On Election Day, A Sophisticated Disinfo Op Tells Voters That A Candidate Dropped Out -- He Didn't

Byron Donalds, a Republican running in Florida's 19th Congressional District, is scrambling to tell voters that he's still in the race

Today, Floridians will vote in primary elections.

Early this morning, according to Twitter users in Florida and to the candidate, Byron Donalds, voters in the 19th Congressional district were spoof-texted a message purporting to be from Donalds. It says he “dropped out” of the race and links to a YouTube page designed to look as if it were made by Donalds. The page contains video of Donalds dropping out of a 2012 race.

What’s new: the first use of a spoofed text message campaign in tandem with a fake YouTube account to try to fool voters into thinking that a candidate for Congress had dropped out.

See the spoofed text message:

What happened: The perpetrator created a YouTube landing page, along with a fake website and press release claiming that that Byron Donalds, a Republican running in a competitive House primary in Florida, had dropped out.

Why it matters: The perps used several fora to pull off this hoax, and it took some technical sophistication to target voters within a certain Congressional district. That implies planning. This is the first time (I’m aware of) that SMS spoofing and YouTube have been used together in a targeted information warfare campaign. The perps also aped the style of a local Fox TV station to fake a lower third graphic.

What’s next: The YouTube account was created within the last 24 hours; even if YouTube had a policy in place to verify every page created by political candidates for office, it doesn’t have the power to scale or technical sensitivity to moderate a disinfo campaign that takes advantage of multiple communication platforms acting in concert with one another.

Local media was quick on the uptake. Will amplification help Donalds gain instant name recognition in a low turnout primary at the last minute? Or will coverage spread the false rumor? Donalds is holding a press conference today; from what I can tell, the local new stories are properly labeling the fake imagery. A scan of Twitter suggests that the corrected narrative is predominant, but many voters will be confused.

Bottom lines: Rapid moderation at scale remains the primary technical mission for platforms. A dearth of local, reliable, trusted news reporters — the cadre of folks who are literally paid to fight disinformation campaigns — means that the arms race can’t be joined until the news business recapitalizes on a local level, if they can at all.

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Viral misinformation and disinformation campaigns cause otherwise intelligent human beings to make poor choices. You already know that. 

But the most harmful consequence is more subtle and more pernicious: civic paralysis.  The bad information befuddles our intuitions and teaches us that we can’t really figure out what we need to know in order to make a good choice in any given situation. 

That means that voters don’t vote. Consumers turn away from trusted brands.  Readers opt for simple confirmation of beliefs, rather than tolerate nuance. Customers won’t take risks on new products. Even leaders in positions of authority, when paralyzed by misinformation, throw up their hands and give up. The problem, as old as human beings, now seems too big, too easily scaled up, too epiphenomenal to try to tackle.

How can decision-makers function in an environment when the barrier of entry to gaming any set of facts is so low?  How can you communicate your story clearly, cleverly, and with confidence that your adversaries, competitors, opponents, personal trolls and random enemies, won’t block your way? How can you avoid the traps that make your business, your message, your story uniquely susceptible to a disinformation campaign?

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