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Former Trump campaign CEO and White House chief strategist Steve Bannon directed Cambridge Analytica — the scandal-plagued data firm hired by the Trump campaign — to research voter suppression tactics to discourage Democrats from voting in the 2016 presidential election, according to whistleblower Christopher Wylie.

Wylie, a former Cambridge Analytica employee, told Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee this week that Bannon ordered the data firm to explore methods for “discouraging particular types of voters who are more prone to voting for Democratic or liberal candidates.”

“There is one document which I have that specifically says — in bold terms — voter disengagement as an objective in the United States,” Wylie said, according to testimony released Wednesday.

Asked if he had ever heard Bannon specifically talk about voter disenfranchisement or voter disengagement, Wylie replied “Yes.”

During the closed-door hearing, Wylie also told lawmakers that as early as 2014, Bannon directed Cambridge Analytica employees to test messages and images related to Russia, Vladimir Putin, and Russian expansion in Eastern Europe to see how they resonated with an American audience.

Putin was the only foreign leader used in the testing, Wylie said.

“It was the only foreign issue or foreign leader, I should say, being tested at the time I was there,” he told committee members. “I can’t explain why it was that they picked Vladimir Putin to talk about in focus groups or to do message testing or to do models on, and why that would be useful to Steve Bannon.”

Wylie also described how Bannon ordered the data firm to test messages such as “drain the swamp” and “build the wall” — slogans that would later be featured prominently during Trump’s presidential campaign.

“These are things that Steve Bannon was interested in, so he asserted a lot of influence on what it was the company should be testing and focusing on. They were not things that prior to Steve Bannon’s involvement we would have looked at, because our focus wasn’t the United States before he was involved,” Wylie explained.

Bannon served as vice president of Cambridge Analytica from June 2014 until he joined the Trump campaign in August 2016.

The Trump campaign hired Cambridge Analytica to take over its digital operations in June 2016 and went on to pay the company at least $6 million for its services.

After Trump won the election, Cambridge Analytica touted its work as integral to Trump’s victory — as did Jared Kushner, who credited the data firm for playing a key role in helping Trump win the electoral college.

According to Wylie, Bannon sought out the company — which is an offshoot of a government and military contractor called SCL Group — to help him build the tools to wage a “culture war” on American citizens using military strategies.

Bannon’s priority, Wylie told lawmakers, was to win that culture war by any means necessary. He said Bannon “made it quite clear” that he didn’t care if the campaign ads created and promoted by Cambridge Analytica contained misinformation or outright falsehoods — all that mattered was that people believed it was true.

“Cambridge Analytica was set up to be essentially a full service propaganda machine,” Wylie said, describing how the data firm used Facebook data harvested from an estimated 87 million unwitting users to build a psychological profile of the entire U.S. population.

Using that data, the company then mapped out who was most susceptible to certain messaging, and then spread that messaging using “digital means” to reach the target population.

Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) described Wylie’s testimony as “very disturbing,” saying it shows that the Trump campaign and Cambridge Analytica engaged in “a coordinated effort to mislead and to use propaganda in a way to influence an American presidential election.”

After the hearing, Wylie said he hoped his testimony would help spark a congressional investigation into the matter.

One would think that all Americans would be deeply concerned to hear that a presidential campaign partnered with foreign actors to undertake a covert (and potentially illegal) operation aimed at manipulating voters, poisoning public discourse, and ultimately undermining democracy.

But apparently Republicans just aren’t all that interested in things like protecting the integrity of the democratic process or defending America’s system of free and fair elections.

Despite being invited to attend the hearing with Wylie, not a single Republican showed up. Instead, they chose to focus their energy on a Thursday hearing featuring Trump propagandists Diamond and Silk, who captured Republicans’ hearts with a wholly baseless allegation about social media companies engaging in a secret plot to silence conservative voices online.

Of course, there may be another reason that Republicans would want to avoid digging too deeply into Cambridge Analytica’s practices. Over the past four years, at least 18 Republican candidates and groups have hired the shady data firm — and with Cambridge Analytica actively seeking Republican clients for the 2018 midterms, that list may still grow.

Furthermore, even if Republican candidates choose to distance themselves from the scandal-plagued company, they can’t distance themselves from its actions. After all, the tactics used by Cambridge Analytica — including voter suppressiondissemination of “fake news,” and xenophobic fear-mongering — have been part of the Republican Party’s playbook for years.


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Chris Cuomo

News Literacy Week 2022, an annual awareness event started by the News Literacy Project, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to making everyone “smart, active consumers of news and information and equal and engaged participants in a democracy” has closed out. From January 24 to 28, classes, webinars, and Twitter chats taught students and adults how to root out misinformation when consuming news media.
There’s no downplaying the importance of understanding what is accurate in the media. These days, news literacy is a survival tactic. One study estimated that at least 800 people died because they embraced a COVID falsehood — and that inquiry was conducted in the earliest months of the pandemic. About 67 percent of the unvaccinated believe at least one COVID-19 myth, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
It’s not that accurate information isn’t available; people are rejecting reports of vaccine efficacy and safety because they distrust the news media. A third of Americans polled by Gallup said they have no trust at all in mass media; another 27 percent don’t have much at all.
Getting people to believe information presented to them depends more on trust than it does on the actual data being shared. That is, improving trust isn’t an issue of improving reporting. It’s an issue of improving relationships with one’s audience.
And that’s the real news problem right now; some celebrity anchors at cable news outlets are doing little to strengthen their relationships with their audiences and a lot to strengthen their relationships with government officials.
The most obvious example is how CNN terminated Prime Time anchor Chris Cuomo last month for his failure to disclose the entirety of his role in advising his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, on the sexual harassment accusation that unfolded in Albany, a scandal that eventually led to Andrew Cuomo’s resignation.
But there are others. Just this month, the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol revealed that another anchor on another cable news network, Laura Ingraham of Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle, texted then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows last January, advising Meadows how Trump should react to reports of possible armed protests at state capitols around the country. This revelation followed the story that Sean Hannity, host of the eponymous news hour at Fox News, also texted Meadows with advice last year.
And while he didn't advise a government official, CNN anchor Don Lemon revealed information not available to the public when he texted embattled Empire actor Jussie Smollett to tip him off about the Chicago Police Department’s wavering faith in his story about an assault. That’s from Smollett’s own sworn testimony.
When English philosopher Edmund Burke joked about the press being the Fourth Estate — in addition to the First, Second and Third (the clergy, nobility and commoners, respectively) — his point was that, despite their influence on each other, these “estates” — bastions of power — are supposed to be separate.
The Fourth Estate will always be an essential counterweight to government. But, since Donald Trump was elected in 2016, we’ve been so focused on stopping an executive branch from pressing the press to support an administration's agenda — either by belittling journalists or threatening to arrest them for doing their jobs — that we’ve ignored the ways that it affects and influences other Estates, and not necessarily through its reporting.
That is, we have news personalities-cum-reporters who are influencing government policy — and not telling us about it until it’s too late.
The United States has fostered an incredible closeness between the Second Estate — which in 2021 and 2022 would be political leaders — and the Fourth Estate. About a year ago, an Axios reporter had to be reassigned because she was dating one of President Biden’s press secretaries. Last year, James Bennet, the former editorial page editor of the New York Times and brother of Colorado Senator and 2020 Presidential candidate Michael Bennet, had to recuse himself publicly from the Gray Lady’s endorsement process. In 2013, the Washington Post reported at least eight marriages between Obama officials and established journalists.
To be clear, there aren’t any accusations that anyone just mentioned engaged in anything other than ethical behavior. But I, for one, don’t believe that James and Michael Bennet didn’t discuss Michael’s campaign. I don’t think the Axios reporter and her West Wing-employed boyfriend — or any journalists and their federally employed spouses, for that matter — didn’t share facts that the public will never know. Such is the nature of family and intimacy.
And as long as those conversations don’t affect the coverage of any news events, there’s nothing specifically, technically wrong with them. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t damaging.
As these stories show, when we don’t know about these advisor roles, at least not until someone other than the journalist in question exposes them, it causes a further erosion of trust in news media.
What’s foolish about the Cuomo, Ingraham, Hannity, and Lemon improprieties is that they don't necessarily need to be the problem they’ve become. Cuomo’s show contained opinion content like 46 percent of CNN’s programming. An active debate rages on as to whether Fox News is all opinion and whether or not it can rightly even be called opinion journalism since its shows are so studded with inaccuracies and lies.
What that means is that Cuomo, Ingraham, Hannity, and Lemon are allowed to take a stand as opinion journalists; Cuomo and Lemon never really worked under a mandate of objectivity and Ingraham and Hannity likely wouldn’t honor it if they did. Indeed, a certain subjectivity — and explaining how it developed for the journalist — is part of an opinion journalist’s craft. To me, little of these consulting roles would be problematic if any of these anchors had just disclosed them and the ways they advised the people they cover.
But they didn’t. Instead, the advice they dispensed to government employees and celebrities was disclosed by a third party and news of it contributes to the public’s distrust in the media. While personal PR advisory connections between journalists and politicians haven’t been pinpointed as a source of distrust, they may have an effect. Almost two-thirds of respondents in a Pew Research poll said they attributed what they deemed unfair coverage to a political agenda on the part of the news organization. No one has rigorously examined the ways in which individual journalists can swing institutional opinion so it may be part of the reason why consumers are suspicious of news.
Cleaning up ex post facto is both a violation of journalistic ethics and ineffective. Apologies and corrections after the fact don't always improve media trust. In other credibility contests, like courtroom battles, statements against one’s interests enhance a person’s believability. But that’s not necessarily true of news; a 2015 study found that corrections don’t automatically enhance a news outlet’s credibility.
It’s a new adage for the 21st century: It’s not the consulting; it’s the cover-up. Journalists need to disclose their connections to government officials — up front — to help maintain trust in news media. Lives depend on it.

Chandra Bozelko did time in a maximum-security facility in Connecticut. While inside she became the first incarcerated person with a regular byline in a publication outside of the facility. Her “Prison Diaries" column ran in The New Haven Independent, and she later established a blog under the same name that earned several professional awards. Her columns now appear regularly in The National Memo.

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