Minneapolis city staff knew early on that the city’s program to hire social media personalities to help spread information during the trial of Derek Chauvin, the alleged murderer of George Floyd, was likely to face backlash. In particular, at least one city employee was worried that using the term “influencer” could be interpreted as the city spreading “propaganda,” according to a cache of internal city emails, documents, and text messages obtained by Motherboard.
“‘Influencer’ is probably not the best way to refer to them. Sort of feels like propaganda,” a Minneapolis government employee wrote to another in one February email.
“Maybe they should be called cultural social media partners not influencers? We are not trying to influence any decision we are trying to project information out further,” another email from a second staffer reads.
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The city set aside $12,000 to hire six influencers from different racial and ethnic backgrounds to amplify information about the trial to communities that the city believes would not be reached by traditional media and the city’s own outreach effort (Each influencer was to be paid $2,000). It was part of a broader communications strategy for the trial, which had a $1,181,500 budget in total, according to the documents obtained by Motherboard using a public records request.
“The engagement strategies proposed focus on centering communities that are typically left in the dark during similar processes. The goal is to ensure that our cultural communities can receive timely, accurate information in culturally relevant ways in an equitable manner to those who rely on traditional media or City channels,” a plan for the communications strategy notes. “The goal is to create multiple channels (on the ground and online) to share timely and relevant information to the public as well as receive input and feedback from the community throughout the three phased trial operational period (pre-trial, trial, verdict phases) for both trials.” This portion of the proposed plan was previously made public by the city.
The emails also name some of the people and organizations Minneapolis proposed paying as part of the program. Axios earlier reported those included a DJ and a soccer coach (Axios appears to have obtained the same or at least a very similar cache of emails as Motherboard).
“Here is my social influencer for the south Asian community. He is connected to the young people as well as a respectful young leader among the elders. He was a Hmong woman and youth soccer coach,” one text message in the cache reads.
The murder trial of Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who is accused of killing George Floyd in May 2020, started this week, with firsthand witness testimonies from bystanders already underway.
Following Floyd’s death, thousands of protestors took to the streets all over the country and especially in Minneapolis. Many turned violent after police escalated tensions between themselves and protestors. The Minneapolis Police Department brought in the National Guard to protect property in the city during this week’s trial, in an effort called “Operation Safety Net,” and set up a Facebook page for public relations about the operation.
The goal of the communications strategy, according to the documents, was to provide “Overall accurate message verification, dispel rumors, Provide trial details – date, time, location, etc., Provide details around law enforcement, public safety, street and traffic plans, especially around key sites of interest [… and] Address the trauma in relation to the trial, how to deal with it in a healthy way and recognizing racism still exists, how to work together.”
Part of this strategy included the social media influencers.
“The City’s goal is to inform but aren’t we also trying to set up two-way information so community can share their concerns/needs so we can respond?” a comment on a draft of a document discussing the plan reads.
“Would it be of values [sic] to add that the information that was to be shared via our social media partners was the same info to be shared with traditional media?,” another email reads.
“‘Influencer’ is probably not the best way to refer to them. Sort of feels like propaganda.”
Shortly after the news of their influencer campaign broke, the city backed away from the plan in the wake of a flurry of media interest and complaints from residents (some of which were captured in the public records provided to Motherboard). David Rubedor, the director of the Neighborhood and Community Relations Department, apologized for the poor wording of the campaign, and said in a city council meeting that the plan was called off entirely.
“For this strategy, we use the term ‘social media influencer,’ which in retrospect did not accurately reflect what we are asking of our partners, and it caused confusion in the community,” Rubedor said. “This was never about trying to persuade or change public opinion about any particular message, but more about getting important information out quickly and in an equitable way.”
City coordinator Mark Ruff said during that meeting that they “welcome, as a staff, suggestions” from the community. “[We are] quick to say that when we make a mistake, we acknowledge that, and we will do better, and that is the work of the city—[using] that feedback mechanism to improve,” Ruff said. “Because we have improved over the last year, but we know we still have a long way to go.”
Chauvin is facing second- and third-degree murder charges, as well as second-degree manslaughter charges, and faces up to 65 years in prison. The trial is expected to last at least four weeks.
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