Democratic leaders fearful of potential Russian interference and burned by recent conservative success on social media have begun a new effort to win the midterm election battle on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party organization in charge of strategy for House races, introduced internal software this spring to identify suspected automated Twitter accounts, or bots, that frequently post about key races and seem similar to the fake accounts that U.S. intelligence officials and technology firms say were part of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, party officials said.
The system also is designed to provide a more aggressive strategy to drive discussions on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms, an area in which Democrats think they were outmaneuvered in 2016 — with the committee hiring dozens of social media specialists to fight daily messaging battles online.
The previously unreported effort has dispatched 43 staff members — called “battle station organizers” — to the most competitive districts in the nation, where they are building grass-roots networks to spread pro-Democratic messages as well as attacks on Republicans in local Facebook and Twitter communities. The DCCC has flagged nearly 10 accounts as malicious bots to Twitter, which shut them down, committee staff members said.
“This is completely different from what we have done in past cycles,” said Dan Sena, the executive director of the DCCC.
Under the new model, Democratic organizers paid for by the national party committee recruit volunteer social media activists like they would people to knock on doors or work at phone banks. The new staff members work to place potentially viral content in local Facebook groups like they once tried to influence the letter to the editor pages of local newspapers.
Republicans, meanwhile, have a more limited program of providing House candidates with digital training and support for campaign staff members.
A focus on social media organizing is quickly becoming the new standard as Democrats increase the volume of political persuasion efforts on social media, a growing tool for reaching voters as television viewership declines and smartphone use increases. Democrats concluded after the 2016 election that Republicans had outperformed their efforts, both in paid and viral memes driven by candidate Donald Trump.
“Whether it’s Russia or whether it is a bot network in Michigan, it’s all the same in terms of fighting against it,” said David Yanakovich, the digital director for the successful Senate campaign of Doug Jones (D-Ala.), an effort that tracked some automated bot activity in the closing days of that race. “You have to take everything seriously. You can’t let anything go without combating it.”
Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats has warned that Russian efforts to influence U.S. elections continue, despite President Trump’s contradictory statements about whether Russia has engaged in election interference. Last week, Facebook shut down a network of 32 false pages and profiles that had been organizing political events in the United States. At least one of the pages had links to Russia.
“Russia has used numerous ways in which they want to influence through media, social media, through bots, through actors that they hire through proxies,” Coats said at a White House briefing Aug. 2. “It is pervasive. It is ongoing with the intent to achieve their intent, and that is drive a wedge and undermine our democratic values.”
Both major political parties have taken recent action to buttress their social media defenses, training campaign employees in basic cybersecurity hygiene, such as imposing two-factor identification and complex passwords to sign into email accounts. The Democratic National Committee holds a monthly meeting with officials from all party organizations involved in the midterm elections to discuss cybersecurity.
The National Republican Congressional Committee also has added digital resources this cycle, although it has taken a more conventional approach to social media organizing. The committee offers centralized training and support for House campaigns about best practices and tactics, with staff members assigned regionally to assist in the effort. The NRCC has not deployed candidate-specific staff to work on social media, a spokesman said.
The Democratic congressional plans, by contrast, were developed last year, while studying the campaigns of Jones in Alabama and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D).
In both races, Democrats found that automated Twitter accounts promoted story lines intended to hurt their candidates in the final weeks of the campaign. They also found that they could successfully push back by flooding the same networks with advertising and organized posting from supporters. In most cases, the counterattack consisted of positive messages about the Democratic candidate.
In November, a Democratic-leaning bot-tracking firm found that automated accounts of unknown origin played a role in spreading criticism of a Latino Victory Fund television ad in the Virginia governor’s race. The spot, which a White House spokeswoman denounced as “political racism,” depicted a pickup truck with a Confederate flag and a Republican bumper sticker chasing nonwhite kids through a suburban neighborhood. Latino Victory stopped airing the ad after an alleged terrorist killed eight people in New York City with a truck.
The firm, which was hired by the Virginia Education Association, concluded that 12 of the 15 most active accounts tweeting about the Virginia race in the week of Nov. 2, 2017, were either “highly automated bot or bot-like accounts” with a potential follower reach in the hundreds of thousands.
“We noticed right away that something was done in terms of the amount of traffic we were getting in terms of comments and replies and hate,” said Jorge Silva, a spokesman for Latino Victory, of the initial Twitter response to the ad. “It was really the same message repeated over and over again from different accounts that did not have pictures.”
In the Alabama race, Republican candidate Roy Moore at one point gained about 20,000 Twitter followers in one day, including many that had Russian names in their online biographies. Moore’s campaign alleged that the accounts were “a political stunt” by Democrats and denied responsibility.
The Jones campaign responded by building its own networks of volunteers, with a weekly conference call with 50 to 100 active supporters, designed to push their own positive messages through Facebook posts and tags on Twitter. The campaign regularly tried to use its volunteer network to get its favored Twitter tags, like #kitchentableissues and #rightsideofhistory, trending in the state above tags favored by supporters of Moore.
“We would basically push out against the bots in the networks,” said Joe Trippi, the senior strategist of the Jones campaign. “And we did a lot of paid digital. I mean a lot.”
Since then, other campaigns have been building up their social media presence. In Illinois, the gubernatorial campaign of J.B. Pritzker has commissioned online panel research to game out the best way of counteracting false or misleading viral attacks. The study found that the best response to false attacks on a candidate was to pivot to positive messages, without trying to correct the record.
“The other thing we found was that people tend to believe fake news about women at a much higher rate than men,” said Anne Caprara, Pritzker’s campaign manager.
New software at the DCCC allows committee staff to run reports on specific districts, which categorizes the followers of candidates or users of hashtags based on their likelihood of being an automated account. The reports allow campaigns to see whether certain story lines are being promoted by suspect accounts, the most common words used in tweets and which accounts are tweeting most frequently.
Twitter allows some automation in its accounts, but has policies that bar spam, including automated efforts to post multiple updates to “a trending or popular topic with an intent to subvert or manipulate the topic to drive traffic or attention.”
The DCCC software does not allow for tracking of Facebook, a platform that political consultants consider far more important for reaching regular voters, because much of the activity on that platform is not posted publicly. But the committee has tasked its local battle station organizers with monitoring the activity in local Facebook communities and political pages, including new progressive communities maintained by grass-roots groups like Indivisible.
The job falls to people like Cale Lockhart, 19, a DCCC organizer in Iowa, who spends his days direct messaging people on local Facebook groups and creating online social content to support Abby Finkenauer, a Democrat challenging Rep. Rod Blum (R-Iowa).
Lockhart says he communicates weekly with a group of about 50 “influencers” who can share content in the local networks supporting Finkenauer.
“The most important thing is that not everyone has a home phone that we can call,” said Lockhart. “There are a lot of people who are energized who haven’t been able to get involved.”