in most political polls. Judging by the lessons of the 2016 election, Bloomberg’s “influencer marketing” will only get him so far. Without policy proposals that resonate with the working class (a study found that Clinton’s 2016 TV ads were almost entirely policy-free), Bloomberg and other billionaire-friendly candidates won’t be able to mobilize the diverse coalition that’s needed to defeat Trumbo. The efficacy of the Russiagate narrative is also highly questionable, as average people still care more about their healthcare, wages, and education than unsubstantiated stories coming from the pundit class.
These conclusions would’ve been easily reached had establishment Democrats done an autopsy of their colossal failure in 2016 and beyond. Not only did they fail to reflect on their losing campaign, but Pelosi and crew chose to pursue the most narrow attack against Trump (withholding military aid to Ukraine) which resulted in his acquittal in the Senate. As impeachment proceedings were wrapping up in January, a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that ”thirty-six percent said they ‘strongly’ approved of his performance, the highest number in the poll since he took office” and “33% said they had ‘very positive’ feelings about Trump, which was also a new high,” as reported by USA Today.
Bloomberg’s presidential run and mainstream media’s exploitation of Russiagate influence public opinion in two distinct ways — a massive barrage of tailored ads provide the billionaire with unparalleled access to U.S. households, while wealthy news pundits gather around the Comcast fire every night to tell stories of scary Russian hackers to millions of confused viewers. What could most of us do, but sift through the garbage that is deployed through popular propaganda terminals — Twitter, corporate news, “opinion” sections, etc. — and try to gain an understanding of our reality beyond Silicon Valley’s feeds?
After a botched Iowa Caucus (which made many on the Left remember why the Democratic National Committee sucks), liberal centrists won’t have many options other than uniting behind the eventual Democratic front-runner. Doing otherwise, which seems to be the current plan, will continue to erode trust in U.S. institutions and intensify calls for a progressive alternative to the Democratic Party and its donor class.