Reaction from former FBI special agent Chad Jenkins.
An anti-Trump Democratic-aligned political action committee advised by retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal is planning to deploy an information warfare tool that reportedly received initial funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon’s secretive research arm — transforming technology originally envisioned as a way to fight ISIS propaganda into a campaign platform to benefit Joe Biden.
The Washington Post first reported that the initiative, called Defeat Disinfo, will utilize “artificial intelligence and network analysis to map discussion of the president’s claims on social media,” and then attempt to “intervene” by “identifying the most popular counter-narratives and boosting them through a network of more than 3.4 million influencers across the country — in some cases paying users with large followings to take sides against the president.”
Social media guru Curtis Hougland is heading up Defeat Disinfo, and he said he received the funding from DARPA when his work was “part of an effort to combat extremism overseas.”
After this article was published, the Post updated its reporting to clarify that Hougland was “using open-source technology initially incubated with funding from DARPA.” The Post originally reported: “The initiative is run by Curtis Hougland, who received initial funding for the technology from DARPA, the Pentagon’s research arm, as part of an effort to combat extremism overseas.”
Hougland explained in an interview with the Post that he was unhappy that top social media accounts often supported Trump, and had effectively defended the president in recent days from claims that he had suggested Americans inject themselves with disinfectant.
The effort raised the question of whether taxpayer funds were being repurposed for political means, and whether social media platforms have rules in place that could stymie Hougland’s efforts — if he plays along.
In a statement to Fox News that was posted on social media, DARPA flatly rejected the Post’s reporting, and said Hougland was apparently misrepresenting the agency’s work.
“Hougland’s claim DARPA funded the tech at the heart of his political work is grossly misleading,” DARPA tweeted. “He advised briefly on ways to counter ISIS online. He was not consulted to design AI or analysis tools, nor certainly anything remotely political. DARPA is strictly apolitical.”
“Hougland had a tertiary consulting role advising an agency program on how to explore new and better ways to counter America’s adversaries online,” a spokesperson for DARPA separately told Fox News. “He was not consulted for technical expertise designing artificial intelligence or network analysis tools, nor certainly any research that was remotely political. … Unequivocally, DARPA funding did not help advance the technology with which Hougland now works any more than does his use of other agency technologies like the internet or mobile phone.”
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Facebook told Fox News that “our policies require creators and publishers to tag business partners in their branded content posts when there’s an exchange of value between a creator or publisher and a business partner.”
Politicians and PACs who are authorized under Facebook’s policy entitled “Ads About Social Issues, Elections or Politics” are allowed to use the site’s branded content tool, the spokesperson added. The policy suggested that if Hougland paid any influencers, the arrangement would need to be disclosed.
As part of the authorization process for advertisers, Facebook says on its website that it “confirms their ID and allows them to disclose who is responsible for the ad, which will appear on the ad itself. The ad and ‘Paid for by’ disclaimer are placed in the Ad Library for seven years, along with more information such as range of spend and impressions, as well as demographics of who saw it.”
After this article was published, a Twitter spokesperson told Fox News that the site doesn’t have any comment “on the tactics of a political consultant or similar organization.” But, the spokesperson did point to Twitter’s platform manipulation and spam policy, adding that “if we find anyone to be in violation of these rules, we’ll take a range of enforcement actions.” Further, the spokesperson said Twitter also has a “thorough policy on automation and the use of third-party applications on our service.”
In 2018, Twitter launched its Political Campaigning Policy, which promises a degree of “transparency” for paid political communications.
The policy requires “advertisers who want to run political campaigning ads for Federal elections to self-identify and certify that they are located in the US Candidates and committees will have to provide their FEC ID, and non-FEC registered organizations and individuals will have to submit a notarized form.”
Additionally, “handles used for political campaigning advertising will have to comply with stricter requirements,” Twitter’s policy states. “The handle’s profile photo, header photo, and website must be consistent with its online presence and the Twitter bio must include a website that provides valid contact information. We will also be including a visual badge and disclaimer information on promoted content from certified accounts in the near future. This will allow users to easily identify political campaigning ads, know who paid for them, and whether it was authorized by a candidate.”
Twitter provided an image of what promoted political content ideally would look like.
McChrystal, who led U.S. forces in Afghanistan before he was fired by then-President Obama in 2010 for deriding his civilian bosses in a Rolling Stone interview, told the Post that the operation was necessary, even if it might appear unseemly.
“Everyone wishes the Pandora’s box was closed and none of this existed, but it does,” McChrystal said.
McChrystal has not explicitly endorsed Biden, even though the new information warfare project is intended to help his candidacy. The former general has previously gone on the record with a less-than-glowing assessment of Biden’s competence.
One of the tidbits in the Rolling Stone interview by Michael Hastings recounted how McChrystal had lost confidence in Biden after he had suggested a counterterrorism strategy.
“‘Are you asking about Vice President Biden?” McChrystal said, imagining a way to dismissively mock Biden if someone were to ask about him during an upcoming question-and-answer session. ‘Who’s that?'”
“‘Biden?” another adviser chimed in, according to Hastings. ‘Did you say: Bite Me?'”
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated since its publication with a statement from DARPA, which contradicts The Washington Post’s reporting.Gregg Re is a producer and attorney based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @gregg_re or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Technology once used to combat ISIS propaganda is enlisted by Democratic group to counter Trump’s coronavirus messaging
By Isaac Stanley-BeckerMay 1, 2020 at 7:53 p.m. EDT
A new Democratic-aligned political action committee advised by retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, is planning to deploy technology originally developed to counter Islamic State propaganda in service of a domestic political goal — to combat online efforts to promote President Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
The group, Defeat Disinfo, will use artificial intelligence and network analysis to map discussion of the president’s claims on social media. It will seek to intervene by identifying the most popular counter-narratives and boosting them through a network of more than 3.4 million influencers across the country — in some cases paying users with large followings to take sides against the president.
The initiative reflects fears within the Democratic Party that Trump’s unwavering digital army may help sustain him through the pandemic, as it has through past controversies, even as the economy craters, tens of thousands have died, and Trump suffers in the polls.
“It’s often said campaigns are a battle of ideas, but they’re really a battle of narratives,” said David Eichenbaum, a Democratic media consultant who is a senior adviser to the PAC. “Today those narratives spread quickly online.”
The initiative is run by Curtis Hougland, who is using open-source technology initially incubated with funding from DARPA, the Pentagon’s research arm, as part of an effort in 2015 to combat extremism overseas. A DARPA spokesman, Jared B. Adams, said that the agency is not involved in Hougland’s current initiative.
Hougland insists Democrats are ill-prepared for the looming battle over information and attention, which is bound to play an outsize role in November. He cites as an example Trump’s suggestion last week that injecting bleach or other household disinfectants could be a treatment for the novel coronavirus — a moment that appeared unequivocally damaging to the president but was less clear-cut as it unfolded on social media. Although the episode was associated with a spike in Twitter engagement about Trump, especially in swing states such as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, according to Hougland’s analysis, four of the top six tweets about Trump and disinfectant came from accounts partial to the president, boosting the notion that he had not really suggested the bogus cure.
Among them was a tweet from Ryan Fournier, national co-chair of Students for Trump, who wrote, “No, President Trump did not tell people to inject themselves with Clorox or Lysol. If you believe that, you’re a moron.”
Fournier said there’s a grass-roots digital army prepared to defend the president when his back is against the wall.
“I see the people on Twitter,” he said in an interview. “I see the Facebook groups. I see the posts across these networks. I see the websites people have created to support the president. It’s tremendous amounts of stuff that I’ve never seen in a presidential election before.”
Hougland agreed. Republicans, he said, “have greater volume frequency and quality of digital narrative.”
Though he is advising the overtly political effort, McChrystal stopped short of endorsing Trump’s opponent, former vice president Joe Biden, whom the former general once criticized as part of a dust-up over counterterrorism strategy that led to his resignation in 2010.
McChrystal said his interest in the PAC is about ensuring the accuracy of information leading up to the election, even if it involves chasing viral attention with emotional appeals and other tactics rewarded by online clicks.
“Everyone wishes the Pandora’s box was closed and none of this existed, but it does,” McChrystal said in an interview.
His ambivalence is shared by large parts of the Democratic Party, which recoiled at an effort, brought to light at the end of 2018, to use Russian-inspired tactics, including the creation of fake accounts, to sway the 2017 Senate election in Alabama.
Hougland’s PAC shuns these methods. Yet it differs from more traditional Democratic-aligned PACs, such as Priorities USA and American Bridge 21st Century, in embracing the practice of paying influencers to convey their messaging. The approach raised eyebrows and prompted tech companies to clarify their rules when it was put into practice by Mike Bloomberg’s presidential campaign earlier this year.
“I have no trepidation about paying content creators in seeking out and amplifying the best narratives,” Hougland said.
Stephanie Berger, a former national finance director for the Democratic National Committee, is raising funds for the initiative, which is an extension of Hougland’s technology company, Main Street One. Andrew Tobias, a former DNC treasurer, was an earlier investor in the start-up.
Main Street One’s leaders were previously involved in cultivating digital narratives in Eastern Europe to counter Russian propaganda and, more recently, have waded into American politics. The organization ran a campaign that paid influencers to boost Kentucky Democrats before the gubernatorial election last fall. A super PAC supporting Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey in his bid for the Democratic nomination paid Main Street One more than $500,000 for similar services last year.
Hougland said his aim is to maintain the “largest repository of content against Trump,” and to be nimble in boosting organic material that is already performing well, such as videos produced by the Biden campaign.
The presumptive Democratic nominee, whose primary bid counted on the gulf between Twitter and real life, has sought to expand his digital prowess as campaigning has gone fully virtual. He anchors a new podcast, and his campaign is plugging virtual rallies with mantras like “#SoulSaturday” designed to compete with Trump’s digital reach.
At the same time, Biden’s aides are betting that the president’s bully pulpit is just as likely to turn voters off as it is to win them over. Matt Hill, a campaign spokesman, pointed to recent moves by the president’s team to “pull back his daily disinformation shows as his credibility continues to sink.”
But Joe Trippi, a Democratic operative who helped manage the 2017 Senate campaign in Alabama, said the president is partially insulated from the fallout over his own remarks by a “media echo chamber that is very disciplined about just picking up whatever the misdirection of the day is and amplifying it.” That protective armor makes it all the more critical for Democrats to turn up the volume on anti-Trump messaging, he said.
But Trippi wondered about the long-term consequences of adopting some of the online tactics favored by the right.
“Once someone does something that works, it’s usually picked up by the other side,” Trippi said. “You’ve got to fight it, but the question is, like negative ads, if it works, do you just get better and better at it? I don’t think that’d be very helpful for our democracy.”
Restraint could be a more effective approach, said Cindy Otis, a former CIA officer and disinformation researcher. She stressed the need to illustrate the real-world consequences of the president’s words, for instance demonstrating that his comments about bleach were followed by a spike in calls to emergency hotlines.
Otherwise, she said, “it’s most effective to counter false narratives with straight-up facts.”
This story has been updated to include a statement from DARPA.