Democrats are bracing for a deluge of disinformation in next year’s midterm elections, and they view leading Republicans, not foreign actors or armies of online trolls, as the biggest disinformation threat.
After the 2016 election, there were concerns about how Russia, a foreign actor, had used platforms like Facebook and Twitter to set up thousands of accounts in order to pose as Americans to interfere with the election. But the 2020 election put a new spotlight on domestic efforts to misinform people — something that was brought into focus by the election lies that led to the insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6.
To combat the issue, a team at the Democratic National Committee that has spent the past few years tracking online disinformation networks is adjusting to the evolving landscape of lies online, party officials tell CNN.
Democrats believe the disinformation perpetuated by Republicans and right-wing outlets played a key role in some 2020 races, particularly in areas like South Florida and South Texas, two places that experienced significant swings toward former President Donald Trump. Groups like Media Matters, a left-leaning media watchdog, and Voto Latino, a group focused on registering Latino voters, have partnered to create The Latino Anti-Disinformation Lab, an effort that will both study and combat the issue.
“The goal broadly is to fill a gap that exists in communications and monitoring infrastructure right now,” said Angelo Carusone, the president of Media Matters. “It has been really hard to get people to think what matters in a private WhatsApp community is really relevant.”
For some Democrats, like former Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, the issue is personal. Mucarsel-Powell, after winning her House seat in 2018, lost her reelection bid just two years later. While the Democrat said she knows multiple factors added up to her loss, she believes misinformation among Latino voters was a “pretty significant reason as to why” she failed to win reelection. She is now committed to helping the party understand how outlandish conspiracy theories from corners of the internet led to popular WhatsApp text chains and influential Spanish-language radio in her Florida district.
“It was everywhere,” Mucarsel-Powell said of misinformation ahead of the 2020 election. “And for Democrats, it was tough to fight a war that they did not see.”
‘It hit us like a train’
The battle against misinformation is not a new effort for Democrats, but it has changed since more concerted efforts were launched after the 2016 election.
Blindsided by Russian trolls in 2016, social media companies and the US government invested in finding and shutting down covert social media campaigns targeting the US from places like Russia and Iran. The DNC team, set up after the 2016 election, used online monitoring tools to identify networks of often-anonymous accounts pushing coordinated disinformation campaigns and then flagged these accounts to the social media platforms, which would sometimes remove them if the accounts broke its rules.
“It’s concerning that we’re able to uncover these terms-of-service-violating operations on a fairly regular basis, with a team far smaller than Facebook’s,” wrote Seema Nanda, the then-DNC CEO, in a letter to Facebook in 2019.
But over the four years of the Trump administration, disinformation evolved and was mainlined by political leaders like Trump himself and other top Republicans. The ongoing perpetuation of the falsehood that the election was stolen from Trump and the resulting insurrection at the US Capitol earlier this year further highlighted that the United States has a major domestic disinformation problem.
Timothy Durigan, the DNC’s top analyst on disinformation, says his team will now focus more on how major Republicans are embracing and feeding into online misinformation and will work with the committee’s communications team on ways to counter it. Durigan told CNN that platforms like Facebook had made progress in identifying large-scale bot and troll networks but continued to allow Republicans to push damaging lies about the election.
“Facebook is biased towards lies. The way the algorithms work, they reward engagement, they don’t reward accuracy,” Durigan said. “Lies do better on social media, so that is a big challenge, and not just social media, there’s a talk radio ecosystem, there’s Fox, OAN, Newsmax. There’s all of these media outlets that kind of traffic in conspiracy theories, mis- and disinformation and in general propaganda that have huge reach.”
Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs, recently wrote, “Facebook’s systems are not designed to reward provocative content. In fact, key parts of those systems are designed to do just the opposite.”
Clegg pointed out that Facebook down-ranks some content, including content that is found to be false by Facebook’s fact-checkers.
As contentious a relationship DNC officials like Durigan might have with platforms like Facebook, they at least have someone to speak to at the Silicon Valley giant and the platform has at least some rules and policies it seeks to maintain.
The challenge for Durigan and other Democrats, however, is the rise of popular platforms like WhatsApp, Telegram and Parler, which have fewer rules against disinformation and where lies are primarily spread on private channels.
For Jose Parra, who was a top aide to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and now focuses on Florida politics, the use of WhatsApp chains to spread misinformation was possibly the most determinative explanation for Trump’s growth with some Latino voters in South Florida.
“It was just an unrelenting stream of falsehoods on Biden and the Democrats wanting to turn the United States into another Cuba or Venezuela,” Parra said. “It was the South Florida version of the big lie.”
Parra said that for many immigrant communities, especially those that came from countries with repressive governments, platforms with private communication channels like WhatsApp are markedly popular. This created a problem for Democrats: When misinformation began to spread on these closed networks, it was difficult to monitor and even harder to combat.
“A lot of this stuff was flying under the radar,” he said, “and it hit us like a train.”
Carl Woog, a spokesman for WhatsApp, said the platform has taken steps to combat misinformation. WhatsApp brought in new rules, including limiting the number of forwards for a message, marking forwarded messages so recipients know the person sending it likely didn’t write it, working with fact-checking organizations to help monitor what false information is spreading and banning mass messaging and mass calling on the platform.
“This is important,” said Woog, a former political communicator who worked for Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008 and went on to work for the then-President’s Department of Defense. “We want to help participate in making communities more resilient to misinformation and for people to get more information on the content they are seeing.”
Fighting on multiple fronts
The omnipresence of misinformation in South Florida shocked Mucarsel-Powell in 2020 as she fought to keep her congressional seat. She saw it coming — she penned a letter in September that called for the FBI to investigate disinformation aimed at Latinos — but the ubiquity of it is what hit her in the months leading up to the election.
Mucarsel-Powell said the disinformation was everywhere Latino voters get their news: on the radio, as inserts in Spanish-language papers like El Nuevo Herald and in closed WhatsApp message chains.
“People get their news from these radio stations, they have social contact through these WhatsApp chat rooms and they read the Nuevo Herald,” Mucarsel-Powell said. “So after a few months of this, they believed what they were reading and hearing.”
Mucarsel-Powell says national Democrats were largely blind to the issue and that urgent calls from Florida Democrats went mostly unanswered. She recalled that she had been shown a WhatsApp message that had spread attacking her and the Democratic Party on abortion and that just days later, people had parroted those same attacks to her when she was campaigning.
For the former congresswoman, combating such disinformation has become an intense focus. She is still waiting for the FBI to respond to her request, and would like the House and Senate to investigate the issue.
As for her party, Mucarsel-Powell said the issue requires an “all-hands approach.”
“Too often we see national Democratic organizations like the DNC be out of touch with the conversations that are going on in these communities,” she said. “The first thing they need to do is speak directly to the people affected by this misinformation.”
That is where groups like Media Matters and others come in.
The Latino Anti-Disinformation Lab plans to test the best ways to combat disinformation on platforms like WhatsApp, getting data on how and whether targeted ad campaigns work and how effective appealing to the platform can be. One of the biggest early takeaways is that Democrats can’t be afraid to take on messy narratives that are spreading in tight communities.
“You are going to have to get into these communities and actually have people there that are talking in a way that is, at a minimum, putting up a counter-position,” said Carusone, noting that false story lines about Biden and socialism and the connections that son Hunter Biden had to China had spread like wildfire on WhatsApp channels.
Carusone added that the biggest issue with combating closed communication chains is that none of the communications are public, meaning they can’t be regulated like content on Facebook or Twitter. And because it is so unknown, fighting it will require a lot of failure.
“In order to fight this stuff, you have to spend money, which means you have to raise money, which means you have to have a strategy to sell to donors, which means you are putting yourself on the line,” he said. “And what if you don’t know?”