If you have any doubts about Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ authoritarian bent, consider his development of right-wing propaganda networks to promote himself while simultaneously using state government to try to destabilize independent news businesses.
His courtship of Fox News and how it’s paid off for his political career has been obvious since he was a congressman.
But the extent of his personal propaganda campaign has been documented only recently – largely by digital media in the last few months.
Semafor, a digital news site founded in 2022 by Justin Smith, former CEO of Bloomberg Media, and Ben Smith, former editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News, reported in December about how “DeSantis is building his own media,” including two DeSantis-friendly news and opinion sites, The Florida Standard and Florida’s Voice. Florida Standard, created in 2022, is not transparent about who owns or finances it, according to Semafor and the Media Bias/Fact Check website. Florida’s Voice, founded in 2021, is backed by Alfie Oakies, an anti-vaxxer and Big Lie Trumpist who owns Seed to Table, a Southwest Florida farm and grocery business, Semafor reported.
Then in January, The Daily Beast, a New York City-based news and opinion website founded by former New Yorker editor Tina Brown, reported that DeSantis’ top lieutenants were building a “secret Twitter army of far-right influencers” to boost Tweets and other social media reports favorable for DeSantis and to “circumvent the mainstream press and appeal directly to GOP primary voters nationwide."
And this month, Seeking Rents, the Substack newsletter of Florida investigative reporter Jason Garcia, detailed various collaborations between DeSantis’ office and The Florida Standard on stories that appear to benefit both. The collaborations started with DeSantis granting the news site’s editor a sit-down interview at the Governor’s Mansion the day after the news site was formally launched, something that the governor has never done with any of the state’s major metropolitan newspapers. The collaborations also included an attack piece by Florida Standard on Andrew Warren, the Hillsborough County state attorney DeSantis suspended in August. A federal judge has since ruled DeSantis violated state law and Warren’s First Amendment rights, and Warren is asking the state Supreme Court to reinstate him. The Seeking Rents story says markings on documents Florida Standard used in reporting its Aug. 17 story, “Andrew Warren allegedly used taxpayer money for activist agenda,” show the documents were provided by the governor’s office, but the story never indicates their source. Seeking Rents also says other records from the governor’s office show the office promoted the Florida Standard story to at least five other news outlets but “never betrayed a hint that the Governor’s Office helped orchestrate the story.”
Propaganda as Truth
While DeSantis is clearly following former President Donald Trump’s lead in appealing to their conservative base by fostering an antagonistic relationship with independent news media – what DeSantis calls the “corporate media” – DeSantis appears to be taking the political strategy to a new level.
Not only does he verbally attack the mainstream media and refuse to cooperate with them, but he is promoting changing laws to inhibit the press from being the people’s watchdog on government.
Last year, DeSantis successfully pushed for a change in Florida law to allow local governments to post required public notices of government actions and hearings on their own websites instead of in newspapers meeting minimum circulation standards. That’s going to significantly hurt newspapers’ revenue streams, but it’s also going to reduce government transparency, Richard Karpel, executive director of the Public Notice Resource Center told the Courthouse News Service.
And just this month, on the same day as President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address, DeSantis held a headline-grabbing panel discussion to discuss whether laws should be changed to protect people from libel and defamation by the media. (Actually, though, it would be just public figures and public officials, such as DeSantis, who would find it easier to win lawsuits, since they are the only ones who have to meet the malice standard that DeSantis wants to drop in Florida.) He didn’t say whether any such legislation was proposed for the legislative session that begins March 7, other than to mention, “We’ll be having more to say about a whole bunch of different issues over the next couple weeks.”
The most striking thing about the manufactured event was the news-anchor-style desk where DeSantis sat, with its backdrop of the word, “Truth,” in bold black letters on a blue screen.
Propaganda presented as Truth. Newspeak, the fictional language of George Orwell's novel 1984, come to life in DeSantis' Florida of 2023.