Even as revelations as to how false claims about the 2020 election spread across Facebook continue to emerge from the trove of documents brought forward by whistleblower Frances Haugen, it is hard sometimes to grasp the extent to which disinformation has come to define this most crucial democratic function.
But towards the bottom of page 29 of a new report from the Common Cause Education Fund, the research and public education affiliate of the watchdog group Common Cause, there is a single sentence that captures the unfortunate state of affairs in U.S. politics:
“Election disinformation is spread by activists and candidates in the same way that political messaging and issue priorities used to be.”
The report, titled As a Matter of Fact: The Harms Caused by Election Disinformation, is as thorough a summary of this dismal problem as you’ll find in less than 100 pages, detailing how election disinformation is produced by political and media elites, often backed by wealth conservatives, and how willing partisans join the fray on social media to amplify the message in a participatory process that utilizes the creativity of the crowd. Indeed, there are many points of vulnerability in the information ecosystem.
But hopefully, the authors make recommendations that address each of those points of vulnerability with proposed reforms and in federal and state law, as well as to business practices of the social media platforms.
The recommendations include statutory, executive and regulatory reforms to address voter intimidation, false election claims and campaign finance, and laws that bolster media literacy. Specific recommendations include:
- Amendments to existing federal and state statutes to explicitly prohibit election disinformation, particularly false statements regarding “the time, place, or manner of holding any federal election or the qualifications or restrictions of voter eligibility”.
- Passage of the measures contained in the For the People Act that “shine a light” on dark money and deceptive advertising practices in federal elections, ranging from robocalls to online ads.
- An amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would require intelligence agencies to report foreign government disinformation to interfere in U.S. elections.
- Campaign finance disclosure laws to provide the public with “easy access to accurate information regarding who is spending money on political advertising online and through more traditional modes of communication.”
- Restructuring and strengthening of the Federal Election Commission to permit more substantial enforcement of campaign finance law.
- Investments in state media literacy to do training to help people and civil society groups recognize and counter disinformation.
- Comprehensive federal and/or state privacy laws that can protect the use of personal data and ensure campaigns and other political entities do not abuse the privacy of voters.
- Passage of the Algorithmic Justice and Online Platform Transparency Act, which contains language that specifically addresses practices by social media platforms that may result in impact on “fair exercise of the right to vote”.
- Legislation to fund local media including the Future of Local News Act.
- Creation of a Biden administration interagency task force which, “composed of senior officials from executive agencies such as the Department of Justice and Department of Commerce and independent agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission, among others, would develop initiatives to mitigate the impact of disinformation, particularly on African American communities and other communities of color that are disproportionately targeted by disinformation campaigns.”
Of the platforms, the report requests something that has proven difficult for the big tech firms to deliver: consistent enforcement of their own policies. “Platforms have failed to consistently enforce the civic integrity policies they have in place to combat the spread of election disinformation. Further, enforcement tends to become more relaxed during nonelection cycles,” the authors write.
There are other recommendations to the platforms that are generally agreed would be useful by almost every civil society group that has released a report of this nature for the past few years, such as the provision of more data to researchers to understand and develop solutions to the harms of social media, and the need to invest more in combating disinformation, including hiring more content moderators.
“We have also seen and documented the social media companies’ failures in their public commitment to prevent the spread of disinformation about elections – failures echoed by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen,” said Jesse Littlewood, Common Cause Vice President for Campaigns and one of the authors of the report. “The current state of affairs is nothing short of dangerous and the time is now for comprehensive reforms.”
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own.