Democratic Party leaders are engaged in an internal struggle over whether to explicitly disavow the use of disinformation tactics in the 2020 election.
State party leaders, led by Minnesota DFL Chairman Ken Martin, have urged the Democratic National Committee to adopt such a pledge, but others are privately worried that it would put the party at a disadvantage against a president who has repeatedly trafficked in doctored videos and retweeted false stories since winning the presidency in 2016.
Former Vice President Joe Biden is so far one of the only candidates to publicly sign a pledge not to use manipulated videos, content from fake social media accounts or other increasingly common disinformation tactics. Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar has not signed a pledge, but she has personally vowed not to traffic in disinformation tactics.
But the National Committee has refused to take action. The Republican National Committee also has declined to take a formal stance.
The Democrats' internal debate is happening while election officials are racing to keep pace as disinformation has grown more pervasive online: A U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee last month reported that Russia's Internet Research Agency, which launched a sweeping disinformation campaign in 2016, is more active on U.S.-based social media platforms than ever before.
A study this month by the Social Science Research Council found that more than half of the roughly 90,000 tweets that referenced Minnesota U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar before the 2018 election had "overtly Islamophobic/xenophobic language or related hate speech." Many of the tweets came from "bots," or fake accounts used to amplify a message.
"This isn't just important for the Democratic Party. This is important for our democracy long-term," Martin said. "We don't want to normalize this type of tactic as standard fare for future elections."
An association of state party committees, led by Martin, unanimously approved a request in June that would push the DNC into a formal policy disavowing the use of fake social media accounts, bots, trolls, "deepfake" videos that make real people appear to do and say things they haven't, and other furtive tactics widely seen as a top threat to the integrity of U.S. elections. The pledge also would commit the party to report examples of disinformation, even those helping Democrats.
Martin and other backers of the pledge say it could help set the party apart from Republicans on a key election security issue.
"I think the larger Democratic ecosystem has a responsibility to say that we are collectively not going to engage in misinformation tactics like the Republicans, that we don't need to stoop to their level to win elections and we don't need to lie, cheat or steal to win an election," Martin said.
Minnesota GOP Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan responded with a statement accusing Democrats of using "disinformation tactics" in the current impeachment proceedings. "While the DFL claimed they don't need to lie, cheat or steal to win an election, that is exactly what they (and Dems across the country) are doing with their ridiculous impeachment proceedings."
She added that there has been no pledge working its way through the state or national party. "If one does come through, we will consider it at this time," she said.
Blair Ellis, national press secretary for the RNC, pointed to cybersecurity more broadly as a top priority. "We serve as a resource for state parties year-round and place a premium on training, informing, and educating stakeholders on best practices as we realize threats are ever-changing," Ellis said in a statement.
Both Democratic and Republican congressional campaign committees also have focused more attention on cybersecurity than disinformation, partly in response to the theft of DNC e-mails in 2016 by Russian hackers.
A Democratic congressional aide said the committee instructs campaigns to flag disinformation for an in-house task force that works with partners to stop the spread of false content. A Republican committee spokeswoman said "we do take cybersecurity seriously" but did not address questions on whether the party has a policy on disinformation or if it would pledge to reject its use in campaigns.
President Donald Trump, his administration and close allies such as Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer, have all shared doctored videos on social media — including a since-removed video manipulated to make House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appear to be under the influence while delivering a speech. In September, Trump also retweeted a post that falsely claimed that Omar had "partied" on the anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks.
More broadly, Trump has continued to counter his intelligence community's assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, instead promoting a conspiracy theory that Ukraine intervened on behalf of his rival, Hillary Clinton.
Referring to the "fictional" narrative that Ukraine and not Russia interfered in 2016, Fiona Hill, a former White House national security aide, implored Republicans in an impeachment inquiry hearing last week to stop pushing "politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests."
As 2020 looms, election officials say disinformation campaigns already are on the rise. Last month, Facebook said it took down four such campaigns operated by Iran and Russia that targeted people in the United States, Latin America and North Africa.
The torrent has forced state elections officials to play defense in a scramble to counter disinformation. This month, the National Association of Secretaries of State launched a new public awareness campaign dubbed #TrustedInfo2020 to promote media literacy among voters increasingly confronted by questionable news sources online.
Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said he considers online disinformation a more likely source of election interference than the hacking of election systems, which are protected by the state's use of paper balloting and postelection auditing. But as a state official, Simon is averse to making public judgments about political content, even if it is obviously fake and deceptive. "We are not the political-conduct cops," Simon said. "But what I can do is … really use the voice of this office to urge people to be careful news consumers and cast a skeptical eye on what they hear and see and read."
Voices of caution also have been raised in Congress. Richard Stengel, former U.S. undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, predicted in a hearing last week that Russians "will again seek out cultural and social divisions and try to magnify them. … Anything to create chaos and disunity and doubt about the integrity of our political process."
Stengel recommended passage of the Honest Ads Act, a bill pushed by Klobuchar to require disclosure of foreign influence in political advertising online. But like other pieces of election security legislation, Klobuchar's bill has stalled in Congress.
While Klobuchar has not signed an anti-disinformation pledge, she vowed in an interview not to traffic in the same disinformation tactics that the country's major political parties are debating. "I've never put anything out that involves any kind of doctored videos or any kind of fake news," Klobuchar said. "You can lead by example, but I think the bigger question is what do you do when other people are violating the law?"
But some argue that putting that in writing at a national party level would more effectively draw a clear line between what is acceptable and what is not in political communication. "It's a very simple question: Do Democrats believe that anyone should be using these tactics?" said Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic strategist who has worked with Martin and others to craft a formal pledge. "If the answer is no, then why not put it to paper?"