The Right’s new favorite online punching bag

Shameless attacks on Dr. Fauci have taken over social media, GOP ad campaigns

The Biden Era has been partially defined by right-wing outrage machines activating online to distract from a mostly successful (and non-controversial) administration. From Mister Potato Head to Critical Race Theory, false narratives created by bad actors have jumped into the mainstream, and Republican politicians have become experts at taking advantage of this. Their latest target? The once universally beloved Dr. Anthony Fauci, whom right-wing media and Republican elected officials are now relentlessly attacking online. 

In this week’s FWIW, we’ll dig into these coordinated attacks and how Fauci has become Republicans’ Enemy Number One, but first...

By the numbers

Here are the top 10 political advertisers on Google last week:

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee continued their spending spree on Google advertising last week - over the past month they’ve spent $2.1 million on the platform - using the same acquisition ads featuring Stacey Abrams speaking against voter suppression.

Majority Forward, another national Democratic Senate campaign organization, notably launched a new wave of ads last week. Their glossy 15-second video ads heap praise on swing-state Senators for supporting the American Rescue Plan. So far they’re targeting GA, NV, AZ, and NH.

...and here are the top spending political advertisers on Facebook last week:

There weren’t many new major campaigns launched on Facebook last week, with one notable exception. 👀 On Monday, a FWIW reader slid into our DMs and tipped us off to the fact that Donald Trump had quietly begun advertising on Facebook to promote his upcoming rally and raise funds for his new leadership PAC. After we broke the news on our site, Facebook issued a startling, nonsensical policy clarification to their ban of the former President: Trump is allowed to run ads on Facebook, as long as the ads and posts aren’t “in his voice.” 😡

FWIW, here’s what political ad spending looks like on Snapchat, year-to-date:

The Right’s new favorite online punching bag

Throughout much of last year, Dr. Anthony Fauci was lauded as a hero by liberals, moderates, and even many Republicans. He was seemingly everywhere - from niche podcasts to cable news and the cover of TIME magazine. In November 2020, a whopping 72% of Americans approved of the job he was doing in helping steer the fight against COVID-19. 

On social media, he became an icon too. According to data from Crowdtangle, from March 1st, 2020 to December 1st, 2020,  20 of the top 25 most-engaged posts mentioning “Fauci” on Facebook were positive. The top-performing content during that period was even more positive on Instagram. 

...but we regret to inform you that times have changed. 

In the past three weeks, Anthony Fauci has been the target of an intense online campaign by far-right media personalities, obscure Facebook pages, Republican politicians, and the national Republican party committees. Donald Trump himself is specifically committed to attacking Fauci as well, Axios reported earlier this month. 

According to Crowdtangle, every single one of the top 25 posts on Facebook mentioning “Fauci” over the past month has been negative. They come from right-wing media sites, conservative activist Facebook pages, and Republican politicians alike from Rand Paul to Newsmax, and cumulatively have millions of views and interactions.

Dr. Fauci (and science in general) has always been vilified by these pages and other bad actors. However, the intensity and traction of these types of posts have only increased in the past 30 days. That spike in engagement and interest is driven by two things: (1) the COVID-19 “lab leak” theory becoming more mainstream, which Fauci has long said was unlikely but possible, and (2) the release of some of Fauci’s emails due to a Freedom of Information Act request. These two things gave conservatives everything they needed to spin facts completely out of control and drive engagement on their calls to #FireFauci. 

Organic social media posts aren’t the only way they’re relentlessly attacking the good doctor. Republican candidates for local, state, and federal offices across the country are using Fauci’s image in their fundraising ads to rile up their base and shamelessly raise campaign funds. By our estimates, over 40 Republican candidates and dozens more conservative organizations and Facebook pages have run more than 1,000 Facebook ads attacking Dr. Fauci in the past three months. Many of the ads are so similar that Republican digital firms must think they’ve struck gold. 

Advertisers we’ve spotted include prospective 2024 presidential candidates like Tom Cotton, Ron DeSantis, and Rand Paul, the RNC and NRSC, and 2022 down-ballot candidates like Josh Mandel in Ohio and Garrett Soldano in Michigan:

Nearly all of the ads we’ve seen are using Fauci as a punching bag so that the candidate or organization can raise more small-dollar cash from their grassroots supporters. We already knew that most of these advertisers were craven and lacked any sort of moral standards (see: Jan. 6th), but demonizing a public servant who has successfully led our nation through this crisis is a new low. Intense online rhetoric can result in real-world consequences, and these Republicans targeting an innocent man for clicks and bucks is dangerous.  

According to Google Trends, this has all caused more interest in Dr. Fauci than ever before. Here’s Google search data in the US for “Fauci” since the beginning of the pandemic. Note the spike earlier this month. 

Fauci himself seems to be taking it all in stride. He addressed the most recent attacks this week on Kara Swisher’s podcast, and earlier this month, told the Financial Times:

“It seems that there are radical people around who believe I am the enemy. I am not the enemy, I am just trying to get the truth out.”

As the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan recently put it, “Only in our anti-truth hellscape could Anthony Fauci become a supervillain.” Anti-truth hellscape indeed.

That’s it for FWIW this week. Thanks so much for reading, and if you enjoyed this week’s issue, please share it on Twitter and tag @FWIWnews! We’ll be taking off next Friday for the Fourth of July holiday, but will be back the following week with more 🔥 insights for you.