There has been a lot of talk about potential Russian manipulation of the 2016 presidential election. Now there's concern about shadowy online electioneering filtering down to the state and local level. It comes in the aftermath of a high-stakes state Senate race in Western Washington.
Suspicious Twitter and Facebook accounts were deployed to spread vicious attacks and distortions. These mostly targeted the Democrat in a race for control of the Washington Senate that played out in Seattle's Eastside suburbs.
The tech news site GeekWire first reported the evidence, which came from an anonymous cybersecurity team. They flagged multiple accounts as part of larger project to identify what the researchers call "computational propaganda efforts." The cyber researchers did not uncover who was behind the suspicious online activity.
In an interview with public radio, GeekWire's reporter explained the cyber sleuths applied search algorithms to publicly available datasets of tweets to identify three categories of suspect accounts:
- Bots: Automated tools to publish content, often recognizable as a bot because the account has no profile photo, a weird handle or syntax and posts at odd hours.
- Cyborgs: Prolific tweeter involving a combination of automation and a human curator who may interact with others.
- Trolls: A human who purposely agitates around wedge issues.
Separately, the state campaign watchdog agency received one complaint about a fake Facebook page impersonating Democratic candidate Manka Dhingra.
"It is the new frontier of campaign finance regulation,” Public Disclosure Commission spokesperson Kim Bradford said. “I think in a lot of ways fortunately our laws are flexible enough to cover it. It is just a matter of figuring out how they will apply in these situations."
Bradford said existing rules about transparency in political advertising and reporting of campaign expenditures apply to "mass communication" in support or opposition to a candidate or ballot measure.
"Social media, specifically Facebook and Twitter, are specifically called out in the rule," Bradford said. "We do feel like it is covered."
The targeted candidate, Dhingra, won her race handily over Republican Jinyoung Englund. After a Thursday update of vote totals Dhingra had 55 percent of the vote compared to Englund's 45 percent in the suburban 45th Legislative District, which is centered on Redmond and Woodinville and includes parts of Sammamish and Kirkland.
The impact of the shadowy social media attacks on this race are hard to judge.
"It's tough to say how much of an affect that might have had," said Alex Bond, the political director for the Washington Senate Democratic Campaign. "I hope this is not a preview of things that will be seeing in next year's election. It would be really disappointing.
Bond worked closely with the Dhingra campaign during the 2017 election cycle. He said he checked Twitter almost every day and was unaware of attack bots spreading misinformation until GeekWire reported it this week.
Imposter Facebook pages however repeatedly hit the campaign's radar.
"People saw through it, but it is so incredibly dishonest," Bond said.
The official complaint investigated by the state Public Disclosure Commission resulted in a letter to a Republican-affiliated PAC called "Working Families." The PDC warned the PAC to include sponsor identification in its political advertising and to avoid the use of assumed names.
Working Families changed the name of the Facebook page, which was recently taken down, to "Unofficial Manka Dingra" and clarified its sponsorship.