BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. As we heard, partisan infighting is not limited to the GOP, but in the modern era it's possible to outsource your mudslinging. Last week, the pro-Hillary Clinton
super PAC called “Correct The Record” announced the launch of a digital task force called “Barrier Breakers." Citing lessons learned from run-ins with the so-called "Bernie Bros," the Barrier Breakers will, quote, “serve as a resource for supporters looking for positive content and push back to share with their online progressive community.” In English, social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and Instagram may soon be flooded by legions of paid pro-Hillary trolls to combat the anti-Clintonites, and Correct The Record will spend a million bucks on the effort.
Libby Watson is a staff writer at the Sunlight Foundation. She says that, at the moment, it’s unclear who even the targets will be of the Barrier Breakers’ efforts.
LIBBY WATSON: Not everybody accepts the existence of Bernie Bros or, rather, that they’re a real phenomenon but the idea is that there is a contingent of vocal and rude Bernie supporters online who harass Hillary supporters. Some people think that they’re sexist or even racist. That’s supposedly what the new Correct The Record Project aims to combat. But it’s definitely true that everybody’s supporters could be kind of nasty.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so for the purposes of this conversation, let's just assume that Hillary, as a woman, is uniquely victimized by this particular crowd, let's just say. The Clinton campaign is now coordinating with the super PAC, Correct The Record, not just to correct the record but to actually go after individual commenters. How is it supposed to work?
LIBBY WATSON: Now, they say that they have already tweeted out 5,000 people who have attacked Hillary Clinton. I don't know where those tweets are. Barrier Breakers has its own Twitter account but it only has about a hundred tweets, so it’s not coming from there. Maybe it’s coming from Correct The Record employees. The press release said that they were gonna hire people to go online but, again, it's really difficult to see the effects of that, at least so far. They've also said that all they’re doing is pushing out positive messaging about Hillary Clinton.
BOB GARFIELD: Is there any evidence that any of the other campaigns are doing anything similar but just haven't issued press releases?
LIBBY WATSON: If this is successful I wouldn't be surprised if it's a model that’s replicated but, as far as we know, there isn’t this sort of activity happening online because, you know, a lot of this stuff is organic. The armies of Bernie supporters online and the Trump supporters that many, many of us have encountered on Twitter, you know, they’re just really fired up. It’s definitely interesting to see a super PAC jumping into this role.
BOB GARFIELD: Aha, and here is where I have kind of buried the lead because to read about a super PAC coordinating with the campaign directly to either tweet out corrective messages or to recruit Hillary followers to do the same seems to be an explicit violation of the campaign finance laws that absolutely prohibit coordination between super PACs and their so-called “soft money” with campaigns themselves. Correct The Record thinks it's found a loophole. Tell me what that loophole is and if it's the real deal.
LIBBY WATSON: The rule that they’re talking about is a 2006 FEC rule. It’s called the Internet Exemption, and it was basically designed to allow bloggers and other individuals to put stuff online that was supportive of their candidate without having to declare it to the FEC as what's called a public communication, basically like an ad. And, like I said, this is from 2006. And the original rule actually makes pretty funny reading now. It’s sort of explaining how, did you know people can go online and they can write blogs on sites like blogger.com?
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHING[ They do this directly into their computing machine.
LIBBY WATSON: Right, exactly. They type on the Internet. And so, obviously, this is not only a different era of the Internet but also a different era of campaign finance. That was pre super PAC, four years before Citizens United. And so, what Correct The Record is doing, because they don't run ads, they’re not doing coordinated communications, and “communications” has a specific meaning – it means basically a pay down - they’re only putting stuff online for free. They can coordinate with the campaign. Now, a lot of people question that “for free” bit because, obviously, they have to pay staffers and-
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, they question it because it’s - not true. [LAUGHS]
While the posting may itself not be paid for in the way that you pay for a TV commercial, Correct The Record has said, in its own press release, that it’s going to spend a million dollars.
LIBBY WATSON: It’s sort of like they’re trying to have it both ways. They’re trying to get the good press from saying they’re gonna spend a million dollars on an effort but they’re also trying to say that they’re not really spending money in the way that the FEC would regulate.
The interesting thing is that this issue actually came up recently before the FEC, in 2014-2015, and the Republicans on the FEC were citing the Internet exemption to say that the FEC shouldn't regulate what’s on the Internet. So it’s kind of interesting to see a huge Democratic super PAC agreeing with the Republicans on the FEC, especially because, you know, Hillary Clinton does talk about campaign finance reform, and then she has this super PAC that is absolutely pushing the boundaries. So they’re aware of the fact that the FEC is pretty much out to lunch on these issues. They’re not really able or willing to enforce the law.
BOB GARFIELD: Can you explain why it is so toothless and ineffectual?
LIBBY WATSON: Well, in many ways, it’s set up to fail because it has three Democrats and three Republicans and they basically deadlock on every issue. It has got pretty extreme in the last few years. I mean, recently that was a long debate over whether they would use the word “the” or “a” in a rule.
So they really can’t – they really can’t get anything done.
BOB GARFIELD: So, just to recap, we have an expenditure of approximately a million dollars to fund messaging that you really haven't quite been able to figure out what it looks like and who's producing it [LAUGHS] –
LIBBY WATSON: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: - based on a pretty thin read of a legal argument, with no evidence of it having any effect whatsoever. Is that kind of the story, in a nutshell?
LIBBY WATSON: Yeah, pretty much. I mean, the press release was only put out last week, so it may be that over time we see some more solid evidence of what they’re doing. But it’s backfired for them in a way already because now if you go and look on the Bernie Sanders Reddit, they’re accusing already everyday Hillary supporters of being paid Correct The Record trolls.
BOB GARFIELD: Is there the possibility here that by deploying these SWAT teams that the campaign is gonna do itself more harm than good?
LIBBY WATSON: I mean, it’s certainly possible. Bernie supporters and many people are responding to what they see as too much money in politics and a general sense that they don't have a say.
BOB GARFIELD: And what about your very own Sunlight Foundation, which itself is chartered to encourage transparency in government and in politics? If this loophole is for real, does that worry you about other campaign activities being outsourced too?
LIBBY WATSON: Absolutely, yeah, because setting a precedent like this, where the only spending that counts is ad spending, is definitely very dangerous because that's far from the only thing a super PAC can do.
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BOB GARFIELD: Libby, thank you so much.
LIBBY WATSON: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Libby Watson is a staff writer at the Sunlight Foundation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Correct The Record declined our request for an interview.