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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

Go deeper

2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Beto plans Texas comeback in governor's race

Former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke speaks during the Georgetown to Austin March for Democracy rally on July 31, 2021 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke is preparing to run for governor of Texas in 2022, with an announcement expected later this year, Texas political operatives tell Axios.

Why it matters: O'Rourke's entry would give Democrats a high-profile candidate with a national fundraising network to challenge Republican Gov. Greg Abbott — and give O’Rourke, a former three-term congressman from El Paso and 2020 presidential candidate and voting rights activist, a path to a political comeback.

Texas doctor says he performed an abortion in violation of state law

Pro-choice protesters march down Congress Avenue and back to the Texas state capitol in Austin, Tx in July 2021. Photo: Erich Schlegel/Getty Images

A Texas doctor disclosed in an op-ed in the Washington Post Saturday that he has performed an abortion in violation of the state's restrictive new abortion law, which effectively bans the procedure after six weeks.

Why it matters: Alan Braid's op-ed is a direct disclosure that will very likely result in legal action, thereby setting it up as a potential test case for how the abortion ban will be litigated, notes the New York Times.

Mike Allen, author of AM
3 hours ago - Technology

Axios interview: Facebook to try for more transparency

Nick Clegg last year. Photo: Matthew Sobocinski/USA Today via Reuters

Nick Clegg, Facebook's vice president of global affairs, tells me the company will try to provide more data to outside researchers to scrutinize the health of activity on Facebook and Instagram, following The Wall Street Journal's brutal look at internal documents.

Driving the news: Clegg didn't say that in his public response to the series. So I called him to push for what Facebook will actually do differently given the new dangers raised by The Journal.

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