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Disinformation, from Russia and America, hits crescendo as Election Day approaches

  • October 26, 2020
Comparing the fake picture of rappers Ice Cube, left, and 50 Cent, digitally altered to make it appear as if they were wearing Trump hats, vs. the real photo, taken from Ice Cube's Twitter feed in early July 2020.

“Two great, courageous Americans,” Eric Trump said about a photo of rappers Ice Cube and 50 Cent wearing “Trump 2020” hats.

Only one problem with the since-deleted tweet from the president’s son:

The photos were fake.

As we enter the final week of a volatile presidential campaign, those digitally altered pictures provide yet another example of fulfilled prophecy that 2020 would elicit a tsunami of disinformation.

”All of us, no matter who you are, no matter what your educational level, no matter where you coming from, no matter your background, have been impacted by disinformation,” said Shireen Mitchell, founder of Stop Online Violence Against Women.

Shireen Mitchell, founder of Stop Online Violence Against Women

Paul Beck, political science professor emeritus at Ohio State University, said, “I anticipated considerable disinformation in 2020, heightened by the circus of a general election and the aftermath of the impeachment inquiry, and I have not been surprised.”

Paul Beck, Ohio State University political science professor emeritus

At the same time, however, the forecasts did not anticipate how such things as an international pandemic and racial justice movement would shape the efforts to deceive the public.

“Everything is different than what we expected,” said Nancy Watzman of First Draft, a nonprofit set up to expose disinformation.

Nancy Watzman of First Draft, a nonprofit devoted to exposing digital disinformation

“While news always happens, 2020 has brought us misinformation about: the pandemic, widespread protests against police brutality, increased violence around local protests and unrest, the voting process, local political influencers following the president’s playbook to amplify divisive and misleading content, and evidence of foreign interference.

“While we couldn’t have imagined back in January that these specific events would unfold, unfortunately much of the misinformation spreading online is textbook and fits into the frameworks First Draft has been researching for years.”

Shredded ballots?

Running down disinformation is mostly distinct from the role of fact-checkers who delve into such things as former Vice President Joe Biden’s mischaracterization of President Donald Trump’s action on social security or those who have documented nearly 25,000 false and misleading statements from the president.

The hat deception was simple and quickly caught. In the original photo, tweeted July 6 by Ice Cube, he is wearing a hat with the “BIG3” logo of a 3-on-3 pro basketball league he founded, and 50 Cent is wearing a New York Yankees hat.

But many others are not so easily detected. Examples:

• A video purporting to show hundreds of shredded Pennsylvania mail-in “ballots” for President Donald Trump that were discovered in the back of a trailer went viral this month. But they actually were blank absentee voter applications (not ballots) thrown in the trash by the printer.

• Last week, a video was widely shared of Doug Emhoff, husband of Biden’s running mate Kamala Harris, apparently presumptuously calling her “the next president of the United States.” However, the snippet is from 2019, when Harris actually was running for president.

• Last week an online meme emerged around whether Biden’s talk of relating to financially struggling voters is hypocritical because he owns four homes worth between $3 million and $7.5 million. Those posts were false because they included one of his former homes sold long ago and a former rental, and wildly exaggerated their value. (Biden certainly isn’t living in poverty; he does own a residence valued at $2.9 million and a vacation home worth $1.9 million.) The false information about Biden’s homes echoed earlier untrue claims about how he assembled his wealth, which came mostly from book deals and speeches.

• During racial justice protests last spring and summer, vague social media rumors circulated widely that Antifa was about to descend on smaller, unsuspecting communities in Ohio and elsewhere. It turned out many of those fake reports were spread by white supremacist groups.

“Out of control”

Those false accounts about Antifa morphed into online claims that the leftists were responsible for setting fires that swept the Pacific Northwest. 

The Russian news site RT helped spread those unfounded rumors, said Karen Kornbluh, director of the Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative for the German Marshall Fund, a think tank.

Karen Kornbluh, director of the Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative at the German Marshall Fund

“It went completely out of control,” she said during a Zoom call last week.

People wouldn’t leave their homes, 911 calls overwhelmed local law enforcement agencies and area militia groups set up checkpoints, Kornbluh said.

A group of armed men stopped an Oregon Public Broadcasting reporter in Molalla, a small community south of Portland, in early September and told him to leave immediately.

The Douglas County Sheriff's Office in southern Oregon pleaded on Facebook last month for residents to stop spreading false rumors about six Antifa members supposedly arrested for setting forest fires.

After about a week, social media platforms took down the rumormongers’ accounts, a move that Kornbluh said was too slow.

“They cannot wait until something has gone completely viral and then say, ‘Oops, that’s a problem,’” she said. “There are lives at stake.”

Kornbluh is co-author of a study released this month showing that interactions with sites peddling disinformation are actually higher now than in the months before the 2016 election, despite all the warnings about the prevalence of false information.

“That was really depressing,” she said.

“We found that the level of engagement with articles from outlets that repeatedly publish verifiably false content has increased 102 percentr since the run-up to the 2016 election,” the study says.

“In addition, engagement with another set of sites that fail to gather and present information responsibly … has grown 293 percent. Interactions with articles from both kinds of deceptive sites have increased by 242 percent between the third quarter of 2016 and the third quarter of 2020.”

Masquerading as news

A former member of both the Clinton and Obama administrations, Kornbluh co-authored an earlier study focusing on sites dubbed “Trojan horses” — false content providers that masquerade online as legitimate news sites but “launder disinformation while eschewing the practices of independent journalism (e.g., sourcing, mastheads, verification, corrections).”

Although the top sites for disinformation are conservative, such as Breitbart News Network, many left-leaning websites fall into this group as well, the study noted. Kornbluh said they all are a key part of a “disinformation supply chain” that often amplifies and legitimizes narratives planted by operatives for Russia and other foreign entities.

The vacuum created by declining and disappearing legitimate local news outlets across the country has been partially filled by a nationwide operation of nearly 1,300 sites posing as news operations, an extensive investigation by the New York Times published last week found.

The network, which stretches into all 50 states, “is built not on traditional journalism but on propaganda ordered up by dozens of conservative think tanks, political operatives, corporate executives and public-relations professionals.”

The newspaper also found that liberal donors have invested millions of dollars into online setups like Courier, a network of eight sites that began offering local news in swing states last year.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a new opportunity for disinformation this year, on everything from masks to herd immunity. But not all Americans are targeted equally:

• Researchers for the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center examined the tweets of 1.6 million registered American voters and in a report this month found that older voters, regardless of political orientation, shared the most fake news about the coronavirus. Oddly, however, they are less likely to believe COVID-19 misinformation.

• A separate study by the same group showed how African Americans have been targeted with misinformation about the pandemic: “Even as Black people are disproportionately dying from the virus due to systemic racism, harmful inaccuracies about how to keep from contracting COVID-19, how to treat it, and where it comes from are metastasizing in Black online spaces, putting people at even greater risk.”

Hack and release

While federal authorities had issued a few general warnings about foreign influence in 2020, the threats quickly became concrete last week.

• On Monday, the U.S. Department of Justice unsealed the indictment of six members of the “Sandworm” hacker group from Russia’s GRU (military intelligence agency) that sowed discord and disinformation in several countries. The group “engaged in a global campaign of hacking, disruption and destabilization, representing the most destructive and costly cyber-attacks in history,” said Scott W. Brady, U.S. attorney for the western Pennsylvania.

• On Wednesday, federal authorities warned of specific attempts by Russia and Iran to influence the 2020 elections. The foreign efforts targeted Democratic voters in at least four battleground states, including Florida and Pennsylvania, sending threatening emails, falsely purporting to be from the far-right group Proud Boys, that warned “we will come after you” if the recipients didn’t vote for Trump.

• On Thursday, a warning came from the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency that Iran is “creating fictitious media sites and spoofing legitimate media sites to spread obtained U.S. voter-registration data, anti-American propaganda, and misinformation about voter suppression, voter fraud, and ballot fraud.” The same day, the U.S. Department of Treasury sanctioned five Iranian entities for attempted election interference.

“We’re about to go through an election like none other, where disinformation — not just about negative campaigning or attacks on candidates, but actual disinformation about the very foundations of our democracy, our voting and election system — is playing an unfortunately very important role in potentially the outcome of this election,” said Jesse Littlewood, vice president for campaigns at Common Cause, during a Zoom call last week. 

“More bad actors are using social media and digital methods to suppress the vote,” he said. “We’re seeing voters of all demographics and of all parties getting confused, or they are unclear about elections.”

Littlewood said that an even larger flood of false information across the U.S. could occur after polls close next Tuesday.

“We believe that there will be a big wave of misinformation about the results of the election, and there will be a concerted effort, potentially, to misinterpret, or prematurely proclaim victory before all the votes are counted,” he said. That concern is shared by many others.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose says that Ohio’s voting infrastructure has not been affected by foreign interference, although the state’s list of about 8 million registered voters is online as a public record, so it’s not a target for hackers. He says the state’s voting system is secure and reliable.

On CNN last week, the state’s chief elections official was asked if the false information from Trump and others claiming inherent fraud in mail voting makes his job more difficult.

“Sure it does,” LaRose said. “Anytime somebody is spreading unfounded information about elections, it’s something I have to push back against and speak out against.

And I’ve been very clear about doing that.”

While federal authorities have identified a couple of intrusions by Russia and Iran, are they the source of much of the current flow of disinformation?

“We don’t know,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center and author of the 2018 book “Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President: What We Don’t, Can’t, and Do Know.”

She said that while social media platforms have received justified criticism as of late for their uneven handling of disinformation, they should be commended for attempting to head off the flow of false information from overseas so prevalent in 2016.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, during a Zoom chat last week on election disinformation.

“Platforms have been shutting down inauthentic accounts now on a very regular basis,’’ she said on a Zoom call. “So it’s not true to say there hasn’t been a lot of interdictions.”

She said she’s more worried about another “hack and release,” in which a massive amount of stolen online information is dumped just before the election. Reporters sometimes made mistakes interpreting such a glut of data or took statements out of context. 

That made “a discernable impact” on the election four years ago, Jamieson said.

The recent release of information that Trump and supporters say comes from the discarded laptop of Biden’s son Hunter might be the 2020 version of “hack and dump.”

“I think that we are more alert to foreign interference than we were back in 2016, but that interference may be more sophisticated,” said Ohio State’s Beck.

“The Russians in particular have been very skillful at mixing disinformation with less biased information to increase its credibility. There are so many outlets and such a barrage of messages that it is difficult to sort out what is what and from whom, especially because some of the foreign messages get repeated by domestic actors (such as the Rudy) Giuliani charges against the Bidens.”

drowland@dispatch.com

@darreldrowland

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