Big Media

How Silicon Valley Disrupts Local Politics


- May 9th, 2019
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Silly me. I believed Justice Louis D. Brandeis when he said more speech was the remedy for speech you don’t like. “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies,” Brandeis wrote nearly a century ago, “to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” I also believed in Abraham Lincoln’s formulation of “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” What happened to shake those two rock-solid foundations of my naturalized-American sensibility? I ran for office last year in California and discovered, not only do we have a government chosen by only a majority of those who participate, but that getting an informed electorate to turn out isn’t a goal necessarily shared by all.

Let me back up. I was motivated to run as a Republican against an incumbent Democrat in a very blue state assembly district in 2018 because California is worth fighting for. Merely 13.5 percent of the voters in Studio City and its surrounding areas are registered with the Party of Lincoln. Not to worry, I thought. I’m pretty good at communicating, and if the aphorism attributed to Tip O’Neill—“all politics is local”—held true, I’d have the wind at my back. Los Angeles residents are dealing with soaring crime that isn’t defined as such (shoplifters make sure only to boost items with a retail value under $950 per day to avoid a punishment not much harsher than a ticket) and navigating the denizens of growing tent-and-tarpaulin encampments where the “persons experiencing homelessness” defecate on sidewalks. All I needed to do, I thought, was to tell my story in as many places as possible.

Well, it turns out that that’s not so easy. Social media and big tech have supplanted the networks of small newspapers and other dailies. There are really just two hometown papers in our city, and the Los Angeles Times doesn’t even live in L.A. any more. Local talk show hosts John and Ken refer to it as the “El Segundo Times” ever since the paper decamped from its former downtown headquarters. That was probably a good idea, since our downtown City Hall is home to a serious typhus outbreak. Yes, typhus. The Los Angeles Daily News is still here, but both papers only have so many people covering local politics. The bigger, sexier stories are national, with connections to the President Who Sells Papers.

So, if local news, especially political reporting, is mostly dead, where do people go to find out what’s happening in the small races that actually make a tangible difference in how they live their lives? We hear plenty of talk about whether Facebook, Twitter, et. al., are platforms or publishers, but the truth is, people turn to social media to get almost all local news these days. NextDoor.com is likely to be the best place to find the information you need about a town hall or a crime wave to watch out for. If these players exclude certain people or points of view, there are no viable alternatives. Social media also gets eyeballs for the local stories that the daily newspapers do write, so it’s important to have equal, unfettered access. Corporate censorship has very real consequences.

We often bemoan the presence of big money in politics. Elections shouldn’t be auctions, and many of us have the same lament about “special interests” and “big donors” having the ears of our elected officials. Social media was changing that—it leveled the playing field for access and information. For a mostly-normal person like me, being able to get my message out on Facebook and Twitter and YouTube was a godsend. I could put my tiny budget up against the incumbent’s hundreds of thousands and at least let voters know they had a choice. When I ran in 2018, much had already been made of the way that candidate Trump had revolutionized campaign communications, being nimble on Twitter and targeting via Facebook. Of course, candidate Obama had made huge strides with Facebook before him, but once the power was used by the other side, Silicon Valley took notice.

Before the June 2018 primary in  California (and a number of other states), Facebook instituted an onerous additional set of requirements for political advertisers who weren’t incumbent officeholders. I’d already set up a political page using using verification that I was on the ballot from California’s Secretary of State. Suddenly, Facebook required two more forms of ID, which had to be submitted by mail.  Facebook stopped all ads and said it would take them two weeks to process the information. This, of course, was just two weeks before election day. At the same time, Twitter was shadow banning accounts that some murky algorithm determined were too right leaning. Again, a large number of conservative candidates were affected, and their messages were not shown to the people they were trying to reach.

After watching conservative candidates jump through these hoops, the social media giants resorted to other means—again always against candidates with an R after their name. Here in the Central Valley, Elizabeth Heng tried to place a Facebook ad about a compelling personal story of her family fleeing Cambodia, but was turned down for “sensational content.” I also made a campaign video that was pretty awesome, and set about sharing it as widely as possible. For me, that meant that in addition to running it on cable several times, I set up an AdWords campaign with Google’s YouTube to share it with residents of my district. Imagine my surprise when my campaign was rejected over and over by AdWords. I emailed; I called; I pleaded my case to the lovely folks on the phone from the call center in the Indian subcontinent. Nothing worked. I was “unverified” even though I was on the ballot and shared that information multiple times and in multiple ways.

Imagine my surprise, then, when Google finally relented and ran my ad—starting after the November election! And we keep seeing non politicians—like James Woods!—get suspended or banned for something they said. As Mark Dice opined on (where else?) Twitter, “Imagine the phone company shutting off your service because they didn’t like what you and your friends talk about. That’s Facebook today.”

On June 4, there is a special election in the northwest corner of Los Angeles to replace departing Councilman Mitch Englander. He was the only Republican on a council that should be ashamed of what our city has become. Sixteen candidates signed up for the race, including one who once worked for the Ethics Commission which oversees the council, and in an only-in-L.A. twist was removed from the ballot for violating the rules against “revolving door” candidates.

One man on the ballot, Brandon Saario, is a friend of mine. He has a larger following on Twitter than the rest and was ready to use it effectively for his campaign. “It’s a great way to communicate, get instant feedback and for supporters to find my website and donate,” he said. Or it was, until he attempted to tweet a link to his campaign website and people who clicked on it received a message that it was unsafe. That was in February. He got no response from the platform until he invoked the prospect of lawyers. Then, a couple weeks ago, I noticed that messages I had tried to post that included his web address were stuck in drafts. Repeated attempts to post his information were blocked by Twitter, so I put out a call for help. One appeal got 49,000 impressions and engaged fellow conservatives who wanted to know what was up.

The outcry from the conservative California social media community was swift and spawned articles detailing the blocking, which led to a sudden reversal by Twitter. Combing through the other 14 candidates’ Twitter bios, I had no difficulty posting links to their sites and not a single other one was affected by this “accidental block,” not even the candidate with one tweet and one follower. The question that remains is why? Why only Brandon?

Is it true, as attorney Harmeet Dhillon says, “we will lose every election going forward” if the social media giants get their way? Perhaps. But what’s really at stake in this special election in which probably under 15,000 of the hundred of thousands of eligible voters will decide our fate?

The most pressing issue in Los Angeles today is homelessness. There’s big money in those encampments, and Brandon Saario happens to be one of the few candidates who isn’t interested in buying into the billion-dollar homeless scam. This city is run by a council so corrupt that FBI raids don’t garner much water cooler attention. Hardly anyone blinked when, in late 2018, the city council voted itself an increase in matching funds for campaigns that meet a somewhat onerous threshold for grassroots candidates. That’s taxpayer money that will now flow to the campaign consultants of some very well-connected people.

Richard Sherman, chairman of the Los Angeles County Republican Party, summed up the entire episode in an email: “We all should be strong believers in liberty and freedom of speech. It is unconscionable that here in our country a dedicated and hardworking individual, Brandon Saario, who is running for Los Angeles City Council—a nonpartisan race—is being prevented from sharing his campaign website on Twitter. If Twitter does not reverse its outrageous censorship position, then we should all refrain from using and supporting Twitter in any way.” Thankfully, the social media bluebird did reverse their block, but only as a result of negative publicity. What about those of us who aren’t able to muster this much support?

The need to raise ridiculous amounts of money to hire armies of consultants and pay for overpriced, oversized mailers and commercials would be tempered somewhat if every local election involved a series of debates or forums dealing with local issues. Until that happens, Facebook, Twitter and the like serve as virtual town halls, and their Silicon Valley masters would do well to stop putting their thumbs on the scales.

Photo Credit: Monika Skolimowska/picture alliance via Getty Images

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