The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Technology 202: Online disinformation has changed. Now the DNC is updating its response unit.

with Aaron Schaffer

Online disinformation has drastically evolved since the days when politicians’ biggest concerns on social media were Russian troll farms. 

Now the Democratic National Committee is overhauling its counter disinformation unit to better respond to what it views as the more pressing digital threat: Republican politicians and right-leaning publications with large followings. This team will now be housed within the committee’s communications department to rapidly track and respond to purported falsehoods spreading online. 

The changes come as Republican lawmakers and organizers’ continued embrace of baseless claims of widespread election fraud threaten to influence the midterms and the 2024 election. The committee's restructuring formalizes a shift that has been underway for months, as the team started positioning itself to respond to “elite” and “authentic” voices, such as former president Trump, who were playing a key role in amplifying falsehoods and conspiracy theories online, said Timothy Durigan, the DNC’s lead analyst for the counter disinformation program.  

“It shouldn’t be this way; we shouldn’t have to be pushing back on lies constantly, but that’s the reality we’re in with the current information ecosystem,” Durigan said in an interview. “Recognizing that, we’re trying to gear up for it.” 

The committee decided the problem it was dealing with no longer required technical solutions, but rather media responses. 

The DNC’s counter disinformation unit initially began to do technical analysis to identify bot networks and other digital manipulation of social media. But after intense public pressure in the wake of the 2016 elections, Durigan said tech companies have made major changes to root out such inauthentic behavior, and those concerns have now taken a back seat to domestic figures with large followings injecting falsehoods into the online political debate. 

Now the DNC is trying to develop a new arsenal of tools. 

The team will weigh how to best respond when online falsehoods move from the fringes of the Internet to the mainstream. The committee wields its own social accounts, as well as surrogates and grass-roots supporters who can correct the record online. When a false narrative really takes off, the party then turns to more traditional communication responses such as contacting reporters or staging speeches. 

“It’s pretty easy to see what’s being said and who’s doing the saying,” Durigan said. “But the tools to fight back are less effective.”

The DNC has also been calling on Silicon Valley tech companies to do more to address disinformation. 

In 2019, committee officials publicly criticized Facebook for announcing that it would not fact check politicians, underscoring that Trump and others didn't play by the same rules on the platform as regular users. The committee also recently released a scorecard where it compared the social media companies' policies on disinformation, rating their enforcement of hate speech rules, their political disinformation policies, among other rules. 

The committee's efforts come as Democrats recognize they have an opportunity to crack down on online disinformation, especially now that they control the White House and Congress. The DNC doesn't weigh in on policy issues, but it did create a website to track some of Democrats' bills aimed at regulating social media. 

The overhaul highlights the continued online disinformation challenges for the Democratic Party in the post-Trump era. 

The former president has lost his digital megaphone, which he used to spread falsehoods and other incendiary content, at least for now. Twitter permanently suspended the former president's account in the wake of the Jan. 6 attacks, and YouTube has indefinitely suspended him. Facebook is reviewing its indefinite ban following a decision from its Oversight Board. 

Many top Democrats have called for the social networks to permanently keep Trump off their services. But there's a recognition within the party that the problem is much bigger than Trump, and they need to be prepared to address falsehoods about elections and voter suppression from a wide range of online conservative media outlets, politicians and widely followed accounts. 

“The precedent that was set in the 2020 election was a really scary one,” Durigan said in an interview. 

Programming note: Yesterday was Technology 202 researcher Tonya Riley’s last day at The Washington Post. Tonya played a key role in bringing you the most important news of the day -- as well as the best tweets and TikToks. Recently, she’s been anchoring The Cybersecurity 202 newsletter. We will miss her, and we wish her best of luck in her new endeavor!

Our top tabs

Facebook refuses to take down an ad linking Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) to Hamas. Her office says it could lead to death threats.

The ad campaign by the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, “peddles both hate speech and misinformation,” aides to Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) told Facebook by email. The dust-up threatens to further inflame tensions between Democrats and the social media giant, which they say hasn't effectively policed its platforms amid calls for violence and hate speech, my colleague Tony Romm and I report

On one of the ads, Omar’s face is superimposed onto Hamas rockets. The ad’s text claims that “when Israel targets Hamas, Rep. Omar calls it an act of terrorism,” distorting a tweet by Omar from last week that called Israeli airstrikes killing civilians in Gaza an act of terrorism. The tweet said that Israeli airstrikes killing civilians in Gaza, not Hamas specifically, were an act of terrorism.

Experts say Google's dermatology app could be less effective at treating people with dark skin because of the data sets it uses.

The app, which claims to be able to recognize more than 280 skin conditions from pictures, used a data set that overrepresented White people, Motherboard’s Todd Feathers reports. Dermatologic experts say that resulted in the app over- or under-diagnosing users who aren’t White.

A Google representative said that dermatology as a field suffers from a lack of images of non-White patients and data. They added that researchers who designed the app had the issue in mind, and that the app will be refined before it is publicly released. 

Google also pointed to an analysis of the underlying study that showed that a deep-learning system was very effective at identifying skin conditions of Black patients. But the analysis did not account for the darkness of those skin tones, and the authors of the research noted those limitations.

“Our AI-powered dermatology assist tool is the culmination of more than three years of research,” Google Health spokesman Johnny Luu said in an email. “Since our work was featured in Nature Medicine, we’ve continued to develop and refine our technology with the incorporation of additional data sets that includes data donated by thousands of people, and millions of more curated skin concern images.”

U.S. regulators signaled that they plan to look more closely at cryptocurrencies after the virtual markets tanked.

The Treasury Department, which described cryptocurrency and virtual currency as a “significant concern,” said cryptocurrency companies would be required to provide the IRS with more financial information, Jeff Stein reports. The move comes in a banner year for cryptocurrencies, which have quickly risen and fallen.

Moreover, the department said, “cryptocurrency already poses a significant detection problem by facilitating illegal activity broadly including tax evasion.”

At the same time, SEC Chairman Gary Gensler said that the exchanges where the virtual currencies are traded should face additional regulation. “This is a quite volatile, one might say highly volatile, asset class, and the investing public would benefit from more investor protection on the crypto exchanges,” Gensler said, per Reuters.

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell also called for regulatory systems to be updated to deal with cryptocurrencies, Reuters reports. “This includes paying attention to private-sector payments innovators who are currently not within the traditional regulatory arrangements applied to banks, investment firms, and other financial intermediaries,” he said. 

Rant and rave

Some people were not impressed by Snap's new augmented reality glasses. Spotify's J (Jason) Herskowitz and the New York Times's Alex Rainert:

Business Insider's Alyson Shontell:

Others apparently wanted them. CNN's Kerry Flynn:

Hill happenings

Senators roll out bipartisan data privacy bill (The Verge)

Inside the industry

Snap says it now has 500 million monthly active users (Axios)

Privacy monitor

UNICEF issued a manifesto for protecting children online.

The United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund called for better data governance and argued that “guiderails and benchmarks need to be established that will help govern children’s data in a responsible way. This means that harnessing of data for social good can’t come at the expense of children’s privacy, protection, or well-being.”

Trending

Can you eat cicadas? Yes, and here’s the best way to catch, cook and snack on them. (Kari Sonde)

Mentions

Julie Wenah, who worked in the Obama administration White House and Commerce Department before working for Airbnb, has joined Facebook as associate general counsel working on civil rights.

Daybook

  • Rep. Robert E. Latta (R-Ohio), the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s communications and technology subcommittee, speaks at an event hosted by the Free State Foundation on May 24 at 9:30 a.m.
  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, discusses big technology companies and antitrust at a Washington Post Live event on May 24 at 3 p.m.
  • Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) discusses the role of technology in driving Washington’s recovery at an event hosted by the Progressive Policy Institute on May 24 at 5 p.m.

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