This article is published as part of Covering Climate Now, a global consortium of news outlets strengthening coverage of the climate story.
If you’re baffled that nearly half of the United States could look at the last four years and say, “I want more of that,” you aren’t alone. But that’s also not quite what happened.
What did happen is explained by the fact that much of the US electorate lives in a social media echo chamber saturated by disinformation, with falsehoods about climate change and the Green New Deal being a prime example. As a result, many Trump supporters simply experienced a very different four years from everyone else’s.
The post-election rise of more right-wing outlets that aim to “out-fox Fox” means the GOP social media machine is poised to accelerate. Fortunately, there is a playbook for closing the gap. But it requires progressives to understand and master how to make content spread virally online and how best to debunk disinformation.
Conservatives have turned the term “Green New Deal” into an emotional weapon—part of their overall narrative casting Democrats as extremist, elitist socialists. The attack isn’t fact-based, but as Dan Kahneman, who won a Nobel prize for his work in behavioral economics, explains, “No one ever made a decision because of a number. They need a story.”
The irony is that there is a compelling, positive story to tell about the Green New Deal. At a time when the pandemic has thrown millions of people out of work and spawned miles-long lines at food banks, a Green New Deal would create millions of well-paying jobs that cannot be outsourced overseas.
These jobs would also address the overriding challenge of our time, the accelerating rise in global temperatures that threatens to make the planet unlivable for today’s young people. A Green New Deal would put Americans to work installing solar panels, building wind turbines, restoring farms and forests to store carbon, and performing a thousand other climate-friendly actions. With government investment priming the pump, a Green New Deal would boost revenues for business as well and thereby pay for itself through the resulting increased tax revenue and sustainable growth.
No surprise, then, that when pollsters describe the Green New Deal’s policies—a fast transition to a 100 percent clean-energy grid and an economy free from carbon pollution—the idea is quite popular with ordinary Americans. Support plummets, however, if pollsters ask people how they feel about “the Green New Deal.”
Why is that? From the moment Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey introduced their eponymous congressional resolution in February 2019, the Green New Deal’s “brand” was tarnished by relentless right-wing attacks and misrepresentations of it as a socialist plot that will take away Americans’ cars and hamburgers—while progressives did little to advance their own positive narrative. The watchdog group Media Matters reported in 2019 that “in the last week of March, Fox News aired more than twice as many primetime segments discussing the Green New Deal as MSNBC and CNN combined”—and that coverage “was riddled with misinformation, mockery, and climate change skepticism.” These attacks were repeated in other right-wing outlets and echoed throughout social media.
By April 2019, Republicans were telling pollsters that they were both highly informed about the Green New Deal and strongly opposed to it. Indeed, one poll found that 43 percent of Americans strongly opposed it while only 24 percent strongly supported it. Given those numbers, it’s no wonder that Donald Trump and other Republican candidates hammered away at the Green New Deal during the 2020 campaign and the Biden-Harris campaign refused to endorse the idea. Republican Kelly Loeffler followed the same script with her robotic performance during the December 6 debate in the Georgia Senate runoff election, when she repeatedly cited the Green New Deal as proof that her Democratic opponent, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, is a “radical liberal.”
The right uses this strategy again and again. As Vox has explained, first Democrats and the left “find something, a candidate or a policy proposal, that sparks grassroots excitement and enthusiasm.” But then the “enormous right-wing media machine immediately smells blood and targets the person or policy with relentless negative coverage, ensuring that the right-wing base views the person or policy as almost comically evil.” The result for the mainstream media, centrists, and moderate Democrats is that this issue or candidate becomes “divisive” and “polarizing.”
Significantly, while the left sometimes sustains a short burst of intense messaging on a subject, typically Democrats and the mainstream media stop after a short while. But the right never ends the demonization. They even managed to turn Trump’s failed pandemic policy into an attack line, as The New York Times reported in May: “G.O.P. Coronavirus Message: Economic Crisis Is a Green New Deal Preview.”
The stunning fact is that most Democrats and progressive groups mismanage or ignore the world’s largest media platform, Facebook. Meanwhile, Republicans and right-wing media have been massively investing in compelling storytelling and viral memes for years. They’ve been saturating the system with simple, well-tested messages like “drain the swamp,” repeated endlessly, even in non-election years. This viral content is “clicky and sticky”—something that makes people want to click on it and that sticks in the brain thanks to the tricks of modern marketing.
This is especially true for climate disinformation on social media. On Twitter, more than a quarter of the tweets about climate change come from bots (with the vast majority of these bots spreading lies). Investigative reporting by The New York Times recently revealed a well-funded effort to create “astroturf” grassroots campaigns supporting oil companies (when the campaigns were in fact funded by energy companies).
Right-wingers have long understood that fiction can be much more persuasive than truth, and that selling their pro-pollution, anti-worker platform requires them to lie. “A compelling story, even if factually inaccurate, can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth,” as GOP strategist Frank Luntz advised conservatives in his infamous 2002 memo on climate messaging.
A disturbing number of the most viral stories on any given day are from far-right pseudo-news sources like The Daily Wire, Ben Shapiro’s conservative media arm, which is owned by the Wilks, a family that made billions on fracking. Republicans are outperforming Democrats in this digital echo chamber, in no small part because they use a network of big Facebook pages to cross-promote content.
These efforts move voters. Trump won 45 percent of Florida Latinos in 2020, an 11-point jump from 2016—despite numerous overtly anti-Latino policies, like putting thousands of Latino kids in cages. As CNN’s John King explained, when Trump “stunned the Democrats” in South Florida, it was because of “niche marketing…to Latino voters from Cuba, Venezuela, and elsewhere,” with the simple message “socialism, socialism, socialism.”
Social media is what allows Republicans to do this cheap microtargeting with tested messages. In contrast, Democrats often focus on uncoordinated, ineffective, and ambiguous messages that can be used against them, such as “Defund the police.”
If Democrats want to stop underperforming at the ballot box, they need to master the social media playbook dominated by conservatives. No, that doesn’t mean progressives need to lie. It means they need to engage much more intentionally on social media, using the proven techniques of viral marketing—supplemented with the sort of institutional and structural support Republicans have built into a digital and social media juggernaut.
The simplest first step for progressive donors, candidates, advocacy groups, and activists is to compare your Facebook strategy to that of more successful pages on the right and left. If you aren’t getting good engagement and doing message testing, then you’re squandering one of your most valuable assets.
Democrats and progressives have a choice. Either ramp up the viral storytelling tactics Republicans are winning with or get ready to underperform in 2022 and beyond.