Stories

Online guardians descend on 2020 campaigns

Illustration of a hand holding back a torrent of speech bubbles
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

As presidential campaigns gather steam, a niche world of consultants and tech vendors has popped up with the promise of helping them fight off online disinformation.

The catch: These efforts have gained little traction, in part because they offer a dizzying array of options at a confounding spread of prices — from around $3,000 to nearly $300,000 a year — potentially leaving campaigns without a weapon against the predicted onslaught.

The big picture: Campaigns are bracing for the online spread of rumors and lies. That's everything from 2016-style fake news to deepfakes — digitally manipulated videos that can make it look like a candidate said something they didn't really say — or coordinated social media campaigns that make it seem like a fringe view is broadly held.

  • These attacks are likely to come from domestic political adversaries even more than the foreign meddlers that dominated 2016 headlines, experts say.
  • But what campaigns should do about the coming chaos is still hazy.

Rushing into the breach is a cadre of consultants — big-name firms and individual operatives alike — who claim to have the secret sauce to detecting brewing disinformation and countering it.

  • Some are offering basic monitoring software — the kind that fact-checkers use to see what rumors are swirling online.
  • Others, like Israel-based VineSight, are tailoring their dragnets to pick up political disinformation.
  • And now, firms like Alethea Group are opening shop to sniff out disinformation and work with campaigns to develop full communications strategies to counter it.

Where it stands: Campaigns, operating with limited funds and a total lack of clarity about what to do about disinformation, are being inundated with a jumble of products.

  • "There are a lot of people offering snake oil, so it's hard for campaigns to make decisions on what to invest in," says Jiore Craig, a vice president at GQR Research who advises democratic campaigns on disinformation.
  • "Campaign operatives are put into paralysis by fear," says Melissa Ryan, a consultant who works on disinformation issues.

The cheap-and-dirty options can cost as little as $3,000 or $4,000 a year. But full-service consulting can require digging deeper into campaign funds. Those prices range "from $30,000 a year to $30,000 a month," Craig tells Axios.

It can be hard to make room in campaign budgets, which historically don't have a line item for battling online mobs, for untested tech and services. "You're working with limited resources and you're being pulled in so many directions," Ryan says.

  • Shelling out for expensive protection is cheaper than an election-week crisis-messaging campaign, argues Lisa Kaplan of the Alethea Group.
  • But the Democratic National Committee tells campaigns they can accomplish a lot with free or cheap services, and one prominent expert has told 2020 campaigns to stay away from expensive counter-disinformation products.
  • "It's an extraordinary amount of money to get information that they fundamentally cannot act on" because the damage has already been done, the consultant tells Axios.

Several firms told Axios they're in talks to sell their services to presidential campaigns. But the seven highest-polling Democratic campaigns declined or didn't respond to interview requests, and the DNC — which itself uses an inexpensive tool to monitor online chatter about candidates — said the onus is on campaigns to protect themselves.

Go deeper: The 2020 campaigns aren't ready for deepfakes