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It’s not even 2020 yet, and already there’s plenty of evidence that both political parties are reaching into their bags of dirty tricks to figure out a way to win the presidency. In previous elections, these dirty tricks might have included smear campaigns, last-minute Surprises, and plenty of TV ads featuring misinformation or disinformation about what a candidate really stands for or believes in. In the social media era, each of those campaign dirty tricks has only been amplified with lots of new tools, platforms and technologies.
The art of the social media smear campaign
Take, for example, the classic smear campaign. Like it or not, but political operatives have always looked for dirt on their rivals – such as marital affairs or other indiscretions that might make voters change their perceptions of their favorite candidate. With social media, it’s remarkably easy to find a different form of dirt: policy reversals and policy flip-flops. Just scroll through a candidate’s Twitter feed (now a necessity for any serious candidate), and you’ll be able to find plenty of contradictions between what a candidate says and how a candidate has voted on a specific issue.
Scroll through a candidate’s Instagram feed, and you’ll probably find photos of the candidate posing with a bunch of unsavory campaign donors. One photo making the rounds right now features Joe Biden and his son golfing with a bunch of Ukrainian oil executives. Even innocent photos on social media – such as one that showed Ellen DeGeneres sitting next to former President George Bush at a Cowboys football game – can be twisted all kinds of directions to create a social media scandal du jour.
Fake news and synthetic bots
But that’s just the beginning of what’s going on right now. When you add in a little fake news, that’s when a little dirt turns into a massive smear (the kind that you can sue people over). For example, after the mass shooting in Texas, some Twitter accounts started to spread rumors that the car belonging to the shooter had a “Beto O’Rourke for President” sticker on it. Later, after Beto O’Rourke loudly distanced himself from guns and mass shootings, it turned out that the tweets were from a fake Twitter account specifically set up to make O’Rourke look bad on social media by linking him to a psycho killer.
And, speaking of fake Twitter accounts, here’s yet another way that rivals and political operatives can work behind the scenes to take down a candidate. Consider the case of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who had his Twitter account hacked. The hackers then sent out a stream of vile racial slurs and insults, all designed to make it look like Jack Dorsey was a closet racist. That might be an extreme example, but it’s not out of the question that we’ll see fake Twitter accounts during Election 2020. Imagine what might happen, for example, if a fake Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Twitter account (i.e. a fake AOC) suddenly appears in October 2019 and starts encouraging followers to vote for Donald Trump in November.
Finally, don’t forget about “deep fake” videos that purport to show real candidates saying real things that are completely out of character. Just Google “Deep fake Barack Obama” to see what’s available today with artificial intelligence technology and a little video editing – the latest deep fake has Obama as a character in “Black Panther.” As long as you have some video content of a candidate talking (about anything, mind you, not just politics), an AI algorithm can go to work to produce a deep fake video of the candidate saying some outlandish things.
The final takeaway here is to be prepared in 2020 for just about anything. Fake new, synthetic bots and Astroturf social media campaigns are just the beginning. Misinformation, disinformation and just plain lies on social media are likely to feature very heavily during Election 2020. With that in mind, caveat emptor.