This new initiative from the same people who wanted to abolish the police in Minneapolis was doomed to failure one way or another, but the swift end might have been the most merciful outcome for all involved. On the one hand, many in the area expect protests to accelerate during the trials of the four officers involved in the death of George Floyd, so anything that can be done to tamp down outrage could save property and potentially lives. Few people want to relive the summer of 2020 around here — although few people want to live under current high-crime conditions that have extended since then, too.
On the other hand, at what point does this become governmental message control become propaganda? The Washington Post’s perspective leaned more into civic virtuousness:
With the trial of a former police officer charged in the killing of George Floyd set to begin in a week, the Minneapolis City Council plans to hire influencers from local communities to boost city-approved messaging, specifically to tamp down on misinformation and ease tensions.
The council voted unanimously to approve a public safety and communication plan tied to the trial and is expected to share additional details about the initiative on Monday. Part of the plan includes paying a $2,000-per-person fee to six social media influencers tied to the city’s Black, Hmong, Latino, Native American and Somali communities, officials said.
The goal is to make information more accessible to communities that “do not typically follow mainstream news sources or City communications channels” or communicate in English, Casper Hill, a spokesman for the city, said in a statement. “It’s also an opportunity to create more two-way communication between the City and communities.”
The New York Post saw this more as manipulation, as their headline makes clear — “Minneapolis to hire social media influencers to spin news at George Floyd murder trial”:
Minneapolis officials will hire a team of social media influencers to send “approved messages” during the upcoming murder trial of ex-cop Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd, according to reports.
The city will pay six influencers $2,000 each to relay approved information from the high-profile and potentially volatile trial when it gets underway next month, Fox News said.
The move is part of a $1 million plan approved by the Minneapolis City Council on Friday, as the Minnesota city braces for possible unrest in the controversial case.
“Spin” doesn’t even really begin to cover the problem with this arrangement. Governments spin all the time, but they do that from their own official press relations offices and personnel. That allows their audiences to understand and identify the interests involved in those statements, and that’s true from the White House down to the city councils across America.
Paying social media influencers to spread that message as private citizens isn’t just “spin,” no matter how well intentioned or even accurate it might be. It is at best a manipulation, and almost a textbook definition of covert propaganda. Given the radical activist nature of the Minneapolis city council, it’s tough to see how this practice won’t become propagandistic in nature, even if that’s not the intent. How long before the messaging starts stretching into what’s good for the council or the councillors as well as supposedly correcting the rumor mill on the streets? And for that matter, once this practice gets established, why would the council stop it after the trials are over?
And what about these “influencers,” too? Who chooses them, and why are they getting public money? Do they have to pass the same requirements as other public-sector contractors or employees, and what measure of “influence” is being used? It’s a safe bet that the city council won’t be paying any critics, certainly. This looks more like a method of paying off social-media allies with public cash to fluff for the council.
The “influencers” should have thought twice about this as well. Their influence in these communities might take a big hit once it becomes clear that they’re acting as mouthpieces for the city council. The words selling out will become very familiar to them at some point, and probably sooner than later.
This is a bad idea regardless of the exigent circumstances. If the Minneapolis city council wants to conduct a messaging campaign, let them invite bloggers to their press conferences, where they can report rather than propagandize — and do so independently. The opportunity for corruption in this model is so clear that it’s impossible to believe it’s not part of the intended outcome.
And not surprisingly, it backfired so spectacularly among the intended targets for this propaganda that the city council reversed itself while I was writing this:
Minneapolis has scrapped plans to pay social media influencers to share information during the upcoming trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin for the death of George Floyd.
In an email sent to city elected officials and obtained by ABC News, Minneapolis’ Director of Communications Greta Bergstrom and Director of Neighborhood and Community Relations David Rubedor confirmed plans to cancel the initiative.
What? They didn’t pay social-media influencers to announce the change? Go figure. Their constituents saw through the scheme quickly:
“If you go through lengths and measures to buy a narrative, what does that say about the leadership and trust that has been eroded in the past few years?” Toussaint Morrison, a community activist in Minneapolis, told ABC Minneapolis affiliate KTSP-TV.
“You buy people to tell you that your emotions aren’t valid, or that you should stay home and not protest, or that certain things are more important than justice,” Morrison added. “So I really feel that them trying to buy the narrative from social media influencers is really disappointing.”
Once more, we see the Minneapolis city council elite assuming their constituents are saps. That’s a hell of a message with elections coming up this year, no? Speaking of messaging, though, the rest of Minneapolis has some tougher choices. For instance, what kind of message does plywood send?
There are no boards covering the windows of Kevin Ni’s sushi restaurant on Nicollet Mall. Not for now, at least.
While some of his downtown Minneapolis business neighbors are considering tacking protective plywood to their storefronts and sending staff home in anticipation of protests when former police officer Derek Chauvin stands trial for murder and manslaughter, Ni is planning to stay open as long as he safely can: “Hopefully there won’t be riots again. I’m hoping people will calm down and do what they’ve got to do without damaging others. … To board up a business is actually making downtown like a ghost town. We don’t want to paint that picture.”
As one of the most significant police brutality trials in American history is scheduled to start soon, months after George Floyd’s death, pandemic-squeezed business owners and building managers are torn between putting on a show of confidence by staying open or boarding up in case riots erupt.
Amid conflicting advice from city and neighborhood leaders, many are wondering whether authorities will make good on their promise to quell violence quickly, unlike last summer.
If they wanted to make good on that promise, they would beef up the law-enforcement presence in the city — perhaps with the help of the National Guard. So far, though, the city council appears more interested in paying off Twitter users. Let that be a lesson on the seriousness with which they take their public-safety responsibilities. With that in mind, I wish I’d invested in the plywood industry a year ago.