Oct 6, 2020

Foreign election interference is finding plenty of places online to spread

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It's not just a Facebook or Twitter issue anymore.

The Russian group accused of meddling in the 2016 election was caught this month in another disinformation campaign. Reuters reports that the group posed as a news outlet publishing articles that attacked former Vice President Biden. 

They targeted Facebook and Twitter, yes, but also spread content on Gab and Parler, social media networks that attract right-wing users. I spoke with Camille Francois, chief innovation officer at Graphika, who helped research this effort. She says disinformation is looking for a new home. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Camile Francois. (Photo courtesy of Graphika)

Camille Francois: It is the first time that we found foreign actors use Parler accounts and Gab accounts. And that was difficult because while as an industry we’ve learned to work together to take action in between the social platforms, there are still social platforms that are not observing the same rules. I think that the main takeaway is, if we want to be effective at tackling foreign interference, we have to tackle foreign interference on all platforms. This is no longer just a Facebook problem or just a Twitter problem. It is definitely a whole of the industry problem.

Molly Wood: You mentioned that they don’t have the same rules. Is it a sign that perhaps some of the methods that Facebook and Twitter have employed against disinformation might be working a little better? That platforms like Gab and Parler, where anything goes, might spread information a little better?

Francois: Yeah, that’s indeed a sign of moderation from the big platforms. Some of that is also on the government to sort of clarify. In this specific context, we are talking about a sanctioned entity, so understanding what are the types of constraints that apply when platforms are notified by this type of activity is also a government question. That creates an interesting conversation, which is, whose job is it to make sure that we can tackle foreign interference together again in a whole-of-society approach?

Wood: What does it do to the landscape? What does it do to your research and your ability to combat disinformation, when there’s clearly an effort to sow distrust in the very idea that disinformation exists?

Francois: As you know, we’ve worked, my team and I, with the Senate Select Intelligence Committee on studying the Russian interference in 2016, and it was a really bipartisan effort. And out of this work really came the idea that we should treat foreign interference as the bipartisan problem. It has been increasingly difficult to do that. I think that’s a fair statement. Yeah, it’s been increasingly difficult, making sure that we have a shared set of knowledge and facts around what is foreign interference, how does it manifest and when to take action is important.

This illustration picture shows social media application logo from Parler displayed on a smartphone with its website in the background in Arlington, Virginia on July 2, 2020.
Recently formed social network Parler is gaining popularity among prominent political conservatives who claim their voices are being silenced by Silicon Valley giants. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

A poll last week found that 3 in 4 Americans are at least somewhat worried that foreign governments will try to tamper with voting systems, steal data from campaigns or use disinformation to mislead or divide voters.

While it’s heartening that people have at least heard of this problem of foreign interference in our election, the poll from the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that no more than half of respondents were really worried about it. Among Trump supporters in particular, who have been told repeatedly that Russian interference in the election is a hoax, only 30% are very concerned or extremely concerned, while 68% of Biden supporters have a high level of worry. 

And Austin Wright, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School, told The Associated Press that people might be less worried about foreign efforts to undermine confidence in the election results since Trump himself, and others here in the U.S., are just doing it themselves.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer