Michael Tubbs on disinformation, racism, and news deserts

In 2017, Michael Tubbs made history as the youngest and first Black mayor of Stockton, California, home to some three hundred thousand people and considered the most diverse city in America. A graduate of Stanford University, Tubbs began his political career on the city council of Stockton, his hometown; during his mayoral campaign, he received an endorsement from Barack Obama—and more than 70 percent of the vote. During his time in office, Tubbs set out to confront Stockton’s poverty rate—23 percent—and alarmingly low levels of literacy, implementing progressive policies such as a universal basic income. By 2020, he was the focus of an HBO documentary, Stockton on My Mind, that highlighted his status as a rising star in the Democratic Party.

When it came time for reelection, many assumed that Tubbs, now thirty, would win in a landslide. So it came as a shock when, in November of last year, he lost by more than ten points. It was not simply a campaign failure, however: Tubbs was subjected to a targeted disinformation assault by a fake-news website known as the 209 Times. Named for the area code for Stockton, the 209 Times claims to be “an independent community driven grassroots news source.” In reality, it functions as a misinformation machine, trading on the relatively high levels of trust in local press outlets to spread lies and prey on voters’ racial biases. 

The 209 Times may have succeeded in removing Tubbs from office, but his political career is not over. Recently, CJR caught up with him on The Kicker to discuss Stockton, disinformation, racism, and news deserts. This excerpt from the interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

You recently tweeted, “Stockton is the miner’s canary for the impact of disinformation,” describing the 209 Times as “an example of racism and disinfo that is able to thrive in news deserts.” So I’d like to open the floor for you to talk about news media coverage in Stockton, how it has changed over the years, and how this media landscape has allowed for disinformation to not only spread, but really thrive in your hometown.

So Stockton, California, is what’s called a news desert. Even before the layoffs and the cuts, we had one newspaper: the Stockton Record. In addition to that, despite being the twelfth-largest city in the state, sixty-second largest in the country, we weren’t our own media market. So all of our digital, broadcast media was homed in Sacramento, so they’d have to drive an hour to Stockton to shoot things. 

During my years as mayor, the Record had to lay off employees and stopped running as many articles. When the Record didn’t have as much staff to cover things, and subscriptions declined, at the same time, this fake-news site went up. Even when I was on city council, that was the play, just attacking the Record’s credibility all the time. “The Records corrupt,” “The Record’s elite,” “No one reads the Record”—and using elected officials to do that and to just question the legitimacy of an imperfect but also the only local press that we had in the city. Then when I became mayor, and after the success of former president Trump’s 2016 campaign utilizing social media and algorithms and weaponized information, these same folks got together and, in my first month as mayor, created what’s now known as the 209 Times

People saw 209 Times and thought, Well, it’s a news site. Why would anyone purposely and deliberately go out and deceive people? So a lot of people took it at face value, like this is just an alternative news site because the Record doesn’t run as much, the Record’s not as quick, etc. And what we saw was that they started with just blatantly false articles, like articles that were literally lies and disinformation. It was really about weaponizing information and playing on people’s biases and racism. 

The stories would all follow a similar thread. Either (a) Michael Tubbs was stealing money from the city, because Black people are criminals—and I think for a lot of people it played on their bias and orientation towards, Who are Black people really? And (b) the second one was, Michael Tubbs doesn’t work, or Michael Tubbs is lazy, which is another racist trope—that Black people, particularly Black men, loiter, that they’re criminals, that they don’t work, that they’re lazy. And (c) the third was, again, Michael Tubbs is just corrupt. It’s just a corrupt administration. There’s no way he could win legitimately. He doesn’t live in the city. It’s corrupt, it’s corrupt; he’s under investigation; he’s corrupt. And for four years, leveraging social media and leveraging algorithms, they fed that poison. 

And in the course of that, they just created a different reality. I left office with a thirteen-million-dollar surplus. We were named as the fourth most fiscally healthy city in this country. But for a lot of folks, it was, No, he’s stealing money. It’s just a different reality. And that’s what I recognized, that no, this disinformation wasn’t just about an election campaign, but indeed, it was a four-year campaign that only works in a news desert. It only works when the algorithm rewards racism and bigotry and bias. It only works when there’s no check, there’s no certification. We know that brain research tells us that we look for news that confirms our bias; we look for facts that confirm our bias. And that, if I’m biased to be racist, or if I’m biased to think that the government is corrupt, I’ll find something, whether it’s the Epoch Times or the 209 Times or OAN or Fox News, that’s going to create the reality. 

So now it’s heartbreaking: if you look at even the governance in the city of Stockton, all the local races that the fake-news disinformation website endorsed in, those candidates won. And now we have an even more dysfunctional school board. Now we have a board of supervisors that wants to open the county up. Now we have leadership in city hall that doesn’t even have a vision and aren’t able to articulate even a plan for how the city will rebound [from the pandemic]. And the folks who are most impacted are the most marginalized, the most economically disenfranchised—the folks who have been suffering for a long time. So indeed, it’s incredibly heartbreaking.  

And I would argue that, in addition to laws and policy, these bad actors have to be held accountable, at least in terms of FCC violations, political reform act violations, because they were a political enterprise that did not file any forms, that took money, admittedly, from politicians to do things for them, and masqueraded as a news site. And it’s bad for democracy; it’s bad for the city. And I think just given the success that it had in Stockton, I’m worried that this malicious, this evil, this weird obsession of disinformation and misinformation will spread like wildfire, particularly in communities like Stockton. 


Could you talk about any suggestions that you might have for social media companies to better manage the spread of disinformation? 

I mean, I think we saw more action the past couple of months than we’ve seen in four years. And we know that part of it is, there has to be more transparency around who creates said news sites: What’s the budget of said page? How much are they spending on ads? And also, if it’s posing as news, particularly in the pandemic—particularly when we need people to trust science, to get their vaccines—there has to be some sort of mechanism to report things that are fake. You know how they give you a check mark when you’re an authentic person, like when you’re a person with a certain profile and they give you a blue check of verification—it seems obvious that they should do the same thing for sites masquerading as news sites.

I think some of the stuff Twitter did with things that were brought to their attention and tagging things as false or disinformation, I think that’s also necessary. That also seems like a no-brainer. I think that the organizing principles behind what we’re seeing are really about creating chaos and sowing division. I think what’s missing is that people assume that, if it’s posted, if it’s been shared, that somebody has vetted it at some point on the food chain. And that’s just not what’s happening, and these social media companies have to be responsible for verifying what are real news sources and what are not real news sources—and tagging things as disinformation when they’re disinformation. And being transparent around Who are these pages, who’s funding them, what’s their budget? 


Motecuzoma Sanchez, the founder of the
209 Times, has said in interviews that he had a personal vendetta against you; he even said that he took credit for the fact that you weren’t reelected. And so, in looking at this, in talking about this campaign against you, could you give more specific examples of the lies that were spread?

I think the far-right groups that are funding this website deserve a lot of credit for being nefarious, and for manipulating emotions in people to create a desired result that’s not really beneficial, I would argue, for the city. In terms of things that are posted, I mean, in October, before the election, they used another site—Hollywood Unlocked, a page from a disgruntled Stockton resident who is now a Hollywood celebrity blogger—that said that I had struck a deal with the governor to make the fairgrounds a regional homelessness center. It was just so bizarre and asinine, because the meeting they were citing—when that was not even truly discussed, either—I wasn’t even there. I was literally not at the meeting where this plan was hatched—or any meetings, for that matter—and that just spread like wildfire. And I spent three days to get the state to respond and say, This is not true. This is not true. This is a lie. This is actually fake. And that story dropped right around the time absentee ballots dropped. It was spread wildly—it was posted all over Nextdoor, etc. 

But then, just throughout my time in office, there were just lies. I would use my campaign account to pay for travel conferences so the city wouldn’t have to pay for it. And they would say, “Tubbs is using taxpayer dollars to do all this travel.” Or we would literally bring millions of dollars into the city, and they would say we’re stealing money from the city. Or they would lie and say I had a driver. I had an executive assistant, which the taxpayers approved, who would get reimbursed for his mileage—which is kind of customary for any employer. If I had driven, I would have got the reimbursement for the same amount of money. So it was literally everything—just lie after lie after lie. At some point, I think it just beat down the defense mechanisms for some people. And they’re like, All this can’t be false. Like, There’s something about this that has to be true.

“It was really about weaponizing information and playing on people’s biases and racism.”


Could you talk about the amount of time and effort and energy that you had to put into combatting these lies, and how that may have taken a toll on you?

Well, honestly, I should’ve probably spent more time. But I think when you’re busy governing and actually doing things in the midst of a global pandemic, in the midst of Black Lives Matter protests, there’s only so much you can do. So I made the false assumption that reality was reality, and facts were facts, and that people would see the truth of the matter and it would be fine. That you might lose some votes, but people would know that all this can’t be true. I’m a Black guy, so if I was actually corrupt—and I’m a Black guy who’s calling for police reform, who’s calling for a guaranteed income—clearly, if I’m doing all these things, I would be arrested. Like, no one with real power is particularly excited that I’m the mayor calling for these things in such a clear and bold way. So we just thought that by using traditional media, by being on TV all the time, by writing a response to our newspaper whenever they wanted one myself—by going online and doing Instagram Lives and Facebook Lives so people could ask questions—we thought that would be enough, frankly. 


Who do you think was most targeted by the spread of this disinformation in Stockton?

I think, in Stockton, because of our population, so much of the disinformation was focused on the Latino community. And we see that because they also have a 209 Times en español, like a Spanish disinformation page parroting the same garbage information. 


What’s next? Do you plan on doing more work around media and politics? Is disinformation something you will continue to bring attention to?

One of the things I’m really good at is kind of translating personal experience to policy. So, much like with universal basic income, much like with gang violence reduction work, much like our work with education access, I’m now adding disinformation as a focus area. It’s an area in which I’m actively working to get expertise. I just don’t see how a country as diverse and with as many challenges as the United States can really move forward if we allow disinformation to be unchecked. 

Let’s make sure we’re training our people how to think, in terms of being critical thinkers. And also make sure that we’re holding the bad actors accountable who would seek to divide us in a way that makes us weaker, that compromises our national security, that compromises the integrity of our elections, that compromises the type of community we live in. So I definitely see myself advocating for policy and really being a voice around the dangers of disinformation and also about the need for local press—the need for a vibrant and free press that’s local, that has trust, that has credibility, that can be as objective as possible and at least bring us to a shared understanding of what the facts are. And we may disagree on how these facts came to be. We can disagree about what to do about the facts. We see it with so many issues—from our gun issues to our issue with climate change—there’s no way you could actually, in a democratic society, build the kind of coalition to make the changes necessary when folks live in fundamentally different realities. And I think disinformation has to be held to account, and social media companies have to be part of the solution as to how we bring communities together. 

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Akintunde Ahmad is a recent CJR Fellow and now an Ida B. Wells ­Fellow with Type Investigations. He is based in Oakland.

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