Americans mimic Russian disinformation tactics ahead of 2020

Individuals and groups in the U.S. are taking a page out of Russia’s 2016 playbook, as both right-wing and liberal trolls engage in disinformation campaigns designed to undermine 2020 presidential candidates.

The increased efforts to spread conspiracy theories and misleading content, as well as sowing discord over topics that already divide voters, are raising alarm among analysts and lawmakers, who are considering how best to address the issue.

But taking congressional action of any kind would require a delicate balancing act, as lawmakers worry about running afoul of the First Amendment.

Experts say they have noticed a spike in disinformation as each Democratic hopeful has entered the 2020 race, with significant increases after former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) announced their candidacies.

“I think it’s almost certain that as we get closer to the 2020 election, you’ll see an intensification of this kind of activity,” Paul Barrett, deputy director of New York University’s Center for Business and Human Rights, told The Hill.

The similarities: The escalating disinformation campaigns bear striking resemblances to Russian campaigns, according to analysts. Though much of the activity in the U.S. appears to be coming from individuals rather than coordinated groups, the barrage of inflammatory posts, memes and misleading articles from fringe sites shared across social media is targeting the most sensitive issues at play in 2020, much like they did in 2016.

Who they’re targeting: Fringe right-wing sites and trolls have spread false information about Warren’s Native American heritage and amplified misinformation about allegations of inappropriate touching by Biden, according to Padraic Ryan, head of news intelligence at Storyful, a firm that tracks social media disinformation.

“Elizabeth Warren has been the target of a great many of smears and hoaxes and so on, many relating to her claim of Native American ancestry,” Ryan told The Hill, noting that trolls seeking to inflame tensions have also targeted Sanders.

What’s next: The next phase of disinformation for the 2020 campaign, experts say, will likely focus on voting registration and efforts to turn citizens away from the polls.

“That kind of deliberate effort to manipulate voters, send them in the wrong direction and so forth, is what could be most disturbing,” Barrett said.