Inside the 'Malarkey Factory,' Biden's online war room

  • Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks at the Little Haiti Cultural Complex in Florida.

    Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks at the Little Haiti Cultural Complex in Florida. washington post/Oct. 5, 2020

 
 
Updated 10/19/2020 9:36 AM

Joe Biden's campaign has quietly built a multimillion-dollar operation over the past two months that's largely designed to combat misinformation online, aiming to rebut President Donald Trump while bracing for any information warfare that could take place in the aftermath of the election.

The effort, internally called the "Malarkey Factory," consists of dozens of people around the country monitoring what information is gaining traction digitally, whether it's resonating with swing voters and, if so, how to fight back. The three most salient attacks the Malarkey Factory has confronted so far are claims that Biden is a socialist, that he is "creepy" and that he is "sleepy" or senile.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

In preparation for misinformation spreading as voters head to the polls, especially a stretch around Election Day when Facebook will not let campaigns buy new ads, the campaign has partnered with dozens of Facebook pages associated with liberal individuals or groups that have large followings. The campaign has also enlisted 5,000 surrogates with big social media platforms who can pump out campaign messages.

The Malarkey Factory has already been at work. When Trump began attacking Biden as a socialist, for example, the Biden campaign saw that it was affecting Hispanic voters in Florida. So it developed counter-messaging that showed a different image of Biden, with him speaking of his love for America and being endorsed by former president Barack Obama, and the campaign blasted the messaging to Latinos in the state.

"Our theory of the case has been that we need to find and identify the misinformation that is actually moving voters, even if it is a small number of voters, then find who those voters are and see if we can intervene," said Rob Flaherty, the campaign's digital director and head of the Malarkey Factory. "There's misinformation that inflames a base. There's misinformation that persuades people. And there's misinformation that suppresses a base."

While it is increasingly easy to determine where disinformation is coming from, given the proliferation of online tools, the trickier challenge is figuring out whether it's shaping voting behavior and merits a response.

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"The real dilemma of misinformation, from a campaign perspective, is that in the vast majority of cases, the correct tactical thing to do is nothing," said Matthew Hindman, an associate professor at George Washington University who co-wrote a study on misinformation during the 2018 midterms. "There is a very real risk that you will take a nothing story that nobody has heard of and raise its prominence and give it oxygen."

And given the speed of social media, that decision often has to be made within minutes.

When a conspiracy theory emerged that Osama bin Laden was never really killed - and Biden and Obama had Navy SEALs executed to cover that up - Biden's campaign felt little need to respond. The deeply implausible fabrication might affect some potential Trump voters, Biden staffers concluded, but would not affect the types of voters they were trying to attract.

The campaign also found that Trump's attack on Biden's criminal justice record was not resonating with the Black voters prized by Biden's campaign. His attacks on Biden's mental acuity, however, were hitting home, so the campaign sent videos to targeted voters showing their candidate talking clearly and articulately.

"They are seeing this stream of poorly edited clips of him falling asleep at a news interview - things that are just not real," Flaherty said. "When we show them him talking about policy, which he does all the time, [support goes] up."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

This sort of elaborate virtual war room, tasked with ferreting out volatile information in the dark recesses of the Web, could become a routine feature of campaigns as they confront a still-new world of elusive but potentially destructive information.

In this case, the effort is also a reflection of the trauma Democrats are still experiencing from the last election, when Hillary Clinton's campaign was hit by a wave of disinformation and hacking for which, in retrospect, it was woefully unprepared.

The Biden effort, which advisers describe as costing more than $10 million, also coincides with an unprecedented campaign that the coronavirus pandemic has forced almost entirely online. And it comes as intelligence officials warn of foreign interference in the election, with Russia again seen as a major threat to spread false information.

The project started in August when the Biden campaign assembled groups inside and outside the campaign, tapping campaign staffers working remotely in places such as Washington, D.C.; Portland, Maine; and Long Island, as well as an array of marketing and tech firms in Silicon Valley.

Trump's team had been extraordinarily successful at harnessing social media, using Facebook to mobilize its base and running a network of social media platforms that dwarf those of the Biden campaign.

That operation was largely built by Brad Parscale, the former Trump campaign manager who was ousted earlier this year. Parscale famously called his digital operation the Death Star, a reference to the planet-sized weapon in Star Wars. (The Biden team has started calling its own network the Rebel Alliance, after the warriors who fought back.)

Trump regularly spreads falsehoods - such as the notion that Biden is on performance-enhancing drugs or that top Democrats committed treason - which are amplified by his supporters online. But Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh contended that it's the Biden team that is the guiltier party.

"If the Biden campaign wants to clean up misinformation, they should start with themselves," Murtaugh said.

He cited Biden's claims that Trump has embraced white supremacists, called the novel coronavirus a hoax and signaled a plan to dismantle Social Security; the last two have beenchallenged by fact-checkers. "The entire foundation of the Biden campaign is built on lies, so they should police themselves," Murtaugh said.

A chief question of the 2020 campaign has been whether Biden can match the massive digital megaphone of Trump and his supporters. Allies have sought to amplify a report in the New York Post, for example, which published emails purported to be from a laptop belonging to Biden's son Hunter. The origin of that information remains unclear.

Sometimes, the attacks are fantastical. During a town hall last week, Trump declined to condemn QAnon, a baseless conspiracy theory claiming there is a cabal of satanic, cannibalistic pedophiles that includes prominent Democrats, which has spread rapidly online.

While most of the effort is aimed at combating misinformation, the Malarkey Factory is also attempting to persuade undecided voters. It has run a program in Pennsylvania and is about to do the same in Michigan, for example, that gathers videos recorded by voters on why they support Biden. The campaign tests the videos on thousands of people, and based on the results, forwards specific clips to particular groups of voters.

The campaign has also teamed up with users on TikTok, the enormously popular platform featuring super-short videos, to spread Biden's message.

And on Friday, Biden opened a virtual field office in "Animal Crossing: New Horizons," part of a Biden island in the virtual world that has ice cream stands, model trains and campaign merchandise.

Thomas Rid, author of "Active Measures," a book about disinformation, said that hack-and-leak operations, which disclose confidential information, can be even more effective than spreading complete falsehoods.

"We are all focused on the social media disinformation side, which is not unimportant," Rid said. "But it's the potential for hacks and leaks or forging - or infrastructure hacking, or perceived election infrastructure hacking, on or before Election Day - that have a bigger impact."

The Biden team says that among its biggest concerns is a potential effort to raise doubts about the integrity of the vote on Nov. 3 and its aftermath.

"Trust in the election is something that we are focused on," said Rebecca Rinkevich, the Biden campaign's director of digital rapid response. "Right now, it's super localized to far-right folks, but it's something that we have every intention of focusing this program on, especially in the week leading up to the election."

The Biden campaign is contemplating scenarios in which Trump tries to declare victory before all the votes are counted, or in which he loses but refuses to leave office.

In such a situation, the campaign would use its network to push out messages saying that Biden legitimately prevailed, using the same technology that Major League Baseball employs to send content between the league and individual teams.

"This is all part of the new environment," Hindman said. "It's part of the playing field, and it's not going away."

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