When J.B. Pritzker decided to run for Illinois governor, he and Campaign Manager Anne Caprara talked about a problem that had bedeviled Hillary Clinton and, they feared, might imperil his own candidacy.
They were worried about deliberately misleading information spreading far and fast online. They were worried about fake news.
So the Pritzker campaign hired the data science group Civis Analytics to conduct an in-depth online survey studying voters who had been exposed to fake news. What it found unsettled the campaign: Even attempts to correct the information didn’t fully undo the damage. Worse yet, the damage was even greater for female candidates.
Caprara wouldn’t share details from the survey, or even describe what it found when testing the effectiveness of various responses to fake news. But after reviewing the survey results, the Pritzker campaign launched an aggressive response operation that, in their view, at least minimized the damage.
“What it told me as a campaign manager is you can’t ignore anything,” Caprara said of the survey. “You can’t assume that something is absurd or ridiculous … you have to treat all pieces of information that are coming across your candidates as something important and something critical you have to take a look at.”
Pritzker’s efforts might be the most extensive to date, but Democrats want to see their candidates taking this kind of forceful approach to combating fake news in 2018. In interviews with a half-dozen leading Democratic digital strategists, each described a party that has worked diligently since the 2016 presidential election to learn how to track and try to discredit fake news.
“There’s definitely been a realization since November of 2016 that figuring out a way to fight information that is flat-out false has gotta be a crucial part of our strategy for 2018,” said Eve Samborn McCool, who in 2016 ran then-candidate Tammy Duckworth’s digital campaign for Senate in Illinois.
One Democratic digital firm, for example, is unveiling a program that identifies voters who have visited websites that, in its view, contain fake news. The program, called “Antidote,” then supplies these voters counter information through advertising when they visit other websites.
"People who find themselves reading a fake story don't always realize it's misinformation that’s being fed to them in a viral fashion,” said Mark Jablonowski, a veteran digital strategist who helped develop the program. “What we're now able to find are users who were exposed to this type of misinformation who may not be true believers and would benefit from having the record corrected.”
Others Democratic groups have developed tools to track social media stories and recognize when they’re going viral.
Cries of “fake news” have become most associated with President Donald Trump, who uses the label to insult news organizations that publish stories he dislikes. But to Democrats, “fake news” refers to the deliberately fabricated information created and promoted to affect voters’ behavior -- the kind of phony news reports that helped damage Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election.
Those fabricated posts are most commonly associated with Russian agents, although many digital operatives say they see the foreign interference as only part of a larger network of false information. More of a problem, they say, is the ideological clustering the Internet encourages. There, like-minded people convince one another about a falsehood that consequently grows so large, it begins to be noticed by unsuspecting voters outside of the ideological hivemind who stumble across it — all while the affected campaign is unaware the story even exists.
Democratic digital strategists see many culprits for the harm done by fake news, including platforms such as Facebook and Twitter that they think have done too little to combat the problem.
But they also blame themselves. In their view, Democratic campaigns have done far too little in recent elections to communicate with voters online. And in that vacuum, misinformation about their candidates more easily spreads, even among potential supporters.
“We weren’t even there,” said Rob Flaherty, an alum of Clinton’s presidential campaign who is now creative director of Priorities USA, a major Democratic super PAC. “We weren’t even on the battleground.”
Certainly, Clinton’s 2016 campaign and the Democratic National Committee operated what’s known as a “rapid response” team -- a group of communications specialists who respond to stories, quotes or statements that the Clinton team wanted voters to believe was false or inaccurate.Those efforts, however, were often aimed at reporters more than online communities.
Flaherty and other Democrats who work in digital media warned that even if Democratic campaigns learn to identify fake news, combating it effectively won’t be easy. Campaigns that spend all their time and resources responding to negative attacks, for instance, sometimes forget to put out their own message.
Worse yet, calling attention to the attack might make even more voters aware it exists in the first place.
“The challenge is, as with anything, you want to know what is actually breaking through and actually matters,” Flaherty said. “If a bunch of people in a right-wing echo chamber are saying that something about the Parkland students or something about your candidate, does it make sense to proactively jump on it if it’s not breaking through? Is it worth getting in a fight about this and raising it up, and risk spreading it even more by talking about it?”
And even if they would like social-media platforms to more aggressively monitor their content, they acknowledge that doing so might quickly run afoul of First Amendment issues.
"There are no silver bullets there,” Jablonowski said. “That's just not the way this works.”
Most digital strategists argue that a campaign’s best defense is to simply have a large online presence, one that regularly and aggressively communicates with its supporters and potential supporters online.
That was the Pritzker campaign’s approach. It asked its own supporters to flag material they found questionable on Facebook, Twitter, or elsewhere. When the campaign saw something it needed to push back on, it had the capability to do so with an online ad quickly, said Caprara, who said she was meeting with Pritzker campaign digital director Megan Clasen until the last day of the March primary.
“The unique part of digital spending is you can adjust those targets quickly, and really hone in on whatever group you think needs certain pieces of information your candidate,” Caprara said.
Caprara declined to specify all the ways in which the campaign combatted fake news, or whether they think the efforts would completely successful. But she did that Pritzker won his competitive Democratic primary by nearly 20 points.
“It would be crazy to be a campaign manager running in 2018 and not worry about this kind of thing,” she said.
“I don’t think anyone has all the answers,” she said. “But the first of it was recognizing that we needed to change along with the environment were were in.”