Sep 28, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Election influence operations target journalists

Illustration of a newspaper that reads "BREAKING NEWS" on a fishhook.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Foreign and domestic actors looking to influence the 2020 election are trying to trick real reporters into amplifying fake storylines. This tactic differs from 2016, when bad actors used fake accounts and bots to amplify disinformation to the population directly.

Why it matters: The new strategy, reminiscent of spy operations during the Cold War, is much harder for big tech platforms to police and prevent.

  • "Journalists have always been a target for those seeking to spread disinformation because media coverage is among the fastest ways to mainstream a narrative," says Graham Brookie, the director and managing editor of the Digital Forensic Research Lab within the Atlantic Council.
  • "It’s efficient, less traceable, and provides a facade of credibility in laundering a false narrative than distributing it yourself and hoping people take to it."

Driving the news: Facebook on Thursday said it uncovered and took down three coordinated misinformation campaigns originating from Russia.

  • The campaigns focused on creating "fictitious or seemingly independent media entities and personas to engage unwitting individuals to amplify their content," the tech giant said. They drove users to other websites controlled by those operations.
  • Earlier this month, Facebook said it took down a Russian-backed coordinated misinformation campaign that used a fake publication called PeaceData, which hired unwitting freelancers — including Americans — to write fake articles with the intention of having them get picked up and amplified by established news media.

How it works: Often, these meddling operations will themselves write fake stories that can be fed to real media outlets, or hire freelancers to do so.

  • Those stories are picked up by smaller media outlets first — including outlets posing as little-known local news sources that are harder to vet.
  • The goal is to then trick a bigger national news outlet into picking up on one of the storylines for wider dissemination.
  • "[T]hese operations directly try to exploit competitive pressures across the media ecosystem," tweeted Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook's head of cybersecurity policy, addressing the news.

"Hack and leak" campaigns, where bad actors strategically pilfer sensitive materials and then release them to influence public debate, are becoming more prevalent leading up to the election, and are a part of the overall strategy to target journalists.

  • This week, Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron issued a set of guidelines to help prepare his newsroom for a hack-and-leak scenario in this election.
  • The guidelines warn journalists against rushing to publish something, even if other outlets are doing so, because it could be possible that the other outlets have also been manipulated into reporting something false.
  • Gleicher said in a post this week that hack and leak campaigns are "one of the threats we’re particularly focused on and concerned about ahead of the November elections in the U.S."

Be smart: "An example from the world of foreign influence operations: The hack and leak operation by Russia in 2016 was more effective in dominating national discourse than the coordinated activity on social media that amplified it," says Brookie.

  • "We've seen the same strategy using different tactics from the U.S. in 2016, #MacronLeaks in 2017, material targeting the U.S. and Europe dubbed Operation Secondary Infektion in 2018, and most recently freelance journalists inadvertently working Russian state-backed outlet PeaceData in 2020."

Tech platforms are racing to get ahead of the problem, but that's hard when misinformation is spread unwittingly by real journalists with good intent. The issue is not easily identified and prevented using machine learning or other automated processes.

  • Twitter on Thursday confirmed that it's testing a feature that would prompt users when they retweet an article that they haven't opened on Twitter to read it before circulating it.
  • Facebook has pushed to be more transparent with its peers, policymakers, security officials, the media and users about influence operations targeting journalists. Earlier this year, the company started publishing monthly coordinated inauthentic behavior reports detailing takedowns.

The big picture: Efforts to target and trick reputable journalists and news outlets not only sow confusion amid an already challenging election, but undermine long term confidence in journalism as an institution.

  • The issue, tech companies agree, will require a cross-industry response to tackle — one that includes coordination between law enforcement officials, the media community, tech companies and other researchers.
  • Facebook, Twitter, Google, Reddit, Microsoft and other tech giants have been meeting monthly with government agencies to trade notes.

Bottom line: "Media are the front-line targets," tweeted Renée DiResta, research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory

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