Americans mimic Russian disinformation tactics ahead of 2020

Individuals and groups in the U.S. are taking a page out of Russia’s 2016 playbook, as both right-wing and liberal trolls engage in disinformation campaigns designed to undermine 2020 presidential candidates.

The increased efforts to spread conspiracy theories and misleading content, as well as sowing discord over topics that already divide voters, are raising alarms among analysts and lawmakers, who are considering how best to address the issue.

{mosads}But taking congressional action of any kind would require a delicate balancing act, as lawmakers worry about running afoul of the First Amendment.

Experts say they have noticed a spike in disinformation as each Democratic hopeful has entered the 2020 race, with significant increases after former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) announced their candidacies.

“I think it’s almost certain that as we get closer to the 2020 election, you’ll see an intensification of this kind of activity,” Paul Barrett, deputy director of New York University’s Center for Business and Human Rights, told The Hill.

The escalating disinformation campaigns bear striking resemblances to Russian campaigns, according to analysts. Though much of the activity in the U.S. appears to be coming from individuals rather than coordinated groups, the barrage of inflammatory posts, memes and misleading articles from fringe sites shared across social media is targeting the most sensitive issues at play in 2020, much like they did in 2016.

Fringe right-wing sites and trolls have spread false information about Warren’s Native American heritage and amplified misinformation about allegations of inappropriate touching by Biden, according to Padraic Ryan, head of news intelligence at Storyful, a firm that tracks social media disinformation.

“Elizabeth Warren has been the target of a great many of smears and hoaxes and so on, many relating to her claim of Native American ancestry,” Ryan told The Hill, noting that trolls seeking to inflame tensions have also targeted Sanders.

{mossecondads}Earlier this year, groups of posters on platforms including 4chan and 8chan helped spread the claim that Warren had a blackface doll in her kitchen, which turned out to be a vase. Storyful found that the misinformation originated on 4chan, and was then amplified by certain conservative websites, ultimately migrating onto major platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

And as the 2020 campaign begins to heat up, with more than 20 Democrats in the race and a few more eyeing a bid, all of the top social media platforms are bracing for an onslaught of more disinformation.

The onus has largely been on the platforms to root out misinformation, with lawmakers and intelligence experts saying it’s more problematic for the government to get involved in cracking down on disinformation from Americans than fake content from Russian trolls. The First Amendment largely protects the rights of U.S. citizens to speak out, while tech firms can police their platforms based on company guidelines.

“There is really a gap in what is prohibited and what is regulated, so we are looking at how to craft legislation in this area, how to do so consistent with the First Amendment,” said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), noting that potential legislation would address false flag operations.

“We don’t want to prohibit satirical accounts, but in the same way you can’t put out a brochure that misrepresents who you are and makes slanderous allegations and is not reported as part of kind of campaign effort on social media,” he added.

Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), chairman of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities, said “it is even harder to defend against an idea” than a cyberattack.

“This is where it becomes very challenging, because if it is legitimate people and U.S. citizens who are just exercising their right to free speech, that is the constitutional right of every American,” he said.

Disinformation can take many forms, but, according to Barrett, inflammatory conspiracy theories often originate on fringe sites before spreading to the mainstream. He also identified the sharing of links from “hyper-partisan” U.S.-based sites, both on the right and left, as a serious threat.

According to research published last month by NYU, people on both sides of the aisle share and are targeted by disinformation, but the majority comes from right-wing sources.

Matt Masterson, a senior cybersecurity adviser at the Department of Homeland Security, recently called disinformation spread by Americans “the hardest challenge we have.”

And much of that is by design.

“If you mean foreign governments interfering with domestic affairs, the intelligence community has a role to play,” former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told The Hill. “If you mean American citizens for whatever reason pursuing bizarre theories or falsities, that is not an area [the] intelligence community is allowed to be involved in.”

Because domestic actors were able to observe Russia’s success — not just the effectiveness of their online campaigns, but also their low cost and high gain — a variety of actors have been inspired to take the same approach, experts say.

“The four-D’s was originally used as a way of describing what Russia’s propaganda, what Russia’s approach to information warfare was: dismiss, distort, distract, dismay,” Peter Singer, a senior fellow studying war and technology at New America, told The Hill. “The sad truth is that those four tactics have become a hallmark of U.S. politics today, ever since 2016.”

U.S. tech giants have faced enormous scrutiny over their failure to address the spread of disinformation during the 2016 campaign, with critics saying they allowed users to manipulate the political conversation and intervene in the democratic process.

But in the years since, tech companies have been forced to address the spread of disinformation, particularly in light of findings that a Russian troll farm used social media to manipulate and spread false information aimed at promoting then-candidate Donald Trump.

Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have implemented tools and strategies to demote and flag misinformation, though they have undertaken more efforts to address foreign interference than disinformation from domestic actors.

Twitter said it has been ramping up its coordination with law enforcement, a partnership that was virtually nonexistent before 2016. The company now works with federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, to identify potential disinformation campaigns and extreme activity.

A Facebook spokesperson highlighted the company’s work with third-party fact-checkers. In the U.S., Facebook partners with six organizations — The Associated Press,, Lead Stories, PolitiFact, Science Feedback and Check Your Fact — to assess posts and links for potential misinformation. When those groups identify content as false, it is demoted in Facebook’s recommendations and the platform alerts users it has been fact-checked before they share it.

YouTube declined to comment for this story.

“The potential harm is that the polarization that already characterizes American politics and American society at large will be exacerbated by conspiracy theories, hoaxes and other provably false information that gets spread via social media,” Barrett told The Hill.

Experts say there are post-2016 examples of disinformation campaigns in the U.S. that aren’t election-related.

The contentious confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh last year sparked a wave of false information that was pushed by actors in a way that made the content viral.

“The online battles surrounding the Kavanaugh hearings were like a master class in these types of activities. Again, you saw everything from people posting on false accounts to driving false information viral, pushing of online conspiracies theories,” said Singer. “The key in a lot of these activities mirrors what Russians do … trying to bury the truth under a sea of lies.”

The probable next phase of disinformation for the 2020 campaign, experts say, will likely focus on voting registration and efforts to turn citizens away from the polls.

“That kind of deliberate effort to manipulate voters, send them in the wrong direction and so forth, is what could be most disturbing,” Barrett said.

Tags Adam Schiff Bernie Sanders Brett Kavanaugh Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Jim Langevin Joe Biden Russia

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