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Chilling Notion for 2020: Disinformation Will Be Homegrown

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The Russian media was having way too much fun last week.

They were downright gleeful over new reports that a group of Democrats had used online disinformation in the campaign against Roy Moore, the Republican candidate for Senate in Alabama in 2017.

“Well, well, well,” went the general line in the Russian media, “look what we have here.”

Their reaction was understandable, given the news that American political operatives had tried the same kind of troll operations that United States intelligence officials believe the Russian government used in an attempt to swing the 2016 presidential election to Donald J. Trump.

The Russian news outlet Sputnik jumped on the news, saying last week that the Alabama operation “seems to cast Democrats’ Russiagate accusations into further doubt.”

Also getting in on the action was RT, the Kremlin-financed news organization once known as Russia Today. “The only ‘Russian bots’ to meddle in U.S. elections,” the network reported, “belonged to Democrat-linked experts.”

The disinformation campaign in Alabama included a scheme to produce false evidence that Russian Twitter bots were working to elect Mr. Moore. After the revelations first came to light, John Griffing, a former executive director of the Harris County Republican Party in Texas, appeared on RT to go after the Democrats.

“I’ve always been suspicious that the Russia-bot narrative was flimsy and probably made up,” Mr. Griffing told RT viewers. “Simply because that’s the kind of thing the Democratic Party does — they make things up in order to create the basis for an attack on the right wing.”

In addition to giving Russia new ammunition in its defense against election-meddling allegations, the progressives’ political caper in Alabama sent a chilling message to the rest of us: Reality-warping attacks are now coming from inside the house.

If the trend intensifies, the 2020 presidential campaign will make the media shenanigans of 2016 seem genteel.

Sputnik and RT were keying off two articles in The New York Times, which broke the news of the Alabama efforts. The first, by Scott Shane and Alan Blinder in late December, detailed an operation that included the creation of fake Russian Twitter accounts, as well as a phony Facebook page purportedly set up by conservative Alabamians opposed to Mr. Moore, who ended up losing to his Democratic opponent, Doug Jones.

One of the people behind that effort, Jonathon Morgan, of the cyber security firm New Knowledge, minimized the effort by saying it was only an experiment to observe how such Russian-style tactics work in real time (though an internal report said the project was seeking to depress turnout for Mr. Moore).

The main financial backer of that project, the LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, disavowed it, saying he did not know the money he had donated to groups affiliated with Democrats would finance such a thing. “I want to be unequivocal,” he wrote on Medium. “There is absolutely no place in our democracy for manipulating facts or using falsehoods to gain political power.”

Mr. Jones, the politician who benefited from the operation, angrily denounced it and called for a federal investigation. So maybe there was reason to think it was all just a blip.

Then came the second Times article, last week, on another shady tactic used against Mr. Moore. This one involved a Facebook page for a fake group of Baptists supporting Mr. Moore as a potential ally in their bid to ban alcohol in Alabama — a surefire way to alienate voters if ever there was one.

The phony teetotaling campaign was the work of another group of liberal activists with different financiers, whose identities remain unknown. And it came with an implicit warning: Get used to it.

As one of the organizers, the progressive activist Matt Osborne, told The Times, “If you don’t do it, you’re fighting with one hand tied behind your back.” Given the way some of Mr. Trump’s backers — here and in Russia — have engaged in such tactics, he said, there was “a moral imperative to do this.”

Researchers who have been studying the Russian disinformation tactics have been girding for just such a development.

“One of the things we’ve been talking about in the last year is how the real threat’s going to be when it’s not just Russia or Iran — nation states with budgets — but when every single person with an issue starts engaging in this type of manipulative behavior,” said Bret Schafer, an analyst at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a research project at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “It’s absolutely awful for democracy.”

Mr. Schafer had particular reason to be chagrined. New Knowledge helped build the website for the Alliance’s disinformation-tracking database, Hamilton68, which had monitored suspected Russian-linked accounts, tracking the falsehoods they spread and the discord they tried to sow. (New Knowledge also helped write a report on Russian troll activity released last month by the Senate Intelligence Committee.) The Alabama project, Mr. Schafer told me, “undercuts our collective ability to take other countries to task for their deceptive, online behavior.”

Fight-fire-with-fire reasoning is bubbling up on the left as the social media giants continue to struggle to stop distortion campaigns in real time. It was only after The Times and The Washington Post reported on the Alabama operations that Facebook shut down the suspect accounts.

None of this bodes well for the 2020 campaign, which has entered its first stage at a time when analysts in and out of government are still trying to determine the full effect disinformation had in the last presidential election.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, has concluded that the Russian activity probably affected the outcome. In “Cyber War,” her just-published book about the 2016 campaign, she reports that Russia “tried to mobilize, demobilize, and shift the sorts of voters that Trump needed to win.”

If the results of the investigation by the special counsel Robert Mueller confirm her conclusion, some people may be deterred from employing such tactics. On the other hand, nothing spawns copycats like victory.

Big questions remain about how to keep American political campaigns from descending into disinformation, barring still-elusive legal or technical remedies, as Ms. Jamieson told me in an interview. “How do you make sure it’s marked off as inappropriate?” she said. “The real question for 2020 is, what is out of bounds? Is there anything?”

As a start, I reached out to various expected 2020 players to see if they would eschew such tactics.

I was heartened to receive this statement from Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey: “There is no place in our politics for deceptive tactics that undermine trust in — and the credibility of — our democratic process and stand in contrast to our values.”

Senator Elizabeth Warren’s presidential exploratory committee said, Our campaign doesn’t support these kinds of tactics.” The campaign manager for Representative Tulsi Gabbard’s 2020 committee, Rania Batrice, said Ms. Gabbard “strongly condemns” the use of disinformation.

The Republican Party chairwoman, Ronna McDaniel — sounding as if she might be relishing the Democrats’ turn under the microscope — said, “These tactics are shameful.”

Then there were those whose offices I never heard back from — Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, Juli├ín Castro, the Democratic Party itself and Mr. Trump’s re-election team.

The real surprise was former Vice President Joe Biden.

“Not going to have any comment on that for you,” a spokesman said.

Maybe Mr. Biden wants to keep his options open.


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