When Dan Pfeiffer became President Obama’s communications director in 2009, he believed the following things: Facebook was too small to be an effective political tool; the press was being led by legacy outlets like CNN and the New York Times; and Fox News was a respectable journalistic institution that happened to dislike his boss.
Today, Peiffer is the co-host of the popular liberal podcast Pod Save America and the author of a new book called “Yes We (Still) Can.” Here’s what he believes now: For American democracy to survive, Democrats have to learn how to use social media better; “the press” is a meaningless term; and Fox News is a “propaganda outlet that hires journalists as beards.”
Let’s start with social media.
“What keeps me most up at night is this media advantage the Republicans have built up,” Pfeiffer said on the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka. “You think about: In 2016, Donald Trump says something. Then you have Fox, Breitbart, these Twitter personalities, all pumping that in the most viral way possible, because they understand the benefits of outrage and the Facebook algorithm, to amplify his message and flood the zone.”
He said Facebook trying to favor outrageous content less often is like the NFL trying to fix its concussion problem: “It is the core of your business model.” A more feasible solution would be the left learning how to Facebook as well as the right does.
“My point for Democrats is ... we need to build a progressive media infrastructure that is the bizarro version of the Republicans’,” Pfeiffer said. “It shouldn’t be propaganda, it shouldn’t be dishonest, it shouldn’t be racially divisive. It has to be the things that work best for Democrats: Inspirational, hopeful, fact-driven. But we need these nodes of amplification to carry the Democratic message, otherwise we’re going to get swamped again.”
On the new podcast and in his new book, Pfeiffer traces how dramatic changes in the media that occurred while he was working in the White House led to Donald Trump’s election and may provide other lessons for Democrats in 2018. One of those is the broadening of terms like “the press” to include ideologically-minded organizations like Fox News and Crooked Media.
“Media criticism generally — like, ‘Why didn’t the press do this?’ — is a fallacy because it’s too broad a term to mean anything,” he said. “You can be angry at one individual outlet for how they did a certain thing, but to say, ‘It’s the press’s fault,’ doesn’t mean what it used to mean.”
“The job is going to be nearly impossible [in 2020],” Pfeiffer added. “When I had it, it was harder than when Dan Bartlett, who was Bush’s communications director, had it ... It’s just getting harder every day because the tools — the traditional tools that the president has to communicate — are getting less impactful on a daily basis.”
Although he acknowledged that the specific tools he recommends now “will look outdated” in the future, his overarching prescription for politicians and future comms directors is to forget the broadcast model — one message distributed to a lot of people — and instead think about their job as a tool for mobilizing voters and encouraging them to convince others.
“You should have an operation that is using [social], not just tweeting every once in a while or sending a Facebook post,” Pfeiffer said. “That is, trying to organize, getting people to carry your message on their social platforms. Much in the way that we now go door to door and [use] phone calls to communicate ... we need people to use Facebook — and Twitter to a lesser extent — to organize actual people.”
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This article originally appeared on Recode.net.