Videos peddling false claims about voter fraud and Covid-19 cures draw millions of views on YouTube. Partisan activist groups pretending to be online news sites set up shop on Facebook. Foreign trolls masquerade as U.S. activists on Instagram to sow divisions around the Black Lives Matter protests.
Four years after an election in which Russia and some far-right groups unleashed a wave of false, misleading and divisive online messages, Silicon Valley is losing the battle to eliminate online misinformation that could sway the vote in November.
Social media companies are struggling with an onslaught of deceptive and divisive messaging from political parties, foreign governments and hate groups as the months tick down to this year’s presidential election, according to more than two dozen national security policymakers, misinformation experts, hate speech researchers, fact-checking groups and tech executives, as well as a review of thousands of social media posts by POLITICO.
The tactics, many aimed at deepening divisions among Americans already traumatized by a deadly pandemic and record job losses, echo the Russian government’s years-long efforts to stoke confusion before the U.S. 2016 presidential election, according to experts who study the spread of harmful content. But the attacks this time around are far more insidious and sophisticated — with harder-to-detect fakes, more countries pushing covert agendas and a flood American groups copying their methods….
At the same time, social media companies are being squeezed by partisan scrutiny in Washington that makes their judgment calls about what to leave up or remove even more politically fraught: Trump and other Republicans accuse the companies of systematically censoring conservatives, while Democrats lambast them for allowing too many falsehoods to circulate.
Researchers say it’s impossible to know how comprehensive the companies have been in removing bogus content because the platforms often put conditions on access to their data. Academics have had to sign non-disclosure agreements promising not to criticize the companies to gain access to that information, according to people who signed the documents and others who refused to do so.
Experts and policymakers warn the tactics will likely become even more advanced over the next few months, including the possible use of so-called deepfakes, or false videos created through artificial intelligence, to create realistic-looking footage that undermines the opposing side.
“As more data is accumulated, people are going to get better at manipulating communication to voters,” said Robby Mook, campaign manager for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid and now a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.