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Kamala Harris

A widespread disinformation campaign targeting 2020 candidates is already underway on social media. Prospective candidate Sen. Kamala Harris is among the top targets. | AP Photo/Elise Amendola

2020 Elections

Early state chairs lead effort to lay out norms and rules Democratic presidential campaigns should follow with regard to disinformation tactics.

Updated


Democratic Party chairs in the four early presidential states are working to convince the 2020 presidential candidates to avoid waging social media disinformation warfare against each other.

The effort began this week with a letter to state party chairs across the country broadly laying out the issue with an ultimate goal of establishing what amounts to a non-aggression pact, according to a copy of the letter obtained by POLITICO.

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“We would like your support in recommending the ASDC [Association of State Democratic Committees] work towards developing a collaborative approach to battling disinformation, illicit campaign tactics, bots, trollfarms, fake accounts, altered text, audio, and video, any and all inauthentic speech in our Presidential Primary process,” wrote the four chairs, including New Hampshire’s Ray Buckley, Iowa’s Troy Price, South Carolina’s Trav Robertson and Nevada’s William McCurdy.

“The Association of State Democratic Committees, the Democratic National Committee and the Presidential campaigns can and must work together in preventing the pollution of our discourse.”

The letter continues: “Further, we want the campaigns to commit to report illicit activity they uncover to social media platforms, and when necessary, to law enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security.”

The letter marks a significant attempt to shape the tactics and tenor of political discourse as the Democratic primary plays out on digital platforms. The intent is to forge an agreement laying out norms and rules the campaigns should follow with regard to disinformation tactics and cybersecurity.

Collectively, the four early state chairs — in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — play an outsized role in the presidential primary campaign. They hold considerable political clout with the campaigns, which are attempting to build followings and curry favor in each of those states.

Last week, POLITICO reported a widespread disinformation campaign targeting 2020 candidates is already underway on social media. An analysis of Twitter data showed the main targets over a 30-day period appeared to be Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), four of the most prominent announced or prospective candidates for president.

The campaign included fake, racist and sexist memes targeting the candidates over various social media platforms, some of it designed to divide and sow chaos within the party.

The move this week by the early state chairs aims to spur a broader discussion among the 2020 contenders about the issue, and to convince them to refrain from targeting one another in similar ways. The goal is to have 2020 campaigns agree to forego illicit online campaign tactics like those used against Democrats in the 2016 presidential campaign, including the use of fake social media accounts, the spread of disinformation, hacking and the use of hacked materials.

There’s also discussion about candidates calling out supporters for taking part in that activity.

Mary Mancini, state chair of the Tennessee Democratic Party, said she received the letter and welcomed the discussion. She added that she hopes any pact would go beyond just 2020 presidential campaigns.

“I think that’s a critical problem in our country and just another way that our voting rates, the franchise, gets polluted and corrupted,” Mancini said. “It’s just one in a long list of issues that negatively affect people who are trying to vote.”

Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price said he and other party chairs have discussed a variety of ways to avoid the use of illicit tactics by the 2020 campaigns.

“I think after what happened in 2016 and what we saw of the foreign state actors play in the race, we want to make sure our process is as fair and transparent as possible,” Price said. “We’re wanting to make sure the primary is really, truly a conversation about the values of our country. We want to make sure that continues to be the case throughout the primary.”

Simon Rosenberg, who ran the campaign to counter disinformation for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the 2018 midterms, has led the call for the pact among the 2020 campaigns and the Democratic National Committee. Rosenberg noted that political parties in Europe recently agreed to such a non-aggression pact with regard to disinformation warfare.

“If we know the campaigns aren’t doing it, it’s going to be much easier to find it and make it go away. If this becomes widespread, it will become truly impossible to root out what’s coming from foreign powers,” Rosenberg said in an interview.

“There’s something bigger than all of us here, and that’s our democracy. Democrats should make a clear stand, understanding that if we don’t set clear norms and rules soon, we could see a proliferation of this illicit tactics that could do permanent and lasting harm to our democracy and other democracies throughout the world.”

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