The disinformation war is closer than we think

9 mins read

As we close out 2019, one theme is emerging among disinformation analysts. As much as Russian bots and trolls abound, the disinformation war is increasingly a domestic one. We need to look within our own borders, as that is where the battle is being waged.

The underground anti-social social media forces that create the stories, invent the scapegoats and then know how to flood and amplify across the channels are here in the US. Some of these are “Unite the Right” neo-Nazi networks, who used the social media to summon the racists to Charlottesville in 2017.

Why focus on the US-based social media underworld?

In 2020 this force will have more motivation. The unthinkable happened in 2016. Their candidate, Donald Trump, won. Emboldened, the online underbelly that proudly wears the badge of Deplorable will stop at nothing to keep him in.

First Draft News’s feature, Information Disorder: Year in Review presents a number of important findings and developments. This one caught my eye:

Soon after, I came across Melissa Ryan’s thread, “Bad takes that need to die in 2020“. Some of this thread includes a similar theme:

I have also recently finished reading Anti-Social: Online extremists, techno-utopians and the hijacking of the American conversation by Andrew Marantz of The New Yorker (interview with Terry Gross here). Marantz unpacks the story of how the very same internet that was supposed to democratize information for all the world also gave birth to a dark, uncontrollable, nihilistic underworld. We know some of these as Reddit, 4chan, 8chan. We heard these names on the news after the Christchurch and El Paso shootings. This underworld is the white supremacist recruitment zone, and also home to every strain of misogynistic, racist alt-right, alt-light sub-group imaginable. There are leaders and influencers among them, and they know how to game these systems.

Remember Hillary’s precarious health, her “stamina issues” in 2016? That campaign was created and then amplified by Mike Cernovich, a conservative leader in the manosphere, a loose group of the alt-right misogynists. In his interview with Marantz, Cernovich boasts of creating this campaign which then became a focus of the media.

Here are some lessons learned that portend what we will see more of in 2020:

In the June debate, soon after confronting Biden on the topic of race, Kamala Harris became the target of malicious activity as the “Kamala Harris is not Black” narrative was pushed to trend on Twitter. While the activity could be partially attributed to bot activity, the triggering post was a far-right MAGA influencer:

For far right influencers, this is sport. This is the job they do.

With minimal effort and a huge following, it can be relatively easy to create a narrative. Donald Trump Jr. is also both a follower and in influencer himself. That evening, he too gave this story an extra push.

The ultimate success is when it makes it into the news, and in this case when the candidate has to then explain it.

Jacob Wohl is another far-right internet troll influencer, Trump supporter, and known manufacturer of political smear campaigns. As he was gaining momentum and attention in the 2020 race, Pete Buttigieg became the target of a manufactured sexual assault campaign. This was a manufactured #MeToo from a young man, who later admitted he had been asked by Wohl and a Republican lobbyist to make the accusation. Apparently, a Facebook post had been created without his knowledge, but attributed to him, accusing Buttigieg of assault. Naturally, this Facebook post was passed along to right-wing media outlets which then worked to make it “news” before it was taken down.

Elizabeth Warren has also had more than her share of the early trolling exploits. Here is a 4chan anonymously attributed post titled “Elizabeth Warren Caught with ‘Blackface’ Doll Sitting on Her Kitchen Cabinet During Live Stream.” 4chan is where troll content was stitched together and got its initial boost, later to find its way to more publicly accessible places, such as the New York City Republicans Facebook page.

This story of Elizabeth Warren having racist art eventually was flagged “Pants on Fire” false by Politifact.

This next example is more concerning because it is an example of a troll posing as a candidate’s supporter, and attempting damage from within.

This example also targets Warren, and again on the issue of race. On September 30, a twitter account @helen_manfred responded to the Working Families Party endorsement of Warren with a photo featuring people of color waving “African Americans with Warren” signs.

The photo, however, was a doctored image from a Black Lives Matter protest. So, the suggestion is that it was a Warren supporter who was doctoring the photos. When that was discovered it got a lot of attention:

Who is @helen_manfred, who posted the doctored photo? It appears that the account of this “opinionated woman of mixed race” is still active.

And these are just a few examples from just a few of the candidates. The efforts target front-runners or rising stars in the race. Biden and Sanders are also targets. We should expect to see disinformation attempts with every unsubstantiated story, any mis-spoken remark, and even things that have never happened.

The examples here just how clearly the US-based anti-social media forces are working to divide, to sow distrust. The same thing can happen to any candidate. In any race, national, state-wide and even the most local.

A quick Google search shows the latest 4chan buzz. Gay wine caves.

What are the lessons as we head into 2020?

  1. Homegrown disinformation will be a more lethal enemy than Russian bots and trolls in 2020. US trolls have a vested interest in the outcome. Dividing us on the basis of gender, race, sexual orientation is deep in the DNA.
  2. Sowing distrust among voters between the different Democratic candidates is a strategy. Democrats have a reputation for applying purity tests so we should expect disinformation to target these points of difference especially as the race tightens. Their goal is a Trump win.
  3. Approach all social media content with universal precaution. This is true whether it’s too on-point, too at-the-right-moment, too perfect, too horrible, too hit-you-in-the-gut, too despicable. Any of the above. Even content shared by a friend – many of our friends may react first/inspect never.
  4. If you have even the slightest question about something you see, check Snopes, Politifact and other fact-checking sources.
  5. If it passes the Snopes test, and you still have even the slightest inkling, a sliver of a question, don’t. Don’t share. Don’t comment. Don’t emoticon

If you have to share it, take a screenshot and send to a trusted source via private Messenger.

Stay safe in 2020.

Originally posted on Disarm Disinfo. Re-posted with permission.

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