Oct 9, 2020 - Technology

Domestic online meddling threatens 2020 election

Illustration of a computer with a red screen under a box trap.  
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Social media platforms are scrambling to crack down on domestic actors who have picked up foreign meddling techniques to try to influence the 2020 election — an effort that's resulted in a spate of action against U.S.-based conservatives.

The big picture: Domestic influence campaigns are not new, but tech firms are more aware of them this cycle. The companies also have more help from intelligence agencies and media companies to help uncover these operations and shut them down.

Driving the news: Facebook said Thursday that it took down a coordinated inauthentic behavior campaign run on behalf of pro-Trump student group Turning Point USA and Inclusive Conservation Group, an organization ostensibly focused on trophy hunting in Africa.

  • The operation used fake personas to comment on stories posted by news outlets like the Washington Post, Fox News, MSNBC, CNN and the New York Times to influence debate.

It's the latest example of Facebook taking action against a conservative group or individual for spreading misinformation or attempting to sway public debate with fake accounts or other astroturf techniques.

  • The company said Wednesday that it's banning from its platforms all accounts, groups and pages related to QAnon, the fringe far-right conspiracy.
  • In June, it removed over 200 accounts linked to white supremacy groups.
  • Facebook this week also restricted the reach of conservative radio host Mark Levin for repeatedly sharing false information.
  • And, in a reversal of what have become their usual roles, Facebook moved faster than Twitter to take action against coronavirus misinformation from President Trump, fully taking down his post. (Twitter hid it behind a label flagging it as false.)

Of note: Facebook also said Thursday that it proactively reached out to the FBI and cooperated in the agency's investigation of a militia group that was plotting to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Witmer. The criminal complaint reveals the suspects were using a private Facebook group to organize and communicate.

It's not just the U.S. Facebook officials said Thursday on a call with reporters that more than half of the 10 campaigns the company has removed globally in September and October targeted domestic audiences in their respective countries.

Be smart: While foreign election interference remains a major concern, domestic actors can be more effective operators.

  • "Domestic actors understand the political actions in their country the best and have a strong motivation to want to change that discussion," said Nathaniel Gleicher, the company's head of cybersecurity policy, on a call with reporters Thursday.

The catch: Domestic influence campaigns can often look a lot like traditional electioneering.

  • That's precisely why they're so pernicious for online platforms, which must confront that challenge by continuing to become more "proactive and aggressive and really clear about the rules," Karen Kornbluh, director of the Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative at the German Marshall Fund, told Axios.

Between the lines: "It feels like there's a lot more hesitancy about taking action against domestic violations of their rules," Kornbluh said.

  • Platforms don't have to worry about the First Amendment when dealing with foreign campaigns, Kornbluh added. "It feels like there is much more seriousness and proactive action on the foreign interference."

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