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Plight of Newspapers Generates Uncommon Bipartisan Unity

CORNELIA, Ga. — When a sport utility vehicle swerved out of its lane several weeks ago, slamming into a pickup truck and killing a teenager, a reporter from The Northeast Georgian raced to the scene. Within hours, the paper had posted the news on Facebook and updated it twice. It was shared by hundreds of people on the social network.

The fatal wreck consumed the town of Cornelia, Ga., nestled near the Chattahoochee National Forest about 90 miles northeast of Atlanta. The Northeast Georgian was the first to report the news, but unless the people who shared its story on Facebook follow a link to its website, either to see an ad or to subscribe to its twice-weekly print edition, the paper won’t get paid.

As with many small papers across the country, that business strategy is not working for The Northeast Georgian. The paper’s five employees do not just report and write. They also edit the articles, take photographs and lay out the newspaper.

“My grandmother used to say, ‘Honey, if you let them get milk through the fence, they’ll never buy the cow,’” said Dink NeSmith, chief executive of Community Newspapers Inc., which owns The Northeast Georgian and 23 other local papers.

But the tough economics facing small newspapers like Mr. NeSmith’s has generated rare bipartisan agreement in Washington.

Anger toward big technology companies has led to multiple antitrust investigations, calls for a new federal data privacy law and criticism of the companies’ political ad policies. Perhaps no issue about the tech companies, though, has united lawmakers in the Capitol like the decimation of local news.

Lawmakers from both parties blame companies like Facebook and Google, which dominate the online ad industry.

Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, gave a big boost last week to a bill that may provide some papers a lifeboat. The proposal would give news organizations an exemption from antitrust laws, allowing them to band together to negotiate with Google and Facebook over how their articles and photos are used online, and what payments the newspapers get from the tech companies. (The bill is backed by the News Media Alliance, a trade group that represents news organizations including The New York Times Company.)

The proposal was sponsored by Representative Doug Collins, a conservative Georgia Republican whose district includes Cornelia. It was written by Representative David Cicilline, a liberal Democrat from Rhode Island. Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, sponsored an identical version in the Senate. Prominent co-sponsors joined, including Democrats like Cory Booker of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky.

For the politicians, the issue is personal. They see news deserts in places where one or two local newspapers used to track their campaigns and official actions, keep local police departments and school boards accountable, and stitch together communities with big layouts on Main Street holiday parades and high school sports stars.

“I am a free-markets guy and have fought against the idea that just because something is big it is necessarily bad,” Mr. Collins said. “But look, I’m a politician and live with the media and see its importance. These big, disruptive platforms are making money off creators of content disproportionately.”

Facebook and Google declined to comment about the legislation. Representatives of the companies say their businesses have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on programs to bolster local journalism. The companies also work with news organizations to promote their articles and videos, driving traffic to their websites.

Facebook recently announced partnerships with major news organizations, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and CNN, that would see some of the publishers paid for the content they share.

“We know this is a challenging time for journalism,” Campbell Brown, Facebook’s vice president of global news partnerships, said in a statement. “And we are working closely with publishers to find new ways to address those challenges.”

A Google spokeswoman said, “Every month, Google News and Google Search drive over 24 billion visits to publishers’ websites, which drive subscriptions and significant ad revenue.”

Newspapers have faced devastating financial losses for years. One in five newspapers have closed since 2004 in the United States, and about half of the nation’s more than 3,000 counties have only one newspaper, many of them printing weekly, according to a report by the University of North Carolina published in late 2018. In the last year alone, Facebook and Google added tens of thousands of employees and reported billions of dollars in profits.

Take Mr. Collins’s district in northern Georgia. The Atlanta Journal Constitution, the state’s biggest newspaper, has cut its staff by half in the past eight years. In Mr. Collins’s hometown, The Gainesville Times, one of the biggest papers in its region, cut its weekly print publication schedule to five days from seven a year ago.

The demand for local news remains. One day shortly after the fatal car crash, all of the discussion at Fender’s Diner, a 1950s-inspired eatery in Cornelia, was about the victim and allegations that the woman behind the wheel of the S.U.V. had been drinking.

“I care more about the people who walk through my front door of my place and the issues that matter to them than anything going on in Washington,” said Bradley Cook, the owner of the restaurant.

Many local leaders say the power of local newspapers was on display recently in Jesup, in southeastern Georgia. One of Mr. NeSmith’s papers in the area, The Press Sentinel in Wayne County, discovered that an Arizona-based company backed by wealthy investors, including Bill Gates, had quietly applied to dump 10,000 tons of coal ash per day in Jesup.

The paper published more than 70 articles about the application, and Mr. NeSmith wrote several editorials. The attention led to public hearings, and the company, Republic Services, to delay its plans.

Many officials also say that without robust local coverage, they are constantly fighting against misinformation that spreads on social media. After the Board of Commissioners in Habersham County, Ga., proposed a bond issue to expand the county jail, speculation spread online about the motivations for the project and the burden for taxpayers, said Stacy Hall, the board’s chairman. Voters defeated the proposal in November.

“Disinformation on social media is our No. 1 problem,” Mr. Hall said. “There is a crisis in getting the facts — the basic facts that only community newspapers can provide.”

The proposed antitrust exemption for news organizations still faces hurdles. Congress passed few bills of note in 2019 — and it may pass even fewer this year, in the face of impeachment and the November election. Conservative think tanks and some consumer groups are pushing back on the bill, wary of giving any antitrust exemptions to businesses.

“Instead of trying to innovate and find solutions that way,” said Neil Chilson, a senior research fellow for technology and innovation at the Charles Koch Institute, “they are trying to make better deals with people with more money, and that doesn’t solve their basic business-model problems.”

Supporters of the legislation said it was not a magic pill for profitability. It could, they say, benefit newspapers with a national reach — like The Times and The Washington Post — more than small papers. Facebook, for instance, has never featured articles from Mr. NeSmith’s newspaper chain in its “Today In” feature, an aggregation of local news from the nation’s smallest papers that can drive a lot of traffic to a news site.

“It will start with larger national publications, and then the question is how does this trickle down,” said Otis A. Brumby III, the publisher of The Marietta Daily Journal in Georgia.

But the supporters say it could stop or at least slow the financial losses at some papers, giving them time to create a new business model for the internet.

“The tech industry platforms benefit from our news,” said Robin Rhodes, the executive director of the Georgia Press Association, which supports the proposal. “And we need to be on a level playing ground.”

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Bosworth, Andrew (1982- ) Facebook Inc News and News Media Online Advertising Presidential Election of 2020 Trump, Donald J Uncategorized Zuckerberg, Mark E

Don’t Tilt Scales Against Trump, Facebook Executive Warns

SAN FRANCISCO — Since the 2016 election, when Russian trolls and a tsunami of misinformation turned social media into a partisan battlefield, Facebook has wrestled with the role it played in President Trump’s victory.

Now, according to a memo obtained by The New York Times, a longtime Facebook executive has told employees that the company had a moral duty not to tilt the scales against Mr. Trump as he seeks re-election.

On Dec. 30, Andrew Bosworth, the head of Facebook’s virtual and augmented reality division, wrote on his internal Facebook page that, as a liberal, he found himself wanting to use the social network’s powerful platform against Mr. Trump. But citing the “Lord of the Rings” franchise and the philosopher John Rawls, Mr. Bosworth said that doing so would eventually backfire.

“I find myself desperately wanting to pull any lever at my disposal to avoid the same result,” he wrote. “So what stays my hand? I find myself thinking of the Lord of the Rings at this moment.

“Specifically when Frodo offers the ring to Galadrial and she imagines using the power righteously, at first, but knows it will eventually corrupt her,” he said, misspelling the name of the character Galadriel. “As tempting as it is to use the tools available to us to change the outcome, I am confident we must never do that or we will become that which we fear.”

In a meandering 2,500-word post, titled “Thoughts for 2020,” Mr. Bosworth weighed in on issues including political polarization, Russian interference and the news media’s treatment of Facebook. He gave a frank assessment of Facebook’s shortcomings in recent years, saying that the company had been “late” to address the issues of data security, misinformation and foreign interference. And he accused the left of overreach, saying that when it came to calling people Nazis, “I think my fellow liberals are a bit too, well, liberal.”

Mr. Bosworth also waded into the debate over the health effects of social media, rejecting what he called “wildly offensive” comparisons of Facebook to addictive substances like nicotine. He instead compared Facebook to sugar, and said users were responsible for moderating their own intake.

“If I want to eat sugar and die an early death that is a valid position,” Mr. Bosworth wrote. “My grandfather took such a stance towards bacon and I admired him for it. And social media is likely much less fatal than bacon.”

The post by Mr. Bosworth, a former head of Facebook’s advertising team, provides an unusually candid glimpse of the debates raging within Facebook about the platform’s responsibilities as it heads into the 2020 election.

The biggest of those debates is whether Facebook should change its rules governing political speech. Posts by politicians are exempt from many of Facebook’s current rules, and their ads are not submitted for fact-checking, giving them license to mislead voters with partisan misinformation.

Last year, platforms like Twitter and Google announced restrictions to their political advertising tools ahead of the 2020 election.

Facebook and its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, have faced heavy pressure from Democrats and Republicans, including Mr. Trump’s campaign, not to restrict its own powerful ad platform, which allows political campaigns to reach targeted audiences and raise money from supporters. But other politicians, and some Facebook employees, including a group that petitioned Mr. Zuckerberg in October, have argued that the social network has a responsibility to stamp out misinformation on its platform, including in posts by politicians.

Mr. Bosworth said that even though keeping the current policies in place “very well may lead to” Mr. Trump’s re-election, it was the right decision.

Dozens of Facebook employees pushed back on Mr. Bosworth’s conclusions, arguing in the comments section below his post that politicians should be held to the same standard as other Facebook users. They debated whether Facebook should ban or remove posts by politicians, including Mr. Trump, that included hate speech or forms of misinformation.

One Facebook employee warned that if the company continued to take its current approach, it risked promoting populist leaders around the world, including in the United States.

A Facebook spokeswoman provided a statement from Mr. Bosworth in which he said that the post “wasn’t written for public consumption,” but that he “hoped this post would encourage my co-workers to continue to accept criticism with grace as we accept the responsibility we have overseeing our platform.”

Ultimately, the decision on whether to allow politicians to spread misinformation on Facebook rests with Mr. Zuckerberg. In recent months, he has appeared to stand firm on the decision to keep the existing ad policies in place, saying that he believes Facebook should not become an arbiter of truth. But he has also left himself room to change his mind. In November, a Facebook spokesman said the company was “looking at different ways we might refine our approach to political ads.”

Among those lobbying Mr. Zuckerberg is President Trump himself, who claimed on a radio show on Monday that Mr. Zuckerberg had congratulated him on being “No. 1” on Facebook during a private dinner.

Mr. Bosworth said he believed Facebook was responsible for Mr. Trump’s 2016 election victory, but not because of Russian interference or the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which millions of Facebook users’ data was leaked to a political strategy firm that worked with the Trump campaign. Mr. Bosworth said the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica revelations — uncovered by The Times, working with The Observer of London and The Guardian — rightly changed the conversation around how Facebook should handle user data, and which companies should be given access to that data.

But, he said, Mr. Trump simply used Facebook’s advertising tools effectively.

“He didn’t get elected because of Russia or misinformation or Cambridge Analytica,” Mr. Bosworth wrote. “He got elected because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser. Period.”

Mr. Bosworth, a longtime confidant of Mr. Zuckerberg’s who is viewed by some inside Facebook as a proxy for the chief executive, has been an outspoken defender of the company’s positions in the past.

In 2018, BuzzFeed News published a memo Mr. Bosworth wrote in 2016 justifying the company’s growth-at-all-costs ethos, in which he said the company’s mission of connecting people was “de facto good,” even if it resulted in deaths.

After the memo’s publication, a Facebook executive said the company wished it could “go back and hit delete” on Mr. Bosworth’s 2016 post.

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Lord of the Rings, 2020 and Stuffed Oreos: Read the Andrew Bosworth Memo

On Dec. 30, Andrew Bosworth, a longtime Facebook executive and confidant of Mark Zuckerberg, wrote a long memo on the company’s internal network.

In the post, titled “Thoughts for 2020,” Mr. Bosworth — who oversaw Facebook’s advertising efforts during the 2016 election and is now in charge of the company’s virtual and augmented reality division — admitted that President Trump’s savvy use of Facebook’s advertising tools “very well may lead to” his re-election. But he maintained that the company should not change its policies on political advertising, saying that doing so in order to avert a victory by Mr. Trump would be a misuse of power, comparing it to a scene from “The Lord of the Rings.”

Mr. Bosworth, who is seen by some inside Facebook as a proxy of sorts for Mr. Zuckerberg, also weighed in on a variety of issues that have vexed Facebook for the past few years, including data privacy scandals, Russian interference, political polarization and the debate over whether Facebook is healthy for society.

Here is the full post as written:

The election of Donald Trump immediately put a spotlight on Facebook. While the intensity and focus of that spotlight may be unfair I believe it isn’t unjust. Scrutiny is warranted given our position in society as the most prominent of a new medium. I think most of the criticisms that have come to light have been valid and represent real areas for us to serve our community better. I don’t enjoy having our flaws exposed, but I consider it far better than the alternative where we remain ignorant of our shortcomings.

One trap I sometimes see people falling into is to dismiss all feedback when they can invalidate one part of it. I see that with personal feedback and I see it happening with media coverage. The press often gets so many details wrong it can be hard to trust the veracity of their conclusions. Dismissing the whole because of flaws in parts is a mistake. The media has limited information to work with (by our own design!) and they sometimes get it entirely wrong but there is almost always some critical issue that motivated them to write which we need to understand.

It is worth looking at the 2016 Election which set this chain of events in motion. I was running our ads organization at the time of the election and had been for the four years prior (and for one year after). It is worth reminding everyone that Russian Interference was real but it was mostly not done through advertising. $100,000 in ads on Facebook can be a powerful tool but it can’t buy you an American election, especially when the candidates themselves are putting up several orders of magnitude more money on the same platform (not to mention other platforms).

Instead, the Russians worked to exploit existing divisions in the American public for example by hosting Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter protest events in the same city on the same day. The people who shows up to those events were real even if the event coordinator was not. Likewise the groups of Americans being fed partisan content was real even if those feeding them were not. The organic reach they managed sounds very big in absolute terms and unfortunately humans are bad at contextualizing big numbers. Whatever reach they managed represents an infinitesimal fraction of the overall content people saw in the same period of time and certainly over the course of an election across all media.

So most of the information floating around that is widely believed isn’t accurate. But who cares? It is certainly true that we should have been more mindful of the role both paid and organic content played in democracy and been more protective of it. On foreign interference, Facebook has made material progress and while we may never be able to fully eliminate it I don’t expect it to be a major issue for 2020.

Misinformation was also real and related but not the same as Russian interference. The Russians may have used misinformation alongside real partisan messaging in their campaigns, but the primary source of misinformation was economically motivated. People with no political interest whatsoever realized they could drive traffic to ad-laden websites by creating fake headlines and did so to make money. These might be more adequately described as hoaxes that play on confirmation bias or conspiracy theory. In my opinion this is another area where the criticism is merited. This is also an area where we have made dramatic progress and don’t expect it to be a major issue for 2020.

It is worth noting, as it is relevant at the current moment, that misinformation from the candidates themselves was not considered a major shortcoming of political advertising on FB in 2016 even though our policy then was the same as it is now. These policies are often covered by the press in the context of a profit motive. That’s one area I can confidently assure you the critics are wrong. Having run our ads business for some time it just isn’t a factor when we discuss the right thing to do. However, given that those conversations are private I think we can all agree the press can be forgiven for jumping to that conclusion. Perhaps we could do a better job exposing the real cost of these mistakes to make it clear that revenue maximization would have called for a different strategy entirely.

Cambridge Analytica is one of the more acute cases I can think of where the details are almost all wrong but I think the scrutiny is broadly right. Facebook very publicly launched our developer platform in 2012 in an environment primarily scrutinizing us for keeping data to ourselves. Everyone who added an application got a prompt explaining what information it would have access to and at the time it included information from friends. This may sound crazy in a 2020 context but it received widespread praise at the time. However the only mechanism we had for keeping data secure once it was shared was legal threats which ultimately didn’t amount to much for companies which had very little to lose. The platform didn’t build the value we had hoped for our consumers and we shut this form of it down in 2014.

The company Cambridge Analytica started by running surveys on Facebook to get information about people. It later pivoted to be an advertising company, part of our Facebook Marketing Partner program, who other companies could hire to run their ads. Their claim to fame was psychographic targeting. This was pure snake oil and we knew it; their ads performed no better than any other marketing partner (and in many cases performed worse). I personally regret letting them stay on the FMP program for that reason alone. However at the time we thought they were just another company trying to find an angle to promote themselves and assumed poor performance would eventually lose them their clients. We had no idea they were shopping an old Facebook dataset that they were supposed to have deleted (and certified to us in writing that they had).

When Trump won, Cambridge Analytica tried to take credit so they were back on our radar but just for making [expletive] claims about their own importance. I was glad when the Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale called them out for it. Later on, we found out from journalists that they had never deleted the database and had instead made elaborate promises about its power for advertising. Our comms team decided it would be best to get ahead of the journalists and pull them from the platform. This was a huge mistake. It was not only bad form (justifiably angering the journalists) but we were also fighting the wrong battle. We wanted to be clear this had not been a data breach (which, to be fair to us, it absolutely was not) but the real concern was the existence of the dataset no matter how it happened. We also sent the journalists legal letters advising them not to use the term “breech” which was received normally by the NYT (who agreed) and aggressively by The Guardian (who forged ahead with the wrong terminology, furious about the letter) in spite of it being a relatively common practice I am told.

In practical terms, Cambridge Analytica is a total non-event. They were snake oil salespeople. The tools they used didn’t work, and the scale they used them at wasn’t meaningful. Every claim they have made about themselves is garbage. Data of the kind they had isn’t that valuable to being with and worse it degrades quickly, so much so as to be effectively useless in 12-18 months. In fact the United Kingdom Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) seized all the equipment at Cambridge Analytica and found that there was zero data from any UK citizens! So surely, this is one where we can ignore the press, right? Nope. The platform was such a poor move that the risks associated were bound to come to light. That we shut it down in 2014 and never paid the piper on how bad it was makes this scrutiny justified in my opinion, even if it is narrowly misguided.

So was Facebook responsible for Donald Trump getting elected? I think the answer is yes, but not for the reasons anyone thinks. He didn’t get elected because of Russia or misinformation or Cambridge Analytica. He got elected because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser. Period.

To be clear, I’m no fan of Trump. I donated the max to Hillary. After his election I wrote a post about Trump supporters that I’m told caused colleagues who had supported him to feel unsafe around me (I regret that post and deleted shortly after).

But Parscale and Trump just did unbelievable work. They weren’t running misinformation or hoaxes. They weren’t microtargeting or saying different things to different people. They just used the tools we had to show the right creative to each person. The use of custom audiences, video, ecommerce, and fresh creative remains the high water mark of digital ad campaigns in my opinion.

That brings me to the present moment, where we have maintained the same ad policies. It occurs to me that it very well may lead to the same result. As a committed liberal I find myself desperately wanting to pull any lever at my disposal to avoid the same result. So what stays my hand?

I find myself thinking of the Lord of the Rings at this moment. Specifically when Frodo offers the ring to Galadrial and she imagines using the power righteously, at first, but knows it will eventually corrupt her. As tempting as it is to use the tools available to us to change the outcome, I am confident we must never do that or we will become that which we fear.

The philosopher John Rawls reasoned that the only moral way to decide something is to remove yourself entirely from the specifics of any one person involved, behind a so called “Veil of Ignorance.” That is the tool that leads me to believe in liberal government programs like universal healthcare, expanding housing programs, and promoting civil rights. It is also the tool that prevents me from limiting the reach of publications who have earned their audience, as distasteful as their content may be to me and even to the moral philosophy I hold so dear.

That doesn’t mean there is no line. Things like incitement of violence, voter suppression, and more are things that same moral philosophy would safely allow me to rule out. But I think my fellow liberals are a bit too, well, liberal when it comes to calling people Nazi’s.

If we don’t want hate mongering politicians then we must not elect them. If they are getting elected then we have to win hearts and minds. If we change the outcomes without winning the minds of the people who will be ruled then we have a democracy in name only. If we limit what information people have access to and what they can say then we have no democracy at all.

This conversation often raises the alarm around filter bubbles, but that is a myth that is easy to dispel. Ask yourself how many newspapers and news programs people read/watched before the internet. If you guessed “one and one” on average you are right, and if you guessed those were ideologically aligned with them you are right again. The internet exposes them to far more content from other sources (26% more on Facebook, according to our research). This is one that everyone just gets wrong.

The focus on filter bubbles causes people to miss the real disaster which is polarization. What happens when you see 26% more content from people you don’t agree with? Does it help you empathize with them as everyone has been suggesting? Nope. It makes you dislike them even more. This is also easy to prove with a thought experiment: whatever your political leaning, think of a publication from the other side that you despise. When you read an article from that outlet, perhaps shared by an uncle or nephew, does it make you rethink your values? Or does it make you retreat further into the conviction of your own correctness? If you answered the former, congratulations you are a better person than I am. Every time I read something from Breitbart I get 10% more liberal.

What does all of this say about the nature of the algorithmic rewards? Everyone points to top 0.1% content as being acutely polarized but how steep are the curves? What does the top 1% or 5% look like? And what is the real reach across those curves when compared to other content? I think the call for algorithmic transparency can sometimes be overblown but being more transparent about this type of data would likely be healthy.

What I expect people will find is that the algorithms are primarily exposing the desires of humanity itself, for better or worse. This is a Sugar, Salt, Fat problem. The book of that name tells a story ostensibly about food but in reality about the limited effectiveness of corporate paternalism. A while ago Kraft foods had a leader who tried to reduce the sugar they sold in the interest of consumer health. But customers wanted sugar. So instead he just ended up reducing Kraft market share. Health outcomes didn’t improve. That CEO lost his job. The new CEO introduced quadruple stuffed Oreos and the company returned to grace. Giving people tools to make their own decisions is good but trying to force decisions upon them rarely works (for them or for you).

In these moments people like to suggest that our consumers don’t really have free will. People compare social media to nicotine. I find that wildly offensive, not to me but to addicts. I have seen family members struggle with alcoholism and classmates struggle with opioids. I know there is a battle for the terminology of addiction but I side firmly with the neuroscientists. Still, while Facebook may not be nicotine I think it is probably like sugar. Sugar is delicious and for most of us there is a special place for it in our lives. But like all things it benefits from moderation.

At the end of the day we are forced to ask what responsibility individuals have for themselves. Set aside substances that directly alter our neurochemistry unnaturally. Make costs and trade-offs as transparent as possible. But beyond that each of us must take responsibility for ourselves. If I want to eat sugar and die an early death that is a valid position. My grandfather took such a stance towards bacon and I admired him for it. And social media is likely much less fatal than bacon.

To bring this uncharacteristically long and winding essay full circle, I wanted to start a discussion about what lessons people are taking away from the press coverage. My takeaway is that we were late on data security, misinformation, and foreign interference. We need to get ahead of polarization and algorithmic transparency. What are the other big topics people are seeing and where are we on those?

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2020 Campaigns Throw Their Hands Up on Disinformation

In 2018, Lisa Kaplan assembled a small team inside the re-election campaign for Senator Angus King, an independent from Maine. Wary of how Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, it set out to find and respond to political disinformation online.

The team noticed some false statements shared by voters, and traced the language back to Facebook pages with names like “Boycott The NFL 2018.” It alerted Facebook, and some pages were removed. The people behind the posts, operating from places like Israel and Nigeria, had misled the company about their identity.

Today, Ms. Kaplan said, she knows of no campaigns, including among the 2020 presidential candidates, that have similar teams dedicated to spotting and pushing back on disinformation.

They may “wake up the day after the election and say, ‘Oh, no, the Russians stole another one,’” she said.

The examples are numerous: A hoax version of the Green New Deal legislation went viral online. Millions of people saw unsubstantiated rumors about the relationship between Ukraine and the family of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. A canard about the ties between a Ukrainian oil company and a son of Senator Mitt Romney, the Utah Republican, spread widely, too.

Still, few politicians or their staffs are prepared to quickly notice and combat incorrect stories about them, according to dozens of campaign staff members and researchers who study online disinformation. Several of the researchers said they were surprised by how little outreach they had received from politicians.

Campaigns and political parties say their hands are tied, because big online companies like Facebook and YouTube have few restrictions on what users can say or share, as long as they do not lie about who they are.

But campaigns should not just be throwing their hands up, said some researchers and campaign veterans like Ms. Kaplan, who now runs a start-up that helps fight disinformation. Instead, they said, there should be a concerted effort to counter falsehoods.

“Politicians must play some defense by understanding what information is out there that may be manipulated,” said Joan Donovan, a research director at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center. Even more important for politicians, she said, is pushing “high-profile and consistent informational campaigns.”

Too many campaigns are now left on their heels, said Simon Rosenberg, who tried to thwart disinformation for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee before the 2018 midterm election.

“The idea of counterdisinformation doesn’t really exist as a strategic objective,” he said.

Political groups are not ignoring false information. Bob Lord, the chief security officer of the Democratic National Committee, encourages campaigns to alert his organization when they see it online.

The committee also gives advice on when and how to respond. He said campaigns must decide when the costs of ignoring a falsehood outweighed drawing additional attention to it by speaking out.

But he said his reach was limited.

“The amount of disinformation that is floating around can cover almost any possible topic,” Mr. Lord said, and his team cannot look into each reported piece. If campaigns need connections to social media companies, he said, “we’re happy to make some.”

In September, President Trump’s re-election campaign released an ad that included an incorrect statement about Mr. Biden’s dealings with Ukraine. The campaign posted the ad on Facebook and the president’s Twitter account. Between the two services, the ad has been viewed more than eight million times.

Mr. Biden’s campaign publicized letters that it had written to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Fox News, asking the companies to ban the ad. But it remained up. In mid-November, the Biden campaign released a website called Just the Facts, Folks.

Jamal Brown, a spokesman for the Biden campaign, said it was not the campaign’s responsibility alone to push back on all falsehoods. But, he said, “it is incumbent upon all of us, both public- and private-sector companies, users, and elected officials and leaders, to be more vigilant in the kinds of content we engage and reshare on social media.”

Several months ago, a team at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee flagged some ads on Facebook to the office of Representative Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat. The ads called for an investigation into unfounded accusations that she had violated several laws.

After the committee and Ms. Omar’s campaign contacted Facebook, the company said it would limit the prominence of the ads in people’s feeds. But the ads, which have now reached over one million views, remain active.

Facebook does not remove false news, though it does label some stories as false through a partnership with several fact-checking organizations. It has said politicians like Mr. Trump can run ads that feature their “own claim or statement — even if the substance of that claim has been debunked elsewhere.”

In October, Twitter announced plans to forbid all political ads. But the company does not screen for false accusations. Twitter said it did not want to set a precedent for deciding what is and is not truthful online.

In an email, Ms. Omar said it was “not enough” to rely on private companies alone.

“We as a nation need to think seriously about ways to address online threats to our safety and our democracy while protecting core values like free speech,” she said.

Academics and researchers said it was surprising how little outreach there had been from campaigns that faced disinformation operations. Many of the researchers can dissect when a false idea first appeared online, and how it spread.

Graham Brookie, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, said there needed to be “more ingrained information sharing” among politicians, campaign staff, social media companies, civil society groups and, in some cases, law enforcement to counteract the increasing volume of election disinformation.

But when disinformation is used as a tool in partisan politics, Mr. Brookie said, the discussion becomes “a Rorschach test to reaffirm each audience’s existing beliefs, regardless of the facts.”

“One side will accuse the other, and then disinformation itself is weaponized,” he said.

Chris Pack, communications director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the disinformation that his party fought was “perpetuated by a liberal press corps that is still incapable of wrapping their heads around the fact that President Trump won the 2016 election.”

That leaves some in the research community wary of wading in at all, said Renee DiResta, the technical research manager for the Stanford Internet Observatory, which studies disinformation.

“I think this is a concern for a lot of academics who don’t want to work directly with a campaign,” Ms. DiResta said, “because that would be problematic for their neutrality.”

Nick Corasaniti contributed reporting.