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Weekly reads from CJR for March 4, 2021

The disinformation attack on Michael Tubbs

In 2017, Michael Tubbs was elected mayor of Stockton, California, home to about three hundred thousand people and considered to be the most diverse city in America. The youngest and first Black person to hold the position, Tubbs embarked on instituting a slate of progressive policies; he soon became a rising star in the Democratic Party. Early last year, his reelection seemed sure. But then a fake-news website called the 209 Times waged a disinformation campaign against him. Named for Stockton’s area code, the 209 Times traded on the public’s high levels of trust in the local press in order to spread lies. “It was really about weaponizing information and playing on people’s biases and racism,” Tubbs told Akintunde Ahmad.

In a special episode of The Kicker, Tubbs spoke with Ahmad about news deserts, political disinformation, and the material effects of online racism. During his term as mayor, Stockton’s hometown newspaper made cutbacks, leaving a void that rendered the community’s information ecosystem particularly vulnerable. “I think that the organizing principles behind what we’re seeing are really about creating chaos and sowing division,” Tubbs said. “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.” Unseated, Tubbs now hopes to bring attention to the consequences of a weakened local press—and what social media companies must do for the sake of a healthy democracy.
––Betsy Morais, managing editor


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