Jonathan Walter is a Media & Democracy Program Fellow and Yosef Getachew serves as the Media & Democracy Program Director for Common Cause.
Over the course of 2021, disinformation spread like wildfire on social media platforms about the “Big Lie”, the January 6th insurrection, and state-level elections, posing dangers to public safety and our democracy. While platforms have policies in place to counter the spread of disinformation, our own research and research from other organizations has shown that their enforcement is inconsistent and uneven. Thanks to whistleblowers and watchdog journalists on the tech beat, we also know that in many cases platforms made business decisions that incentivize the spread and amplification of harmful content. Social media platforms have shown time and again what many of us have known for years– they are unwilling and unable to regulate themselves.
Members of Congress have clearly taken notice of social media’s role in promoting disinformation and extremism. Throughout 2021, both the Senate and the House of Representatives held hearings examining platform business models and how they contribute to the spread of harmful content. Hearings tackled key issues contributing to the spread of disinformation on social media and featured witnesses other than the Big Tech CEOs who provided expertise from public interest, civil rights, and academic perspectives. Members of Congress also sent a number of letters to platforms seeking answers on the role they played in fueling the Jan. 6 insurrection.
If 2021 was the year of fact finding and building a record in Congress, this must be the year for action. Congress must build on the momentum from the prior year and enact meaningful reforms to mitigate platform business practices that lead to the spread of disinformation. Our report, As a Matter of Fact, The Harms Caused By Election Disinformation, outlines a legislative, regulatory, and corporate accountability framework to curb the spread of election disinformation. Legislative recommendations include: (1) prohibiting discriminatory algorithims, (2) protecting external researchers access to data, (3) strengthening local media, and (4) passing comprehensive privacy legislation. Fortunately, members of Congress have already introduced legislation that addresses many of these reforms.
Throughout the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections (and the 2018 midterm elections), bad actors took advantage of Facebook’s algorithms to conduct voter suppression campaigns and elevate disinformation. This is why algorithmic accountability is critical to stopping the spread of election disinformation. The Algorithmic Justice and Online Platform Transparency Act, sponsored by Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) and Representative Doris Matsui (D-CA) prohibits discriminatory algorithms and provides more transparency about how these algorithms operate. The bill directly combats the spread of election disinformation by specifically prohibiting algorithmic processes that would suppress an individual’s right to vote.
Ensuring third-party researchers and watchdog journalists have sufficient access to social media data and protection from retaliation by the platforms is an important piece of the puzzle to holding platforms accountable for the spread of disinformation. Research and investigative reporting are both crucial to shining a light on how the practices of these platforms impact our democracy. Representative Lori Trahan (D-MA)’s Social Media Disclosure and Transparency of Advertisements Act takes important steps to safeguard researcher access to data. The bill would require covered platforms to grant academic researchers and the FTC access to an ad library with select information about each ad.
One under-discussed solution to addressing election disinformation is providing more support to local news, which can build public trust and correct misinformation without legitimizing it. But local news has been in economic decline for years where many communities now live in news deserts. The Future of Local News Act, introduced by Senators Brian Schatz (D-HI), Michael Bennet (D-CO), and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) in the Senate, and Representative Marc Veasey (D-TX) in the House would create a committee to study the state of local journalism and offer recommendations to Congress. In addition, we still need legislation that makes long-term investments in our local newsrooms in order to address the civic information needs of our communities.
Comprehensive privacy reform will also play a key role in combating the spread of election misinformation. If bad actors cannot collect data on users’ political beliefs, search history, and consumption habits, then this information cannot be weaponized against the marginalized communities voter suppression campaigns often target. A comprehensive framework to safeguard our privacy online must protect civil rights and include protections for consumers from the abusive collection, use, and sharing of personal data.
Together these pieces of legislation serve to remedy some of the different harms caused by the big tech platforms.
In addition, Congress can use its investigatory and oversight authority to shine a light on the ways big tech companies have impacted our democracy. The House Select Committee on the January 6th attack has already issued subpoenas to Twitter, Reddit, Meta (Facebook), and Alphabet (YouTube) asking that the companies provide information on how their platforms contribute to the spread of the big lie and calls for action in the wake of the 2020 presidential election.
However, congressional action alone cannot solve the problem. A holistic approach to holding platforms accountable also requires regulatory reform, executive action, and corporate accountability. The White House must continue to push relevant federal agencies to use their enforcement, rule-making, and investigatory authorities to go after some of the most harmful business practices of the big tech companies – invasive data collection, inconsistent content moderation, discriminatory uses of algorithms, and more.
The new year represents a tremendous opportunity for Congress to return power to the people and hold big tech accountable.