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Preventing Another Disinformation Election

Daniel G. Newman is the President of Decode Democracy, a nonpartisan campaign to fight online political deception to build a better democracy.

In less than a year, American voters will be heading to the polls or mailing-in ballots for another crucial election. And once again, the integrity of the election and voters’ confidence in the legitimacy of the outcome is in jeopardy. That’s partly because our lawmakers have approached the online disinformation crisis with the legislative equivalent of a shrug. There’s still time to safeguard our elections and protect voters from disinformation ahead of 2022, but only if we make it a priority.

In recent election cycles, we’ve seen powerful examples of how online disinformation campaigns aimed at suppressing, deceiving, and disillusioning voters can damage our democracy. The speed at which disinformation can travel online, the new ability to narrowly and cheaply target voters with online ads based on personal data, and the lack of modern regulations to fit the online world have unleashed disastrous consequences. Our democracy is failing to protect voters from the toxic impacts of rampant disinformation, with public confidence in our elections and democratic institutions suffering accordingly. 

Beginning in 2016, we saw concrete examples of how online disinformation and deception could be weaponized when former President Trump’s campaign targeted Facebook ads to Black voters in swing states to deter them from voting. Narrowly tailored digital ads remained a key tool in 2020 to target users in swing states with misleading information about mail-in voting and question the legitimacy of the election. During the 2020 election, Black voters were also subjected to ‘voter depression’ campaigns that used viral memes and networks of social media influencers in an attempt to discourage them from voting while stoking inaction and apathy.

While the harmful impacts of online platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to amplify dangerous, hateful, and false content have served as the backdrop for countless congressional hearings, there’s been a remarkable lack of meaningful new regulations.

How can a functioning democracy allow such blatant attempts to manipulate and deceive voters continue? We can’t risk another year in which online disinformation manipulates voters while sowing distrust in election results. Specifically, that means demanding our lawmakers pass policies that reduce the quantity, spread, and impact of electoral disinformation; increase the transparency of online election information and ads; and elevate authoritative sources of electoral information. 

There is no one, silver-bullet solution to rid the internet of deceptive political content, but there are concrete steps lawmakers can take that will have immediate impact. 

  • First, lawmakers should require platforms to report illegal activity, including voter intimidation and threats of violence, to the Office of the Attorney General. At the moment, attempts to intimidate and suppress voters, plots to overthrow the government, and even threats to kill or physically harm someone–all of which are illegal–can be amplified on social media with platforms failing to report or remove the content. Mandating platforms to report such content to law enforcement will help the government enforce laws protecting people while incentivizing platforms to dedicate more resources to detect and remove illegal activity. 
  • To improve transparency, lawmakers need to fix the inexplicable gap between regulations for online political ads and traditional ads on television and radio. Political ads on TV and radio must disclose the group paying for the ad, with a message in the ad saying who is responsible for it. Online political ads aren’t subject to the same basic transparency standards, which keeps voters in the dark about who is trying to influence them and how. By passing the Freedom to Vote Act, which includes important transparency provisions for online ads, lawmakers can take a key step forward.    
  • To support voters’ access to trustworthy information, lawmakers should also provide funding to strengthen local media and meet the information needs of local communities. Economic restraints and new technology have led to the collapse of local media in many areas and created a “news vacuum” where disinformation spreads more widely. In New Jersey, lawmakers have crafted an elegant solution that can be a model for other states and the federal government. The state’s innovative Civic Information Consortium is a publicly-funded, nonprofit institution that awards grants to support media startups, local journalism, and other efforts aimed at civic education.

My organization, Decode Democracy, recently outlined proposals lawmakers should pursue as part of a Voter Empowerment Plan to fight online disinformation and safeguard elections. The plan combines new and existing solutions from allies including the Brennan Center, Free Press, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and Verified Voting. 

The harms caused by political disinformation and deception are clear and the solutions to prevent more damage are at our fingertips. With the clock ticking on the next election, the question now is whether legislators will make 2022 the year of solutions—or another year of failing to fight back attacks on our democracy.

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