4 Years After Getting Hacked, DNC Girds for ‘Messy’ Disinformation Season
With the U.S. presidential vote less than one week away, the country is facing an array of digital threats to the election. Last week, officials warned that Russia has been targeting government agencies and Iran sent threatening emails to Democratic voters. Meanwhile Twitter Inc. and Facebook Inc. have steadily been removing more inauthentic accounts, and domestic disinformation is proliferating.
But while the threat may be greater than in previous elections, U.S. institutions have also had more time to prepare. One example is the Democratic National Committee, which was famously targeted with a hack and leak operation in 2016. This time, the DNC has made a much larger investment in cybersecurity and stood up an in-house counter-disinformation intelligence unit to track and counter falsehoods.
The unit was established in 2018 and is now run by Nellwyn Thomas, the DNC’s chief technology officer, who also leads the committee’s 65-person technology team. Thomas says the group is preparing for false narratives to gain momentum in the coming days and weeks. “We expect a ton of disinformation around election night and the weeks that follow,” Thomas said. “This is an extremely messy ecosystem we’re living in.”
Now, in the final days of the election, members of her team are logging on remotely from half a dozen states across the country to track the falsehoods targeting specific demographics of American voters on YouTube, TikTok, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Thomas began working in politics with Hillary for America during her 2016 campaign. Following Clinton’s defeat, Thomas took a job at Facebook, a company she believed had played a pivotal role in that election. “I actually purposely went to Facebook post-campaign because I really felt like I needed to arm myself with more knowledge about the inner workings of what was clearly a critical player,” she said. She wanted to know how Facebook worked as a place for sharing political information, how campaigns leveraged targeted ads and how disinformation spread. She expected the company would also play an important part in 2020, she said, “as you are seeing right now."
Thomas joined the DNC in 2019. Now, her strategy for countering disinformation involves working to drive traffic to sources of accurate content—including a major effort around a DNC website, iwillvote.com, which helps Democrats navigate the logistics of voting. She’s also working to equip Democratic campaigns with the ability to push counter-messages. For example, amid growing disinformation about the validity and safety of mail-in voting, Thomas’s unit helped campaigns spread the word that, “Vote-by-mail is safe. But it’s also not your only option,” she said.
The DNC’s expanded technology team is staffed with multiple former Silicon Valley denizens, including DNC Chief Security Officer Bob Lord, who has worked at Twitter. Its counter-disinformation staffers spend a lot of time trying to convince social media companies to change their policies and algorithms, which Thomas says pose challenges to people’s understanding of politics. “Lies go faster and further than the truth does,” Thomas said. “Until that changes we are really swimming against the current.”
Now, the unit is using their analysis from the last two years to allow Democratic campaigns to apply it to their final round of contact with 2020 voters, Thomas said. But their work likely won’t be over on Nov. 3. Many experts predict that the social media landscape will be primed for disinformation following the actual vote.
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