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Opinion

The online disinformation campaign against 2020 Democratic candidates has already begun

Presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks at an organizing event Sunday, Feb. 17
Researchers working for Politico found that online disinformation campaigns have already begun, targeting top Democratic presidential candidates, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
(John Locher / Associated Press)

Here’s the top fake-news story of the week:

Politico’s Natasha Korecki reported Wednesday that “a wide-ranging disinformation campaign aimed at Democratic 2020 candidates is already underway on social media, with signs that foreign state actors are driving at least some of the activity.” The effort appeared to focus on four front-runners: Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas).

So — when are you going to swear off Facebook and Twitter?

Aided by the tech consulting company Guardians.ai, Politico “identified a cohort of roughly 200 accounts — including both unwitting real accounts and other ‘suspicious’ and automated accounts that coordinate to spread their messages — that pumped out negative or extreme themes designed to damage the candidates.”

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Not to diminish Korecki’s scoop, but the revelation shouldn’t surprise anyone. The U.S. intelligence community has been sounding alarms for months that Russia didn’t stop trying to mess with Americans’ minds on social media after its favored presidential candidate, Donald Trump, won in November 2016. Researchers also have noted the continued presence of thousands of fake-news generators on Twitter. Meanwhile, Facebook and Twitter have continued to identify and remove accounts linked to Russians, Iranians and other non-citizens for coordinated efforts to manipulate users of those services.

Enter the Fray: First takes on the news of the minute »

The periodic banishments show that social media companies are trying to dam the river of disinformation flowing through their networks — and that they’ve yet to succeed. One reason is that the popularity of the networks and the freedom they provide to upload, target and recirculate content make them practically purpose-built to support this kind of mischief.

Oh sure, a technical solution may present itself someday. But a more certain fix would be for social media users to stop reading and sharing hot-take posts from unknown sources, even if their friends are sharing them.

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We don’t need to search very hard to find examples of how easily the public is manipulated. The encounter between Covington Catholic High School students and a Native American activist in Washington became a thing only because some sketchy Twitter account put a spin on it that liberals were all too happy to accept without question. Now the student at the middle of it all has filed a politically charged, $250 million lawsuit against the Washington Post for the way it covered his part in the moment that went viral.

(And before you leap up to say that’s typical of the libs, think about Pizzagate. And QAnon.)

Social media networks are more valuable to their users (and the companies themselves) the more people sign on and participate. But by gathering enormous audiences, they become a prime target for manipulators, both foreign and domestic.

Were we a society of critical thinkers, the attempts to snooker or just rile us would be no big deal. Thinly sourced information would sink to the bottom in the process of weighing what to believe. Instead, we seem to hunger for our most cynical beliefs to be confirmed.

The problem starts with us, and it can end with us too.


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