The 2020 Smear Campaign Is Underway

Hi. Welcome to On Politics, your guide to the day in national politics. I’m Lisa Lerer, your host.

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Since there have been political campaigns, there’s been disinformation.

In 1800, Thomas Jefferson paid the editor of the Richmond Examiner to praise his party. In 1964, operatives working for President Lyndon B. Johnson wrote letters to the columnist Ann Landers in which they claimed to be ordinary citizens terrified by the prospect of a Goldwater presidency.

In 2000, an untrue rumor that Senator John McCain had illegitimately fathered a black child helped tank his primary race in South Carolina. The false allegation that President Barack Obama was not an American citizen circulated for years.

And in 2016, Russian trolls showed American operatives how to supersize their basket of dirty tricks, barraging social media with all kinds of phony information.

We learned last week that the disinformation campaign for 2020 is already well underway, and that the lies are being trafficked not just by foreign trolls but also by American activists and strategists.

Three examples:

A Trump campaign operative, working anonymously, created a website designed to look like an official campaign page for Joe Biden but filled with GIFs and text mocking the former vice president. More people have visited the fake site than Mr. Biden’s actual campaign page, according to organizations that track web traffic.

After the debates last week, some internet trolls, Trump supporters and far-right online figures tried to boost support in polls for marginal candidates, including Andrew Yang, Tulsi Gabbard, Bill de Blasio and Marianne Williamson.

A group of accounts last week promoted a tweet that falsely claimed Senator Kamala Harris was not a black American, an attack designed to divide black voters that evoked the smears against Mr. Obama. Some researchers hinted that it could have been the work of Twitter bots designed to spread misinformation. The tweet was eventually shared — and later deleted — by Donald Trump Jr., the president’s oldest son.

These kinds of tactics make the days of whispered rumors and fake mailers look practically antique. Today’s dirty tricks are high-volume, hard to trace and entirely digital. And this is only the beginning. “We are very much viewing 2018 as just kind of a dress rehearsal for the big show in 2020,” Christopher A. Wray, the F.B.I. director, said in April.

The government, academic institutions and outside researchers have all documented how foreign governments used disinformation to try and manipulate the 2016 election. Now, as we head into another cycle, there seems to be little real will by technology companies, Congress or the White House to take significant action to stop an even bigger sequel.

Help does not seem to be coming for the American voter. Our advice: Stop believing everything you read on social media.

Frankly, that’s probably a good bit of life advice, too. It’s summer, people — step away from the screen.


I’ll be spending my Fourth watching little kids parade down small-town streets in big Uncle Sam costumes. Bingeing the new season of Stranger Things (they’re getting so big!). Or maybe, if I’m ambitious, making this amazing Konbi’s Egg Salad sandwich.

However you celebrate, hope it’s fireworks and sunshine. See you next Monday!


This is The Soapbox, a forum for you to share your thoughts with us and your fellow On Politics readers. In today’s edition, readers tell us how last week’s debates changed their opinions of the candidates.

I’m an early baby boomer, a grandma, & gay. Although I agree with much of Bernie’s politics, especially universal health care, I was a strong Hilary supporter. I’ve been very interested in Harris but also have long admired Warren. They both did well in the debates but Kamala was phenomenal. — Roz G., Florida


Before the debate, I was entirely Team Bernie but his debate performance was lackluster and he sounded like a crank. I disliked Biden before last night’s debate but now I really hate him. — Susan H., Seattle


While I thought Harris was very effective earlier in the debate, her so-called emotional/personal discussion relating to Biden’s remark a week or so ago really turned me off. It is because what she did was so transparently premeditated with no spontaneity, with her political calculation, rather than her real feeling, dominating her “performance.” — Yusuke H.


As a 74-year-old woman, I had been leaning toward Biden. But now I realize that like myself, he is not as sharp as he used to be. I was very impressed with Kamala Harris and Mayor Pete. Both are sharp, forward thinking and on top of any issue thrown at them. They would make a great ticket to vote for in 2020! — Sydney H.

Responses were edited for length and clarity.

If you want to share your thoughts, send us an email:


Have you seen “The Weekly,” the new TV show from The Times on FX? After we found out this week’s episode was about politics — digging into President Trump’s inauguration — we asked one of the reporters, Sharon LaFraniere, to give us the inside story.

Having never reported for television before, I had no clue how our investigation of President Trump’s inauguration for “The Weekly” would go. To my surprise, it wasn’t all that different from what I usually do for The Times.

I tried to ignore the camera crew and conduct interviews as I normally do. I often would interject with an “I see” or an “uh-huh” when my interview subject was talking on camera, and I’m pretty sure that drove the episode’s producer nuts.

It was significantly more difficult to get people to agree to an on-camera interview instead of just a phone call or a conversation over coffee because I was asking them to share more of their time. Also, for an investigation like this, some interviews were so sensitive that I could not ask to bring a camera crew along.

It was interesting to see how it came together in the end, incorporating work by five reporters, interviews with multiple sources, and photographs and video footage from the events they were describing. You can’t achieve that kind of kaleidoscope effect in a newspaper.

“The Weekly” airs Sunday nights on FX, and can be seen on Hulu starting Monday. Learn more about this week’s episode, and click here to watch it on Hulu.


The G20 summit and the Demilitarized Zone are sites of high-stakes negotiations. They’re also the latest spots where Ivanka Trump has tried her hand at statecraft.

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