Fraudulent news, disinformation become “new normal” political tactics

“Fraudulent news has become an insidious virus infecting our democracy, feeding prejudices, fanning misperceptions, and shaping voting behavior in ways that can distort election outcomes. We see disturbing signals that domestic political actors are beginning to view disinformation as a necessary evil, believing that they have little choice but to fight fire with fire as opponents and outside actors bring disinformation tactics into our elections,” said Suzanne Nossel, Chief Executive Officer of PEN America. “To avoid a second presidential election cycle tainted by grave doubts over the role of fraudulent news and information in slanting the outcome we need online platforms to double down their investment in expert human intervention to augment the still-developing capabilities of algorithms and artificial intelligence to detect and address fraudulent news without impairing the free exchange of ideas. Political parties and campaigns need to commit unequivocally to reject the use of fraudulent information as a campaign tool. This report is an alarm bell: We cannot allow fraudulent news to make truth a casualty of our politics.”

Truth on the Ballotbuilds on PEN America’s October 2017 report, Faking News: Fraudulent News and the Fight for Truth, which examined how fraudulent news is eroding truth-based civic discourse and constitutes a threat to free expression. At the time, the majority of public concern over fraudulent news fixated on foreign actors, including Russian disinformation agents and Macedonian clickbait farms. While foreign-originated disinformation remains a serious concern, Truth on the Ballotwarns that domestic actors are increasingly experimenting with fraudulent news and disinformation as a bare-knuckled political tactic.

Truth on the Ballotunderscores the need for increased transparency regarding the funding of political ads, analyzing steps that technology companies have taken to address the problem and judging them often important, but insufficient. Additionally, the report reviews some of the most significant examples of fraudulent news during the 2018 election cycle and discusses how such disinformation shapes public discourse.

In addition to recommendations for technology companies, legislators, and political groups, Truth on the Ballotcontains the what PEN America describes as a “first-of-its-kind” Model Pledge Against Fraudulent News, a call to action for candidates and political parties to denounce fraudulent news and disinformation, and forswear its use. The Pledge also serves as a tool to empower citizens to take action and hold their elected officials and aspirants for public office accountable.

Highlights of Truth on the Ballotinclude:

·  Analysis of the nature, volume, and impact of domestic and foreign fraudulent news and disinformation campaigns during the 2018 midterm elections and major recent political moments, including the 2017 special election in Alabama and the nomination hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh

·  Critical examination of the steps taken by three major platforms, Facebook, Twitter, and Google, to blunt the impact of fraudulent news in the run-up to the midterm elections, including revisions to their algorithms; increased transparency around political advertising; account shutdowns; and collaboration with political campaigns and government agencies

·  Overview of the evolving landscape of online disinformation, from Russian propaganda campaigns to domestic hyper-partisan actors

·  Recommendations for technology companies, political groups, legislators, and citizens, based on the bedrock idea that the most effective proactive tactic against fraudulent news is a citizenry that is well-equipped to detect, and reject, fraudulent claims

·  Call to legislators to establish a federal commission to research and analyze ways to combat the spread of disinformation

·  Call to social media platforms to establish and sufficiently support substantial teams of lawyers, advertising experts, linguists, graphics experts and election experts to augment still-developing and experimental artificial intelligence and algorithmic approaches and bring a trained, expert human eye to content in the lead-up to the 2020 elections

·  A model pledge against fraudulent news for elected officials, aspirants for public office, and political parties to commit to refraining from utilizing fraudulent news and to denouncing its use, even when it benefits them politically

— Read more in Truth on the Ballot: Fraudulent News, the Midterm Elections, and Prospects for 2020 (PEN America, 2019)