US 2020 election campaign staff throw their hands up on disinformation

A reflective surface at the base of the Washington Monument doubles a view of American flags and the US Capitol in the distance, in Washington, DC, on Dec 15, 2019. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Less than a year before the 2020 election, false political information is moving furiously online. Facebook users shared the top 100 false political stories over 2.3 million times in the United States in the first 10 months of this year, according to Avaaz, a global human rights organisation.

The examples are numerous: A hoax version of the Green New Deal legislation went viral online.

Millions of people saw unsubstantiated rumours about the relationship between Ukraine and the family of former vice-president Joe Biden.

Still, few politicians or their staff are prepared to quickly notice and combat incorrect stories about them, according to dozens of campaign staff members and researchers who study online disinformation. Several of the researchers said they were surprised by how little outreach they had received from politicians.

Campaigns and political parties said their hands are tied because big online companies like Facebook and YouTube have few restrictions on what users can say or share, as long as they do not lie about who they are.

But campaigns should not just be throwing their hands up, said some researchers. Instead, there should be a concerted effort to counter falsehoods.

"Politicians must play some defence by understanding what information is out there that may be manipulated," said Joan Donovan, a research director at Harvard University's Shorenstein Centre.

Even more important, she said, is pushing "high-profile and consistent informational campaigns".

Political groups are not ignoring false information. Bob Lord, chief security officer of the Democratic National Committee, encourages campaigns to alert his organisation when they see it online.

The committee also gives advice on when and how to respond. He said campaigns must decide when the costs of ignoring a falsehood outweighed drawing additional attention to it by speaking out.

But he said his reach was limited.

"The amount of disinformation that is floating around can cover almost any possible topic," Lord said, and his team cannot look into each reported piece.

Facebook does not remove false news, though it does label some stories as false through a partnership with several fact-checking organisations.

Last month, Twitter announced plans to forbid all political ads. But the company does not screen for false accusations. Twitter said it did not want to set a precedent for deciding what is and is not truthful online.

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