Oct 19, 2020 - Economy & Business

Internet blurs the lines between journalism and political influence

The internet and social platforms have made it easier for political actors to manipulate elections by posing as fake media operations or by manipulating real media companies into reporting and spreading disinformation.

Why it matters: Consumers already struggle to differentiate between straight news, fake news, opinion journalism and political advertising on the internet, and partisans in today's information war are deliberately blurring the lines, with technology's help.

Driving the news: A sprawling network of over 1,300 partisan local news sites that hide their backing by Republican groups and corporate P.R. firms was uncovered by The New York Times Sunday.

  • Most of the sites falsely declare in their "About" pages "that they to aim 'to provide objective, data-driven information without political bias," per the Times.
  • Similar operations exist on the left, such as the website Courier Newsroom, which is backed by the progressive non-profit ACRONYM. But the backers of those efforts have mostly been more transparent about their ambitions.

Be smart: These efforts don't always explicitly violate social media firms' rules, which is why they can be hard to police. But some efforts to manipulate opinions online do.

  • Facebook’s VP of global affairs Nick Clegg told the French weekly Journal du Dimanche Sunday that a total of 2.2 million Facebook and Instagram ads and 120,000 organic posts had been rejected by the tech giant for attempting to obstruct voting in the U.S. presidential election, per the Guardian.
  • Such efforts violate the law, which is why political actors may sometimes disguise themselves as unbiased news companies reporting skewed facts or use very broad language to manipulate voters.

Between the lines: Tech platforms have gotten better at detecting these types of manipulation efforts and have modified their policies to address new types of political influence campaigns, especially around fake local news sites. But deceptive tactics keep evolving, too.

The big picture: Ahead of this years' election, influence operations are increasingly trying to trick real reporters into amplifying fake storylines, which is much harder for big tech platforms to police and prevent without appearing politically biased.

  • Last week, Facebook and Twitter took quick action to limit the spread of a questionably sourced New York Post story about Hunter Biden.
  • The firms instantly took heat from conservatives, who cried censorship. Republican Sen. Josh Hawley went so far as to ask the FEC to investigate possible election law violations by the two companies, even though such a complaint has no legal basis.
  • But so far, forensics experts have not yet been able to verify that the "smoking gun" emails included in the story are authentic, and now the FBI is potentially investigating whether the leak is part of a broader Russian disinformation campaign.

Go deeper: 2020 election influence operations target journalists

Go deeper