SLO County GOP Disinformation: The Digital Pandemic

Jan. 6 Capitol rioters using part of a fence to attack Capitol police. Photo by KENT NISHIMURA

Couple of weeks ago, I called out an anonymous Internet troll. Normally, I would look the other way and not even care. Most of that kind of nonsense is out of my peripheral vision these days. Don’t have the time or the patience to peruse comment sections. But this troll was different. They appeared in comments sections on several local news sites and Facebook, posting dozens if not hundreds of times within the span of a few hours, declaring with absolute certainty that a San Luis Obispo police officer died partly because the shooter was influenced by Black Lives Matter, Antifa and SLO mayor Heidi Harmon among others. There’s no evidence any such linkage exists. The investigation into the May 10 shooting that resulted in Det. Luca Benedetti’s death remains ongoing and details remain scarce. This troll was so prolific and persistent in their commentary that locals on social media took their words and used them to justify their own menacing and threatening words toward local Democrats.

Meanwhile, CalCoastNews published a pair of articles targeting two Cal Poly professors for expressing opinions related to the shooting. One professor warned their students about increased police presence on campus and around San Luis Obispo during Det. Benedetti’s memorial service. CalCoastNews falsely portrayed the professor as somehow inciting hatred toward law enforcement. Another Cal Poly professor stated in a personal Facebook post that while they support the community coming together to grieve for the fallen officer and support his family, they believed the “Thin Blue Line” flag was a racist symbol that’s commonly invoked in spite of the Black Lives Matter movement. But CalCoastNews falsely claimed that professor considered any sort of expression of sympathy for Det. Benedetti as “racist.” People got mad. Threats were posted on social media. Friends and colleagues of both professors have expressed concern for their personal safety.

Last week, the New Times’ Shredder tackled the politicization of this tragedy, taking aim at the Internet troll who who “[saw] anyone not aligned with their thinking as ‘alt.left/BLM radicals/antifa anarchists’ and progressives who believe ‘oppressive gang-stalking sharks-cops’ are waging an ‘undeclared, silent, bloody war on citizens.’” While I’d normally criticize the Shredder for once again invoking the bothsiderism rhetoric, they’re right in this case. What happened to Det. Benedetti shouldn’t be politicized by anyone. We should all come together to mourn the loss and let the investigation take place without saddling it with political drama. Yet the same troll kept repeating the same claims while branching out with rants and slogans about immigration, communism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Black Lives Matter, “Cancel Culture” etc.

And so, for the first time in years, I called out an Internet troll.

After seeing my remarks, two local Republicans — who don’t subscribe to The Big Lie about the 2020 presidential election being “stolen” from Donald Trump — reached out and told me the SLO County GOP leadership encourages their members to create fake accounts and spread propaganda online. Last week, I sought corroboration from former GOP members who confirmed that tactic was completely real. I also learned the SLO County GOP, who also advertised on CalCoastNews in the past for member recruitment, has used that website to disseminate their propaganda about The Big Lie and false claims the websites have made about certain liberals.

Then everything seemed to click. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show and Washington Post looked into the May 4 SLO County Board of Supervisors meeting where hundreds of people called into the meeting, clearly reciting a script that questioned the integrity of our local elections. The underlying foundation for these calls was to call for an election audit inspired by the Big Lie and the debunked claim that Dominion voting machines tampered with ballots to somehow switch votes over to now-President Joe Biden. And one caller wondered out loud whether SLO County-Clerk Recorder Tommy Gong, a third-generation Asian-American, was a member of the Chinese Communist Party. There’s nothing wrong with asking officials for fair and honest elections, but there is something wrong with asking for fair and honest elections based on widely debunked conspiracy theories that were published to overturn a demonstrably fair and honest presidential election.

What’s happening in SLO County is merely a microcosm of what’s happening nationally. There’s this insidious effort by Republicans in states like Arizona and Michigan to conduct election audits based on conspiracy theories. Meanwhile, Republicans are actively gaslighting events that unfolded during the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, calling what happened “mostly peaceful” and comparing the attempted overthrow of the will of the American people to a “normal tourist visit.” We’re at a point now where the political divide is rooted in disagreement on policy. It’s now based almost entirely on deception — the kind of deception that every American should condemn on a bipartisan basis.

We need to be more vigilant in eliminating disinformation from our political discourse. Some people will read my previous sentence and think I’m somehow advocating for the abridging free speech. As a private business, it’s absolutely within a platform’s power to purge disinformation and prevent it from taking a hold in our sociopolitical consciousness. This isn’t about criminalizing free speech or erasing conservative thought. This is about accountability and drawing the line where it needs to be drawn for the truth’s sake.

Marketing entrepreneur and columnist from Morro Bay, California.

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