The Fake News Landscape of the June 2019 Presidential Debates

Nir Hauser
Jul 1 · 7 min read

We’re VineSight, an AI startup that detects fake news on social networks. For over a year now, we have been analyzing the Twitter firehose, crawling the Internet’s social graph for content and connections in order to detect fake news mere moments after it’s released into the wild — regardless of whether it appears as raw text, images, memes, or video. Today, our automated technology finds fake news tweets within hours after they are posted.

This report details the most viral fake news attacks we have detected in the weeks leading up to and immediately following the Democratic Presidential debates.

Most fake news attacks start with a kernel of truth. Trolls and bots then change the story and mix in a dash of hate, outrage, and sometimes humor. Finally, they use automation to make the fake tweet go viral.

Every tweet in this report was identified by VineSight within 24 hours of its publishing, using our cutting edge AI technology and subsequently stored in our fake news database. In this report we only included tweets that passed a viral threshold of retweets and likes. Most of them have hundreds or thousands of retweets, allowing us to present a snapshot of the viral and influential fake news currently making its way through Twitter.

In this next section, we will break down the specific attacks that are being launched at the top Democratic presidential candidates. But before doing so, let’s first give you a sense of which top candidates were subjected to the most fake news in recent months. The graph below displays the percentage of fake news targeting each candidate out of the total fake news tweets detected by VineSight.

Now, let’s dive down candidate by candidate to look at the fake news attacks against each one. As you go through the tweets, draw your attention to their virality and the fact that most were published in the last few days.

Fake News Attacks on Kamala Harris

“SHE LIED: Kamala Harris Says She Was in Second Integrated Class in Berkeley — But Yearbook Pictures Prove She’s Lying”

During the debate, Kamala Harris said she was in the second integrated class in Berkeley as a child. Gateway Pundit republished a debunked old fake news story about Kamala Harris from July 2018 that claimed Harris was lying. This story was retweeted over 13,000 times on over 800 separate tweets.

Original tweets here, here, and here

“Kamala Harris IS NOT BLACK!”

After the debates, trolls and bots are questioning Kamala Harris’ “blackness” and whether she is American. To clarify, Kamala Harris’ father is Jamaican and her mother is Indian. [UPDATE: This story was recently picked up by the New York Times].

Original tweets here, here, and here

“Kamala Harris slept her way to the top”

In January 2019 the former mayor of San Francisco, Willie Brown, wrote an 137-word op-ed about Kamala Harris with the declaration, “Yes, we dated. It was more than 20 years ago.”

Since then, many fake news trolls and bots have been distorting this story and spreading fake news attacks on Kamala Harris, often using memes. The following are examples of new tweets from the past week that were retweeted thousands of times, along with a tweet our technology picked up back in January.

Original tweets here, here, here, here, and here. These attacks began on January 28th, 2019 (image on bottom right), just two days after Willie Brown’s op-ed was published.

Fake News Attacks on Joe Biden

“Biden is pro-segregation!!!”

Joe Biden was criticized for remarks he made about his time working with segregationists while serving in the Senate in the 1970s. Fake news trolls and bots took the opportunity to generate fake news on the topic regarding Biden’s praise of late Sen. Fritz Hollings. Unlike Sens. Eastland and Talmadge who opposed integration, Hollings was a reformed segregationist and a good friend of Biden’s. Donald Trump Jr’s tweet alone was retweeted over 5300 times.

Original tweets here, here, and here

“Creepy Uncle Joe”

Trolls and bots are spreading fake and photoshopped memes related to Joe Biden’s supposed “creepiness”.

Original tweets here, here, and here

Fake News Attacks on Bernie Sanders

“Bernie is a professional grifter”

Bernie Sanders has been attacked by fake news for supposedly being a “rich” democratic socialist.

Original tweets here and here

“Christianity is an insult to Muslims”

Bernie has been attacked by fake news based on his supposed xenophobic behavior. In these debunked fake tweets, Bernie is accused of misogyny, hatred of Christians, and hatred of African Americans.

Original tweets here, here, and here

Fake News Attacks on Elizabeth Warren

“Elizabeth Warren is a fake Indian”

These tweets reference this debunked fake news story.

Original tweets here, here, and here

Fake News Attacks on Beto O’ Rourke

“Robert ‘Beto’ O’ Rourke is a fake Mexican”

O’Rourke made a point of speaking Spanish during the campaign. The fake news trolls and bots used the opportunity to spread a fake news story that O’Rourke changed his name to sound more Hispanic.

Fake News Attacks on Cory Booker

Cory Booker was the subject of fake news on the topic of abortion. A repeatedly debunked fake news story claimed that babies could be terminated after birth. Cory Booker was one of many candidates accused of supporting this nonexistent practice.

Fake News Attacks on Eric Swalwell

“Swallwell said he’d nuke any gun owner who refused to hand over their firearms”

In November 2018 Swalwell tweeted what he claimed to be a joke about the government nuking citizens. Trolls and bots launched fake news attacks on Swalwell by taking his words out of context.

Eric Swalwell’s original tweet on the left. Fake tweet attacking him on the right.

“[Swalwell] is calling for riots”

On June 22, 2019, Swalwell tweeted that “there’s nothing we won’t do in the streets, courts, and at the ballot box to stop [Trump]”. Swalwell’s words were twisted to mean ‘riots in the streets’. The Breitbart article, quoted in the tweet below, was shared over 130 times and retweeted over 1200 times.

Eric Swalwell’s original tweet on the left. Fake new tweets attacking him on the right.

Fake News Attacks on Amy Klobuchar

Amy Klobuchar’s views on abortion were misrepresented in this tweet back in May 2019. Kloubchar was asked to comment on a debunked fake news story and simply replied, “I am for a woman having the right to make a choice about her own body”.

Fake News Attacks on Bill De Blasio

Bill De Blasio accidentally quoted Che Guevara in Spanish this week at a rally in Miami. Trolls and bots decided to focus on this story rather than make up fake news.

Fake News Attacks on Tulsi Gabbard

Last week Tulsi Gabbard was attacked as a puppet of Putin.

Fake News Attacks on Julián Castro

During the debate, Julián Castro indicated support for transgenders’ right to an abortion. Trolls and bots decided to focus on this story rather than make up fake news.

Fake News Attacks on Kristen Gillibrand

“Is that Kristen Gillbrand behind Obama at a KKK funeral?”

Gillibrand has joined calls for Biden to apologize over segregationist remarks. Some fake news this week accuses her of attending a “KKK funeral” with former President Barack Obama.

Fake News Attacks on the Democratic Party

“Not a single American flag at the Democrat Debate pathetic…”

This viral fake news meme insinuated that the Democratic Party refrained from putting up US flags during their debates because of a lack of patriotism. Such tweets were retweeted over 8000 times.

Conclusion

These tweets and stories only scratch the surface of what we are currently seeing in the wild — and only represent the beginning of what is sure to be a volatile campaign season. If you are interested in getting deeper insights into a candidate or a topic, or in hearing more about the trends we’re currently detecting, contact us at info@vinesight.com.