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How Political Campaigns Can Fight Disinformation


The New Hampshire primary is tomorrow, but the results of last week's Democratic caucus in Iowa are not fully settled. Today, Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price acknowledged that some campaigns had asked the party to review the caucus tallies.


TROY PRICE: In every step of the process, we have held high our responsibility to not rush to judgment to ensure that the information we share are the facts and nothing else and to stay focused on our end goal and not let distractions hamper us from our progress.

CORNISH: Social media was flooded with false information about the caucus, even after the party attributed the problems to a coding issue with its new vote counting app. On today's All Tech Considered, we meet someone who's written a playbook for campaigns trying to fight disinformation.


In February of 2018, Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russians for using social media to manipulate the 2016 election. At the time, Lisa Kaplan was working as the digital director for the reelection campaign of Maine independent Senator Angus King. And she immediately saw how their campaign could be at risk, so she acted.

LISA KAPLAN: We came up with a strategy to go out and detect instances of disinformation and social media manipulation early. We took the approach that disinformation only matters if voters see it, believe it and change their behavior.

SHAPIRO: So give us an example of disinformation that mattered, something that counted.

KAPLAN: Definitely. So what we did was we looked at - where are the decision points that could potentially swing an election? And those are really two things - one, whether or not to vote - so making sure that everybody is able to access information that they need in order to exercise their right to vote. The second is for which candidate you would cast your ballot. So we would look for instances of disinformation, false narratives that were used by an actor who was employing social media manipulation tactics.

SHAPIRO: Candidate A hates children; Candidate B wants to take your guns - that kind of thing.

KAPLAN: Right.

SHAPIRO: Can you tell us about one that you actually ran into over the course of the campaign?

KAPLAN: We saw the NFL being targeted.

SHAPIRO: Like, the take-a-knee movement?

KAPLAN: The take-a-knee movement - exactly. And so the take-a-knee movement already had all of this momentum, and we saw this Facebook page that had popped up called Boycott NFL 2018. The posts weren't actually about the NFL. They were about Hillary Clinton. They were about Donald Trump. They were about, you know, Colin Kaepernick trying to patent his body. It was just really weird and bizarre. And so the way a lot of these pages work is they'll start to build momentum by capitalizing on a topic. And then from there, they'll start inserting different pieces of information - or really, disinformation in order to target voters to try to sway their opinion.

SHAPIRO: So what made you, working on a Senate campaign in Maine, think this rhetoric about the NFL and Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and Colin Kaepernick could be relevant to what we're trying to do in Maine?

KAPLAN: Well, Maine loves their Patriots (laughter).

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) OK.

KAPLAN: And so you definitely have to take those cultural considerations in when you're thinking about your strategy and what matters - because if you're able to consider - what are the things that could be easy to influence? - you can start to anticipate what might get targeted.

SHAPIRO: Recognizing the importance of this disinformation is one thing. Doing something about it is another. So what do you do after you've identified it?

KAPLAN: So for example, if somebody started spreading a rumor that said, you know, Lisa Kaplan kicks dogs and nobody's actually talking about it...

SHAPIRO: For the record, you don't kick dogs.

KAPLAN: For the record, I don't kick dogs. I love dogs.


KAPLAN: But if somebody is spreading that kind of a rumor, then I would want to know about it. One of the things that's coming out of some great research being done up at Harvard by Jed Willard is that the universal truth is nobody likes to get pooled. And so if we're able to capture that and document it and show people, then we can start to walk them back.

SHAPIRO: Do you think that campaigns see this as a threat to American democracy? Or are they acting out of self-interest? That is, if you and I are running against each other and your campaign gets hacked and I get offered the information, am I going to run with it? Or do you think campaigns appreciate that that is actually undermining democracy?

KAPLAN: Some campaigns - so I know Vice President Biden's campaign and Senator Warren's campaign have made a commitment that they're not going to use these tactics against voters. Like, their campaigns, they're not going to create Facebook pages that are false. They're not going to use bot networks to amplify their messages. They've said that in public. I think that's the kind of leadership that American democracy needs right now - is agreeing not to use these tactics. Just because they're not illegal doesn't mean that they're ethical. And anybody who's running to be commander in chief shouldn't be employing the tactics against their own people that the Russian government used against them in 2016.

SHAPIRO: Lisa Kaplan was digital director for Senator Angus King's reelection campaign in 2018, and she is now with the Alethea Group.

Thanks for talking with us.

KAPLAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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