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.

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