Whether the Democrats' countermeasures will work in 2020 is an open question. But it is possible to trace how propaganda has grown in recent months. The formats and shapes are not a mystery; the disinformative content is a mix of online social media posts, personas and groups, memes, tweets and videos -- real and forged -- that feed off and often distort the news that appears on television. Like Trump's media presence, this noise is unavoidable.
New Propaganda Pathways
Today's disinformation, and what will likely appear next year, is not going to be an exact replica of 2016's provocations -- whether by any candidate, allied campaigns or even foreign governments.
In September, NYU's Stern Center issued a report predicting the "forms and sources of disinformation likely to play a role during the  presidential election." Domestic, not foreign, "malign content" would dominate, it said, citing the growth of domestic consultants selling disinformation services. The Center predicted that faked videos, memes, and false voice mails (sent over encrypted services such as WhatsApp) would be the most likely pathways. Increasingly, this content has more visual elements. Reports of disinformation tactics recently used abroad affirm this forecast and add other details, such as programs that "emulate human conversation" or "outsourcing" efforts to local groups, including activists who may be unaware of their role. (Also domestically, right-wing think tanks are creating "faux-local websites" posing as regional news outlets.)
The Center's 2020 list contrasts with 2016's avenues, which, in addition to right-wing media epicenters such as Breitbart and Fox News, were dominated by Facebook's pages, groups and posts, by Instagram's images and memes, and by tweets on Twitter, including those that were robotically amplified. The Center also distinguishes between disinformation, which is knowingly false, and misinformation, which involves mistaken but still inaccurate narratives.
For the public, these distinctions may not matter. As a German Marshall Fund analysis of Russian "information manipulation" has noted, a lot of its disinformation "is not, strictly speaking, 'fake news' [overt lies]. Instead it is a mixture of half-truths and selected truths, often filtered through a deeply cynical and conspiratorial world view." Examples of intentional but nuanced distortions have already surfaced in 2019. As one might expect, Trump's allies began with his potential 2020 rivals. They smeared his opponents as part of an overall effort to rev up their base, start fundraising and shape first impressions.
Before former Vice President Joe Biden announced his bid, the most-visited website about his 2020 candidacy was put up by Trump's supporters to mock him. Made-up sexual assault allegations were thrown at South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is gay. Donald Trump Jr. asked if California Sen. Kamala Harris was really an "American black."
By fall, a story Elizabeth Warren told (about how "her 1971 pregnancy caused the 22-year-old to be 'shown the door' as a public-school teacher in New Jersey" [leading to] an unwanted career change that put her on the path to law school and public life") was smeared in a "narrowly factual and still plenty unfair" way, the Washington Post's media columnist said, in a piece that noted "how poisoned the media world is."
All these online attacks were just early salvos in a deepening information war where appearances can be deceiving, information may be false, and much of the public may not know the difference -- or care. That last point was underscored by another trend: the appearance of faked videos.
A high-profile example of this troubling trend was the posting of videos on social media last spring that made Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi appear to be drunk. The doctored footage came from a speech in Washington. The videos, called "cheapfakes," raced through right-wing media. Few questions were asked about their origin. They were presented and apparently believed. One version pushed by a right-wing website garnered a purported 2 million views, 45,000 shares and 23,000 comments. Trump tweeted about the fake videos, which had appeared on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. After protests, Facebook labeled the videos false and lowered their profile. YouTube removed them. But Twitter let them stand.
While those viewer numbers might be inflated, that caveat misses a larger point. Online propaganda is becoming increasingly visual, whether crass memes or forged videos. Apparently, enough Trump supporters reacted to the doctored videos that Fox News revived the format in mid-October. After Pelosi's confrontation with Trump at the White House on October 17, Fox Business News edited a clip to deliberately slur her voice -- which the president predictably tweeted. (This is propaganda, not journalism.)
NYU's Stern Center report forecast that doctored videos were likely to resurface just before 2020's Election Day when "damage would be irreparable." That prediction is supported by evidence in this fall's upcoming elections. In Houston's November 5 mayoral election, a conservative candidate known for flashy media tactics used an apparently faked video in a 30-second ad to smear the incumbent by alleging scandalous ethics.
The Pelosi videos are hardly the only distorted narrative pushed by the GOP in 2019. By August, the Washington Post reported that Trump had made more than 12,000 false or misleading claims in office. One narrative concerned Ukraine and the Bidens -- the former vice president and his son Hunter Biden.
The same right-wing non-profit that had tarred Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation in 2015 was pushing a conspiracy about the Bidens and Ukraine. Four years ago, it prompted the New York Times to investigate a uranium deal with Russians that "enabled Clinton opponents to frame her as greedy and corrupt," as the New Yorker's Jane Mayer reported. The Ukraine accusations had not gained much traction in mainstream media, although right-wing coverage had captivated Trump. In July, he pressed Ukraine's president to go after Biden if Ukraine wanted military aid.
That now-notorious phone call, in addition to provoking an impeachment inquiry, has ended any pretense of partisan restraint. Subsequently, the Trump campaign has put out a knowingly false video on Facebook saying "that Mr. Biden had offered Ukraine $1 billion in aid if it killed an investigation into a company tied to his son," as the New York Times put it. That video was seen 5 million times.
But pro-Trump propaganda had already been escalating. In recent months, the ante kept rising, with the use of other tools and tactics. Some were insidious but transparent. Some were clear hyperbole. But others were harder to trace and pin down.