The other day, I suggested that the Democratic presidential hopefuls should perhaps consider whether they can enter into a workable pledge to mutually avoid trafficking in illicitly hacked materials and disinformation tactics, as part of an effort to set a party-wide standard when it comes to running clean elections.
Now Politico’s Natasha Korecki reports that a similar pledge is circulating among the state parties, and that the idea appears to be gaining some traction.
The state party chairs in the four early primary states — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — are trying to get the other parties to support the idea:
Democratic Party chairs in the four early presidential states are working to convince the 2020 presidential candidates to avoid waging social media disinformation warfare against each other.
The effort began this week with a letter to state party chairs across the country broadly laying out the issue with an ultimate goal of establishing what amounts to a non-aggression pact, according to state party operatives in four states who have received or have direct knowledge of the letter....
The move this week by the early state chairs aims to spur a broader discussion among the 2020 contenders about the issue, and to convince them to refrain from targeting one another in similar ways. The goal is to have 2020 campaigns agree to forego illicit online campaign tactics like those used against Democrats in the 2016 presidential campaign, including the use of fake social media accounts, the spread of disinformation, hacking and the use of hacked materials.
There’s also discussion about candidates calling out supporters for taking part in that activity.
Given the clout that those early primary state parties possess, this could end up going somewhere. The next obvious question is whether it will get the support of the Democratic National Committee and the presidential campaigns. All of the Democratic presidential hopefuls pledged not to use hacked materials in response to general questions from reporters. But an agreement like this would be more specific and much broader.
Since I first floated this idea, I caught some blowback on Twitter over it from people who pointed out, reasonably I think, that complications might arise from an agreement not to use any hacked material at all. For instance, if media outlets are widely reporting on a trove of hacked material, it might obviously be difficult for campaigns not to say anything at all about it. And one can envision a situation in which hacked material is genuinely newsworthy or potentially damning, in which case there could potentially be a legitimate public interest in seeing it come out.
That said, depending on the details, one can imagine a workable compromise around, for instance, an agreement not to use stolen materials that are delivered (particularly by nefarious actors) to one campaign for use as opposition research against another, particularly if it’s the type of material that is merely designed to harass or embarrass a campaign, such as internal strategic documents, staff emails or the like.
And when it comes to disinformation tactics — such as bots, trolls, dishonestly edited or even doctored videos and other things like this — it probably wouldn’t be too hard to reach an arrangement of some kind. The point is that this is the start of an effort to negotiate toward some kind of broad party consensus on how to deal with what we are now learning is a new kind of information-age threat to democracy.
Indeed, those organizing this push are hoping to create a kind of partywide ethos, one that is rooted in an acknowledgment of the threat that disinformation poses to our democracy and to liberal democracy writ large. This threat isn’t necessarily just about deceiving voters for narrow political purposes: Note that two Senate Intelligence Committee reports detailed that the 2016 Russian disinformation warfare effort’s goal was also to divide the country along cultural, racial and ethnic lines. We may now see more of this, possibly in the Democratic presidential primaries.
President Trump, of course, eagerly profited off of and encouraged Russian disinformation warfare in 2016. And his campaign is now refusing to pledge not to use hacked materials.
And so, the larger context here is that, with Democrats now in control of the House and heading into a bruising series of intra-party primary battles, the party is feeling its way toward larger conversations about how to shore up democracy against Trumpian degradations of it. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, is planning hearings about the challenges posed to liberal democracy by the rise of authoritarian populism.
Meanwhile, House Democrats recently introduced a package of reforms that includes a provision requiring major presidential candidates to release their tax returns — positioning Democrats as the party of transparency against precisely the norm-shredding that Trump has employed to corrupt our democracy through untold self-dealing.
It remains to be seen where this is all heading. But an organized party consensus effort to beat back the scourge of disinformation in the coming primaries now appears to be at least a possibility.