The midterm election season is heating up across New York City with candidates going door-to-door to collect petitions for the primary contests set for June.

But remnants of last year’s November election still linger and could be a prelude to the coming months. One sign in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn is just such a harbinger.

The sign is still planted in the front yard of a three-story house on 79th Street between 4th and 5th avenues. It’s just one of dozens of the same signs that popped up in lawns and shop windows throughout the 43rd City Council District last year, where a competitive Council race was underway.

A bright yellow rectangle with black block letters, the sign pops against the browning shrubbery, fallen pine needles, and a gray brick foundation. The all-caps message is simple, and takes aim at the district’s Democratic incumbent: “JUSTIN BRANNAN DEFUNDED THE POLICE”.

Listen to Brigid Bergin's report examination misinformation in one Brooklyn race:

Except, that didn’t actually happen. Money cut from the New York City Police Department in one city budget two years ago was restored before last year’s general election. Funding for personnel in the local precinct actually increased.

But the sign was not based on facts. It tapped into a feeling, about the uptick in crime and frustration with national political leaders. While politics has long been an arena for stretching the truth, experts call this an example of political propaganda and misinformation that’s become so commonplace in recent years that it threatens the health of democracy. Perhaps the most dangerous outcome was former President Donald Trump’s false insistence that the 2020 election was stolen — and the riot that ensued when Congress lawfully certified the vote.

But the specter of misinformation pervades electoral politics even at the most granular level. With competitive midterm races picking up steam across the region, a closer look at the 43rd Council District race can offer a preview of what voters across the city can expect this election season and what to do when they spot questionable claims before they head into the voting booth.

Anatomy of a race

Brian Fox, a Republican and Conservative Party candidate who was vying for the district seat, printed and distributed the “defund” signs spotted around Bay Ridge last fall. The idea, Fox said in an interview, was to appeal to voters as he campaigned on a “fundamental law and order” platform. He credits these signs with helping his campaign make a strong enough showing at the polls for absentee ballots to be the deciding factor. On that point, he and Brannan agreed: the signs made a mark.

“It’s masterful, it’s great,” said Brannan, who narrowly won reelection against Fox. “It’s just a lie.”

In this pocket of southwest Brooklyn, home to competitive general election races even as most of the city competes for shades of blue, the sign was a potent political symbol. It was a kind of Rorschach test for voters – coinciding with a simmering debate over public safety – stoking outrage absent the details.

Brian Fox, who was a candidate for office for the 43rd Council District seat in Brooklyn, post this video to Facebook with a message to the right reading his opponent voted to "defund the police."

Brian Fox, a first-time candidate who ran for Brooklyn's 43rd Council District, appears on a video he posted to Facebook blaming Democratic incumbent Justin Brannan for a firehouse shutting down due to a vaccine mandate imposed through an executive order by then-Mayor Bill de Blasio.

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Brian Fox, a first-time candidate who ran for Brooklyn's 43rd Council District, appears on a video he posted to Facebook blaming Democratic incumbent Justin Brannan for a firehouse shutting down due to a vaccine mandate imposed through an executive order by then-Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Screenshot Brian Fox For City Council Facebook

“It’s definitely propaganda, using a slogan to oversimplify a complex problem,” said Jennifer Mercieca, a historian of American political rhetoric at Texas A&M University who specializes in the intersection between democracy and communication.

She is also the author of the book Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump, which examined how the former president used a bevy of rhetorical tactics to successfully build a movement of support by tapping into the deep partisan divide among voters. Since his election in 2016, she said those techniques have become even more widespread.

Given that control of Congress is at stake in the midterms, Mercieca expects people, especially those who are deeply partisan on both sides, will be very motivated “to fight the information wars.”

“They’re going to be motivated to spread content that helps their side, that they believe hurts the opposition, whether that’s generating content that’s true or untrue,” said Mercieca.

A sign and a slogan

Last November’s low turnout municipal election was already fertile ground for the debate over policing, with so few competitive races across the city. Public safety was a central theme of the 2021 elections, even in the primaries, and Republicans have already made it their driving narrative again in 2022.

“We knew we wanted to have a very loud and very clear message about who our opponent was,” said Fox, explaining how the idea for the sign surfaced during a recent phone interview.

His campaign went for the “defund the police” phrase, which means removing money from a police budget to pay for other city services. Some Republicans interpret it differently, defining it as someone opposed to all law enforcement.

“We basically just decided, ‘Hey, let’s do lawn signs and let’s do the loudest color possible,’” Fox said. Campaign filings show he spent $1,500 on them.

Fox said his campaign decided to link his opponent to the “defund” movement because Brannan voted in favor of city budgets that cut money from the NYPD. The 33-year-old also said living in the district, as a small business owner, he’d seen the quality of life deteriorate.

The “defund” message was also part of Fox’s online strategy. The campaign plugged the theme using their Facebook page to link Brannan to instances of crime in the neighborhood, or the shuttering of small businesses and chain drug stores, which they also blamed on defunding the police. This message was used even though there were no police officers cut from the local precinct because of the budget vote.

Councilmember Justin Brannan, seen at a rally in March 2018, narrowly won re-election in November 2021.

Councilmember Justin Brannan, seen at a rally in March 2018, narrowly won re-election in November 2021.

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Councilmember Justin Brannan, seen at a rally in March 2018, narrowly won re-election in November 2021.
Credit Emil Cohen

In the context of this local contest, Mercieca said Fox was using a propaganda technique called “paltering”— a form of lying where one tells a partial truth. The “defund” sign removed the context of the overall budget vote, which was a wholesale vote for or against.

“The slogan oversimplifies that and the repetition creates the sticky narrative,” said Mercieca, “so that whenever people think of him, they think ‘defund the police.’’’

“The slogan oversimplifies that and the repetition creates the sticky narrative [...] So that whenever people think of him, they think ‘defund the police.’’’

Jennifer Mercieca, historian of American political rhetoric at Texas A&M University

What really happened with the budget vote

Fox used the Council's budget vote in 2020 to link Brannan to the "defund" slogan. The partial truth is that Brannan did vote for a budget that shifted money away from the NYPD. The full truth is that people who were proponents of the “defund” movement voted against that budget for not shifting enough money away. And to vote against the budget was to vote against a host of other city services.

In the summer that year, the Council faced increasing pressure to cut money from the NYPD as part of negotiating the city’s overall $88 billion budget for Fiscal Year 2021. At the time, the city pulsed with anger over the murder of George Floyd, who was killed by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. The city was also struggling to find ways to care for those hit hardest economically by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Scenes from the occupation at City Hall on June 30, 2020, with protesters and police

Activists gather at City Hall during the City Council's budget vote on June 30, 2020

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Activists gather at City Hall during the City Council's budget vote on June 30, 2020
Scott Heins / Gothamist

It came down to an unusually tense vote in the waning hours of June 30, 2020 — the last day the city could legally adopt a budget without risking state intervention. The proposal that went before the members included just under $1 billion in cuts for the NYPD.

The 51-member Council passed the budget by a vote of 32-17. Those 17 members who voted against the budget either didn’t want any cuts to the NYPD or believed not enough was being taken away. Brannan voted in favor of the whole budget package, citing all the other programs it paid for — from senior centers to summer youth jobs.

“We can all find something we don't agree with or something we wish there was more or less of,” Brannan said during the 2020 Council vote. “But in this moment this budget keeps the light on in the city and allows us to fight another day towards building a better, safer, and more equitable city.”

Numbers debunk myths

The bulk of the projected $1 billion in cuts were supposed to come from a drastically reduced overtime budget. An analysis by the Citizens Budget Commission last July found that ultimately only $322 million was cut from the NYPD in the final Fiscal Year 2021 budget. That same analysis found the Fiscal Year 2022 budget actually increased the NYPD’s allotment by $465 million compared to the prior year.

Other so-called cuts amounted to little more than fiscal sleight of hand, such as moving the school safety agents budget into the Department Of Education. Even then, the shift never materialized; the budget for those officers was increased.

The city did cancel a new cadet class in July 2020, which meant that more than 1,000 new officers were not added to the force. But there was never a cut to the existing headcount.

In fact, according to the District Resource Statement for the NYPD — an annual report compiled and provided to Gothamist by the city’s Office of Management and Budget based on data provided by the NYPD — the 68th Precinct in Brannan’s district saw a 22% increase in staffing, from a headcount of 139 in Fiscal Year 2017 to 170 in Fiscal Year 2021.

That increase includes 31 more police officers. The increased staffing is also reflected in larger personnel expenses which went up in the same precinct by 14%, from $10,493,824 in Fiscal Year 2017 to $12,053,583 in Fiscal Year 2021.

Still, Fox defended his use of the slogan.

An exterior shot of Brooklyn's 68th Precinct.

The "defund the police" movement did not lead to a headcount reduction within the 68th Precinct.

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The "defund the police" movement did not lead to a headcount reduction within the 68th Precinct.
Apple Maps

“What my message was really about was not just so much against the reallocation of funds but perhaps putting more money and additional money in the NYPD,” he said. Fox also rejected any question about whether the sign might be an example of misinformation. “I think it was completely accurate,” he said.

“Budgets aren't a la carte,” Brannan said in a recent interview. “So voting ‘no’ on an entire budget because you disagree with one thing, it means you're also voting ‘no‘ on everything else. You're voting ‘no’ on public education funding, you're voting ‘no’ on senior funding. You're voting ‘no’ on immigration services. You're voting ‘no’ on everything.”

During the campaign, Brannan said when he would talk through the “defund” issue with constituents, the ones willing to listen understood why the label was false. But often he never got that chance. He and his volunteers described a toxic political environment on the ground in the district, with vandals routinely marring the windows of his office. Fox said his campaign had nothing to do with those acts.

“It’s become this large-print culture war,” said Brannan, adding, “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.”

But Fox insisted it was Brannan’s campaign that was trafficking in mistruths. He cited a mailer where Brannan’s campaign called him a “violence-promoting racist,” which Fox said is false. The mailer included screenshots of three of Fox’s tweets set against a photograph of the January 6th insurrection.

“It’s become this large-print culture war [...] If you’re explaining, you’re losing.”

Brooklyn Councilmember Justin Brannan

The tweets included a YouTube video Fox shared from Sidney Powell, former President Trump’s lawyer, claiming without evidence that Dominion election servers were stolen; a tweet he liked from a user who wanted to “Make Bay Ridge white again,” and a retweet of Donald Trump Jr. who wrote “Never forget who did this…” above a graphic that reads, “Inside China’s Death Labs. You know about the Coronavirus is a lie?” [sic].

Fox did not deny sending the tweets but said he was at his home in Bay Ridge on the day rioters stormed the capitol.

A familiar strategy

Branding a candidate with a “defund” label absent full context is not new to the city’s electoral contests.

During the 2020 campaign for the 11th Congressional District seat covering Staten Island and portions of Brooklyn, then-Republican candidate Nicole Malliotakis attacked incumbent Democrat Max Rose, labeling him a supporter of the “defund” movement. The 11th Congressional District overlaps with the 43rd City Council District, which Brannan represents.

Rose joined a march in June 2020 on Staten Island led by young people and described it as an “incredibly powerful, peaceful movement for justice in honor of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many Black lives that have been lost due to senseless acts of violence.”

A screenshot of Rep. Nicole Malliotakis' Facebook posting in June 2020 accusing Max Rose of supporting the "defund the police" movement.

A screenshot of Rep. Nicole Malliotakis' Facebook posting in June 2020 accusing Max Rose of supporting the "defund the police" movement after Rose was spotted at a rally calling for police accountability.

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A screenshot of Rep. Nicole Malliotakis' Facebook posting in June 2020 accusing Max Rose of supporting the "defund the police" movement after Rose was spotted at a rally calling for police accountability.
Nicole Malliotakis Facebook Page

Malliotakis used Rose’s appearance at that rally to connect him to the City Council budget vote. She later produced commercials, which City Limits noted contained images from protests Rose did not attend. When Rose lost his race in 2020, he explicitly defended the marchers and called out how they had been “demonized” in the media.

Malliotakis went on to win the race.

Rose and Malliotakis are running again this year, with Rose facing a primary challenge in June from Brittany Ramos DeBarros, a community organizer running to his left.

Pre-bunking propaganda

“Propaganda is communication as force; it’s designed for warfare,” Mercieca wrote in the nonprofit news site, The Conversation. She has documented the increasing use of propaganda across platforms and particularly by political actors and warned that it’s “anti-democratic because it influences while using strategies like fear appeals, disinformation, conspiracy theory and more.”

Among the strategies for confronting propaganda is something called “pre-bunking,” according to Mercieca.

“One of the things we saw with the buildup to the war and invasion of Ukraine is the United States ‘pre-bunking’ Russian propaganda strategies by saying that, ‘Russia was doing this, they're going to say that,’” Mercieca said. Candidates talking openly about the propaganda strategy can serve to anchor people to reality and inoculate against misinformation, she said.

But Mercieca also cautioned that “pre-bunking”can also be weaponized as its own propaganda strategy. She was among the experts who sought to pre-bunk former President Trump’s “Big Lie” about election fraud ahead of the 2020 general election. But she said his use of rhetoric was a form of propaganda that spread the idea that the election would be stolen even before all the ballots were cast.

“The information wars could be read as a series of moves where adversaries try to establish frames for understanding reality and then pre-bunk or debunk one another’s frames,” Mercieca said.

An approach for an average voter is the SIFT methodology for citizen fact-checking, developed by Michael Caufield, a research scientist at the University of Washington at the Center for an Informed Public.

The “four moves” he developed are simple steps to fact check the source of online information before sharing it with others: stop before sharing (S), investigate the source (I), find reliable coverage (F) and trace back to the original (T).

“The information wars could be read as a series of moves where adversaries try to establish frames for understanding reality and then pre-bunk or debunk one another’s frames.”

Jennifer Mercieca, historian of American political rhetoric at Texas A&M University

In an offline context, Caufield said a similar pattern of thinking could stop the flow of misinformation or propaganda. In short, consider the source before sharing the information.

“That’s eventually how we get this information pollution cleaned up,” Caufield said.

Will there be a reprise?

In the 43rd City Council District, Brannan won his seat by 601 votes, slightly more than 2%, and currently serves as the finance chair of the City Council, where he’s playing a key role in budget negotiations this year and next. But the “defund” argument has not gone away.

Brannan said the signs leave out all the nuance that goes into a budget vote. “And they’re effective because they make people think that I was a person that wants to abolish the police department.”

Fox continues to be an active presence in the district leading the Verrazano Republican Club, a local political group. After considering a run for a nearby Assembly district seat, he recently issued a statement declaring his plans to run for this Council seat again in 2023. Because of redistricting on the city level, all 51 members of the Council will be up for re-election again next year.

In a notice posted on Twitter, Fox said he is committed to helping his community restore its quality of life and will remain a watchdog on current elected officials “for supporting disastrous policies like bail reform and defunding the police.”

“Get ready for the Rematch!” his statement proclaims.

Are you seeing misinformation and propaganda in your neighborhood during this political season? Have a question about a candidate’s claim? Let us know. We’ll check it out and report back on what we find. Email tips@gothamist.com.