Trayvon and Zimmerman: The Structure and Elements of a Disinformation Campaign
"Trayvon," of course, is Trayvon Martin, the black 17-year-old who was killed two months ago in Florida. "Zimmerman" is George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch captain who shot him. Referring to Martin by his first name and Zimmerman by his last is just one small tactic in the national media campaign to make Martin's death an enduring symbol of white racism.
The Trayvon campaign is accurately described as "disinformation" because deception is a fundamental part of its planning, strategy, and implementation. Leftist disinformation campaigns are common but not widely understood. This article is intended to make them easier to recognize, and to provide a framework for additional research and investigation. Whether or not George Zimmerman was justified in pulling the trigger is outside the scope of this analysis.
The Trayvon narrative can be summarized as follows: a black child was walking innocently through a gated community after buying some candy at a store, when a white racist stalked and murdered him for no reason but his color. The police, who are also racists, let the white man go free.
This narrative is similar to those used in previous racial disinformation campaigns:
- 1987 - White racists have raped a young black girl and left her in a trash bag.
- 1996 - White racists are burning down black churches across the South.
- 2005 - White racists at Duke University have raped a black woman.
Like the Trayvon narrative, the earlier narratives were untrue. However, they remain widely believed as a result of the massive media coverage used to bring them to national attention.
All the racial narratives have the same underlying theme: black people are constantly oppressed and endangered by white racism, which is a central feature of American life. This claim is constantly repeated by political agitators, making use of any event that becomes available.
(Actual statistics on violent crime tell a different story: blacks in America assault and murder whites at a far higher rate than the reverse, and the overwhelming majority of violent acts against blacks -- 93% -- are committed by other blacks. These facts are rarely mentioned by the media.)
Social science research offers some useful insights into how people typically make decisions:
- Reasoning is only a small part of forming opinions or judgments
- Judgments are often based on inadequate information
- Early and negative information has a disproportionally heavy impact
- Anecdotal, easy-to-remember information is also overly weighted
Therefore, disinformation campaigns use simple, powerful, negative, emotional arguments that tell a story. Since people resist changing their minds about emotionally loaded topics, the media campaign has to ramp up quickly, before the facts have a chance to catch up to the narrative.
The organizers probably evaluated several events before settling on one. Ideally, the "white oppressor" would not have been charged with a crime, highlighting the supposed inability of blacks to obtain justice from the legal system. The victim must be dead, not merely wounded, to be eligible for martyr status. Finally, the event should have taken place in the South, to allow sinister comparisons with the racial attacks committed there more than half a century ago.
Such criteria are not easy to meet. This problem may have led the organizers to select an event that clashes with the "white racism" theme in several important and hard-to-conceal ways. Those aspects would need to be suppressed as long as possible to give the narrative time to take hold.
Nearly three weeks elapsed between the shooting and the first national media coverage. The organizers would use this time to set up legal, research, and media teams. These teams would establish effective control over Martin's parents, organize his extended family members and friends, interview and recruit witnesses, try to conceal or sanitize Martin's online and school records, prepare media allies for the launch, and plan the content and timing of the campaign.
Mary Cutcher, whose original statement to police supported Zimmerman's version of the event, is a possible candidate for the "recruited witness" role, having delivered a steady stream of interviews in support of the narrative after the media launch. Also worth noting is that Martin's parents quit their jobs shortly after the launch to start new careers as full-time political activists.
The disinformation team includes those who work in apparently independent roles or behind the scenes, as well as public advocates. Little information is currently available about the behind-the-scenes players, but it is possible to make some useful inferences from their actions.
The most prominent public organizers, Al Sharpton and attorney Benjamin Crump, are veterans of previous "white racism" campaigns -- Sharpton first came to national attention a generation ago as the leading promoter of the Tawana Brawley hoax. During the Trayvon campaign, he has been given free rein by MSNBC to serve as a coordinator and demagogue while simultaneously "reporting" the event on the air -- a blatant conflict of interest. Sharpton was most likely hired by the leftist network to fill precisely this role -- as a prime-time mouthpiece for racial propaganda efforts. He would later threaten to call for civil disobedience if Zimmerman was not arrested.
Crump quickly established his law firm as the primary counsel for Martin's parents. He and partner Daryl Parks organized marches, contacted Sharpton and other "civil rights activists," and worked to bring federal officials into the case -- not a difficult task, given the radicalization of the Justice Department. From the beginning, Crump charged that race was the motive for the shooting, Martin was an innocent victim, and the local police were complicit in a cover-up.
Control the message
The narrative launched in mid-March with nearly simultaneous articles by black journalists at major leftist media outlets: Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic, Charles M. Blow at the New York Times, and Trymaine Lee at the Huffington Post. These were classics of advocacy journalism -- sensationalist propaganda with no attempt to be impartial, objective, or accurate. Al Sharpton repeated and amplified the reports on his daily TV show at MSNBC. The national media instantly adopted the story, devoting hour after hour to the narrative and its white racism theme, with little balance or analysis. The massive media support helped turn a local shooting into the most important story in America -- one that would dominate the news cycle for two weeks.
However, that story contained many false and misleading elements:
- Martin was presented as a young boy who could not have posed a physical threat to Zimmerman, by showing photos taken when Martin was around 12 years old.
- Martin was repeatedly described as a "model student."
- Little or no mention was made of the recent wave of burglaries in the area, making it seem that Zimmerman had no legitimate reason to suspect or follow Martin.
- Zimmerman was reported to outweigh Martin by 100 pounds. According to a friend, Zimmerman is 5'8" and weighs 170. Martin was about 6'2" and 160.
- Zimmerman was reported as having ignored an "official order" from a police dispatcher to stop following Martin. In fact, the operator merely said, "You don't need to do that" -- after which Zimmerman replied, "Okay" and apparently returned to his truck. Even if the operator had instructed Zimmerman to stop, Zimmerman was under no legal obligation to comply.
- The media emphasized that Martin had been killed in a "gated community," creating the false impression that the area was an upper-class white enclave, when the neighborhood is actually middle-class and split evenly between white and minority residents.
- Zimmerman was presented as an angry racist, with no mention of his tutoring of black children or his efforts to have white police officers disciplined for failing to investigate the beating of a black man by the son of a police lieutenant. (Corrected to reflect that no police officers were involved in the beating.)
- The media pretended that Zimmerman was white for several days and then coined the new term "white Hispanic" purely to prop up the organizers' argument that whites as a group were to blame for Martin's death. More than any other aspect of their coverage, this tactic shows the depth of the media's commitment to the disinformation campaign.
Inflame the public
The core of effective disinformation is a powerful appeal to emotion. In the Trayvon campaign, the key emotional element was the anguished screaming captured on a 911 call recording.
One report noted, "Until the chilling tapes of the 911 call were released -- in which screams of what sounds like a young boy and a gunshot can be heard -- it seemed to be 'just another garden variety killing.'" The media solemnly informed the public that the desperate-sounding screams came from Martin during his final moments, as he begged an implacable killer for his life.
This produced the intended effect: visceral anger and outrage. During the crucial first days after the media launch, Martin was unambiguously presented as the young, helpless victim of a brutal racial attack. News reports repeated over and over that Trayvon had merely gone to the store to get candy, all the while showing an endless stream of photos of Martin as a smiling little boy.
The media ignored or actively tried to undermine Zimmerman's claim that he had been attacked and beaten by Martin, and that he was the one screaming for help. Few reports mentioned the key statement by the Sanford police chief: "All the physical evidence and testimony we have independent of what Mr. Zimmerman provides corroborates [his] claim to self-defense."
Meanwhile, black and leftist politicians, organizers, and activists hit the streets, accusing Zimmerman of cold-blooded murder and calling for his immediate arrest or execution.
The overwrought speeches, rallies, marches, and demands are aspects of what Daniel Greenfield has called Grievance Theater. As Greenfield noted, "Grievance Theater isn't about race, it's not about slavery, police brutality or separate lunch counters. It's about power and money."
On March 27, it emerged that Trayvon Martin had been suspended from high school three times for possessing drugs and a marijuana pipe, for truancy, and for graffiti. During the most recent incident, he was caught with a bag full of women's jewelry and a "burglary tool." Martin's crude, misogynistic, and occasionally violent Twitter messages were also released. The topics under discussion included buying and smoking weed and Martin's apparent assault on a bus driver.
Martin's mother responded by saying, "They killed my son and now they're trying to kill his reputation." This powerful one-sentence press release helped defuse the threat to Martin's carefully falsified image while also expanding the blame for his death beyond Zimmerman. Political amateurs rarely come up with such professionally crafted statements by themselves.
The same day, a poll showed that 73% of respondents believed that Zimmerman should be arrested. This probably represents the high-water mark for public acceptance of the narrative.
Defend the narrative
In late March, major TV networks broadcast a series of doctored audio and video recordings, presenting each as an important breaking news story that contradicted Zimmerman's account.
On March 22, CNN aired an "enhanced audio" of Zimmerman's phone conversation with the police and claimed he had committed a hate crime by using the obsolete racial slur "coons."
On March 27, NBC's Today show edited Zimmerman's phone conversation to make him appear racist. In NBC's version, Zimmerman said, "This guy looks like he's up to no good. He looks black." But Zimmerman was actually answering a question from the police dispatcher:
Zimmerman: "This guy looks like he's up to no good, or he's on drugs or something. It's raining and he's just walking around, looking about."
Dispatcher: "Okay. And this guy...is he white, black, or Hispanic?"
Zimmerman: "He looks black."
On March 28, ABC News aired a video of Zimmerman at the police station after receiving medical treatment. ABC reported that he appeared uninjured, and the network helped that perception along by covering his head with a graphic during most of the video. Other photos soon revealed lacerations and bleeding, but for several days the media reported that the lack of visible injuries had undercut Zimmerman's self-defense claim. A few days later, ABC trotted out a doctor who diagnosed Zimmerman's nose as not having been broken -- based solely on the police video.
The dishonest news reports helped the organizers in several ways: they bought time for the narrative to sink in, distracted attention from the evidence mounting against it, and kept the story in the spotlight. They also provided ammunition for Martin's defenders in the furious debate over the facts and meaning of the shooting that was raging in discussion forums, in blogs, and in the comments sections of online articles and videos. These conversations included information largely ignored by the media, such as the original police report; the Sanford city manager's statement; more recent photos of Martin, the reports that he had been involved in drugs, thug culture, and possibly theft; and the media's own distortion of the facts. Public opinion began to shift slowly away from the narrative as new evidence reached those capable of being persuaded.
By April, it was becoming clear that the person screaming on the 911 audio was Zimmerman, not Martin. The media quickly found "experts" to proclaim that computer analysis had failed to match the screams to Zimmerman's voice. These results were actually meaningless -- voice recognition software is not designed to compare words to screams. No analysis was done for Martin's voice, which would have been available in phone messages to his parents or friends.
Transfer the blame
A central goal of the Trayvon campaign is to focus the manufactured anger and outrage over Martin's death on the imagined racism of America's legal system, fueling a wave of political activism. To do this, the organizers must persuade the public that a chance encounter between two individuals proves the racism theme and has global implications. Objectively, this makes little sense: "A Hispanic man killed a black teenager in Florida, and no charges were filed. Racism is therefore rampant in America, and we must change the system." The fallacies don't matter. Disinformation campaigns are about emotional manipulation, not rational thinking.
President Obama weighed in on March 23, saying it was "absolutely imperative" for federal, state, and local authorities to investigate the shooting. He asked Americans to "do some soul-searching" and added, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon." This matched the organizers' template perfectly. Obama had agreed that the shooting was of national importance, with society-wide implications; implicated racism as the motive; and identified personally with "Trayvon."
Martin's mother echoed Obama, telling Congressional Black Caucus members that her son was "also your son." She continued the blame-shifting tactic at a rally, saying, "I know I cannot bring my baby back. But I'm sure going to make changes so that does not happen to another family."
In early April, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said, "Justice must be done for the victim. It's not just this individual case; it calls into question the delivery of justice in all situations like this." Pillay also called for "reparations for the victims concerned."
As the momentum of the story began to slow, the media focus shifted from the leaking narrative to related but more useful topics: the status of the legal case; the ongoing rallies and demands for "justice"; the extent of white racism in America; proposed legal changes; new white-on-black attacks; and, as always, the impure motives of those who resist the media's political agenda.
We can expect no apologies for all the dishonest reporting, or any serious media analysis of the disinformation campaign itself. Leftist activists are exempt from "investigative journalism."
Instead, the Trayvon campaign will be leveraged to support other objectives, such as:
- Promoting gun control
- Weakening self-defense laws
- Expanding hate crime and hate speech laws
- Supporting reparations and other forms of special treatment for blacks
- Energizing leftist political activism during an election year
- Justifying and encouraging black-on-white violence, civil unrest, and riots
If a show trial was part of the organizers' original game plan, it no longer fits their needs. A trial would further expose the narrative and reveal the "white racist" bogeyman as a soft-spoken Hispanic Democrat who tutors black children in his spare time. The organizers do not want the world to see George Zimmerman tearfully explaining on the witness stand that Martin knocked him down and was bashing his head on the curb, and that he screamed for help, but no one came -- a statement that would be supported by the evidence and by witnesses. It remains to be seen whether the organizers can prevent Zimmerman from telling his side of the story in court.
So where do we go from here? Many blacks (and some whites) are angry at the "racist white America" peddled by the organizers. Many whites (and some blacks) are angry at the dishonesty and anti-white racism of the disinformation campaign. The one certain outcome from all this is more racial division and animosity. No doubt that is what the organizers had in mind all along.
Scott Swett is the primary author of To Set The Record Straight: How Swift Boat Veterans, POWs and the New Media Defeated John Kerry and webmaster for SwiftVets.com and WinterSoldier.com. The veteran-led opposition to John Kerry in 2004 countered a longstanding leftist disinformation campaign that smeared American troops and veterans as "war criminals."