The For the People Act is the bold legislative action we need to fight election disinformation

In our democracy, we deserve to have political debates based in truth, but as we saw in the 2020 election, Americans are increasingly dealt a deluge of disinformation that comes at them in all forms: online, television ads, and from politicians and our elected officials themselves. If we are going to have a real democracy that is truly of, by, and for the people, then we need solutions and accountability to combat the growing cancer of disinformation. We can start with a bill moving through Congress right now: the For the People Act.

Voters, particularly voters of color, were targets for voting-related disinformation campaigns throughout the 2020 election. These dangerous efforts were waged by both domestic and foreign enemies of democracy to weaken trust in the integrity of our election systems and ultimately discourage us from participating and making our voices heard. Throughout the 2020 election, Common Cause staff, volunteers, and allies tracked and identified thousands of social media posts and trends containing this type of disinformation. During the election, disinformation was spread and amplified across social, online, and traditional media in an attempt to disenfranchise voters or sow the ground for attempts to overturn the election — which led directly to the tragic and avoidable attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Now these same lies are being used to push for new restrictions to the freedom to vote by Republican state legislators, and it has become increasingly clear that voters need protections from voting-related disinformation.

That brings us to the For the People Act. The bill, introduced as H.R. 1 and S. 1 in Congress, is a bold set of solutions to ensure our government is working for us and that we can all participate in our democracy, as it gets big money out politics, cleans up corruption in government, protects the freedom to vote, and ends gerrymandering. What you may not know is that the legislative package also works to stop the spread of disinformation, putting voters and their interests first.

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The For the People Act would combat disinformation in numerous ways. To start, the bill prohibits providing false or misleading information that is intended to prevent voters from casting their ballot, and increases penalties for doing so. This includes false statements regarding elections or public endorsements, whether it be through written, electronic, or telephonic communications. For example, the spam robocalls that voters encountered in a number of states leading up to the election would be strictly forbidden. The legislation also prohibits distributing manipulated audio or visual content that is intended to deceive voters.

The For the People Act doesn’t just restrict the spread of election-related disinformation; it also encourages the promotion of accurate, factual information about voting. Under this bill, if a state does not respond to voting-related disinformation, the U.S. attorney general would be responsible for disseminating nonpartisan factual election related information. It would also require the attorney general to create a voter-assistance response system and hotline so voters can get immediate assistance if they have problems or questions about voting.

The For the People Act also increases transparency on social media and campaign spending. The bill would require secret money groups that spend money in elections to disclose their big donors and would update the online ad disclaimers for political ads featured on websites and social media. Large digital platforms like Facebook and Google would be required to maintain a public database of political ads. These provisions will help ensure voters know exactly who is trying to influence their voices and their votes.

The bill also restricts attempts by foreign powers to interfere in our elections in several ways. It requires digital platforms to implement security protocols so political ads cannot be bought by foreign nationals. The For the People Act also requires political action committees and candidates for federal office to disclose to the FBI and Federal Election Commission if they are contacted by foreign nationals seeking to interfere in U.S. elections.

To be clear, the For the People Act is just the start of what is needed to tackle the problem of online disinformation. We also need comprehensive privacy legislation that limits digital platforms’ ability to collect, share, and use personal data in discriminatory ways that leads to the spread of disinformation. Additionally, federal agencies, such as the Federal Election Commission, Federal Trade Commission, and others, should use their enforcement and rulemaking capabilities to hold platforms accountable for the spread of disinformation. Social media platforms also need to do more, including actually enforcing their own anti-disinformation and hate speech restrictions, doing more to support non-English speaking communities, and strengthening media education.

Combating disinformation is going to take time and action across our society, but we have to get started now with bold legislative solutions that protect voters and promote the truth. The For the People Act is exactly that bold legislative action we need.

Yosef Getachew is the media & democracy program director at Common Cause, where he works to develop policy and accountability solutions to combat disinformation. Jesse Littlewood is the vice president of campaigns at Common Cause, where he manages a large-scale monitoring and rapid response program on disinformation related to democracy and elections.