Ron DeSantis and other Republican Governors are losing the battle to reopen America because they are using broadcast strategies in a now fully networked world.
Writing in the 1960s, media theorist Marshall McLuhan observed that media act as extensions of our minds and senses. When new media emerge, they transform the way we see ourselves, communicate with others and organize our societies. Each of these transitional eras is marked by warfare between individuals and nations to determine how the new society functions given the new ability to communicate and organize.
As a result, we see a world punctuated by conflict at every turn as the technology changes us and our mental model of the world. Specifically, conflict between the hierarchical institutions built on the model of asymmetric communication (one person on TV talks to millions of people who can’t talk back directly) and network organizations built on symmetric communication (anyone can connect and communicate to anyone else), made possible by the internet.
Almost two decades ago, military strategists began describing conflicts around the world as the Fourth Generation or Network Warfare.
The key insight of the network warfare model is that disrupting a social system is easier than disrupting a political system. Psychological warfare and propaganda tactics, however, were limited before portable internet and social media. Psychological operations (PSYOPS) and propaganda campaigns took years to unfold using broadcast media.
With the internet creating a network of individuals — with each person able to send and receive information — a new generation of warfare became viable for even the lowliest of upstart political movements or insurgent groups. One of those groups, #BlackLivesMatter, is perhaps the most politically leveraged force in the country right now.
“Warfare” is a good term for our purposes if you believe the internet is a critical infrastructure. When networks succeed at doxing, canceling, misinforming, propagandizing, shaming or otherwise denying “service” to an individual or group, they succeed in “neutralizing” their opposition. The network with the most influence over the digital world also controls the physical world.
A good primer on how political networks function without leadership structures or revenue models can be found here. Networked political organizations work nothing like traditional political groups and require new strategies for harnessing or opposing them.
What does all this mean for Ron DeSantis and the other Republican Governors trying to keep their states open?
First, it means defining the opposition.
The opposition to reopening is not the lethality of COVID-19 or the hostility of the media to a pro-Trump Governor. The real opposition is the left-wing #Resistance network who are in a feedback loop with the media. The more CNN publishes stories about the danger in Florida, the more attention the #Resistance network gives the story, and the better the metrics are for the media.
The #Resistance network is not controlled by anyone and nearly all its tactics are emergent. The only way to defeat a network when it activates on an issue is by creating a “fork” in the network by introducing a wedge.
The best network wedges are visual (or at least a chart), mimetic (simple and easy to digest quickly) and, for use on left-wing networks, rooted in morality. For example, a communication device that demonstrated the high cost of school closures for low-income, minority students could cause the network to fork on reopening schools.
Second, DeSantis and other Republican Governors must know the three layers of network centric warfare according to military strategists, William S. Lind and Lt. Col. Gregory A. Thiele.
According to the authors, the layers are physical, mental and moral.
Gov. DeSantis controls the physical space of reopening. The virus is proving less lethal than feared, most Floridians wear masks and testing keeps rising. Additionally, no Florida city is the subject of ongoing violent protests.
On the mental level, the #Resistance network is succeeding at creating a sense of fear, uncertainty and doubt regarding reopening. Though the administration is not at a total loss here, because much of the data on the disease and the impacts of closure on the economy are compelling.
The #Resistance, however, is dominating on the moral level and negating any efforts by the DeSantis administration at the physical and mental levels. Effectively, the #Resistance’s moral claim is that if we return to normal, people will die. Staying home saves lives.
In order to succeed, Republicans must move to a hard moral frame of reopening.
The GOP argument must essentially be that we are the inheritors of sacrifice by generations of Americans to create the American way of life. We must muster the courage to take some risk to avoid looming economic collapse and an inevitable national decline. We know how to protect those most vulnerable to the virus, but we can’t eliminate all risk for every person and still protect the American dream.
Previous generations took on sacrifices while taking precautions, working together and eventually succeeding. We must do it, too.
Dig in on school reopening and point out that children in affluent families are still going to get a good education but the children of low-income families may never close the gap from missing 10 months of school. Thousands of children will become malnourished without school feeding. Untold numbers will be waiting to be diagnosed with visual or hearing ailments. Others are simply enduring unspeakable abuse at home with no hope while they are out of sight of society.
You get the picture.
Finally, Governors must realize, as McLuhan famously said, “the medium is the message” and stop focusing primarily on media conferences and newspaper op-eds. When the message passes through the media it becomes diluted and tainted in the minds of the right-wing networks that must be activated to push for reopening.
No, I’m not talking about guys with rifles going to protests. I’m talking about the working mother whose son does not learn well on Zoom and needs him to go to school so she can focus on work. She needs to be activated and equipped to push a reopening message through her network.
If activated, she can then activate dozens of people in her cause with just a Facebook post or comment. If not activated, she feels isolated and maybe selfish for her concern about closing schools and stays silent.
A key point is that our working mother above is not a newspaper subscriber and watches remarkably little TV news. She is, however, active on Facebook.
Republican Governors have any number of tactics available. Run a live Q&A on Facebook every Tuesday and Thursday, book the Governor for interviews on conservative podcasts, pump out a dozen social media graphics and short-form videos each day, do a Reddit AMA, give hot takes on Twitter, and spend some money promoting the message on various platforms.
In the reopening scenario, message quantity is more important than message quality. If Republican Governors can blanket the major social networks with messaging, then the right-leaning network will hear the message and ensure the message is amplified.
We are in a new generation of media battles. It matters much less what the media reports. What really matters is if the messages activate the networks that move American politics today.
Joe Clements is co-founder and CEO of Strategic Digital Services, a Tallahassee-based tech company.