Peter Daou is a political communications operative, former blogger, and committed Twitter warrior who ran the pro-Hillary Clinton viral news site Shareblue during the 2016 election. (He also has a quite interesting pre-politics life history which involves the Lebanese civil war, the sex novel Fear of Flying, and a decade-plus of work as an electronica keyboardist and producer.) His newest web project, Verrit, dubs itself as "Media for the 65.8 Million," which is the number of people who voted for Clinton. The site features shareable images depicting "noteworthy facts, stats, and quotes for politically engaged citizens" which have been authenticated by Verrit's staff. (Said staff right now consists of Daou, his wife Leela, and a few volunteers.)
The idea is quite grandiose—each image includes a seven-digit (!) verification code to demonstrate the fact has been authenticated—and the shareable images have such Hillary-oriented headlines as "Sanders and the Mainstream Media Helped Put Donald Trump in the White House." (Clinton herself endorsed the site in a tweet last weekend—Daou says he doesn't know who showed it to her.) Reviews from nonpartisan journalists and leftist critics have ranged from the baffled to the derisive, and on Wednesday Daou caused political Twitter to explode by doggedly and indignantly questioning New York Times reporter Sopan Deb about why he had "liked" a tweet critical of Verrit. On Thursday I spoke with Daou, who is affable and not nearly as manic as he comes across online. We discussed Verrit, the relitigation of the 2016 primary, and the Sopan Deb Incident. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Slate: What do you think of the response to Verrit? It's gotten a lot of attention, certainly on Twitter.
Daou: I find the frenzy both amusing and gratifying because it's doing free publicity for us. It's been fascinating to watch. The people who don't like the project and are criticizing it, whether they're writers or whether they're just people on Twitter, jumping in threads and making [parodic] Verrits—those are completely different audiences. Our audience is the people who feel harassed by the people doing this. So ... it's literally just proving our concept. Every single fake Verrit just pushes our brand and drives more of our supporters to us because it drives awareness. So this has been quite good for us.
When you say harassment, you're talking about the online back-and-forth between the Bernie supporters and the Hillary supporters—
When I talk about harassment I'm talking about actual harassment. Just take a look at any one of my tweets and go through my mentions and you'll see what I mean about that. I have a thick skin, I don't really care about people trying to harass me because I'm just used to it, but people come into my mentions and make good comments and get abused, harassed, insulted—99 percent of the time by cowards who don't have the courage to put their name behind it.
The tagline for Verrit is "Media for the 65.8 Million." Isn't it backward-looking to focus on the last election rather than the next election?
There's this magical thinking that people who voted in one election mysteriously all disappeared and have nothing to do in the future. That's obviously absurd. Every single one of those people cares about what's happening in the present and what's going to happen in the future. And also, the 65.8 million is shorthand—it's about shared and common interests. Not everybody has exactly the same worldview. Some are Republicans, some were Bernie supporters who ended up voting for her. The 65.8 million is shorthand for a shared mindset—the people who decided that Hillary was the right choice and have a set of aspirations and interests in common. Of that 65.8 million, there's certainly a large segment that feels underserved in the media.
You feel that the mainstream media was unfair to Hillary Clinton.
To take Slate as an example, we've covered Hillary critically but to say she got the "worst" coverage, I think—we did a list of 230 reasons Donald Trump was unfit to be be president. We were critical of Trump every day.
Yeah, Ben, but the focus on the emails—there's not a single Trump scandal, most of which were far more egregious than the emails, that got one tenth the sustained coverage. I hired a research team last year to go through Lexis-Nexis, YouTube, every research tool we could to count every single day that there was negative coverage of the emails. It was 600 consecutive days. The most we could find for Trump was 20 or 30 consecutive days around the bus tape. You cannot tell me that 600 days of consecutive coverage hammering her equates to Trump having bad stories. Well, Trump had bad stories because he did bad things. The same with Bernie Sanders! A lot of Bernie supporters say he didn't get fair coverage, but you go back to the Harvard study of the primaries, he got by far the most favorable coverage.
But the overall volume of critical coverage of Trump was probably greater than Hillary, at least on sites like Slate.
But look at the cause. She wasn't out there calling Mexicans rapists, she wasn't out there with a tape like that talking about being a sexual predator. So there's just no comparison. The things that Donald Trump was saying, openly, that he would do are the type of things that engender negative coverage. Hillary Clinton apologized and said she made a mistake with the email server a dozen times in 2015 and the email coverage continued into the last days of the election. But it is what it is. This is not about relitigating, this is about understanding what happened and rejecting the false narratives.
If it's not about relitigating, why the focus on Bernie?
Because he continues to attack the Democratic Party. It's interesting to me ... I've been a longtime progressive. People like Bernie Sanders are people that I admired and always liked. The day Bernie Sanders and his campaign—I worked with [Sanders campaign aide] Tad Devine at the Kerry campaign, Jeff Weaver—the minute those guys decided "you know what, we're going to rip Hillary Clinton's character apart"... A little known fact is that Bernie himself, according to the New York Times, sat with his advisers and said, "I don't want to go after her Wall Street speeches because that's a character attack and she has a right to make a living." In 2015 he said that. By 2016 it was nothing but Wall Street speeches. That's hypocrisy but nobody calls him out on it. I'm sure you won't either.
I was a Bernie Sanders supporter—if you look back at my writing in 2015 I was thrilled about him being in the race. Income inequality is something I've written about for years, it's one of the main issues that I care about. And I disagreed with Hillary on a number of things, whether it was fracking, the Iraq War—I used to protest the Iraq War. I was one of the early progressive bloggers, Netroots guys, who was marching in the streets and fighting against Bush. But Bernie decided to go hard negative on her character and I fought back. And I know a lot of people on the left really don't like me for that, and I accept that and I understand that. Cenk from the Young Turks—2003, 2004 we used to hang out and talk about politics and what our plans were. Dave Sirota, Glenn Greenwald ... I considered that community and those people my friends. But we diverged when it came to defending Hillary Clinton's character. I know Hillary and I know she's a good person and she means well for the country. And when people on the so-called left decided to start echoing right-wing talking points against her is when I fought back.
I'm not going to back down from something I really believe in. I believe Hillary's coalition has not been treated properly and that she hasn't either, so I'm just going to stand up for what I believe in. People making fake Verrits with silly words in them—that's actually amusing to me.
It's like, great, keep spreading my logo. The whole point of having the V in the Verrit is so the more people see the logo, the more people see my brand. So last night I was engaging in these Twitter arguments and people are saying, "you got played, you're getting owned, you're getting dunked on," and I'm just laughing because I'm thinking, "okay, you're just spreading the word for me."
To go back to Sanders, saying "Democrats shouldn't be giving paid speeches to Wall Street," that doesn't seem to me to be a personal attack.
The problem I had was impugning her character as a corrupt human being who's in the pocket of Wall Street. The fact is I'm not a believer that people who call themselves progressives should go after our own Democrats when they're up against someone like Trump, and call them corrupt, because all that will happen is Trump will take that attack, which is exactly what he did, and call the election rigged.
I'm not saying I'm a big fan of Wall Street—what I'm saying that there's "don't do these speeches" and there's "Hillary Clinton, you're a corrupt shill in the pocket of Wall Street." That's a huge difference. That's saying she's a liar, she's corrupt, she's on the take. That just plays into the hands of Republicans. If you oppose what Trump stands for at a visceral level then you want to defeat him and you don't damage Hillary's character.
What does the future hold for Verrit?
We're talking about some social technology, a place people can connect with one another, podcasting, a YouTube channel—a whole bunch of different points of contact with these particular voters that are my community and Leela's community. The Verrit.com website is just a simple site where we could put these cards up, have a way to authenticate them, and people could put some comments in. It's a basic, simple site but it's a smaller part of what we imagine we'll start, building a community of these people and giving them a place other than just Twitter, because on Twitter they get harassed.
I get the sense that people in the media, because people have trashed Verrit, I get the sense that they're scared of it and making it more than it actually is at this point. Verrit.com is just a simple website with some memes, right? I think what Hillary Clinton endorsed was, sign up, because they're building a community that presents a certain point of view that's underrepresented. People have been absolutely freaked out by the headline "Hillary Democrats Are the Heart and Conscience of America"—I consider that a factual statement. I believe millions of people who are core Democrats and voted for Hillary voted for compassion over bigotry, and that's the conscience of America.
I don't have a multimillion-dollar budget, no one's funding me. Leela and I are funding this ourselves because we wanted to create this space. Once Hillary tweeted, it unleashed this furious reaction—"oh, it's the worst website I've ever seen"—again, I just laugh, like, guys, chill! We just put up a Wordpress site with some memes and you're trying to turn it into the biggest media project ever created. We're thinking maybe we'll crowdfund, maybe we'll go for some professional investment money and try to grow staff. The one thing we will do is keep this thing running. We'll continue to put out information and provide a place for people to have this worldview.
As far as 2018 and 2020, moving forward, is there anyone in the party right now who's taking the baton from Hillary that you're interested in?
There have always been a whole bunch of wonderful Democrats. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, a whole bunch of others ... I'm really focused on 2018. We've gotta win. For 2018, the role that I'd like to play is to provide information for Democrats. Part of the idea of the Verrits, of the cards—and this was really Leela's idea—was to just give Democrats talking points, and factual ones, really triple-checked ones, to go out and argue with Republicans. All the attacks on Verrit seem to be coming from the left, which is truly unfortunate. Breitbart and the Daily Caller did pieces about it, but they're writing about the left coming after it. Yes, they're spreading my brand and everything, which is helpful to us, because it builds our capacity to attract more of our audience, but at the same time, it's not productive. To try to tear it down with such fury is really deeply unfortunate. It says more about them than it says about me and Leela, who are just two people trying to go out there and fight for Democrats.
Last night you tweeted at Sopan Deb—
Let me tell you what happened with Sopan, I'm glad you asked about that. So last night in rapid succession, Nick Confessore, I think Philip Bump, a couple of others—major figures in the media, all men—one after the other started going after Verrit. Making fun of it, or tweeting Jack Shafer's article at Politico. Jack has always disliked me. I blocked him last year when he was writing vicious pieces about Shareblue when I was running it. Meanspirited pieces. So I was not surprised that Jack wrote a piece about this and put in as much venom as he could. One after the other in my mentions I was seeing these people going after Verrit, and it showed that [Deb] had liked one of the [fake] Verrits making fun of me. And so because I like him, I said, 'you too, Sopan?' Because I thought, there's no way you are really doing this as well. I said something in my tweet about the reaction from the media, like, why is the media doing this. So his like of the tweet happened after four or five major other media figures, so I thought maybe they had all seen each other's tweets and he was just doing it ... my tweet at him was simply a question, like, you too?
He then responded, 'what are you talking about?' So I just screenshotted it, like, 'here, you liked this tweet that was mocking Verrit, maybe it wasn't intentional.' And then I was exhausted. Like 20 minutes later I went to bed. But the notion that I was somehow having a meltdown was just hysterically funny to me—I just felt like maybe for some reason these four or five reporters from major publications had decided they were going to start going after Verrit and I was surprised that he was among them. And I like the guy and I admire what he does, so it wasn't a personal thing.
But here's the personal thing, this all needs to be understood—I don't take this stuff as personally as it may sound like on Twitter. I grew up in a war. I lived in bomb shelters. I've seen the worst of humanity. Arguing with people on Twitter, to me—they're important issues, so I don't want to make light of them, but I'll throw a punch and I'll take punches back. At night I go back to my family and I enjoy my life. And I wake up the next day and I fight for these things again. I have a very, very thick skin, or I wouldn't still be doing this. I choose to do this. I don't need to do this financially. I do this because I care and I take the heat that comes with it.
Do you like doing it? It seems exhausting.
It is exhausting! You know, when you wake up and half the media world is mocking your website and thousands of trolls are coming at you, thousands of people saying "you've made the worst website in history and you're an awful human being, we're dunking on you"—I think, why am I exposing myself to this? And then I always center my main purpose: I want Democrats to win, I care about the country, and I really care deeply about the community that Leela and I want to serve. These are people who voted the right way, who worked to elect Hillary. These people don't feel visible to the media that's going after Verrit. So when I tell you that dynamic's working in my favor and I'm amused by it, it's like, guys, the more you ridicule and mock and attack, the more you're telling these people that the one site that was created with headlines they actually relate to"—it's like, great!
I can't tell you how many letters, emails, site comments we've gotten, like, "the more I see you being attacked the more I want to sign up." These people are real and I care about them. I don't take their concerns lightly. I'm fighting for them. The reason I expose myself to this when I don't have to is because I feel like in the end, a new day comes, and all of these fights that I have on Twitter fade away, and the next day there's a new day and Trump does something else, we're fighting the good fight for the right cause. It's the only reason I would expose myself to this, honestly. There's back and forth, but in the end we're fighting for something that matters.