The main events in a political campaign used to happen in the open: a debate, the release of a major TV ad or a public event where candidates tried to earn a spot on the evening news or the next day’s front page.
That was before the explosion of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as political platforms. Now some of a campaign’s most pivotal efforts happen in the often-murky world of social media, where ads can be targeted to ever-narrower slices of the electorate and run continuously with no disclosure of who is paying for them. Reporters cannot easily discern what voters are seeing, and hoaxes and forgeries spread instantaneously.
Journalists trying to hold candidates accountable have a hard time keeping up.
“There’s a whole dark area of campaigns out there when, if you’re not part of the target group, you don’t know anything about them,” said Larry Noble of the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, which seeks greater transparency in political spending. “And if reporters don’t know about it, they can’t ask questions about it.”
The problem came to widespread attention during the 2016 presidential race, when Donald Trump’s campaign invested heavily in digital advertising, and the term “fake news” emerged to describe pro-Trump propaganda masquerading as online news. Russian interference in the campaign included covert ads on social media and phony Facebook groups pumping out falsehoods.
The misinformation shows no sign of abating. The U.S. Senate election in Alabama in December was rife with fake online reports in support of Republican Roy Moore, who eventually lost to Democrat Doug Jones amid allegations that Moore had sexual contact with teenagers when he was a prosecutor in his 30s. Moore denied the accusations.
Politicians also try to create their own news operations. U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes’ campaign funded a purported news site called The California Republican, and the executive director of Maine’s Republican party last month acknowledged that he runs an anonymous website that is critical of Democrats.
Phony allegations are nothing new in politics. But they used to circulate in automated phone calls, mailers that were often tossed in the trash or, as far back as the 1800s, in partisan newspapers that published just once a day, noted Garlin Gilchrist, executive director of the Center for Social Media Responsibility at the University of Michigan.
The difference now is how quickly false information…