Social media deception crosses partisan lines
For all the complaints Democrats have levied against Republican and Russian dirty social media tricks, one might think the party of Barack Obama, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi is above such shenanigans.
Regrettably, it’s not. Democratic operatives experimented with social media manipulation in the hotly contested 2017 Alabama Senate race. They manufactured digital content that falsely linked Republican candidate Roy Moore to efforts to ban alcohol. They also created fake accounts that looked like Russian trolls who supported Moore to sow doubts.
It’s impossible to figure out whether the fake tweets and Facebook posts turned the outcome of the election to Democrat Doug Jones. The final vote was close, but the fact that Moore was credibly accused of having hit on underage girls surely did a lot more to undermine his campaign.
Nevertheless, in debriefing documents circulated a few days after the election, the false-flag campaign’s organizers claimed credit for the win.
According to the document, obtained by The Washington Post, the goal of the operation was to test out systems that would “radicalize Democrats, suppress unpersuadable Republicans (’hard Rs’) and faction moderate Republicans by advocating for write-in candidates.”
These sorts of dirty tricks undermine the credibility of America’s democracy and serve as a barrier to honest, transparent political discourse. It doesn’t matter who does it.
If winning is all that matters, even at the expense of integrity and honesty, these shady tactics will soon infect every campaign with enough resources. “If you don’t do it, you’re fighting with one hand tied behind your back,” a Democratic operative involved told The New York Times. “You have a moral imperative to do this — to do whatever it takes.”
There was no moral imperative for the Russians in 2016 or the Democrats in 2017. Any such imperative is immoral. Ethical systems put lying and other deception on the bad side of the ledger except under rare circumstances.
Ideally, Congress and the Federal Election Commission would develop new laws to forbid deceptive online campaigns. They should start with transparency and end with real punishments for people who break the rules.
Even if such operations are outlawed, though, it won’t be the end of it. Foreign actors won’t care much about U.S. election laws, and domestic campaign operatives whose moral compass points to victory at any cost will become virtual partisan ninjas, operating in the shadows of online anonymity.
Indeed, it’s hard to believe that the few incidents that have become known are the only ones.
Americans must bolster their critical filters, then. The rule not to trust everything you find online is common, but it’s increasingly hard to live by. Falsified news bombards people on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other sites, often with the seductive imprimatur of a friend of family member.
The bad actors exploit that trust, and they’re always refining their techniques. Consider a 2017 incident in the United Kingdom. Political activists there set up bots on Tinder. When someone swiped right, flirting soon turned to the wonders of the Labour Party (roughly equivalent to American Democrats).
Yes, campaigns have gotten so insidious that you can’t even try to hook up online without risking political manipulation.
Sleazy campaigning knows no partisan boundaries. Sharpen your critical eye. The 2020 elections are already upon us.