If you thought media and politics had hit a new low in the 2016 election with Russians using rubles to buy highly-targeted Facebook ads aimed at sowing racial discord in cities like Baltimore, you are really going to hate what’s in store for American voters in 2020.
That’s the word from two university reports on media, politics, disinformation and the 2020 presidential election that were released this week.
- More sophisticated deepfake videos like the one in May that purported to show House Speaker Nancy Pelosi slurring her words as if drunk or ill
- More humanlike bots doing their dirty work in social media as they closely mimic human behavior
- More foreign entities, most likely Iran and China, joining Russia in attempts to undermine our democracy with disinformation and propaganda
- And most of all, more domestically generated disinformation fed by President Donald Trump’s re-election team, their allies at right-wing media sites and some strategic communications firms looking to make a buck off our polarized political climate and polluted information ecosystem
One of the biggest differences between 2016 and 2020 is the fact that Trump is in the White House and now has a huge arsenal of media weapons he didn’t have in 2016 as just a candidate, according to Paul M. Barrett, author of “Disinformation and the 2020 Election: How the Social Media Industry Should Prepare.”
“The fact that the president has become the disinformation-purveyer-in-chief is hugely influential,” said Barrett, deputy director New York University’s Stern Center for Business and Human Rights. “He sets a tone and an example for lots of other people who now think spewing untruths is a routine and acceptable way of carrying on public discourse.”
In a Sun interview, Barrett cited the president’s claim that Google credited millions of votes to Hillary Clinton that were actually cast for him as an example of the kind of disinformation Trump routinely traffics in.
“The president thinks it’s fine to allege that Google caused millions of votes to counted for Hillary Clinton that should have gone for him with no evidence of that," Barrett said. “That’s extraordinary ... and it can lead to a sense of cynicism among voters about the entire system.”
Barrett’s NYU report opens on the Pelosi video saying it “foreshadowed one type of disinformation that could disrupt the 2020 election: deliberately distorted video, amplified via social media.”
The report traces how one doctored video was posted on the Facebook page of Politics WatchDog, which the report identified as a conservative site. PolitiFact, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning fact checking operation, ultimately rated the video “Pants on Fire” for the false representation of Pelosi that it offered by slowing down her speech. C-SPAN video clearly showed the difference between the speed at which she actually spoke and the doctored version offered by Politics Watchdog.
Nevertheless, the WatchDog video had 2.4 million views and was shared at least 47,000 times, according to PolitiFact.
The NYU report further tracks the synergistic efforts by the Fox Business Network and social media accounts of the president and one of his lawyers, Rudy Giuliani, to spread the lie about Pelosi.
Giuliani, the report says, “shared the video on Twitter, adding, ‘What’s wrong with Nancy Pelosi?’ (Giuliani later deleted the tweet.)"
“At roughly the same time," the report says, Trump tweeted a video of Pelosi that had been edited by the Fox Business Network with the text: “PELOSI STAMMERS THROUGH NEWS CONFERENCE.”
Twitter, Politics WatchDog, Facebook, the Fox Business Network, YouTube, Giuliani and Trump all working to spread a fake viral video defaming a political opponent — that’s the kind of thing we can look forward to in the 2020 presidential race, only done at more sophisticated levels, Barrett says.
According to the report, forensic analyses shows the editing on the Pelosi video was not especially sophisticated. It used technology that has long been available.
“The most daunting threat comes from deepfakes, which are synthetic videos created with artificial intelligence,” the report stated. “Subjects of deepfakes appear to say and do things they never said or did.”
In comparison, the report labels the Pelosi video a “cheapfake,” which shows how much damage can be done even with basic technology.
Better technology used to generate more misinformation is also documented in a study done by researchers at the University of Southern California Information Sciences Institute.
USC computer scientist Emilio Ferrara is lead author on a study published in the “First Monday" peer-reviewed journal that examined bot behavior in the 2016 and 2018 elections. It indicated that “bots or fake accounts enabled by artificial intelligence on Twitter have evolved and are now better able to copy human behaviors in order to avoid detection.”
If nothing else, that means there will be more disinformation, propaganda and lies spread from more fake accounts on Twitter contributing to a more confusing and toxic conversation about the candidates and issues.
“Our study further corroborates this idea that there is an arms race between bots and detection algorithms," Ferrara says in a statement accompanying the study. "As social media companies put more efforts to mitigate abuse and stifle automated accounts, bots evolve to mimic human strategies. Advancements in AI enable bots producing more human-like content. ... With the upcoming 2020 US elections, the integrity of social media discourse is of paramount importance to allow a democratic process free of external influences.”
NYU’s Barrett says “anyone paying attention to daily events” can see the volume of disinformation rising especially in social media. He worries about the toll it can take on knowing what is or isn’t true.
This week, for example, a Washington Post report showed how even as Trump stood on the White House lawn promising a package of laws aimed at reducing gun violence, his campaign was placing highly targeted ads on Facebook warning his base that Democrats were trying to take away their Second Amendment rights. He pledged himself to defending those rights.
That sort of messaging is at the core of the Trump re-election effort. From ads calling immigration at the southern border an “invasion," to those attacking his opponents as an “unhinged left-wing mob, a Democrat party that has embraced radical socialism and the FAKE NEWS media that will NEVER tell the truth about all of our accomplishments,” Trump’s re-election campaign has spent more than $17 million on such Facebook ads the last 16 months, according to the Facebook Ad Library. And that spending will only increase between now and November 2020.
“I don’t think you can overestimate the impact of one of the main candidates being directly involved in generating this kind of material and encouraging it,” Barrett said.
“We didn’t understand really the significance or seriousness in 2016 when we had Trump saying publicly, “If you’re listening out there, Russia, there are emails to be had,'" Barrett added. “Now we’re more sophisticated. We know that something is up when someone says something like that.”
But, Barrett warns, if the volume of disinformation and the technological sophistication used to distribute it continues to create more confusion, "It all may just lead to a higher level of cynicism or nihilism even, in that because we can’t tell what is true, we believe nothing is true. And that’s a horrible environment in which to hold an election. That’s the kind of environment in which autocratic countries hold fake elections. I just hope we don’t wind up in that kind of situation.”