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Democrats face internal rancor over deep fakes, disinformation


Democrats are at war over disinformation.

As illegitimate tactics like manipulated videos, troll farms, and fake social media accounts spread, state Democratic officials are demanding an official policy disavowing disinformation warfare.

But the Democratic National Committee so far is refusing to go along.

Earlier this year, all Democratic state party chairs sought to draw a sharp contrast with Republicans by backing a pledge to rule out the use of such tactics. Supporters viewed it as a basic first step to shape the tone of political discourse in the primary and guard against manipulation and online disinformation.

But party leaders did not bring the proposal to a vote at a meeting of the full DNC in San Francisco late last month, despite the pleas of the state chairs. Among the sprawling Democratic presidential field, only frontrunner Joe Biden has signed the pledge. The pact also calls on campaigns to publicly implore their supporters not to use disinformation and call them out if necessary.

“I haven’t the faintest idea” why it wasn’t taken up, said Tina Podlodowski, chairwoman of Washington state’s Democratic Party. “I’m kind of banging my head against this wall that has three letters — DNC — on it.”

The DNC did not say whether it plans to adopt or implement the proposal crafted by the state party chairs. It was passed unanimously by the Association of State Democratic Committees in June ahead of the DNC’s August meeting.

“In our communications, we discourage the use of inauthentic content and actors,” said DNC spokesman Daniel Wessel, referring to informal correspondence with state parties and campaigns. “Those are tactics used against Americans, not ones Americans should use against each other. While we know this is a tactic that is not being used by our Democratic candidates, including our Democratic presidential candidates, unfortunately the same cannot be said of the Republican ecosystem.”

The debate over disinformation comes amid growing concern that both political parties are ill-prepared for proliferating disinformation schemes in the aftermath of Russian hacking and interference in the 2016 election. The DNC recently shut down “virtual” caucuses in Iowa and Nevada — which would have allowed people to register their presidential preferences without spending hours at a caucus location — because of concerns they would be vulnerable to hacks. Multiple Democratic Party officials and cybersecurity experts said the decision should have been made months ago.

And on Tuesday, the campaign manager for presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke announced that a fake Twitter account had successfully spread a lie that the alleged shooter in Odessa, Texas’ recent mass killing had an O’Rourke sticker on his car. The DNC helped O’Rourke’s campaign identify that it was the victim of a disinformation campaign being spread by the fraudulent right-wing account.

“We are so unprepared for the massive misinformation that is happening, that has happened and that will happen,” said Jane Kleeb, chairwoman of the Nebraska Democratic Party. “We need our [DNC] leadership, including state party chairs, to get into a room create a policy for our candidates, campaigns, state parties and then hire a team to implement those policies.”

Though Kleeb said she’s not too worried about Democrats using fake social media posts or hiring troll farms, she said the official party needs to have a codified policy.

“Unless it’s written [down],” she said, “we can’t cut a candidate off from the voter file if they’re breaking that policy.”

Meanwhile, Russians and other foreign state actors appear willing to use counterfeit measures to influence American elections. And the Republican Party has refused to officially disavow the deceptive campaign tactics, even after President Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Guliani drew fire in May for retweeting a doctored video, known as a deep fake, making House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sound discombobulated.

Trump has long dismissed the cyber and disinformation threat, even attempting to sow doubt about Russian interference in 2016. The president retweeted a spliced-up video about Pelosi earlier this year and has repeatedly retweeted accounts that appeared to be fake. One of Trump’s reelection consultants published fake websites disguised as official platforms for Democratic candidates. And Trump’s campaign used stock footage of overseas models from places like France and Brazil claiming to be Americans from states like Texas in social ads.

The recent O’Rourke episode is indicative of the Wild West online environment campaigns are confronting. And the lack of a clear guidelines or principles by big digital platforms and the party committees is glaring, critics say.

On Friday, O’Rourke’s campaign sent letters to Facebook, Google and Twitter pressing them to develop specific steps to stop the spread of misinformation. Additionally, Jen O’Malley Dillion, O’Rourke’s campaign manager urged Democratic presidential candidates to join them.

“This week it’s us, but every candidate is at risk of disinformation campaigns,” O’Malley Dillon tweeted. “So today, we are calling on everyone in this race to stand with us in demanding Facebook, Google, and Twitter do better.”

In the absence of a coherent plan by tech giants, the party committees present a potential line of defense for candidates and their state party operations.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is proposing a bill that would change campaign finance law to make it easier for national party committees to send more money to state parties, candidates and campaigns for cybersecurity tools.

But in the interim, Democratic state party chairs and some outside groups are clamoring for the national party to take a clear stand.

“The DNC certainly has a responsibility, as well as the presidential candidates, to condemn these types of tactics to make sure that we are protecting people’s data privacy,” said Ken Martin, chair of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and president of the state Democratic committees.

In June, Biden was the first in the 2020 field to pledge not to take part in destructive tactics over social media, including banning the use of synthetic social media accounts and bot networks to attack opponents.

In a New York City speech in July, Biden called on his competitors to do the same.

“We asked candidates across Europe and North America to sign a pledge, committing to transparency in campaign finances and to reject the use of fabricated or hacked materials,” Biden said, referencing a Trans-Atlantic Commission on Election Integrity. “Now that I am a candidate for office, I have signed that pledge, and I urge everyone running for president to do the same.”

The DNC’s position on the official pledge is expected to come up at an executive meeting of the state Democratic committees in New Hampshire this weekend. It’s happening alongside the state’s Democratic convention, which all the major Democratic presidential candidates are set to attend.

The DNC hosts regular training and produces a bi-weekly newsletter on cybersecurity and how to combat disinformation. But it did not answer whether it would vote to adopt the resolution crafted by state party chairs.

POLITICO asked all six national political committees and campaign arms from both parties whether they had a codified policy in place on disinformation.

The Republican National Committee repeatedly refused to say it would not use such tactics, even as it answered other inquiries about its cybersecurity efforts. The RNC encourages its employees, state parties and staff to stay alert on all platforms and notify the RNC to suspicious activity taken against their campaigns.

The National Republican Senate Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee did not respond. The National Republican Congressional Committee refused to answer, despite referring POLITICO to reporting on its newly launched cybersecurity program. The NRCC has also refused to sign onto a pledge circulated by Democrats to not used hacked materials against each other.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has pledged not to use hacked information against Republican House candidates. And committee staff is dedicated to combating the influence of disinformation tactics, not promoting it, according to a DCCC aide.

“The DCCC takes the threat of cyber-attack very seriously and continues to work in concert with outside experts and dedicate in-house staff to combatting attacks on the DCCC,” said committee spokesman Cole Leiter, “as well as the distribution of disinformation in the 2020 election cycle.”

Natasha Korecki contributed to this report.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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