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Washington Post Investigation Finds Turning Point USA Hired Arizona Teens To Spread Misinformation

Published: Thursday, September 17, 2020 - 12:36pm
Updated: Friday, September 18, 2020 - 9:15am
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LAUREN GILGER: Social media posts attacking Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, praising President [Donald] Trump and often spouting inaccurate information about mail-in ballots and the dangers of the coronavirus have been everywhere on social media lately. But a new investigation from the Washington Post reveals that a lot of them are a part of a secretive campaign stemming from conservative action group Turning Point USA. They're coming from teenagers in Arizona, they often follow identical scripts and while they might seem like they simply represent the views of the young people who are posting them, The Post found Turning Point is paying these young people to post them, giving bonuses for the posts that generate the most reaction. It's a campaign that echoes Russia's attempt to influence the 2016 election, but this time it's being carried out by a nonprofit based here in Arizona. I spoke more about it with Washington Post reporter Isaac Stanley-Becker.

ISAAC STANLEY-BECKER: So what's happening is that they have brought in through a vendor, through also an Arizona-based, a digital firm, a number of teenagers, including some minors, some folks under 18 and, as well as some folks who are 18 plus to engage in online activity. And the specific form this takes is posting on largely their own social media accounts, identical political content thousands and thousands of times. So there are snippets, one to two line phrases, pro-Trump, anti-Biden playing down the risks from COVID-19, raising doubts about the security of mail voting. And they're doing this repeatedly for several months without disclosing their ties to Turning Point or to the related vendor and without disclosing that they're being paid to do so.

GILGER: So who is seeing this content then? This is seemingly natural, right? Because it's coming from real people's social media accounts. But it is sort of like bot-like behavior.

STANLEY-BECKER: Right. So it takes the form mainly of replies to news articles and posts by politicians on social media. So you'll have, for instance, a Washington Post story about the coronavirus or about the president's response to it. And then what these teenagers will do, as directed by the organization and as given a script to do this by the organization, is come in and reply with a kind of contradictory statement — sometimes opinionated and quite partisan and sometimes including falsehoods. It's designed to kind of reorient the political conversation, sort of muddy the waters of online discourse. And that's why, especially when you see some of the posts kind of in aggregate, it really takes on the character of bot or troll-like behavior, though performed by individuals acting, as I said, you know, largely on their own accounts.

GILGER: So how and where are they recruiting these teenagers? Is this all above board? Parents know about it, etc.? I mean, we're talking about minors.

STANLEY-BECKER: Yeah, that's a really good question. And, you know, I tried to learn as much as I could about the specific dynamics in terms of their recruitment and the set up and the pay and both Turning Point and the digital firm, which is called Rally Forge, didn't want to answer some of those specific questions. You know, I did also make an effort to reach a number of parents and a number of the, of the kids involved, though was of course, sensitive about some privacy concerns, given that they were minors and did not name any of the individuals involved. I was able to reach one father who described the setup to me and said that his two daughters, 16 and 17 years old, worked sometimes from an office. They were also allowed to work, you know, out of office, he said. And what I also heard from other relatives is that they were basically paid regular hourly wage. And then on top of that, there was a bonus each day for the post that spurred the most engagement. So the idea was to really generate online conversation, conflict and get people talking. And, you know, in some cases that was successful. I figured out that one of the accounts was followed by a former member of Congress who now is on the president's Catholic advisory board.

GILGER: And Facebook and Twitter also have responded to this. How are they attempting to control it?

STANLEY-BECKER: They did. And, you know, the platforms have policies that try to weed out spam as well as what they call coordinated, inauthentic behavior or efforts to kind of artificially amplify certain conversations. This is, of course, difficult in this case because many of the policies are built around fake accounts or bots, as they're commonly understood. And these are, in fact, real people put just engaging in behavior like that. Nonetheless, the companies did say that this was violating their policies and they removed a number of the accounts that were involved in it.

GILGER: And you also got at least a statement, it sounds like, from Turning Point, who defended this and disagreed with the characterization that this was like trolling or like a troll farm or something like that. What did they have to say?

STANLEY-BECKER: That's right. I mean, their, their, their primary response was that it was a mischaracterization to describe it as a, as a troll farm, which also, I should say was, was a description that came from experts who've been studying these sorts of online tactics for years now. But they objected by saying that this was the genuine political sentiments of these teenagers, which I have no reason to doubt certainly. It doesn't exactly address the substance of the question of the activity, which is that there are individuals posting coordinated, you know, in many cases verbatim messaging and not disclosing that they're being paid and directed to do so, which really does fit with a lot of the troll-like activities that we've seen foreign actors engage in, including Russia in 2016.

GILGER: Right. That that brings me to my next question. So much of this reminds me of what we heard about what Russia conducted here in 2016. Is that sort of the playbook they're taking this out of? Is this something that's just going to be the new normal now in elections and sites like Facebook and Twitter are just going to be playing whack-a-mole, trying to stop the behavior where it violates their social media platforms?

STANLEY-BECKER: Well, I think one of the things that we've heard repeatedly this election cycle from experts in the technology industry as well as, you know, officials in the intelligence community, is that the threats from domestic disinformation are just as severe, if not more severe, than some of what we're seeing from foreign actors. And there are certainly similar tactics and similar methods involved here. And if that sounds surprising that it's coming from teenagers in Arizona, I do think you're right that it's a reflection of polarization and the kind of extreme moment that we're living in.

GILGER: All right. That is Isaac Stanley-Becker, national political reporter with the Washington Post joining us. Isaac, thank you so much for coming on The Show to tell us about this.

STANLEY-BECKER: Thanks for having me.

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