New York (CNN Business)A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for it here.
In 256 days, Americans will head to the polls to vote on whether to re-elect Donald Trump as President or to go in another direction. A lot will happen between now and then. But one thing is near certain: disinformation campaigns, both domestic and foreign, will be waged on the American electorate.
On Thursday, NYT reported (and CNN confirmed) that House lawmakers were warned by an intel official that Russia was taking steps to interfere in the 2020 election and get Trump re-elected. If the Russians follow a similar playbook from 2016, that effort will include exploiting divisions and spreading misinformation on tech platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
Is Big Tech ready for this challenge? Is America ready? A Thursday opinion piece in WaPo eloquently said, “As Americans approach November worrying about foreign interference, they should remember that it cannot succeed without willing Americans. Americans can and must safeguard their own elections, and those who refuse … must be called out for their actions.” So what is being done? What’s being ignored? Let’s take a look at a few stories published Thursday that touch on this topic…
First let’s take a look back into the past. WaPo’s Craig Timberg published a deeply reported story Thursday detailing what took place inside Facebook in the aftermath of the 2016 election. According to Timberg, “Facebook created ‘Project P’ — for propaganda — in the hectic weeks after the 2016 presidential election and quickly found dozens of pages that had peddled false news reports ahead of Donald Trump’s surprise victory.”
As Timberg noted, “In a world of perfect neutrality, which Facebook espouses as its goal, the political tilt of the pages shouldn’t have mattered.” But that, apparently, wasn’t the case. Timberg reported that Joel Kaplan, a Republican who is now the head of Facebook’s Washington office, brought forward a concern: “We can’t remove all of it because it will disproportionately affect conservatives.”
The statement is both troubling and revealing. As Timberg noted, the “Project P” debate “exemplified the political dynamics that have reigned within Facebook since Trump emerged as the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee to the White House in 2016.” As Timberg succinctly summarized, “Such factors have helped shape a platform that gives politicians license to lie and that remains awash in misinformation, vulnerable to a repeat of many of the problems that marred the 2016 presidential election.”
“The ‘deep state’ is trying to inject our health system with socialist price controls,” one recent Hulu ad said, according to a story by WaPo’s Tony Romm. The ad urged viewers to text “SOCIALISM SUCKS” to the FreedomWorks, the group behind the ad.
But as Romm noted, neither FreedomWorks nor Hulu are “required to reveal much more to the public about the 30-second spot or whom it targeted, leaving watchdogs and regulators fearful that federal election laws aren’t fit for the digital age — and that voters remain vulnerable to manipulation.” Other streaming services, like Roku, offer similar loopholes, which as Romm noted stand “in stark contrast” to regulations governing traditional television channels, like ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox.
Romm’s conclusion? “Four years after Russian agents exploited popular online platforms to push propaganda, sow unrest and promote the Trump candidacy, the U.S. government has made virtually no progress on bringing more transparency to paid political speech. The risks remain high that voters could be duped and deceived b