Senator Doug Jones of Alabama on Thursday said he was “outraged” to learn of deceptive online operations used by fellow Democrats to assist his election last year, and called for a federal investigation into the matter.
He was responding to a report in The New York Times on Wednesday about a small group of social media experts who modeled their tactics in part on Russia’s misinformation campaign in the 2016 election.
“We have focused so much on Russia that we haven’t focused on the fact that people in this country could take the same playbook and do the same damn thing,” Mr. Jones said.
He called on the Federal Election Commission and the Justice Department to examine whether the episode violated any laws and, if it did, to prosecute those responsible. Officials need “to let people know that this is not acceptable in the United States of America,” he said in a statement….
Part of the appeal of online machinations is that they cost so little, said Wendy R. Weiser, the director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.
“I am certainly very worried that the tactics that were used by the Russians are going to be repeated and used by others in 2020 and beyond,” she said. “I think that we’re going to see an escalation.”
Miles Rapoport, a senior fellow in American democracy at Harvard Kennedy School, said he feared that online deception could degrade the political process. To defend against it, he said, greater skepticism will be required.
“Campaigns and voters and citizens now will need to factor in: Where is this information coming from? Who’s generating it? Can I believe it?” Mr. Rapoport said.
Attempts to regulate the kind of the tactics used in Alabama could run into constitutional barriers, according to Richard L. Hasen, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, School of Law who specializes in election law.
“We generally don’t have laws — and the First Amendment prevents us from having laws — that prohibit candidates from lying,” he said.
A requirement for more detailed reporting of what is often vaguely recorded as “online services” might help, at least for activities carried out by an official campaign, he said. But he is not holding out hope for 2020.
“It’s not as though this Congress — and this president — is going to pass any kind of campaign-related regulation that would have teeth in it,” Mr. Hasen said.