TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:
In Stockton, Calif., community leaders and political operatives are worried that as a local paper hemorrhages resources and reporters, a site they say traffics in misinformation is now becoming the go-to source for the community. And they're warning that this may be a microcosm of what happens to a democracy when local news dies. NPR's Leila Fadel reports.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Stockton is in the Central Valley, population just over 300,000. It's plagued by deep racial inequities, high rates of poverty, lack of access to quality education. So when Michael Tubbs was elected in 2016, the youngest mayor ever elected at 26, the first Black mayor...
FADEL: ...He was celebrated in national progressive circles. He instituted a pilot for universal basic income that's being copied in other cities. He got $20 million in seed money for a scholarship program for Stockton students to go to college. In November, that national celebrity, it didn't translate at home. Tubbs lost big to Kevin Lincoln, a relatively unknown Black Latino pastor. Tubbs blames what he calls a four-year disinformation campaign from a site called the 209Times.
MICHAEL TUBBS: Given the work we were doing, the fact that kids were getting scholarships, homicides were down. We had - finally had a plan to address homelessness. We were named All-American City (ph) two of the four years. I just thought that work would speak for itself. And I just underestimated the disinformation, how effective it is and also just how effective sort of attacks, really, and anti-Blackness were as well.
FADEL: Tubbs isn't the only one to lay blame for his loss on this controversial site that's filling the gap as the local paper, The Stockton Record, loses resources and sits behind a paywall.
The 209Times is free, has over 100,000 followers on Instagram, over 80,000 on Facebook. Meanwhile, The Record reaches maybe 30,000 people. The executive editor of The Record didn't want to be interviewed. Again, Tubbs.
TUBBS: For four years, the stories were posted either saying that I was a crook 'cause there's racist thought that Black people are criminals, that I was stealing money from the city, that I was lazy, which is also part of a anti-Black trope - every day for four years.
FADEL: Critics and supporters say Tubbs wasn't as present in Stockton as his star rose nationally, and that hurt him with voters. But those same supporters largely blame the election outcome on disinformation from the 209Times. The site is a mix of real news about local little league games, crime, as well as sometimes offensive political attacks that often focus on Tubbs, labeling homeless encampments Tubbsville or posting a meme with Tubbs' face superimposed on the Dave Chappelle character Tyrone Biggums, a crack addict - the words, got any more of that taxpayer money?
MOTECUZOMA SANCHEZ: My name is Motecuzoma Sanchez, and I'm the creator and CEO of 209Times.
FADEL: Sanchez denies it traffics in misleading, sometimes racist and false information. He calls the 209Times guerilla activism to expose corrupt politicians and disrupt traditional media. Sanchez, a leftist, calls Tubbs a fake progressive that the 209Times actively tried to take down.
SANCHEZ: We do have an agenda, and we do tell everybody what our agenda is. We tell everybody we are biased. We are biased towards the truth. We're going to let you know - if this guy is corrupt, we're going to tell you he's corrupt.
FADEL: None of the accusations of corruption against Tubbs have proved true. Political operatives in Stockton describe Sanchez as a bully with a site that wraps kernels of truth in conspiracy with specific targets in mind. They claim Sanchez went after Tubbs because he did what Sanchez could not - win an election. Sanchez has run a few times for office and lost. Sanchez dismisses the accusations. His site is powerful. Some are even afraid to speak ill of the site for fear they'll get targeted like Tubbs did.
SANCHEZ: So people think that it was just about Tubbs, but it never was just about Tubbs. He's just our, like, latest top hit on the charts. But we actually have a long track record of up to 20 elected officials that were not a benefit or an asset to the community that have all lost their reelections.
FADEL: Not an asset in the eyes of the 209Times.
Among them Lange Luntao - he heads the Reinvent Stockton Foundation, an anti-poverty nonprofit he founded with Tubbs. Luntao lost his seat on the school board in this past election.
LANGE LUNTAO: Yes, I did. I love being reminded of that (laughter). I'm kidding.
FADEL: He got caught up in a manufactured scandal over the $20 million in seed money that Tubbs secured to be paid out in college grants over 10 years to students graduating from Stockton Unified School District and going on to further their education.
LUNTAO: The 209Times tried and actually succeeded in convincing people that the scholarships were fake and then made it, you know, a bigger conspiracy around, this is just Michael or Lange trying to take this money from outside of our community and try to enrich themselves. That's just verifiably false.
FADEL: The site took a 990 form from the year before the scholarship program officially launched, pointed to the just over $44,000 spent and asked, where's the 20 million? The site also wrote about Luntao voting to award a contract to a charter school where he once worked, painting it as a conflict of interest. But Luntao was a teacher with no authority. The accusation was repeated so many times, an investigation was launched. And so far, no wrongdoing or conflict of interest has been found. But the damage is done.
LUNTAO: I knocked on literally every door in my neighborhood - 4,000 doors. Often even neighbors that I knew by name would tell me, like, I like you, Lange, but I've seen all this crazy stuff on Instagram about you. And it's hard to cut through that noise.
FADEL: And so the first openly gay man elected to office was ousted.
LUNTAO: I think Stockton is a harbinger of what could happen at the national level.
FADEL: He says, if we don't take this information seriously.
Leila Fadel, NPR News.
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