Democrats fight to keep up with changing landscape of political disinformation

Democrats believe disinformation perpetuated by Republicans and right-wing media played a key role in some races in 2020, especially in areas like South Florida and South Texas, two places that have seen swings. important to former President Donald Trump. Groups like Media Matters, a left-wing media watchdog, and Voto Latino, a group focused on Latino voter registration, have teamed up to create the Latino Anti-Disinformation Lab, an effort that will investigate and combat the problem. .

“The overall goal is to fill a gap that currently exists in communications and surveillance infrastructure,” said Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters. “It was very difficult to get people to think that what matters in a private WhatsApp community is really relevant.”

For some Democrats, like former Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, the question is personal. Mucarsel-Powell, after winning his House seat in 2018, lost his candidacy for re-election two years later. While the Democrat said she knew of several factors that contributed to her downfall, she believes misinformation among Latino voters was a “big enough reason why” she failed to win reelection. She is now committed to helping the party understand how extravagant conspiracy theories from across the internet led to popular WhatsApp text channels and influential Spanish-language radio in her Florida district.

“It was everywhere,” Mucarsel-Powell said of misinformation ahead of the 2020 election. “And for Democrats, it was difficult to wage a war they didn’t see.”

‘He hit us like a train’

The battle against disinformation is not a new effort for Democrats, but it has changed since more concerted efforts were launched after the 2016 election.

Blinded by Russian trolls in 2016, social media companies and the U.S. government invested in finding and shutting down covert social media campaigns targeting the United States from countries like Russia and Iran. The DNC team, set up after the 2016 election, used online monitoring tools to identify networks of often anonymous accounts pushing coordinated disinformation campaigns, and then flagged those accounts on social media platforms, which sometimes deleted them if the accounts broke its rules.
“It is concerning that we may find these operations violating the terms of service on a fairly regular basis, with a team much smaller than that of Facebook,” Seema Nanda, then CEO of DNC, wrote in a letter to Facebook. 2019.

But over the course of the Trump administration’s four years, disinformation has evolved and been brought to the fore by political leaders like Trump himself and other top Republicans. The continued perpetuation of the lie that the election was stolen from Trump and the resulting insurgency on the United States Capitol earlier this year further highlighted that the United States has a problem with domestic disinformation. major.

Timothy Durigan, the DNC’s senior disinformation analyst, said his team will now focus more on how senior Republicans embrace and fuel disinformation online and work with the committee’s communications team on ways to counter it. Durigan told CNN that platforms like Facebook have made progress in identifying large-scale bot and troll networks, but continue to allow Republicans to push damaging lies about the election.

“Facebook is biased towards lies. The way the algorithms work, they reward engagement, they don’t reward accuracy,” Durigan said. “Lies do better on social media, so it’s a big challenge, and not just social media, there’s a talk radio ecosystem, there’s Fox, OAN, Newsmax. There’s all this media. which traffic in conspiracy theories, mes … and disinformation and general propaganda which have enormous reach. “

Nick Clegg, vice president of global affairs for Facebook, recently wrote: “Facebook’s systems are not designed to reward provocative content. In fact, the key elements of these systems are designed to do the exact opposite.”

Clegg pointed out that Facebook is downgrading certain content, including content deemed false by Facebook fact checkers.

As contentious as a relationship DNC officials like Durigan might have with platforms like Facebook, they at least have someone to talk to at the Silicon Valley giant and the platform has at least some rules and policies. that it seeks to maintain.

The challenge for Durigan and other Democrats, however, is the rise of popular platforms like WhatsApp, Telegram and Parler, which have fewer rules against disinformation and where lies are mostly prevalent on private channels.

For Jose Parra, who was a key aide to then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and now focuses on Florida politics, using WhatsApp channels to spread disinformation was perhaps being the most defining explanation for Trump’s growth with some South Florida Latino voters.

“It was just an endless stream of lies about Biden and the Democrats wanting to turn the United States into another Cuba or Venezuela,” Parra said. “It was the South Florida version of the big lie.”

Parra said that for many immigrant communities, especially those from countries with repressive governments, platforms with private communication channels like WhatsApp are very popular. This created a problem for Democrats: When disinformation began to spill over these closed networks, it was difficult to monitor and even harder to fight.

“A lot of this stuff was flying under the radar,” he said, “and it hit us like a train.”

Carl Woog, a spokesperson for WhatsApp, said the platform has taken steps to tackle disinformation. WhatsApp introduced new rules, including limiting the number of bounces for a message, tagging forwarded messages so recipients know the person sending it probably didn’t write it, working with verification organizations. facts to help monitor spreading false information and to ban mass messaging and mass calls on the platform.

“It’s important,” said Woog, a former political communicator who worked for Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008 and continued to work for the then president’s Defense Department. “We want to help make communities more resilient to disinformation and for people to get more information about the content they see.”

Fight on several fronts

The pervasiveness of disinformation in South Florida shocked Mucarsel-Powell in 2020 as she fought to retain her seat in Congress. She saw it coming – she wrote a letter in September calling on the FBI to investigate disinformation targeting Latinos – but its pervasiveness is what struck her in the months leading up to the election.

Mucarsel-Powell said disinformation is everywhere Latino voters get their news: on the radio, in inserts in Spanish-language newspapers like El Nuevo Herald, and in closed WhatsApp message channels.

“People get their news from these radio stations, they socialize through these WhatsApp discussion boards and they read the Nuevo Herald,” Mucarsel-Powell said. “So after a few months of that, they believed what they read and heard.”

Mucarsel-Powell said National Democrats were largely blind to the question and urgent appeals from Florida Democrats went largely unanswered. She recalled that she was shown a WhatsApp message that had spread attacking her and the Democratic Party over abortion and that a few days later people repeated these same attacks to her as she was doing countryside.

For the former congressman, combating such misinformation has become an intense goal. She is still waiting for the FBI to respond to her request and wants the House and Senate to investigate the matter.

As for his party, Mucarsel-Powell said the issue required a “hands-on approach.”

“Too often we see national democratic organizations like the DNC being disconnected from the conversations taking place in these communities,” she said. “The first thing to do is to speak directly to those affected by this misinformation.”

This is where groups like Media Matters and others come in.

The Latino Anti-Disinformation Lab plans to test the best ways to combat disinformation on platforms such as WhatsApp, by obtaining data on how well targeted advertising campaigns work and how they work and how effective they are in attracting. the platform. One of the first lessons to be learned is that Democrats can’t be afraid to tackle messy narratives that are spreading in small communities.

“You’re going to have to walk into these communities and have people speak in a way that, at a minimum, sets up a counter position,” Carusone said, noting that false stories about Biden and socialism and the connections that his son Hunter Biden had with China had spread like wildfire on WhatsApp channels.

Carusone added that the biggest problem in tackling closed channels of communication is that none of the communications are public, which means they cannot be regulated like content on Facebook or Twitter. And because he’s so unknown, fighting him will require a lot of failure.

“To fight this stuff you have to spend money, which means you have to fundraise, which means you have to have a strategy to sell to donors, which means you put yourself in danger. “, did he declare. “What if you don’t know?”

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