Social Media Disinformation Campaign Targeting Democratic Primary Ramps Up, Sanders Appears Spared from Negative Coverage

 Politico is reporting that since the beginning of the year, social media disinformation campaigns aimed at diving Democrats - which never stopped since its rise in the wake of Russian invasion of the 2016 presidential election - has picked up steam since the beginning of the year and is targeting the Democratic primary.

The review, conducted for Politico by points to a particularly dangerous cluster of accounts on Twitter as the primary culprit.

That cluster of accounts was the driving force behind an effort to aggressively advance conspiracy theories in the 2018 midterms, ranging from misinformation about voter fraud to narratives involving a caravan coming to the United States, and even advocacy of violence.

In the 2018 cycle, the cluster generated 140 million tweets in their attempts to sow discord, notes Politico.

Although the review shows that the social media accounts involved in this concerted campaign mention four declared and potential candidates the most - Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke and Bernie Sanders - the subsequent coverage appears to show that Bernie Sanders is the one of the four spared the brunt of negative coverage the other three are receiving. Between 2% and 15% of all Twitter mentions for the four candidates came from the cluster of disinformation accounts studied. The cluster, interestingly, is the same set of accounts that engaged in widescale information warfare for the 2018 elections.

The most negatively targeted candidate among the four, perhaps unsurprisingly, is Sen. Kamala Harris. Of the 6.8 total mentions of the four accounts by the disinformation cluster on Twitter over the 30-day period studied, 2.5 million went to Harris - nearly 40 percent of the haul in a four-person field. Not only that,

[Kamala Harris] was also among the most targeted. One widely seen tweet employed racist and sexist stereotypes in an attempt to sensationalize Harris’ relationship with former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. That tweet — and subsequent retweets and mentions tied to it — made 8.6 million “potential impressions” online…

Beto O’Rourke was the next most negatively impacted, with fraudulent claims about him using racist language to leave a voicemail in the 1990s garnered 1.6 million potential impressions. False claims about Warren having a blackface doll also made the rounds. Outside of Twitter, Warren seems to be a dominant target of misinformation warfare, with users on platforms like 4Chan and 8Chan calling for weaponizing Warren’s past as a Republican.

Conspicuously, Bernie Sanders is the only one missing from examples of falsely negative narratives. Indeed, this observation is borne out by other researchers, including those who have worked with UC San Diego’s Supercomputer Center researcher Amarnath Gupta - who partnered with last year - noted a Twitter surge negatively targeting three of the four: Harris, Warren, and O’Rourke.

The bots are getting smarter, too. Instead of creating thousands of accounts easy to spot and weed out, the disinformation influencers are operating a core set of fake accounts and tens of thousands of ancillary accounts to amplify that core set as well as other (native) voices spreading fake news. These accounts are also becoming highly sophisticated and less distinguishable from legitimate social media use. The behavior of the accounts, the researchers noted, are very similar to the Russian operation in 2016.

So what is a Democratic voter to do? Well, here are some suggestions.

  1. Demand in-context full videos, not just snippets. If only a curated, edited, short clip is available, ask yourself why.

  2. Demand links and read the full story, not just the headline.

  3. Reserve judgment when news “breaks.” Keep in mind that especially on social media, you are getting, at best, head-turning headlines and at worst, clickbait fake news.

  4. Wait until more than one legitimate news source confirm a story.

In short, don’t react until you know the facts. And keep in mind that that might take some time.

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