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As speculation builds over the extent of Russian meddling in 2018’s elections, the deceptive and influential tactics revealed in last week’s indictment by Special Counsel Robert Mueller—and newer ones—are already in use by U.S. politicos with pro-corporate, pro-GOP agendas.
The examples run the gamut from the seemingly trite—a Republican Senate candidate in Arizona touts an endorsement from a new website impersonating local newspapers—to more overtly serious: a tweet storm calling for Minnesota Democratic Senator Al Franken to resign, which he did last year after escalating accusations of sexual harassment; or tens of thousands of faked emails calling for the repeal of net neutrality, which the GOP-led Federal Communications Commission recently repealed.
In these examples and others, a new hall of mirrors is emerging that threatens American elections and governance—and it is coming from shadowy domestic operatives, not Russians. Websites mimicking news organizations are endorsing candidates. Online identities are being stolen and use to send partisan messages, with people unaware they are being impersonated for partisan gain. Targets are slow to detect or acknowledge the high-tech ruses used against them. The media is catching on, but it’s typically after the fact—not before crucial decisions are made.
While many progressives were split on whether Franken should have left the Senate, the Republican right was unambiguous in seizing the moment to force the Democrats to lose a popular senator.
“White nationalist provocateurs, a pair of fake news sites, an army of Twitter bots and other cyber tricks helped derail Democratic Senator Al Franken last year, new research shows,” a report by Newsweek’s Nina Burleigh began, describing new details about how he was targeted. “Analysts have now mapped out how Hooters pinup girl and lad-mag model Leeann Tweeden’s initial accusation against Franken became effective propaganda after right-wing black ops master Roger Stone first hinted at the allegation.”
“A pair of Japan-based websites, created the day before Tweeden came forward, and a swarm of related Twitter bots made the Tweeden story go viral and then weaponized a liberal writer’s criticism of Franken,” Burleigh explained. “The bot army—in tandem with prominent real, live members of the far right who have Twitter followers in the millions, such as Mike Cernovich—spewed thousands of posts, helping the #FrankenFondles hashtag and the “Franken is a groper” meme effectively silence the testimonies of eight former female staffers who defended the Minnesota Democrat before he resigned last year.”
This evidence trail tracing how right-wingers used software to amplify the attacks on Franken was discovered by Mike Farb at UnhackTheVote, an election transparency group. He noted this tactic was also one tool used by Russian propagandists during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
What’s new now is not that technologies like bots are being created, but that domestic political operatives are using them in much the same way they have used robo-calls, negative campaign mailers and other attacks to undermine political opponents—before the internet and its social media platforms amplified the speed, intensity and impact of such attacks.
“Like targeted Facebook ads that Russian troll farms used in the 2016 election, Twitter bots have been around for years and were originally created for sales purposes,” Burleigh wrote. “But since the 2016 election, arguably lost due to the right’s superior utilization of darker online strategies, the left is not known to have created or mobilized its own fake cyber army to amplify its viewpoint.”
Burleigh’s observation may be the most chilling. The evidence that is out there so far does suggest that pro-GOP and pro-corporate forces are bet g quicker to embrace the latest version of political dark arts—as seen in the growing list of examples of deceptive and influential online campaigns.
Endorsements That Weren’t
Last week, Politico reported on what, at first, seemed like a silly story—a Republican senatorial candidate from Arizona fell for a fake endorsement that seemed to boost her chances in an upcoming primary.
“It looked as if Arizona Senate candidate Kelli Ward had scored a big endorsement: On Oct. 28, she posted a link on her campaign website and blasted out a Facebook post, quoting extensively from a column in the Arizona Monitor,” Politico reported. “There was just one problem: Despite its reputable sounding name, the Arizona Monitor is not a real news site… The site launched just a few weeks before publishing the endorsement, and its domain registration is hidden, masking the identity of its owner. On its Facebook page, it is classified as a news site, but scant other information is offered.”
The general public doesn’t pay much attention to endorsements early in campaigns. So Ward falling for a faked one might be a typical mistake that inexperienced candidates make—and thus easily forgotten. But Politico’s report said her endorsement was part of a larger and far more disturbing trend: the mass-production of fabricated endorsements by anonymous political operatives clearly pushing a far-right agenda.
“The Arizona Monitor seems to be part of a growing trend of conservative political-messaging sites with names that mimic those of mainstream news organizations and whose favored candidates then tout their stories and endorsements as if they were from independent journalists,” wrote Politico. “It’s a phenomenon that spans the country from northern New England, where the anonymous Maine Examiner wreaked havoc on a recent mayoral election, all the way out to California, where Rep. Devin Nunes launched — as reported by POLITICO— his own so-called news outlet, the California Republican.”
“This basically is an appropriation of credibility,” Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, told Politco. “As the credibility of reputable news outlets is appropriated for partisan purposes, we are going to undermine the capacity of legitimate outlets to signal their trustworthiness.”
Political Identity Theft
Cyber deception also is appearing across the government in the nooks and crannies where White House directives or Congress’ laws are turned into the rules Americans must abide by—or in the Trump era, are repealed.
Here, political identity theft is increasingly becoming a tactic used to push federal agencies to end to consumer protections and other regulations that impede profits. Hundreds of thousands of public comments, purportedly made by real Americans, have come in over the electronic transom at five different agencies in recent months, a series of investigative reports found. Except, the people who supposedly sent these comments never did.
A recent example concerns the “Fiduciary Rule,” which originated in the Labor Department and was to talk effect in July 2019, to try to prevent conflicts of investment from investment advisers targeting retirees.
“The [Wall Street] Journal previously found fraudulent postings under names and email addresses at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Communications Commission,” it noted.
The highest-profile example concerned the FCC’s so-called net neutrality ruled, which previously had regulated telecom giants from overcharging the public and smaller businesses for access to online data. a day before the FCC voted in November to gut net neutrality, the Verge reported, “A search of the duplicated text found more than 58,000 results as of press time, with 17,000 of those posted in the last 24 hours alone.”
In other words, a bot-like program was hijacking online identities and impersonating those people to file pro-corporate comments at the FCC. When public officials like New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a Democrat, sought more information from the FCC, he received no response.
While one can speculate about who specifically coordinated these efforts, there is only one category of special interest has the means and motives to thwart government regulators: that’s the targeted industries, professional trade association and lobbyists and the biggest corporate players.
No Accountability Coming
These are people and interests that are represented by Republicans in Washington more so than Democrats. But, as Schneiderman learned, the GOP and it’s political appointees have no inclination to even acknowledge that cyber deception is becoming a new coin of the political realm—while they rule that roost.
Progressives and Democrats might point out that the GOP is the party that obsesses over voter fraud—one person voting many times, which almost never occurs in real life—while Republican-friendly operatives appear to be embracing cyber political identity theft on an unprecedented scale.
What this means for 2018’s elections is uncertain, but it doesn’t bode well. No matter where partisan cyber warfare is coming from—domestically or abroad—its occurrence will undermine public confidence in the results.
The congressional midterms and governors’ races in many states are occurring against a backdrop of a rising blue voter turnout wave. It’s in the GOP’s interests in preserving their power to do anything that undermines the credibility of electoral outcomes that should favor Democrats.
Cyber political warfare is the latest means for doing so. It’s already begun.
Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America’s democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections, including Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election, to be published in March 2018 from Hot Books.