Disinformation in a News Desert: My Experience in Stockton
By Summer Migliori Soto (she/her), Programs & Initiatives Manager at WDN
The proliferation of disinformation on social media is something that both fascinates and horrifies me. I was born and raised in Stockton, CA, a beautiful yet complicated city scarred by decades of high poverty and racial, educational, and employment disparities. These disparities and a lack of investment in the city’s people present the perfect breeding ground for disinformation.
Since 1895, The Stockton Record has served as Stockton’s primary news source. The publication persevered through two world wars, economic recessions, and multiple ownership changes but faced corporate bankruptcy the 2010s causing them to slash staff and original content. Although The Stockton Record still operates, its troubled past, combined with the increasing distrust of traditional journalism and a paywall, led to a dire need for a free, reliable local news source.
A blog called 209 Times seized upon the opportunity. Using sensationalism and media manipulation, 209 Times preys on people’s lack of media literacy and access to news outlets and uses existing prejudices and language barriers to their advantage.
One in four Stocktonians was born outside of the US, and nearly half speak a language other than English at home. In a climate where disinformation disproportionately affects Black and Latinx communities, Stockton is often a target for disinformation and misinformation campaigns. When people are simply trying to make ends meet or rely on friends and family for news, the most accessible source of information tends to live on social media.
209 Times began to post real-time updates of local crimes and events on Facebook. More people started to share them, reinforcing believability and familiarity bias and it became known and trusted by many Stocktonians as a legitimate news outlet. Today 209 Times has over 100,000 followers on Facebook. This compared to the population of Stockton, which is about 300,000. Their unchecked content combined with their growing influence within the Stockton community had immeasurable consequences when 209 Times decided to turn their commentary towards politics.
By this point, 209 Times’s founder Motecuzouma Patrick Sanchez had run for and lost multiple elections including one against Mayor Michael Tubbs, Stockton’s youngest and first Black mayor known for his Universal Basic Income program. 209 Times targeted Tubbs with memes, articles with anti-Black stereotypes, and conspiracy theories about misuse of public funds.
Their posts were spread heavily. After months of targeting, Mayor Tubbs lost his reelection campaign by a huge margin. While 209 Times’s disinformation campaign wasn’t the only reason behind the loss, many analyses recognize it as a significant factor. It’s founder Motecuzouma Patrick Sanchez gladly takes responsibility for eroding the community’s trust in Tubbs.
Today organizers in Stockton like 209 thymes, a counter media outlet to 209 Times, are using the power of digital organizing to hold 209 Times accountable, debunk their claims, and spark conversation on media literacy. This is only the beginning of a long journey, but sometimes all it takes is one conversation to stop the spread of misinformation.
What can you do?
- Arm yourself with the Disinfo Defense League’s Toolkit with strategies to intervene when you see disinformation
- Stop disinformation in its tracks with these tips.
- Listen to Disinformed, a podcast hosted by Bridget Todd, UltraViolet’s Director of Communications and facilitator of our disinformation workshop.