Aug 22, 2019

U.S. laws don't cover campaign disinformation

A now-defunct loudspeaker system set up to bombard North Korea with South Korean messaging. Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

The international industry of disinformation-for-hire services has already reared its head in Western politics, and it's growing fast.

The big picture: There is no U.S. law that prevents candidates, parties or political groups from launching their own disinformation campaigns, either in-house or through a contractor, so long as foreign money isn't involved. It's up to individual candidates to decide their tolerance for the practice.

"These tactics have been used by candidates all over the world," said Camille François of the social media analysis firm Graphika.

  • A Philippines-based firm claims to be manipulating social media for political clients around the world, including Great Britain; Mexican campaigns for city and national offices use social media chicanery; and researchers at Google's altruistic technology outpost Jigsaw recently rented a Moscow-based outfit to run a disinformation campaign to test how its campaigns worked.
  • Campaigns have also been spotted in Israel, Macedonia and throughout South America.

The intrigue: Broadly, U.S. campaign finance laws don't regulate free social media accounts. Even a vast network of inauthentic bot and troll accounts would likely be treated as a protected form of political speech.

  • "The Federal Election Campaign Act does not address this situation," said Charles Spies, the leader of Clark Hill's global political law practice. He noted that an aggressive prosecutor might try to find clever ways to apply seemingly unrelated statutes — just as they might for any other action that seems wrong but has no directly applicable law.

The only firm rules are the boundaries political actors set for themselves.

  • "People should want to know what the boundaries are: Will their social media teams use inauthentic accounts? Will they work with PR agencies that do?" said François.

Axios reached out to the parties to see if they took active stances on the issue.

  • "The DNC does not hire outside entities to generate inauthentic content, and we advise campaigns against engaging in these activities," Democratic National Committee chief security officer Bob Lord told Axios.
  • The Republican National Committee did not respond to several requests for comment.

Meanwhile: Campaigns can act in ways the national party does not endorse, and political committees, in turn, can act in ways the candidates do not endorse.

  • But if the buck stops with the current batch of candidates, there's some reason for concern.
  • Among campaigns contacted for this story — 5 top Democrats and the Trump campaign — none responded with a firm policy regarding the use of phony accounts or how they would respond if supporters used them.

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