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.
Mr. Mauldin, who has not been previously identified as the creator of the website, said he had built and paid for it on his own, and not for the Trump campaign. But the campaign knows about the websites, raising the prospect that the president’s re-election effort condoned what is, in essence, a disinformation operation run by one of its own.
“We appreciate their efforts in their own time with parodies like this that help the cause,” he added.
Inside the campaign, Mr. Mauldin, 30, is seen as a rising star, prized for his mischievous sense of humor and digital know-how, according to two people familiar with the operation. He also appears to be very much on point in his choice of targets: Mr. Biden is the Democrat polling strongest against Mr. Trump and has been repeatedly singled out on Twitter by the president.
Mr. Biden’s campaign knew about the fake website for months, but had not been of aware of who was behind it, said T.J. Ducklo, a campaign spokesman. “Imagine our surprise that a site full of obvious disinformation,” he said, “is the handiwork of an operative tied to the Trump campaign.”
Mr. Ducklo sought to place the website firmly in the context of Mr. Trump’s own social media habits — such as tweeting doctored videos — and what he said was the president’s lack of interest in measures to ensure the integrity of American elections.
In addition to Mr. Biden, Mr. Mauldin has anonymously set up faux campaign websites for at least three other Democratic front-runners. “Millionaire Bernie” seeks to tar Mr. Sanders as a greedy socialist; “Elizabeth Warren for Chief” mocks her claim of Native American ancestry; and “Kamala Harris for Arresting the People” highlights her work as a prosecutor who, the site says, “put parents in jail for children skipping school — and laughed about it.”
None, though, has proved as successful as the Biden website. Mr. Mauldin boasted in the interview that he had fooled people into thinking his Biden website was the real campaign page. Some offered to donate money, he said, and others wanted to volunteer.
Mr. Mauldin insisted there was nothing duplicitous about it. “I don’t make any claims on the site to lean one way or the other,” he said, adding, “Facts are not partisan.”
It is buyer beware, and not just for unwitting Democrats. In 2017, a group of Democrats took a page out of the Russian playbook and posed as conservatives to try to divide Republicans in Alabama’s special Senate election, a race narrowly won by a Democrat. And as the 2020 campaign gets underway, election experts say they see signs that Americans from both sides of the political divide are getting ready to do the same. National security officials are also warning that Russia will again try to disrupt the election by spreading disinformation.
Meddling by foreigners is illegal. But trolling or disinformation spread by American citizens is protected by the First Amendment, and if Mr. Mauldin’s work is any guide, Americans may well do a far better job deceiving one another than any Russian troll could hope for.
A Viral Hit
Unlike much of the Russian disinformation, which often has been crude and off-key — remember the Facebook ad promoting Mr. Sanders as a gay-rights superhero? — the faux Biden site has been a viral hit. Mr. Mauldin even started selling mock Biden 2020 T-shirts through the website to capitalize on its success.
From mid-March, when Mr. Mauldin first began promoting the website on Reddit, through the end of May, it had more than 390,000 unique visitors, according to data compiled by SimilarWeb, a firm that analyzes web traffic. Mr. Biden’s official campaign website had about 310,000.
Of the people who found the websites through search engines, 83 percent landed on Mr. Mauldin’s page, according to SimilarWeb. None of it was paid traffic.
The website’s success was not accidental. Mr. Mauldin put it up well before Mr. Biden’s official website and aggressively pushed it out on Reddit, getting clicks and links and exposure. It had a big boost in May when a handful of media outlets — The Daily Callerand CNET, among others — wrote stories about the fake page beating Mr. Biden’s and linked to it. Links from established media websites are weighted heavily by search engines. The New York Times is not linking to Mr. Mauldin’s websites to avoid further boosting them in search rankings.The Trump consultant, Patrick Mauldin, has built websites featuring a number of candidates, including Senator Elizabeth Warren.
In recent weeks, as search companies became aware that Mr. Mauldin’s website was fake, it has fallen below the real Biden page. But it remains among the top results, and it already appears to have fooled people.
“I know a lot of Biden supporters were furious when they saw that website,” said David Goldstein, the chief executive of Tovo Labs, a Democratic digital consulting firm in New York. “They suspected other Dem candidates were behind it.”
Then there were the less politically astute. In late April, Mr. Mauldin anonymously took to Reddit to boast that people were confusing his website for the real one. He posted in r/The_Donald, a popular spot for right-wing trolls to trade tips and show off, using the handle NPC_12345.
“How many Democrats can we red pill with my fake Joe Biden site?” Mr. Mauldin wrote in one post.
Another post included messages from duped Democrats. One person wanted Mr. Biden to speak at her son’s school. Another suggested the former vice president look to an old soul group, the Fifth Dimension, for his campaign song.
There were even messages asking Mr. Biden not to criticize other Democrats, Mr. Mauldin said in the interview. “They want it to be all ‘Kumbaya’ with the Democrats.”
He was not having it. “It’s important for everyone to realize aspects of their own side or candidate that maybe they don’t know about or don’t want to look at,” he said.
By “their own side,” Mr. Mauldin meant Democrats. He is not trolling any Republicans.
For decades, conventional wisdom in politics held that trying to undermine your opponent’s base would only motivate that group to vote against you. But in 2016, Russian disinformation and the Trump team’s own targeting of disenchanted Democrats led many campaign veterans on the left and the right to conclude that sowing dissent inside an opponent’s ranks could work. It worked especially well if the criticism appeared to come from their own side.Mr. Mauldin posted on Reddit about his fake websites, helping to drive traffic to them.Credit
With websites like the faux Biden page, “essentially you’re trying to sow chaos and you’re trying to basically do voter suppression,” said Mr. Goldstein, the Democratic consultant.
“You want their supporters to get sad, to get angry, to get turned off from their chosen candidate,” he continued. “The way voters tend to work: They don’t turn off from a candidate and pick up someone else; they turn off from a candidate and turn off politics.”
Mr. Goldstein’s firm, Tovo, tried to prove as much during Alabama’s special Senate election in 2017. With targeted ads, Tovo led conservative Republicans to a website featuring articles by conservatives who opposed the far-right candidate, Roy Moore. Moderate Republicans were directed to a site that suggested they write in a different candidate. The effort relied only on genuine content from conservatives, and it was entirely separate from the Democrats who used Facebook to pose as conservatives.
Tovo later published its findings. It claimed to have driven down moderate Republican turnout by 2.5 percent, and conservative Republican turnout by 4.4 percent.
Unlike Tovo, Mr. Mauldin makes no claims of trying to prove any concepts, and he had no intention of outing himself. When approached by The Times, he argued that he should not be identified because he had not sought the spotlight, and because he feared threats and harassment. He preferred “to work behind the scenes,” he wrote in an email.
Mr. Maulden registered the Biden site privately so that his name and contact details would not appear in any public searches. But The Times was able to confirm Mr. Mauldin’s identity because the Biden page shared the same Google analytics tags with a number of other active and defunct websites, including the ones he has made for the three other Democratic candidates. Some of those sites that shared the Google tags were registered under Mr. Mauldin’s name.
Sipping a Crown Royal and Coke at a bar in downtown Austin, Mr. Mauldin bore little resemblance to the boasting troll he played on Reddit. He is slight, and has boyish features. He wore his shirt neatly tucked into jeans, and paused to consider questions before answering. When he did not want to answer, he quietly said, “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember” — even when asked about things it was hard to imagine he had forgotten, like what he told the Trump campaign about his websites.Mr. Mauldin works on President’s Trump’s re-election campaign, which kicked off this past month in Orlando, Fla.CreditErin Schaff/The New York Times
Mr. Mauldin grew up in eastern Texas, and described his political views as “closest to libertarian.” He studied marketing at Texas A&M, and taught himself digital design skills, building on a childhood love of drawing.
He and his brother founded Vici after helping a family friend win a state representative race. Their big break came in June 2016, when the Trump campaign’s digital operation, short of manpower and scrambling, hired Vici.
Mr. Mauldin quickly impressed. His specialty was making the kind of viral videos that riffed on pop culture and were relentlessly pumped out on social media by the Trump campaign. One came after Hillary Clinton dropped a reference to the augmented-reality game Pokémon Go into a speech, urging voters to “Pokemon Go to the polls.” Mr. Mauldin responded with a video that featured Mrs. Clinton as a Pokemon creature players had to catch, providing the kind of tit for tat needed to feed a day of news stories.
In a testimonial on Vici’s website, Brad Parscale, Mr. Trump’s 2016 digital director and now his campaign manager, called Mr. Mauldin “an indispensable part of our digital operation” in the president’s first campaign.
People with ties to the re-election campaign, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because of nondisclosure agreements, said that Mr. Mauldin was brought back on retainer for the 2020 race.
Mr. Mauldin would not discuss specifics of his role with the campaign, citing his own nondisclosure agreement. He was only slightly more talkative about his websites.
Pressed on whether he thought they were deceptive, Mr. Mauldin complained that people put too much emphasis on identity “instead of examining the facts themselves.” He brushed off a question about whether GIFs of Mr. Biden touching women, devoid of any context, represented facts.
The point, Mr. Mauldin said, was to help Democrats see their candidates for who they were — warts and all — and not try to pretend that they all agreed and were in lock step on every issue.
As he sees it now, “there’s a party line and you either toe it or you’re a traitor,” he said, adding that this applied to both Democrats and Republicans.
But weren’t his sites encouraging Democrats to look for traitors?
“I mean, they could do it themselves,” Mr. Mauldin said with a laugh. “But they’re not. That’s the problem.”
Politicians are trolling the media to advance their own agendas.
It’s social media in the age of “patriotic trolling” in the Philippines, where the government is waging a campaign to destroy a critic—with a little help from Facebook itself.
The phenomenon, sometimes referred to as “patriotic trolling,” involves the use of targeted harassment and propaganda meant to go viral and to give the impression that there is a groundswell of organic support for the government. Much of the trolling is carried out by true believers, but there is evidence that some governments, including Duterte’s, pay people to execute attacks against opponents. Trolls use all the social media platforms—including Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, in addition to the comments sections of news sites. But in the Philippines, Facebook is dominant.
Ressa exposed herself to this in September 2016, a little more than three months after the election. On a Friday night, a bomb ripped through a night market in Davao City, Duterte’s hometown, killing 14 and injuring dozens more. Within hours, Duterte implemented a nationwide state of emergency. That weekend, the most-read story on Rappler was an archived item about the arrest of a man caught planting an improvised explosive device, also in Davao City. The article had been written six months earlier, and the incident had no connection to the night market bombing—but it was circulating on the same Facebook pages that promoted Duterte’s presidency, and people were commenting on it as if to justify the state of emergency.
.. The Rappler data team had spent months keeping track of the Facebook accounts that were going after critics of Duterte. Now Ressa found herself following the trail of her own critics as well. She identified 26 accounts that were particularly virulent. They were all fake (one account used a photo of a young woman who was actually a Korean pop star) and all followed one another. The 26 accounts were posting nearly the exact same content, which was also appearing on faux-news sites such as Global Friends of Rody Duterte and Pinoy Viral News.
The messages being posted consistently linked back to pro-Duterte pages. Ressa and her team put all these accounts into a database, which grew rapidly as they began automating the collection of information, scraping Facebook pages and other public sites. They took to calling their database the Shark Tank. Today it contains more than 12 million accounts that have created or distributed pro-Duterte messages or fake news. Ressa isn’t sure how many of these accounts are fake
Even in the U.S., where Facebook has been hauled before Congress to explain its role in a Russian disinformation campaign designed to influence the U.S. presidential election, the company doesn’t have a clear answer for how it will stem abuse. It says it will add 10,000 workers worldwide to handle security issues, increase its use of third-party fact-checkers to identify fake news, and coordinate more closely with governments to find sources of misinformation and abuse. But the most challenging questions—such as what happens when the government itself is a bad actor and where to draw the line between free speech and a credible threat of violence—are beyond the scope of these fixes. What stays and what goes from the site is still decided subjectively, often by third-party contractors—many of them stationed, as it happens, in the Philippines, a long-standing outsourcing hub.
Facebook is inherently conflicted. It promises advertisers it will deliver interested and engaged users—and often what is interesting and engaging is salacious, aggressive, or simply false. “I don’t think you can underestimate how much of a role they play in societal discourse,” says Carly Nyst, a London-based consultant on technology and human rights who has studied patriotic trolling around the world. “This is a real moment that they have to take some responsibility. These tools they’ve promised as tools of communication and connection are being abused.”
.. Facebook’s executives say the company isn’t interested in being an arbiter of truth, in part because it doesn’t want to assume the role of censor or be seen as having an editorial opinion that may alienate users. Nonetheless, it’s been under increasing pressure to act. In the Philippines, it began conducting safety workshops in 2016 to educate journalists and nongovernmental organization workers. These cover the basics: an overview of the company’s community standards policies, how to block a harasser, how to report abusive content, how to spot fake accounts and other sources of misinformation. The company has increased the number of Tagalog speakers on its global Community Operations team in an effort to better root out local slurs and other abusive language.
Still, Facebook maintains that an aspect of the problem in the Philippines is simply that the country has come online fast and hasn’t yet learned the emergent rules of the internet. In October the company offered a “Think Before You Share” workshop for Filipino students, which focused on teaching them “digital literacy” skills, including critical thinking, empowerment, kindness, and empathy.
Nyst says this amounts to “suggesting that digital literacy should also encapsulate the ability to distinguish between state-sponsored harassment and fake news and genuine content.” The company, she says, “is taking the position that it is individuals who are at fault for being manipulated by the content that appears on Facebook’s platform.”
.. Rappler was born on Facebook and lives there still—it’s the predominant source of Rappler’s traffic. So Ressa finds herself in an awkward spot. She has avoided rocking the boat, because she worries that one of the most powerful companies in the world could essentially crush her. What if Facebook tweaked the algorithm for the Rappler page, causing traffic to plummet? What if it selectively removed monetization features critical to the site’s success? “There’s absolutely no way we can tell what they’re doing, and they certainly do not like being criticized,” she says. But after more than a year of polite dialogue with Facebook, she grew impatient and frustrated.
In a trip to Washington in early November, she met with several lawmakers, telling them that she believes Facebook is being used by autocrats and repressive regimes to manipulate public opinion and that the platform has become a tool for online hooliganism. She did the same in a speech at a dinner hosted by the National Democratic Institute, where Rappler was presented with an award for “being on the front lines of fighting the global challenge of disinformation and false news.”
As she accepted her award, Ressa recalled that she started as a journalist in the Philippines in 1986, the year of the People Power Revolution, an uprising that ultimately led to the departure of Ferdinand Marcos and the move from authoritarian rule to democracy. Now she’s worried that the pendulum is swinging back and that Facebook is hastening the trend. “They haven’t done anything to deal with the fundamental problem, which is they’re allowing lies to be treated the same way as truth and spreading it,” she says. “Either they’re negligent or they’re complicit in state-sponsored hate.”
.. In November, Facebook announced a new partnership with the Duterte government. As part of its efforts to lay undersea cables around the world, Facebook agreed to team up with the government to work on completing a stretch bypassing the notoriously challenging Luzon Strait, where submarine cables in the past have been damaged by typhoons and earthquakes. Facebook will fund the underwater links to the Philippines and provide a set amount of bandwidth to the government. The government will build cable landing stations and other necessary infrastructure.
That’s the sort of big project Facebook embraces. It’s also testing a solar-powered drone that will beam the internet to sub-Saharan Africa and has a team of engineers working on a brain implant to allow users to type with their minds. To Ressa, Facebook looks like a company that will take on anything, except protecting people like her. —With Sarah Frier and Michael Riley
It is easier to spread misinformation on social media than to correct it, and easier to inflame social divisions than to mend them. The very nature of how we engage with Facebook and the rest now helps far-right, authoritarian factions weaken the foundations of democratic systems — and even give themselves an easier pathway to seizing power.
It seems we have to admit a somewhat uncomfortable truth: Social media, in the way that it’s used now, is an authoritarian medium.
.. “It seems undeniable,” Deibert writes, “that social media must bear some of the blame for the descent into neo-fascism.”
Ten years ago, Deibert’s view — now widely shared among journalists and scholars — would have sounded absurd.
In 2009, Iranians rose up to protest against a rigged election, the so-called “Green Movement” using Facebook and YouTube clips of protests to spread their message globally. Two years later, the Arab Spring protests showed the true power of these mediums, as protest movements that made skillful use of social media for coordination and messaging toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt.
At the time, the consensus among observers was that social media was, by its very nature, democratizing. Social media facilitates the swift spread of information, allowing citizens to easily get around government censors. Social media allows rapid communication among large groups of disparate people, giving citizen activists new tools for organizing actions. The spread of social media would necessarily weaken authoritarian states and strengthen democracies — or, at least, that’s how the argument went.
There were some dissenters, like the acerbic writer Evgeny Morosov, but they were largely brushed aside in an Arab Spring-induced high. More representative was the 2013 issue of the MIT Technology Review titled “Big Data Will Save Politics,” featuring an interview with the singer Bono declaring that new technologies would be “deadly to dictators.”
.. This theory turned out to be partly true: It can be difficult to simply repress the spread of information on social media. But as we’ve come to discover, it’s equally difficult to repress the spread of disinformation. The core feature of social media that gives it democratic promise, the rapid spread of information, can be used against democracy via information overload.
A savvy person or political party looking to discredit online critics doesn’t need to ban their speech to hamstring it. Instead, they can respond with a deluge of false or misleading information, making it very hard for ordinary citizens to figure out what’s actually going on.
.. The WhatsApp propaganda in Brazil is one example of the effect Deibert is talking about. A well-funded campaign to spread false information was extremely difficult for Bolsonaro’s opponents and Brazil’s independent press to expose or discredit. The falsehoods these messages spread likely became truth in the eyes of a significant percentage of people who encountered them, many of whom would never see rebuttals and wouldn’t believe them if they did.
.. A recent study found that conservatives were more than four times as likely to share fake news on Facebook as liberals. Another study, from researchers at the University of Oxford, found that conservative users were overwhelmingly more likely to spread “junk news” (defined as outlets that “deliberately publish misleading, deceptive or incorrect information”).
“On Twitter, a network of Trump supporters consumes the largest volume of junk news, and junk news is the largest proportion of news links they share,” the Oxford researchers write. “Extreme hard right [Facebook] pages — distinct from Republican pages — share more junk news than all the other audiences put together.”
.. We’re seeing the same phenomenon beyond the US and Brazil. The Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte has cultivated an online fan base — even bringing popular social media influencers into the government — that’s known for “patriotic trolling”: sending hate messages to his critics and spreading smears about them. The Philippine news site Rappler has identified a network of more than 12 million pro-Duterte propaganda accounts on various platforms, reporting that led to a concerted smear campaign against the site from Duterte’s fans. An #UnfollowRappler social media campaign cost the site tens of thousands of Facebook followers, a huge hit for an online publication that depends on clicks to stay profitable.
Social media isn’t the only — or even the primary — reason far-right populists have been able to win elections. There are all sorts of more fundamental reasons, ranging from ethnic divisionsto anxiety about crime to the weakness of the political opposition that these leaders have exploited in their rise to power. It would be absurd to blame technology for a phenomenon that has much deeper political roots.
But while the global challenge to democracy from within isn’t social media’s fault, the major platforms do seem to be making this crisis worse. The platforms by their nature allow far-right politicians to marginalize opponents, consolidate their base, and exacerbate the social divisions that helped them rise to power. It helps them act like authoritarians even inside the confines of a democratic political system.
“Social media [outlets] not only are compatible with authoritarianism; they may be one of the main reasons why authoritarian practices are now spreading worldwide,” as Deibert puts it.