Social Media Pollution, a Huge Problem in the Last Election, Could Be Worse in 2020

It’s unlikely you have heard of @ToTheXToTheY. But you may be familiar with its work.

This anonymously run Twitter account made a splash in 2016, after a protester rushed Donald J. Trump at a rally in Dayton, Ohio.

The Secret Service nabbed the man before he got too close, but not before Mr. Trump flinched. That was an understandable reaction, but it created a potential image problem for the candidate, since he was the No. 1 tough guy in the Republican primary race at the time.

Soon after the incident, @ToTheXToTheY posted a doctored video that falsely linked the protester, a college student named Tommy DiMassimo, to ISIS. The bogus message from an account with some 5,000 followers would have gone all but unnoticed, but then Mr. Trump retweeted it.

The candidate also added a bit of commentary: “USSS did an excellent job stopping the maniac running to the stage. He has ties to ISIS. Should be in Jail!” And he stood by the hoax video a few days later on “Meet The Press.”

A judge, determining that Mr. DiMassimo posed no threat to national security, later sentenced him to one year’s probation.

A few weeks after the Dayton rally, @ToTheXToTheY came to Mr. Trump’s aid again by sharing a video claiming without substantiation that Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, then Mr. Trump’s last-standing Republican primary opponent, had hired prostitutes. The tweet was picked up by Radar Online and various social media accounts before making The National Enquirer, which led Mr. Cruz to issue a strong denial.

The identity of the person or persons behind @ToTheXToTheY remains a mystery. Twitter has suspended the account, saying it violated its rule against posing as another person, brand or organization.

@ToTheXToTheY is an example of a supervirus that has ravaged the body politic. More than two years after anonymous accounts polluted the discourse surrounding the last presidential election cycle, there is no cure in sight.

When it comes to disinformation, all signs point to a 2020 campaign that will make 2016 look like a mere test run.

Anonymous political attacks are as old as the republic itself. Before the rise of cloaked social media accounts, there were pamphlets of unknown origin, anonymous letters peddling false charges, as well as dubious parking-lot fliers, phone calls and blog posts.

But it has never been easier to reach millions of voters with anonymous attacks than it is now, and legislators and regulators seem ill-equipped to keep up with the changes in mass media.

@ToTheXToTheY was one of countless mystery players in the last campaign, which “set a record for pseudonymous attacks,” as Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a political communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied disinformation in 2016, told me.

There was @Ten_GOP, whose unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud were retweeted by Donald Trump Jr. and tens of thousands of others. The Facebook user “Matt Skiber” helped organize pro-Trump rallies attended by real, unsuspecting Americans. “THANK YOU for your support, Miami!” the candidate wrote on his own Facebook page, beneath a photo of one event.

“Matt Skiber” and @Ten_GOP originated in Russia, according to the report filed in April by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III.

Various other accounts had the platforms suspended for suspicious behavior, like Deplorable Eddie-T, which won attention for tweets like the one about Hillary Clinton’s supposed deathly illness.

And then there’s Microchip, a social media presence that BuzzFeed News declared “the bot King who helps Trump win Twitter.”

Microchip claimed to be a software developer from Utah when BuzzFeed communicated with the account in 2017. But who knows?

Many suspicious accounts were suspended, only to be reborn under different handles before disappearing — and it’s not clear they won’t be able to spring back to life for 2020.

Facebook’s chief technology officer, Mike Schroepfer, who’s in charge of devising tools to eradicate junk speech on the platform, conceded to my colleagues Cade Metz and Mike Isaac that, when it comes to problematic posts, “It’s never going to go to zero.’’

It seems likely that anonymous, large-scale disinformation attacks are going to be as much a part the election process as candidates kissing babies and pretending to relish scrapple. Are we O.K. with that?

Over the last century, the United States has made a number of moves to take anonymous attacks out of politics, albeit with varied success, through campaign finance laws. It did so based on a bipartisan consensus that voters had a right to know who was trying to influence them and why.

“One thing we’ve assumed for a good part of our history is, we need to have electoral integrity, so a certain amount of activity needs to be disclosed,” said the former Senator Russell D. Feingold, a Democrat who has championed campaign finance reform. “Who’s financing the people who get elected? People have a right to know that — it’s a foundation for the integrity of the system.”

In 2002, Mr. Feingold and his Republican colleague John McCain pushed through a law that sought to force more political advertisers to disclose their backers ahead of elections. Mr. McCain had extra motivation after supporters of his primary opponent in 2000, George W. Bush, ran commercials smearing his record without having to reveal their involvement — the sort of thing that can happen on social media without drawing much notice.

That effort followed decades of legislation meant to expose special-interest groups seeking to take an outsize role in American politics.

When radio was the tech disrupter of the day, Herbert Hoover pushed for laws to ensure that it would be used for “the public benefit.” As the historian Jill Lepore noted in her 2018 book “These Truths,” “Hoover refused to leave this to chance, or to the public-mindedness of businessmen.” The Radio Act of 1927 compelled stations to disclose the names of sponsors and to give equal time to opposing political candidates.

Stricter rules followed, and the first presidential television commercials, for the Dwight D. Eisenhower campaign in 1952 included the disclaimer “Paid For By Citizens for Eisenhower.”

As TV played a bigger role in elections, lawmakers required stations to keep publicly available lists of political advertisers and forced partisan organizations to list key personnel, fund-raising figures and advertising plans ahead of elections.

Legislators have failed to stay on top of social media platforms, with their billions of hard-to-track users from all over the world, in the same way.

The Citizens United Supreme Court decision of 2010 was infamous in some circles for having lifted prohibitions on corporate and union spending in elections. It’s worth noting, though, that the majority of justices stood by the old disclosure provisions, arguing, “The public has an interest in knowing who is speaking about a candidate shortly before an election.”

Empowered by the decision, special-interest groups found new ways to wield their influence anonymously, through nonprofit organizations that were not obligated to disclose their donors. But even these “dark money” groups are less phantomlike than social media trolls. When they advertise on TV and radio, they must still leave evidence of their activity, in the form public records documenting their plans to buy ads ahead of elections.

The rules now in place just don’t match up with how certain groups influence voters via the internet. Thanks to savvy lobbying by tech companies, online election campaign speech remains almost entirely unregulated.

The platforms won exemptions from many campaign finance provisions by arguing that the rules would stifle their growth. They don’t have the legal requirements for ad disclaimers and disclosures — like keeping public logs of political sponsors — that television does.

That’s how the Internet Research Agency, a home for troll accounts in St. Petersburg, Russia, could spend money on Facebook pages that worked for Hillary Clinton’s defeat without having to reveal its identity.

The platforms are taking steps to change. They say they are screening and authenticating political advertisers, whose activity they are disclosing voluntarily through public databases. They have also added human moderators and artificial intelligence programs to remove fake accounts, an initiative that has lessened social media pollution.

But they started policing themselves only after months of denial and public pressure. And their efforts only go so far: Every week seems to bring reports of improper activity slipping through the cracks.

“The platforms have taken some important steps,” said Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, which works for the German Marshall Fund to combat efforts to undermine democratic institutions. “But it’s absolutely essential for the government to take appropriate action to make sure our elections are protected.”

The House recently passed a bill requiring platforms to keep public logs of political advertisers and tightening restrictions on activity originating outside the United States. A similar bill is pending in the Senate, but it has little chance of becoming law ahead of 2020, given the opposition of the Senate leader, Mitch McConnell.

The recent legislative action may be a start, but it’s steeped in assumptions of how media works left over from the days when TV and radio were the dominant forms. Social media posts that cost nothing don’t count as paid political ads, although they may have been created by well-funded organizations or profitable businesses whose goal is to sway voters.

The Internet Research Agency, for instance, pumped out free content from accounts that appeared to belong everyday Americans. Real citizens shared — and amplified — this stuff, sometimes by the hundreds of thousands.

When the Internet Research Agency did spend money on marketing, it was primarily to draw attention its social media accounts. And the real money went into the behind-the-scenes operation, based in St. Petersburg.

“The Internet Research Agency had a multimillion-dollar budget and was generating memes that they would post for free,” said Ian Vandewalker, the senior counsel on money and politics at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

The Brennan Center has called for increased focus on disclosure of the costs that go into producing online political content devised to sway votes, regardless of whether money was spent to promote it.

Similarly, @ToTheXToTheY did not have to pay Twitter to influence voters. The account had an effect on the 2016 campaign because some very influential people drew attention to its wild claims.

It’s possible that the account was run by a Trump fan with social media chops. But even if it was part of a broader network created to swing the election, its activity would not necessarily fall under even the newly proposed election regulations.

Facebook asks its users to use their real names, but it doesn’t ask for proof of identity, which is how the Internet Research Agency managed to create its phony Americans.

Facebook says it’s getting better and faster at spotting fakes. Twitter says the same thing, but its job is more challenging, because it still allows people to have pseudonymous accounts.

There’s a logic to it. Any move to force users into the light would raise free speech issues here, while potentially harming dissidents looking for safe outlets in repressive countries.

And let’s not forget that certain vital documents, including the Federalist Papers and Common Sense, were written under pen names, or that the First Amendment protects anonymous speech.

But when it comes to elections, do voters have an equal right to transparency?

At the start of another campaign in which false, anonymous attacks are likely to be the norm, that question has gone unanswered.

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