Updated Feb 7, 2020 - Technology

What we're reading: Trump's disinfo blitzkrieg

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Trump campaign, borrowing tactics from dictators and demagogues abroad, is poised to spend $1 billion on "what could be the most extensive disinformation campaign in U.S. history" to sway the 2020 election, McKay Coppins writes in the Atlantic.

Why it matters: Coppins offers the prospect of an election "shaped by coordinated bot attacks, Potemkin local-news sites, micro-targeted fearmongering, and anonymous mass texting."

What they're saying: "Both parties will have these tools at their disposal. But in the hands of a president who lies constantly, who traffics in conspiracy theories, and who readily manipulates the levers of government for his own gain, their potential to wreak havoc is enormous."

Per the Atlantic, here are the key tactics of the coming information inferno, as piloted during the 2016 Trump campaign by its digital director, Brad Parscale, who is now leads the overall Trump reelection effort:

  • Tell brazen lies.
  • Undermine trust in the press.
  • Amass detailed data on supporters.
  • Flood Facebook with ads micro-targeted to them.
  • Use those ads to drive turnout and fundraising.
  • Use bots on Twitter to "simulate false consensus, derail sincere debate, and hound people out of the public square."
  • Inoculate supporters against facts.
  • Instill confusion and doubt in opponents.

Key takeaways:

  • In 2016, the political class viewed disinformation as an external threat, but now it's become a domestic problem.
  • Other countries, like Indonesia, have found some success in combatting agents of disinformation — but in the U.S., First Amendment protections will shield them.
  • Democrats will have to decide whether to denounce the GOP tactics or embrace them.

The other side: “This story itself is disinformation," Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh told Axios in response to the piece. "They wrote 8,000 words trying to paint a scary picture but couldn’t come up with one specific example to back up their premise."

  • "It’s nothing more than a stream-of-consciousness fever dream from liberals already making excuses for an election loss they see coming nine months away.”

Between the lines: One thing Coppins barely mentions is the role Fox News commentators have played in helping Trumpworld muddy the waters. The Daily Beast reports that an internal Fox News research briefing book highlighted that problem, warning colleagues that some of the network's commentators have been spreading disinformation about Ukraine.

Worst-case scenario: On election night in November, Trump gets numbers he doesn't like, and directs his disinformation machine to discredit the results.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with the Trump campaign's response.

Go deeper

Scoop: Inside the Trump campaign's big hedge on Facebook

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The Trump campaign has invested most of its advertising budget to date on Facebook, testing thousands of versions of ads per day to maximize its spending.

But behind the scenes, a source familiar with the campaign tells Axios, the thinking has shifted: "As everyone can see, we still have strong spending on Facebook, but the percentage of our total media budget [on Facebook] is shrinking."

Coronavirus "infodemic" threatens world's health institutions

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The spread of the novel coronavirus outbreak is being matched, or even outrun, by the spread on social media of both unintentional misinformation about it and vociferous campaigns of malicious disinformation, experts tell Axios.

Why it matters: The tide of bad information is undermining trust in governments, global health organizations, nonprofits and scientists — the very institutions that many believe are needed to organize a global response to what may be turning into a pandemic.

Go deeperArrowFeb 25, 2020 - Health

Report: Sanders says he was briefed on Russia trying to help his campaign

Bernie Sanders at a press conference in Santa Ana, California on Feb. 21. Photo: Ringo Chiu/AFP via Getty Images

Sen. Bernie Sanders told reporters at a campaign stop Friday that he was briefed by U.S. officials "about a month ago" on Russia's attempts to assist his 2020 presidential campaign, AP reports. "It was not clear what role they were going to play," he added.

Driving the news: Sanders' comments followed a Washington Post report that U.S. officials briefed Sanders on Russian efforts to help his 2020 campaign "as part of an effort to interfere with the Democratic contest."

Go deeperArrowUpdated Feb 21, 2020 - Politics & Policy