Commentary

Commentary: All the News Unfit to Print

By Julie Pitta

Recently, I had the pleasure of celebrating the 90th birthday of an old family friend. Ernie escaped Nazi Germany, eventually arriving in San Francisco where he built a successful dental practice and trained future dentists at the University of California at San Francisco. He and his wife, Eva, raised three children, now grown and with adult children of their own.

During the festivities, Ernie and Eva, also a former refugee, took a moment to speak about the current political climate. 

“What’s going on now reminds me of the past,” Ernie said. “If a lie gets repeated enough times, people think it’s the truth.” This was a strategy the German government used against its Jewish citizens. “I worry about the direction the country is headed in,” Eva said. “It’s frightening.”

Propaganda has been around for as long as there has been civilization. It is a tool used by leaders in ancient times to enhance their reputations and consolidate their power. Disinformation, a subset of propaganda, is willful spread of lies and a product of the modern era.  The term is said to have been coined by Russian dictator Joseph Stalin, who attached a name to his predecessor Vladimir Lenin’s maxim: “A lie told often enough becomes the truth.”

In 1923, Stalin formalized the regime’s adoption of disinformation, creating a government agency charged for that specific purpose. A decade later in Germany, the Nazi regime borrowed from the Soviets, appointing Joseph Goebbels as the Third Reich’s minister of propaganda.

Former U.S. President Donald J. Trump further modernized a strategy used by the most notorious regimes of the 20th century to further his far-right agenda. While the Russians and Nazi Germany used state-controlled media for their disinformation campaigns, Trump, famously, used Twitter. 

Since then, Republicans have slavishly followed Trump’s script, creating an alternative reality on social media. It has been effective: A recent poll found that 60% of Republicans believe that Trump won the last presidential election despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Disinformation continues to be a Republican tool for disrupting the electoral process: Witness the campaigns used to further the recalls of California Gov. Gavin Newsom, the San Francisco Board of Education, and the City’s District Attorney Chesa Boudin. 

“Republicans have their own version of reality,” said Professor John Geer, dean of the school of arts and science at Vanderbilt University. “It is a huge problem. Democracy requires accountability and accountability requires evidence.”

A recent review of social media offers ample evidence of social media’s influence on San Francisco discourse. 

On Nextdoor, I “learned” that my Richmond Review colleague, former District 1 Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer, had packed up and moved to Marin County. This came as a surprise to Fewer who continues to live in the Richmond District home where she and her husband John raised their three children. Yet, the story has been repeated so often, it has taken on the stubbornness of an urban myth.

By scanning, the Twitter feed of The Marina Times, I “discovered” that Alameda County tried a staggering 2,300 criminal cases last year. (By contrast, Boudin prosecuted a mere 23.)

As it turns out, The Marina Times report is entirely false. Alameda County courts, like those in San Francisco, were closed for much of 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic. As recently as June 2021, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley reported that the county’s criminal case backlog was at 12,000, up from a pre-pandemic 8,000.

O’Malley, a so-called law-and-order district attorney, admitted that she has dismissed cases, in part, because COVID-19 made holding trials an impossibility. Although The Marina Times’ Tweet has been widely debunked, it lives on in cyberspace, becoming more fuel for the campaign to recall Boudin.

A lie frequently repeated on social media is that Boudin fails to prosecute suspected criminals. A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle soundly refuted this oft-repeated claim. Boudin’s charging rate is comparable to that of his predecessor, former District Attorney George Gascon. Last year, Boudin brought charges in 75% of homicide cases. By comparison, Gascon’s charging rate during his last two years in office was 73%. Boudin’s charging rate for rape and narcotics cases last year was, in fact, considerably higher than Gascon’s (again using the statistics gathered from his final two years). Boudin’s 2021 homicide conviction rate was an impressive 83% while Gascon’s was 67%.

Citing undisputed facts on Facebook, Twitter and, especially, Nextdoor, often leads to a pile-on, a common tactic used by disinformation specialists. Pile-ons are personal attacks against any individual attempting to set the record straight. Successful disinformation campaigns require more than repetition. They demand that opposing viewpoints be silenced.

Ernie and Eva came to a San Francisco that embraced new people and innovative ideas. It was a living laboratory for social experiments that were successfully taken up by other parts of the country – and even the world. In the post-Trump era, disinformation campaigns are carefully designed to divide, and by so doing, impede progress. Today the City is far less accepting than it was when two German refugees arrived ready to begin a new chapter. 

Julie Pitta is a neighborhood activist. She is a former senior editor for Forbes Magazine and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. You can email her at julie.pitta@gmail.com

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