US-based fact-checker warns vs. attempts of 'Russian trolls' to delegitimize polls

Willard Cheng, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Oct 26 2020 03:32 PM | Updated as of Oct 26 2020 03:47 PM

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and US President Donald Trump participate in their second 2020 presidential campaign debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, US, October 22, 2020. Jim Bourg/Pool via Reuters

MANILA - The US-based co-founder of FactCheck.org warned against renewed attempts of "Russian trolls" to breach the election infrastructure as election days near, with allegations that the vote is being fixed or stolen.

Ahead of the Nov. 3 elections in the U.S., Kathleen Hall Jamieson recalled how "Russian trolls" carried out a plan in 2016 to delegitimize the election of Hillary Clinton who they presumed then would become the next American President.

Jamieson detailed her findings in the book 'Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President', published by Oxford University Press, citing how “sleeper persona” or Russian trolls mimicked news sites and a political party to look like the legitimate ones, and how even the US mainstream press fell for hacked content without verifying or taking them out of context.

She had warned in her 2018 book that the US was “ill prepared” to prevent another sequel.

Speaking recently in a briefing with selected journalists, Jamieson said the susceptibility of the US press to “hack and release” while focusing on scandal, revelation suspense, and appearance versus reality, and hoping to attract audiences and get clicks and views, made it fall for the use of hacked content illegally gotten from the Democrats in 2016 and trafficked into the US media stream through WikiLeaks.

The WikiLeaks content appeared just shortly after the leaking of an Access Hollywood tape of then candidate Donald Trump boasting about sexually harassing women. The controversy over the Access Hollywood tape disappeared from Google trends as US news media chose to focus coverage on Wikileaks content to the disadvantage of Clinton.

“It doesn't mean that these were not potentially newsworthy stories. But nonetheless, the evidence here is that the WikiLeaks content put out across time by WikiLeaks in our campaign from October 7th (2016) through the election were influencing the pattern of coverage. They were helping to set the media agenda,” Jamieson said in a virtual briefing for a reporting tour on the US Elections organized by the US Department of State’s Foreign Press Centers.

“The question before that kind of content is used needs to be, is it actually accurate? Should it be used at all? Has it been sourced? Is the source being properly indicated and are you passing thresholds of newsworthiness?” she added.

Jamieson lamented that majority of reporters in 2016 failed to source to the Russians or to Julian Assange the content as they were covering it.

“Since Julian Assange had stated that he did not want Hillary Clinton in the White House at the minimum, the sourcing should have said that every time WikiLeaks was being cited, WikiLeaks put forward by Julian Assange was that he doesn't want Hillary Clinton elected,” Jamieson said.

US reporters also “downplayed or ignored” the October 7, 2016 confirmation that the Russians had been behind an earlier hacking, and failed to note there was a lack of independent verification of the hacked content, a violation of “a key journalistic norm.”

“The hacked content was not subject to the traditional test of newsworthiness. In some cases, the hacked content altered the media agenda… Also, at key moments, reporters took hacked content out of context. The last is important because in the rush of dealing with thousands of pieces of new information, reporters were not as careful as they should have been and keeping it in context,” Jamieson said.

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MESSAGE IMBALANCE

With hacked content altering the media agenda, Jamieson said an effect was created through foreign intervention, which also resulted in message imbalance.

“…When message imbalances occur, when there's more negative information about one candidate than there otherwise would be, those message imbalances can affect votes - not a huge number of votes, but votes on the margin,” Jamieson said.

“If by using hacked content in 2016, we shifted, and the agenda shifted the amount of negative information about Hillary Clinton, to make it a greater amount, we increased the likelihood that two factors were at play to influence votes. Narrowing the agenda to some items that were more likely to be disadvantageous to her and creating a message imbalance, that was more likely to be disadvantageous to her.”

For instance, news outlets took excerpts from Clinton’s speeches leaked by WikiLeaks out of context, by making it appear that the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate took a public position that was different from when she was speaking to Wall Street bankers. Clinton was just in fact talking about a film by Steven Spielberg.

Clinton’s statement about open trade and open borders was also used without the context that she was speaking about a deal in the future, and with the rest of the sentence focused on energy transfer. It was made to appear that Clinton had, in private, endorsed open trade and open borders categorically.

This out-of-context characterization of Clinton’s statement even found its way to the third 2016 US presidential debate, with how the debate moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News framed his question to Clinton.

“So if in the debate, the moderators suggest that she has said something in private that she has not said in public, and what she is allegedly saying in private is consistent with what Donald Trump has been alleging she believes, in that moment, the disadvantage to Hillary Clinton is magnified,” Jamieson said.

The “uncritical use of the hacked content” may have caused an impact on the electoral outcome, given media’s agenda-setting power and focus on “elements that would increase the likelihood of a negative vote for Hillary Clinton.”

Polls showed that those who watched the last two 2016 debates were more likely to say that Clinton said one thing in public and said another in private. 

GOOD JOURNALISM

Jamieson reminded journalists to verify before posting or writing, and, if one cannot, to be careful in indicating so. 

“It makes a real difference, whether I say this has not been independently verified but nonetheless I am saying it, as opposed to I'm saying it, thereby putting my personal credibility behind it. The person who is reading or viewing or listening to a newscast, has reason to believe that when a reporter tells us something, the reporter is putting that person's credibility behind it and putting the credibility of the news organization behind it,” Jamieson said.

Has the press learned its lesson?

Jamieson believes, the mainstream press and social media platforms have now largely learned the lesson on "hack and release”, or using information with questionable source without independent verification.

Social media platforms have also tried to identify and block inauthentic accounts and have been regularly taking them down. She pointed out that YouTube now puts disclaimers on content that have government sponsorship behind them. In the US, a public broadcaster also carries such indicator. Barriers have also been set to foreign nationals buying ads.

She urged vigilance against accounts “that we haven't recognized as being inauthentic, suddenly posting information about election illegitimacy.”

“…Any places in which they've been relying on something and they don't exactly know the source, I think when in doubt, don't post. Don't relay into mainstream news about anything to do with election legitimacy,” Jamieson said.

Republican Trump is seeking a reelection, with Democrat Joe Biden as his challenger.

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