The video, it turned out, was a parody by the comedian Nick Ciarelli, but it even confused some journalists. While a harmless joke, it showed just how easy it is for content to be spread and amplified in the modern political arena — without anyone checking the source.
My colleague Davey Alba, who covers the world of disinformation for The New York Times, has been talking to presidential campaigns and digital operatives over the past month about how they plan to combat viral falsehoods in 2020. So, I talked to her:
Davey, does it look like campaigns are prepared to respond to disinformation in 2020?
As of right now, no, it doesn’t look very good. When I talked to dozens of campaign staffers, members of both political parties, and disinformation researchers for my piece, the resounding consensus was that almost no campaigns, including 2020 presidential campaigns, have proactive counter-disinformation teams. Even though disinformation is a much-discussed topic these days, campaigns seem not to have a grasp on what a solid plan to deal with disinformation should look like. Some teams even conflate the issue with cybersecurity.
What makes it hard for a campaign to deal with disinformation?
The huge political divide between Democrats and Republicans makes it especially tricky. Discussion about actual political falsehoods can turn into squabbling about which “side” someone is on. Then there’s the issue of how campaigns must weigh, for each cycle of disinformation about their candidate, whether to ignore a lie or figure out a way to debunk it without accidentally amplifying the lie.
As one of my sources, Joan Donovan, a research director at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, put it: “One way that media manipulators prolong attention to a disinformation campaign is by soliciting a reaction from the target. If Bloomberg had ignored this, what would have happened?” The dance video, as we know now, was co-opted by right-wing personalities and the hashtag #DropOutBloomberg trended on Twitter — then the Bloomberg campaign commented on it.
Parody videos aside, is there any hope for combating more serious disinformation?
There’s a huge effort underway by journalists, academic researchers, digital forensic groups and others to engage in responsible ways to respond to disinformation. If you think about the 2016 U.S. presidential election, when it was the Wild West and everyone was scrambling to figure out when to write about something and not to write about something, and we did not yet know the extent of the foreign influence campaign waged by Russia, we’ve come a long way. The community is starting to cohere around best practices for responsible reporting.
On the other hand, disinformation is growing faster than ever. So while we’ve made progress, the public still has to remain on high alert for dubious pieces of information that go viral, and keep educating themselves on media literacy and common tactics used by bad actors.