"Pizzagate" conspiracy protest, March 2017. CREDIT: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/blinkofanaye/33496659222">Blink O'fanaye</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/">(CC)</a>
"Pizzagate" conspiracy protest, March 2017. CREDIT: Blink O'fanaye (CC)

Digital Deception & Dark Money, with Ann M. Ravel

Aug 20, 2018

The term "fake news" is a little too tame, says Ann Ravel of the MapLight Digital Deception Project. Actually, this is foreign and domestic political propaganda aimed at undermining U.S. institutions and democracy. Maplight also tracks the enormous, pervasive problem of "dark money"--contributions by undisclosed donors to influence U.S. campaigns. Yet Ravel is optimistic that once Americans understand what's happening, it can be stopped.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I'm speaking with Ann Ravel. She was the former chair of the Federal Election Commission (FEC). She was originally nominated by President Obama. She is now senior fellow of the MapLight Digital Deception Project. This is also part of our ongoing series on what we're calling Information Warfare, for better or for worse.

Ann, welcome to the studio today.

ANN RAVEL: Thank you very much. Good to be here.

DEVIN STEWART: We were talking a little bit about terminology. "Information warfare" is a stab at what we're talking about, but it's not perfect.

ANN RAVEL: No, it isn't perfect, but I think it's more perfect to express what's going on than people who call it "fake news" or even "disinformation," all of which sounds a little too tame for what it really is.

DEVIN STEWART: Your phrase I think is "digital deception." What exactly does that mean, and how is that better than the other terminologies like "fake news"?

ANN RAVEL: When people talk about fake news, for example, they think, Oh, it's those guys in Macedonia who are teenagers who are getting paid to make up stories. But actually what it is is propaganda, and it's political propaganda, and it's meant for the purpose of undermining our institutions and our democracy and in particular surrounding issues that are significant that are in the elections.

DEVIN STEWART: But it's not always foreign. It's domestic and foreign propaganda.

ANN RAVEL: Right. Absolutely not always foreign. We know that there was a great deal of Russian intervention. There's no question, if you read the Mueller indictments, that there was a real concerted effort to intervene in our election. We know China does it and lots of other countries, but we have certainly the capability, and it happens in the United States as well with internal individuals.

DEVIN STEWART: Is there a common goal in terms of the deception itself? Is it simply to sow chaos, uncertainty, or disorder, or is it something more directed?

ANN RAVEL: People say that the interception in the 2016 election was solely for the purpose of sowing dissension and talking about issues that are polarizing, but actually because of what we know about how they tried to spread this information and where it was micro-targeted to it's pretty clear that it was meant to sway the election.

For example, we know that there were a lot of communications and other ways of trying to influence people in swing states in particular. We also know that in those states and in other places what was mainly said were things like—there's a wonderful report that came out from a woman named Young Mie Kim from the University of Wisconsin. She also works with the Campaign Legal Center, which put out the report, and it is clear that those communications were mainly racist, anti-immigrant, all of the sorts of things that were being promulgated by one of the candidates to get more votes.

It seems to me that it is quite clear, although people always say, "Well, you can't tell if it made a difference." Well, we do know that a lot of people were not voting, that they also tried to suppress the vote by choosing Bernie Sanders people on Facebook or Black Lives Matter people with certain communications expressing to them that they should not vote for Hillary for certain reasons, and those were usually in states where the margin of votes was very small, small enough to alter the election.

DEVIN STEWART: Tell me about the MapLight Digital Deception Project. First, what is MapLight?

ANN RAVEL: MapLight is a non-profit organization located in Berkeley. Their main purpose over the last number of years that they've been in existence has been to find data about campaign contributions and expenditures and other campaign activities and correlate it to outcomes. They do that for the purpose of—they put it on the web. They write stories, and the hope is that it's an aid to journalists so journalists can pick it up, and they have in fact.

MapLight also has done a few other things, such as in California they've worked on the Cal-Access, which is the secretary of state's website, which was in total disarray. MapLight went in and assisted them with the technology to be able to provide more voting information and information about campaign finance issues to the public.

DEVIN STEWART: How about your project, the Digital Deception Project?

ANN RAVEL: I am working with MapLight and with a person named Sam Woolley. I laugh about this because when I was growing up obviously no one would be an expert in this field: he's an expert in bots. He works at his own group as well called DigIntel, and he also works through the Institute for the Future.

He is working with us, and his portion of the project is to find who's behind these communications and also to look at bots and see what they've done. He's already written some amazing articles about how bots were even used in the 2016 campaign to obtain campaign contributions and also to request that people vote for various positions, and all of this needed to be disclosed, and it's not being disclosed. That's his part of the project.

MapLight will continue to do the journalism-related part of the project, and my part of the project is to try to formulate policy that will be effective in making a difference in this situation.

DEVIN STEWART: In that project are you planning to issue a set of recommendations?

ANN RAVEL: Yes. Ultimately, there will be recommendations. We're going to write about it as well because one of the ways that I think there can be change, particularly if we're going to recommend any legislation, is for people to be concerned about this issue and to understand who's trying to manipulate them. It's going to be a combination of things as well as proposed legislation potentially or regulations.

I also ultimately—not immediately, but I think this is really a global problem. We know there have been at least 38-40 countries around the world that have experienced the same problems that we did in the United States and are still—in the newspaper this morning, Facebook claimed that today they found lots of cases of intervention. The hope is that there will be some global solutions to the problem as well.

DEVIN STEWART: How would that work? Is that a treaty or an accord of some sort?

ANN RAVEL: Yes. Initially what I'm thinking of is just to talk to people who are part of civil society in those countries. Many of those countries have already started doing things, but those sorts of remedies that they are imposing are not remedies that would be appropriate in the United States.

In my opinion there are some things that could be by accord, that could be through negotiation. It could be an international body that looks at these issues and tries to get consensus, some other mechanism. That's down the road a little bit, but because the Internet is such a fluid, changing, and also a worldwide issue, it seems that having lots of different remedies or regulations or laws—which they already have in Europe—might end up being very difficult to manage and to ensure that it's being enforced.

DEVIN STEWART: Dark money is another topic that you follow very closely. You were recently featured in a PBS documentary on dark money. First of all, what is dark money, and how much influence does it have on American politics, and how much of that is foreign and how much is domestic?

ANN RAVEL: Dark money is money that is given for the purpose of influencing the election for a campaign specifically, often actually coordinated with candidates, although it's not legally allowed to be. That money gets funneled through 501(c)(4)s or 501(c)(6)s or sometimes limited liability companies (LLCs), and because of that the people who are actually giving the money to those organizations are never disclosed. Because of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) rules there is not any disclosure.

Actually, it is a huge problem. In the congressional elections now I have seen statistics that show that at least 40 percent of the money that is being paid by independent groups—that is, groups like the 501(c)(4)s or the (c)(6)s or even Super PACs—is dark money, and what we know about that money is that compared to the candidates and the money that goes to the candidates directly or to political parties, it is far greater in amount than those. Those no longer are the most campaign contributions that are done; it's all the independent groups.

DEVIN STEWART: What was the PBS documentary called? What was the title?

ANN RAVEL: It's called Dark Money.

DEVIN STEWART: Is there a sense of where the money is coming from, whether from abroad or from domestic sources?

ANN RAVEL: Right, I'm sorry. You asked that question.

Part of the problem with dark money is that you don't really know. We do know that some of the money comes from abroad because very vigilant reporters have been able to get to some of the sources. But because of the enormity of the problem it's hard to know.

Also, it is such an easy way to funnel money. One of the examples was the money that came to the National Rifle Association (NRA) for the purpose of ultimately giving to a campaign, and that came from foreign sources.

DEVIN STEWART: It was from Russia.

ANN RAVEL: Yes. It's not uncommon.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you know some of the details of the Russia-NRA story?

ANN RAVEL: Not in great detail.

DEVIN STEWART: What other non-American countries are participating in this kind of dark money activity? Do you have any data on that?

ANN RAVEL: I think a lot of it depends on what the issue is because I know, for example, in California there was a ballot measure, as we have so many of them in California.

DEVIN STEWART: You love the ballot measures.

ANN RAVEL: Yes, we do. This was a ballot measure in Los Angeles, and it was intended to require porn stars to all wear condoms during the filming of the movies or whatever they do. A lot of money came from outside the country into that particular initiative. I just know that. I believe it could have been Hong Kong, but it could have been a European country, but I know there was a lot of it.

That matter actually came to the FEC, and I know we want to talk about the FEC in a little bit. Of course, I thought that foreign money is clearly illegal when it's being used to support a measure. They said that because it was a ballot measure and not a candidate that they didn't think that it was applicable, that it was okay. So we split, as we often did.

DEVIN STEWART: Where did the money advocate for? Pro-?

ANN RAVEL: Oh, it was an offshore pornographer. He advocated against. He thought it was going to be an economic detriment, I assume.

DEVIN STEWART: I didn't know that story. That's a new one.

Before we get to the FEC, how do you think the IRS is doing? My understanding is that the IRS has loosened financial disclosure requirements for certain non-profits.

ANN RAVEL: They did just last week. There was a regulation that was imposed by Mnuchin, although the governor of Montana has sued, claiming that they didn't go through the appropriate process.

The IRS has a rule where in order to get the tax benefits that 501(c)(4)s get or (c)(6)s get, that they cannot expend the majority of their resources on something other than social welfare because 501(c)(4)s are supposed to be social welfare groups, so if they expend that money on politics, they then would become akin to a political committee. For that reason, the IRS received that information. Even though it was never made public, it was kept with the IRS for the purpose of enforcing the law.

But Mnuchin has changed that rule and says those companies don't have to give that information about who their donors are any longer, which is really problematic because it sets the stage for absolutely no enforcement of this and makes it much easier for foreign groups in particular, but all groups, to just amass huge amounts of money, give it to these organizations, and have no accountability whatsoever. None.

DEVIN STEWART: It was basically a kind of deregulation from the Treasury Department?


DEVIN STEWART: Why would Mnuchin want to do that? It seems to be puzzling.

ANN RAVEL: Obviously, I don't have personal knowledge of this, but I have read that this is something that the Koch brothers have been arguing for for a very long time, and they wanted the Treasury Department to do that. I will say there was also—and I believe it was even in The New York Times—apparently Mitch McConnell cheered when it was changed. I think there has been pressure because many people do not believe in disclosure of who's behind campaign contributions.

DEVIN STEWART: At the same time the Koch family and the Trump administration have had a falling out.

ANN RAVEL: They have.

DEVIN STEWART: So who knows what's next?

ANN RAVEL: That's right.

DEVIN STEWART: You are on record as having a pessimistic view of the Federal Election Commission, the FEC, and its ability to change the laws to address dark money. I think the quote is: "The FEC was betraying the American public and jeopardizing our democracy." How is the FEC doing that, and what kind of fixes are there?

ANN RAVEL: Yes. Let me make it clear. I'm not against the FEC. I think it's a really important agency, and the people who work there, the employees, are all devoted to enforcing the law and to ensuring that there's clarity in the law. The problem is with the commission.

There are six commissioners on the FEC. No more than three can be of one political party. In the past that has worked well because even though the FEC was not meant to be really agile and really aggressive, it did its job, and the people who were on the commission believed in the law and the mission, which is disclosure and enforcement of transgressions.

But maybe 10 years ago, the composition of the commission changed. There were three vacancies in the Republicans. The appointments are presidential appointments. I, for example, was appointed by President Obama because I had worked at the Justice Department previously. But it also requires Senate confirmation, and the other commissioners that are now on the commission were all selected by a senator, so the three Republicans were selected by Senator McConnell, and the two Democrats who are still on the commission were essentially appointed by Senator Reid at that time. I was the only one who was—I wouldn't say independent because I think for the most part the Democrats were not partisan.

But what ultimately happened was those three decided that if they always voted in lockstep, all three of them, on any matter that had any significance, such as about disclosure, about enforcement, about the imposition of fines for clear misbehavior, that they could win. Nothing could happen there, and that's what they did, actually. That is exactly what they did, because it requires four votes to do anything.

Also, the courts give deference under the law—there have been some decisions—to agency decisions. My opinion of a 3-3 stalemate is that that is not a decision, but the courts have agreed to give deference to those decisions. So it is very difficult for people bringing complaints to ever get a truly fair hearing.


Before we go, Ann, are there any signs of hope in terms of reform, in terms of addressing dark money or campaign finance, all these issues? Do you have any parting words of optimism?

ANN RAVEL: I am optimistic. You've asked about the movie Dark Money. It's a personal movie. It talks about how dark money impacted Republicans, in fact, in Montana in races against other Republicans in the primary. For that reason, it makes it personal. It makes people understand why this is a problem.

I think once people get that connection, whether from the movie or this podcast, and make it clear to their elected officials that this is not acceptable how it's changing our democracy, that I think will bring the change.

Also, if everybody voted, if there was an 85 percent number of people who voted, we wouldn't have to worry about dark money.

DEVIN STEWART: Ann Ravel is senior fellow at MapLight's Digital Deception Project.

Ann, thank you very much, and get out and vote.

ANN RAVEL: Thank you. Yes.

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