Be nice to Hillary Clinton online — or risk a confrontation with her super PAC

David Brock, once a prominent part of what Hillary Clinton described as a "vast right-wing conspiracy" to undermine her husband's presidency, is now a driving force in the effort to get her elected to the White House.

David Brock, once a prominent part of what Hillary Clinton described as a “vast right-wing conspiracy” to undermine her husband’s presidency, is now a driving force in the effort to get her elected to the White House.

(Danny Johnston / Associated Press)

When the Internet’s legions of Hillary hecklers steal away to chat rooms and Facebook pages to vent grievances about Clinton, express revulsion toward Clinton and launch attacks on Clinton, they now may find themselves in a surprising place – confronted by a multimillion dollar super PAC working with Clinton.

Hillary Clinton's well-heeled backers have opened a new frontier in digital campaigning, one that seems to have been inspired by some of the Internet's worst instincts. Correct the Record, a super PAC coordinating with Clinton's campaign, is spending some $1 million to find and confront  social media users who post unflattering messages about the Democratic front-runner.

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In effect, the effort aims to spend a large sum of money to increase the amount of trolling that already exists online. 

The plan comes as Clinton operatives grapple with the reality that her supporters just aren’t as engaged and aggressive online as are her detractors inside and outside the Democratic Party.

The lack of engagement is one of Clinton’s bigger tactical vulnerabilities, particularly when compared with rivals like Donald Trump, whose viral social media attacks are legion, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is backed by a passionate army of media-savvy millennials.

Some experts on digital campaigns think the idea of launching a paid army of “former reporters, bloggers, public affairs specialists, designers” and others to produce online counterattacks is unlikely to prove successful. Others, however, say Clinton has little choice but to try, given the ubiquity of online assaults and the difficulty of squelching even provably untrue narratives once they have taken hold.

At the same time, however, using a super PAC to create a counterweight to movements that have sprung up organically is another reflection of the campaign’s awkwardness with engaging online, digital pros said.

“It is meant to appear to be coming organically from people and their social media networks in a groundswell of activism, when in fact it is highly paid and highly tactical,” said Brian Donahue, chief executive of the consulting firm Craft Media/Digital.

“That is what the Clinton campaign has always been about," he said. "It runs the risk of being exactly what their opponents accuse them of being: a campaign that appears to be populist but is a smokescreen that is paid and brought to you by lifetime political operatives and high-level consultants.”

The task force designed to stop the spread of online misinformation and misogyny is the brainchild of David Brock, a Clinton confidant who once made a career of spreading such misinformation and misogynistic attacks against her and Bill Clinton. His critics say he kept his taste for dirty tricks when he switched sides to become one of the Clintons’ most valued operatives.

The mere mention of Correct the Record makes some critics seethe. Super PACs are typically prohibited from working in tandem with candidates, but Correct the Record is doing just that by exploiting a loophole in campaign finance law that it says permits such coordination with digital campaigns.

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“Clinton, herself, is saying we need campaign finance reform,” said Paul Ryan, deputy executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, an advocacy group. “Yet her lawyers are pushing the boundaries to get around campaign finance laws.”

Brock referred questions to Elizabeth Shappell, a spokesperson for the super PAC, who emailed a brief statement saying that Barrier Breakers, as the effort is labeled, "is only engaged in positive content, even when responding to offensive content, and is always identified" as Correct the Record, she wrote. The email also emphasized that Correct the Record is spending the million dollars in a way that it argues is legal under rules governing super PACs.

The reaction to the initiative from supporters of Sanders has been predictable – and it has not been to reconsider their vitriol toward the front-runner.

When actor Tim Robbins was confronted on Twitter after making the dubious assertion that election fraud is robbing Sanders of votes, he accused tweeters who challenged him of being paid shills for Brock. Within an hour, he had directed a variation of the same message at 88 different tweeters:

“Dear @CorrectRecord operatives, Thank you for following today’s talking points. Your check is in the mail. Signed, @davidbrockdc”

Those independent tweeters who challenged Robbins were not on Brock’s payroll. Correct the Record is not paying activists outside the organization to send messages, although it is arming them with instructions, talking points and postable infographics.

But the Robbins response confirmed a well-established rule of social media: The kind of confrontations Correct the Record is manufacturing almost never win converts.

Social media scholars say that's not necessarily a problem. 

“It will get the people already supporting Hillary Clinton riled up and more excited,” said Filippo Menczer of the Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research at Indiana University, who researches how and why misinformation takes hold on social media. Campaigns are grappling with the reality that there is no proven strategy for stopping the spread of even demonstrably false attacks on social media, he said.

“This is a big problem, and we are nowhere close to knowing how to solve it,” he said.  

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Correct the Record says it has already engaged with 5,000 Clinton attackers as part of this campaign. A lot of what gets posted online has been pretty benign, including images of a smiling Clinton alongside such phrases as “Love & Kindness” and “Thank you for Breaking Barriers with Hillary.”

The campaign has been given credit by Sanders loyalists, however, for all manner of things that it has had nothing to do with, including posting pornography on pro-Sanders Facebook pages which resulted in them being temporarily taken down. (The pages went down as a result of a Facebook software glitch).

David Karpf, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, said Clinton supporters are “using the tools they have at their disposal” — limited though they may be — to provide a counter-narrative to the increasingly hostile postings coming from some Sanders supporters whose hopes for victory are deflating.  They're also getting ready for battle against Trump, he said.  

“Even if it doesn’t stamp out the rumors and attacks, this is the best they can do right now,” Karpf said. “In this day and age of campaigning, they absolutely have to do it.”

That may be true, but the effort seems unlikely to be  a game changer for Clinton's campaign, said Dan Gillmor, who teaches media literacy at Arizona State University.  

“I suspect it will be hard for paid operatives to win a trolling war against people who don’t need to be paid to troll,” he said.  


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