GOP’s new methods of ratf**king: spreading lies online via social media

A shouting match ensued between Playboy writer Brian Karem (center) and former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka (right) after a White House social media summit for conservative online activists.

Republicans are showing how scared they are of losing the 2020 election by returning to one of their tried-and-true forms of spreading disinformation and resorting to dirty electoral tricks — ratfucking. The danger is that employing those dirty tricks on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and elsewhere gives their lies a wider audience, as it did in 2016.

A Wikipedia definition of ratfucking should sound familiar to anyone who follows politics. “Ratfucking is an American slang term for political sabotage or dirty tricks. It was brought to public attention by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their non-fiction book All the President’s Men.

It’s not a new practice, but it was perfected by operatives of Richard Nixon for his 1972 reelection campaign, the campaign where indicted Trump adviser Roger Stone got his start as a 19-year-old. Even those operatives’ actions were just a continuation of what they did as Republican undergraduates at the University of Southern California, when they “engaged in shady tactics to win elections.” More recent examples are Karl Rove’s moves against John McCain in 2000, when voters were asked if they would be less likely to support McCain if he had “fathered an illegitimate black child,” or Roger Stone telling the National Enquirer in 2016 about the “rumor” that Ted Cruz had five secret mistresses. (Donald Trump himself was happy to hint that Cruz’ father had assassinated JFK. Oh, who am I kidding — he makes up and spreads this crap all the time.)

We know that disinformation spread through Russian election interference helped Trump win the Electoral College in 2016, even as he lost by nearly 3 million votes. Since Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuses to hold votes on House-passed election security bills giving money to states to shore up election systems or on bipartisan Senate measures for cyberinformation-sharing, Americans can expect the same foreign interference in next year’s presidential contest. We’ve already seen lying tweets continuously repeated by bots until an insulting hashtag starts trending and deepfake videos, such as one that made House Speaker Nancy Pelosi look drunk.

Donald Trump held a social media summit at the White House for right-wing allies that was closed to outside media. Invited guests included such known liars as James O’Keefe, famous for his doctored and misleading videos; QAnon conspiracy theorists; and right-wing members of Congress who claim that tech companies “censor conservatives.” Representatives of actual social media companies weren’t invited. As Think Progress reported before the summit:

It would be easy to dismiss the summit as just another presidential stunt, following closely on the heels of Trump’s largely rained-out Fourth of July celebration. But giving trolls full-fledged White House attention in the run-up to the 2020 election could become a serious problem, as it would further encourage them and others to spread the same sort of misinformation that thrived during 2016.

So what does ratfucking look like these days? Here are a few examples.

Fake “campaign websites.” As a New York Times story described it, a Trump digital consultant has developed “campaign websites” for several Democratic presidential hopefuls. These fakes look like legitimate campaign websites, except that they portray the candidate in negative ways, distorting their records just enough to look real but to give a bad impression of the candidate.

The most successful of these fake sites is one purporting to be the campaign website of former Vice President Joe Biden, calling itself “Joe Biden for President.” Its address is joebiden.info rather than than joebiden.com, the actual website of the campaign, and it has received more online visits than the real site.

The site is filled with images of Biden’s often “overly friendly” manner of affection through physical contact. It also lists past Biden quotes, gaffes, stances, and votes that would definitely not endear him to progressive voters.

A tiny disclaimer at the bottom proclaims: “This site is political commentary and parody of Joe Biden’s presidential campaign website. This is not Joe Biden’s actual website. It is intended for entertainment and political commentary only and is therefore protected under fair use. It is not paid for by any candidate, committee, organization, or PAC. It is a project BY AN American citizen FOR American citizens. Self-Funded.”

Self-funded. Except that the brains behind these fake candidate sites is a Republican consultant for Trump’s reelection campaign. From the Times story:

His name is Patrick Mauldin, and he makes videos and other digital content for President Trump’s re-election campaign. Together with his brother Ryan, Mr. Mauldin also runs Vici Media Group, a Republican political consulting firm in Austin whose website opens with the line “We Kick” followed by the image of a donkey — the Democratic Party symbol often known by another, three-letter, name. …

Yet in anonymously trying to exploit the fissures within the Democratic ranks — fissures that ran through this past week’s debates — Mr. Mauldin’s website hews far closer to the disinformation spread by Russian trolls in 2016 than typical political messaging. With nothing to indicate its creator’s motives or employer, the website offers a preview of what election experts and national security officials say Americans can expect to be bombarded with for the next year and a half: anonymous and hard-to-trace digital messaging spread by sophisticated political operatives whose aim is to sow discord through deceit. Trolling, that is, as a political strategy.

It turns out that the fake Biden site wasn’t news to the real Biden campaign. “Imagine our surprise that a site full of obvious disinformation is the handiwork of an operative tied to the Trump campaign,” said campaign spokesman T.J. Ducklo.

There are also fake websites for other Democratic front-runners: A “Millionaire Bernie” labels Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders as a greedy socialist. “Elizabeth Warren for Chief” recalls her claims to Native American ancestry. “Kamala Harris for Arresting the People” repeats the false claim that as a prosecutor, she “put parents in jail for children skipping school — and laughed about it.”

The new “birtherism” against Kamala Harris. There have been multiple coordinated Twitter attacks against the California Democratic senator. The most recent was a bot-spread campaign against Harris, who was born in Oakland to a Jamaican father and an Indian mother, claiming that she couldn’t truly represent American blacks. The original instigator was a self-described “black activist” calling himself Ali Alexander. He insisted that Harris cannot represent the black experience in America because she has “no ancestors who suffered American Slavery, the Civil War, nor Jim Crow.” His tweets were retweeted by bots and went viral, even being retweeted by Donald Trump Jr., who later deleted his retweet.

It turns out that “Ali Alexander” is a pseudonym for a well-known right-wing activist and Trump supporter. As Huffington Post described the scam:

Alexander is actually a far-right political operative and conspiracy theorist Ali Akbar, or Ali Abdul Razaq Akbar, whom Politico profiled last year as an “increasingly prominent pro-Trump supporter.”

Other Democratic candidates came to Harris’ defense, and the fake attack seemed to die out once it was exposed. I guess a birtherism campaign, like the one Trump used for years against President Obama, sounds pretty stale in 2019.

Republicans donating to the Marianne Williamson campaign. Self-help author Marianne Williamson was one of 20 candidates in the first round of Democratic debates. She got off a few good lines, but she also had some bizarre moments, such as promising to call New Zealand’s prime minister to say, “Girlfriend, you are so on” and to call European leaders to tell them, “We’re BAAACK!”

Just the kind of candidate you want to make sure stays in, right? Well, sure, if you’re in the GOP.  According to an MSN story:

GOP strategist Jeff Roe, who ran Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’ 2016 presidential campaign, tweeted out to his 16,000 followers asking fellow Republicans “to donate $1 to keep this vibrant democrat on the debate stage. One debate performance is not enough.”

At least several people appear to have taken up the challenge based on responses to Roe, accompanied by copies of receipts of their campaign donations.

We still don’t know if small donations by a growing number of Republicans will be enough for Williamson to reach the 130,000-donor threshold that the Democratic National Committee has established for inclusion in the third round of debates in September. But it’s the number of donors, not the amount raised, that dictate making it to the stage, so Republicans could spend next to nothing and still look forward to Williamson vowing to “harness love for political purposes.”

The inept dirty tricksters. Luckily for Democrats, some of those on the GOP side are just pathetically bad at trying to throw Republican wrenches into the works. The Washington Post ran a personality profile (we’re using the term “personality” loosely) on right-wing nutter activist Jacob Wohl and former GOP lobbyist and conspiracy theorist Jack Berman, two would-be ratfuckers who keep bungling their attempts to burn Democrats or anyone else standing in Trump’s way.

That was before their spree of bungled smears — including a disappearing sexual assault accuser against special counsel Robert Mueller (announced at a news conference that Burkman conducted with his pants zipper down) and a botched attempt last month to paint Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg as a sexual predator. …

The truth or falsity of a Burkman-Wohl-concocted story is merely an inconvenience. Let the media’s “puritanical” fact-checkers puzzle it out: That’s the view of this twosome who fancy themselves as sub rosa players in the 2020 presidential contest and busy themselves trafficking in Internet rumors they hope will damage Democratic candidates.

Like notorious dirty tricksters before them, they operate in a realm where it matters little whether their claims are proved — they hardly ever are — but only whether they somehow slip into a corpuscle or two of the national bloodstream. But today it’s a more dangerous game: They operate in an era when notions about truth and fiction have been upended and in which many Americans get their information from self-affirming, partisan silos, making their brand of political cyberwarfare hyper-relevant.

Wohl already has been permanently suspended from Twitter for creating fake accounts to negatively affect the 2020 election (Wohl called it an “intellectual exercise”) and was fined by an Arizona regulatory commission for securities fraud (he never paid). Burkman has reached out to Republicans in Iowa to offer his services (“Nobody returned my call,” he said).

Here’s the danger, though. Even if these two are untalented idiots, if undecided voters have caught wind of anything they’ve concocted and believe just enough to raise doubts, that whiff of doubt has done its job.

Sometimes those theories spark dangerous actions. The “pizzagate” conspiracy theory about a global child trafficking ring being run (by Democrats and Hillary Clinton!) in the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant sounds like a schlock movie script that no one in Hollywood would touch. Yet it was enough for an armed right-winger to travel to Washington in December 2016 and start shooting inside the pizzeria to “liberate child sex slaves” while restaurant employees fled in terror. Even this year, a California man tried to set fire to the restaurant after he watched a YouTube pizzagate video.

I hate to think of the lies they’ll come up with next that may go viral.

Originally posted on Daily Kos on July 14, 2019.

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