Foreign Disinformation Will Make the 2020 Campaign a Nightmare

BEN TAUBER: It is March 2019 and election day is more than a year and a half away. Yet, the news cycle has already been absolutely saturated by stories coming out of the race for the Democratic nomination, which is about one month old and has yet to see one debate, primary, or caucus. We have news of Amy Klobuchar eating salad with a comb and being abusive to staff, Cory Booker making up an imaginary friend, and Kamala Harris making up the music she listened to while smoking weed. Are these stories useful indicators of a candidate’s character? Sure. But they’re also using up oxygen that should be reserved for the more important stories. Or perhaps these stories are a part of something more sinister: A recent POLITICO report highlighted a “sustained and ongoing” disinformation campaign against the 2020 Democratic primary candidates and provided evidence that foreign actors may be behind it. This, of course, is not unlike the massive disinformation campaign undertaken by Russia in the 2016 election to the benefit of then-candidate Donald Trump.

This campaign includes efforts to weaken the 2020 candidates on social media through the spreading of racially-charged and inflammatory hashtags and memes. It hones in on the most sensitive and charged issues in current public discourse and amplifies them with the goal of provoking reactions that enhance division and fuel discord among the American public, a discord that has led to the current era of political hyperpolarization. As Politico notes, much of the disinformation is being spread organically, which further solidifies what was revealed in 2016: that Americans have proven themselves perfectly willing to spread information without conducting even the most rudimentary of fact checks. Take, for example, the assertion that a blackface doll appeared in an Elizabeth Warren Instagram livestream, an assertion that is completely false but nevertheless gained traction online.  

Right now, Americans are witnessing and being subjected to an evolution of tactics employed in 2016. As POLITICO reports, rather than flood the social media airwaves with thousands of easily-detectable bot accounts, the newest iteration of this tactic sees disinformation being primarily driven by a relatively small group of about 200 accounts, some run by real and unwitting people, some being “highly sophisticated synthetic accounts.” The message preached by this core group is then amplified by tens of thousands of other accounts through organic social media activity, such as retweets. However, even as the news media reports this, nothing is being done to address it. Roughly one year ago, Admiral Mike Rogers, chief of US Cyber Command, testified to Congress that he has yet to receive a directive from President Trump as to how to proceed with operations to retaliate against Russian hackers. This directive is key, as, according to Rogers, he needs “a policy decision that indicates there is specific direction to do that.” Without specific offensive action against Russia’s hacking operation, Russia will continue to operate to influence U.S. elections. And it has no reason to stop. Its efforts have been extremely successful, and one need only look at the past two years of public discourse to see the results.

This is far and away the most important story of the 2020 election. Americans are being manipulated on a large scale as political tensions are brought to a boiling point. The implications a hyper-divided society has for the future of American politics, and by extension, America as a whole, are terrifying. And as disinformation campaigns continue to get more sophisticated, organic, and undetectable, there may be a point of no return. Yet, through all of this, the news cycle remains fixated on Amy Klobuchar’s salad-eating habits. If we as a society cannot see through this sensationalist filler for the next year and a half and identify what is truly at stake in the 2020 election, we will only continue down this path of weakness set for us by those who wish to see us fall.

Jeff Cirillo