Trump administration leaves the door open for social media manipulation by foreign states of 2020 election

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This past week, it was reported that Trump’s DHS Guts Task Forces Protecting Elections From Foreign Meddling:

Two teams of federal officials assembled to fight foreign election interference are being dramatically downsized, according to three current and former Department of Homeland Security officials. And now, those sources say they fear the department won’t prepare adequately for election threats in 2020.

The clear assessment from the intelligence community is that 2020 is going to be the perfect storm,” said a DHS official familiar with the teams. “We know Russia is going to be engaged. Other state actors have seen the success of Russia and realize the value of disinformation operations. So it’s very curious why the task forces were demoted in the bureaucracy and the leadership has not committed resources to prepare for the 2020 election.”

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One of the task forces is now half the size it was a few months ago, according to two DHS officials familiar with the task forces, and there’s no indication that DHS senior political leadership will staff it up or sustain it. Instead, there are concerns it will completely wither away. The other task force also shrank significantly shortly after the midterms, according to that official, and before its members produced a thorough assessment of what happened during the 2018 elections.

“Our key allies are wondering why the U.S. is not more coordinated and not more proactive in dealing with this,” said the DHS official. “They don’t understand why the U.S. is not getting its act together.”

From Donald Trump’s perspective, he received substantial assistance from his pal Vladimir Putin. Mueller has indicted 13 Russian intelligence agents and three Russian entities, including the notorious state-backed “troll farm,” the Internet Research Agency.

Trump also apparently received substantial assistance from Israel, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates. Mueller Reportedly Probing Illicit Donations to Trump Inaugural Event Related to Israel, Saudi Arabia and UAE. The Countless Israeli Connections to Mueller’s Probe of Trump and Russia (Joel Zamel, the Australian-born “Israeli specialist in social media manipulation” and founder of Psy-Group made a presentation in an August 3, 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in New York). Rick Gates Sought Online Manipulation Plans From Israeli Intelligence Firm for Trump Campaign (The proposals were part of what Psy-Group called “Project Rome.”)

And Trump received substantial assistance from the data firm Cambridge Analytica, founded by conservative campaign donors Robert and Rebecca Mercer. The vice-president of Cambridge Analytica, Stephen Bannon, was CEO of the Trump campaign.  Recently, Mueller subpoenaed Cambridge Analytica director Brittany Kaiser, “A director of the controversial data company Cambridge Analytica has been subpoenaed by the US investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.” Whistle blower Christopher Wylie previously testified ‘I made Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare tool’: meet the data war whistleblower.

The Trump administration is leaving the door open for social media manipulation by foreign states of the 2020 election because, “Hey, they helped us win the last election!” Some dare would call this treason.

POLITICO has a lengthy investigative report today on a ‘Sustained and ongoing’ disinformation assault targeting Dem presidential candidates:

A wide-ranging disinformation campaign aimed at Democratic 2020 candidates is already underway on social media, with signs that foreign state actors are driving at least some of the activity.

The main targets appear to be Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), four of the most prominent announced or prospective candidates for president.

A POLITICO review of recent data extracted from Twitter and from other platforms, as well as interviews with data scientists and digital campaign strategists, suggests that the goal of the coordinated barrage appears to be undermining the nascent candidacies through the dissemination of memes, hashtags, misinformation and distortions of their positions. But the divisive nature of many of the posts also hints at a broader effort to sow discord and chaos within the Democratic presidential primary.

The cyber propaganda — which frequently picks at the rawest, most sensitive issues in public discourse — is being pushed across a variety of platforms and with a more insidious approach than in the 2016 presidential election, when online attacks designed to polarize and mislead voters first surfaced on a massive scale.

Recent posts that have received widespread dissemination include racially inflammatory memes and messaging involving Harris, O’Rourke and Warren. In Warren’s case, a false narrative surfaced alleging that a blackface doll appeared on a kitchen cabinet in the background of the senator’s New Year’s Eve Instagram livestream.

[T]here are clear signs of a coordinated effort of undetermined size that shares similar characteristics with the computational propaganda attacks launched by online trolls at Russia’s Internet Research Agency in the 2016 presidential campaign, which special counsel Robert Mueller accused of aiming to undermine the political process and elevate Donald Trump.

It looks like the 2020 presidential primary is going to be the next battleground to divide and confuse Americans,” said Brett Horvath, one of the founders of Guardians.ai, a tech company that works with a consortium of data scientists, academics and technologists to disrupt cyberattacks and protect pro-democracy groups from information warfare. “As it relates to information warfare in the 2020 cycle, we’re not on the verge of it — we’re already in the third inning.”

An analysis conducted for POLITICO by Guardians.ai found evidence that a relatively small cluster of accounts — and a broader group of accounts that amplify them — drove a disproportionate amount of the Twitter conversation about the four candidates over a recent 30-day period.

Using proprietary tools that measured the discussion surrounding the candidates in the Democratic field, Guardians.ai identified a cohort of roughly 200 accounts — including both unwitting real accounts and other “suspicious” and automated accounts that coordinate to spread their messages — that pumped out negative or extreme themes designed to damage the candidates.

This is the same core group of accounts the company first identified last year in a study as anchoring a wide-scale influence campaign in the 2018 elections.

Since the beginning of the year, those accounts began specifically directing their output at Harris, O’Rourke, Sanders and Warren, and were amplified by an even wider grouping of accounts. Over a recent 30-day period, between 2 percent and 15 percent of all Twitter mentions of the four candidates emanated in some way from within that cluster of accounts, according to the Guardians.ai findings. In that time frame, all four candidates collectively had 6.8 million mentions on Twitter.

“We can conclusively state that a large group of suspicious accounts that were active in one of the largest influence operations of the 2018 cycle is now engaged in sustained and ongoing activity for the 2020 cycle,” Horvath said.

Amarnath Gupta, a research scientist at the San Diego Supercomputer Center at the University of California at San Diego who monitors social media activity, said he’s also seen a recent surge in Twitter activity negatively targeting three candidates — O’Rourke, Harris and Warren.

That increased activity includes a rise in the sheer volume of tweets, the rate at which they are being posted and the appearance of “cluster behavior” tied to the three candidates.

“I can say that from a very, very cursory look, a lot of the information is negatively biased with respect to sentiment analysis,” said Gupta, who partnered with Guardians.ai on a 2018 study.

According to the Guardians.ai analysis, Harris attracted the most overall Twitter activity among the 2020 candidates it looked at, with more than 2.5 million mentions over the 30-day period.

She was also among the most targeted. One widely seen tweet employed racist and sexist stereotypes in an attempt to sensationalize Harris’ relationship with former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. That tweet — and subsequent retweets and mentions tied to it — made 8.6 million “potential impressions” online, according to Guardians.ai, an upper limit calculation of the number of people who might have seen it based on the accounts the cluster follows, who follows accounts within the cluster and who has engaged with the tweet.

Another racially charged tweet was directed at O’Rourke. The Twitter profile of the user where it originated indicates the account was created in May 2018, but it had authored just one tweet since then — in January, when the account announced it had breaking news about the former Texas congressman leaving a message using racist language on an answering machine in the 1990s. That tweet garnered 1.3 million potential impressions on the platform, according to Guardians.ai.

A separate Guardians.ai study that looked at the focus of the 200 account group on voter fraud and false and/or misleading narratives about election integrity — published just before the midterm elections and co-authored by Horvath, Zach Verdin and Alicia Serrani — reported that the accounts generated or were mentioned in more than 140 million tweets over the prior year.

That cluster of accounts was the driving force behind an effort to aggressively advance conspiracy theories in the 2018 midterms, ranging from misinformation about voter fraud to narratives involving a caravan coming to the United States, and even advocacy of violence.

Horvath asserts that the activity surrounding the cluster represents an evolution of misinformation and amplification tactics that began in mid-to-late 2018. The initial phase that began in 2016 was marked by the creation of thousands of accounts that were more easily detected as bots or as coordinated activity.

The new activity, however, centers on a refined group of core accounts — the very same accounts that surfaced in the group’s 2018 voter fraud study. Some of the accounts are believed to be highly sophisticated synthetic accounts operated by people attempting to influence conversations, while others are coordinated in some way by actors who have identified real individuals already tweeting out a desired message.

Tens of thousands of other accounts then work in concert to amplify the core group through mentions and retweets to drive what appears, on the surface, to be organic virality.

Operatives with digital firms, political campaigns and other social media monitoring groups also report seeing a recent surge in false narratives or negative memes against 2020 candidates.

A recent analysis from the social media intelligence firm Storyful detected spikes in misinformation activity over social media platforms and online comment boards in the days after each of the 2020 candidates launched their presidential bids, beginning with Warren’s announcement on Dec. 31.

Fringe news websites and social media platforms, Storyful found, played a significant role in spreading anti-Warren sentiment in the days after she announced her candidacy on Dece. 31. Using a variety of keyword searches for mentions of Warren, the firm reported evidence of “spam or bot-like” activity on Facebook and Twitter from some of the top posters.

Kelly Jones, a researcher with Storyful who tracked suspicious activity in the three days after the campaign announcements of Harris, Warren, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), said she’s seen a concerted push over separate online message boards to build false or derogatory narratives.

Among the fringe platforms Storyful identified were 4Chan and 8Chan, where messages appeared calling on commenters to quietly wreak havoc against Warren on social media or in the comments section under news stories.

This is where the right-wing conspiracy supporters of Trump, QAnon, reside. What is QAnon? Explaining the bizarre rightwing conspiracy theory.

“We’re seeing a lot of that rhetoric for nearly each candidate that comes out,” Jones said. “There is a call to action on these fringe sites. The field is going to be so crowded that they say ‘OK: Operation Divide the Left.’”

An official with the Harris campaign said they suspect bad actors pushing misinformation and false narratives about the California Democrat are trying to divide African Americans, or to get the media to pay outsized attention to criticism designed to foster divisions among the Democratic primary electorate.

Researchers and others interviewed for this story say they cannot conclusively point to the actors behind the coordinated activity. It’s unclear if they are rogue hackers, political activists or, as some contend, foreign state actors such as Russia, since it bears the hallmarks of earlier foreign attacks. One of the objectives of the activity, they say, is to divide the left by making the Democratic presidential primary as chaotic and toxic as possible.

Teddy Goff, who served as Obama for America’s digital director, broadly described the ongoing organized efforts as the work of “a hodgepodge. It’s a bit of an unholy alliance.”

“There are state supporters and funders of this stuff. Russia. North Korea is believed to be one, Iran is another,” he said. “In certain cases it appears coordinated, but whether coordinated or not, there are clearly actors attempting to influence the primary by exacerbating divisions within the party, painting more moderate candidates as unpalatable to progressives and more progressive candidates as unpalatable to more mainstream Dems.”

A high-ranking official in the Sanders campaign expressed “serious concerns” about the impact of misinformation on social media, calling it “a type of political cyber warfare that’s clearly having an impact on the democratic process.” The official said the Sanders campaign views the activity it’s already seeing as involving actors that are both foreign and domestic.

Both Twitter and Facebook, which owns Instagram, have reported taking substantial measures since 2016 to identify and block foreign actors and others who violate platform rules.

While Twitter would not specifically respond to questions about the Guardians.ai findings, last year the company reported challenging millions of suspect accounts every month, including those exhibiting “spammy and automated behavior.” After attempts to authenticate the accounts through email or by phone, Twitter suspended 75 percent of the accounts it challenged from January to June 2018.

In January 2019, Twitter published an accounting of efforts to combat foreign interference over political conversations happening on the platform. Earlier efforts included releasing data sets of potential foreign information operations that have appeared on Twitter, which were composed of 3,841 accounts affiliated with the IRA, that originated in Russia, and 770 other accounts that potentially originated in Iran.

“Our investigations are global and ongoing, but the data sets we recently released are ones we’re able to reliably attribute and are disclosing now,” a Twitter spokesperson said in a statement to POLITICO. “We’ll share more information if and when it’s available.”

Facebook says it has 30,000 people working on safety and security and that it is increasingly blocking and removing fake accounts. The company also says it has brought an unprecedented level of transparency to political advertising on its platform.

At this early stage, the campaigns themselves appear ill-equipped to handle the online onslaught. Their digital operations are directed toward fundraising and organizing while their social media arms are designed to communicate positive messages and information. While some have employed monitoring practices, defensive measures typically take a backseat — especially since so much remains unknown about the sources and the scale of the attacks.

One high-level operative for a top-tier 2020 candidate noted the monumental challenges facing individual campaigns — even the ones with the most sophisticated digital teams. The problem already appears much larger than the resources available to any candidate at the moment, the official said.

Alex Kellner, managing director with Bully Pulpit Interactive, the top digital firm for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, warns that campaigns that don’t have a serious infrastructure set up to combat misinformation and dictate their own online messaging will be the most vulnerable to attack in 2020.

I think this is going to be a serious part of any successful campaign: monitoring this and working with the platforms to shut down bad behavior,” Kellner said.

Kellner said that even though platforms like Twitter and Facebook have ramped up internal efforts to weed out bad actors, the flow of fake news and misinformation attacks against 2020 candidates is already strong.

“All the infrastructure we’ve seen in 2016 and 2018 is already in full force. And in 2020 it’s only going to get worse,” Kellner said, pointing to negative memes attacking Warren on her claims of Native American heritage and memes surrounding Harris’ relationship with Brown.

The proliferation of fake news, rapidly changing techniques by malicious actors and an underprepared field of Democratic candidates could make for a volatile primary election season.

“Moderates and centrists and Democratic candidates still don’t understand what happened in 2016, and they didn’t realize, like Hillary Clinton, that she wasn’t just running a presidential campaign, she was involved in a global information war,” Horvath said. “Democratic candidates and presidential candidates in the center and on the right who don’t understand that aren’t just going to have a difficult campaign, they’re going to allow their campaign to be an unwitting amplifier of someone else’s attempts to further divide Americans.”

Cyber warfare by foreign actors is in fact an act of war against the United States. And the Trump administration is leaving the U.S. vulnerable to such attacks because they believe it benefits them personally and politically. And if they are also doing it to benefit that foreign actor, it is also treasonous.

Regular readers will recall that in 2016 we had several commenters trolls whom we have reason to believe were part of the social media attack on the 2016 election. They have since been removed. Many of you fell for their comments and even amplified their comments, which is exactly what these trolls wanted you to do. Knowing what you know now about this malicious social media disinformation campaign to undermine our democracy, I hope that our readers will now be much more careful in what you post and share on social media. Realize that there are bad actors trying to manipulate you and to use you. Don’t get fooled again!

UPDATE: Every Democratic candidate running for the White House has pledged not to knowingly use hacked materials should they end up being published during the current election cycle. Only one 2020 campaign declined to make such a commitment: President Donald Trump’s. Trump Won’t Rule Out Using Stolen Data in 2020 Campaign.