Fears rise over disinformation in California's recall election

Conspiracy theorists who once spread baseless allegations and disinformation about the results of the 2020 elections have turned their attention to next week’s recall election targeting California Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomCalifornia faces flash flood watches amid 'Bomb Cyclone' and 'Atmospheric River' Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Southern Company — Ivory poaching changes evolution of elephants California regulator proposes ban on oil drilling near schools, hospitals, homes MORE (D) in an effort watchdogs say is meant to further undermine faith in the nation’s electoral system. 

But less than a year after technology giants came under pressure to monitor and squelch disinformation related to last year’s elections, groups dedicated to fighting conspiracy theories say the companies are letting bad actors run free. 

Thirteen groups wrote to the chief executives of Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter last week, urging a new crackdown on disinformation — one that would run through the midterm elections.

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“Today, with roughly two weeks remaining for Californians to vote in the recall election, many of the same disinformation narratives your platforms grappled with last November are at play once again,” the groups wrote. “And so far, Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube have failed to put in place the necessary safeguards to protect California voters from an onslaught of disputed, misleading, or outright false information about the election.”

“The false and destructive narratives on your platforms about elections are not going away. It’s time to increase your diligence and enforce civic integrity policies at all times,” the groups wrote. 

The disinformation campaigns blanketing social media networks disproportionately target people who do not speak English as a primary language, those who track its spread say. Many common threads involve questions of integrity of mail-in ballots, which is how the vast majority of California voters cast their votes. 

Spokespeople for Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube did not respond to requests for comment. 

But California Secretary of State Shirley Weber (D) has begun her own active campaign to combat disinformation. The secretary’s office has spent millions on television, radio and internet advertising to educate voters about the upcoming election and the unique two-step process involved in a recall. 

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“Election related mis- and disinformation poses its biggest threat when it leads voters to believe their vote won’t count or doesn’t matter,” said Jenna Drenner, a spokeswoman for Weber’s office. “We believe misinformation draws from confusion and concern, particularly given the unfamiliarity with the recall process, so we try to meet that confusion and concern with accurate, transparent explanations to commonly misunderstood questions, like breaking down the security features of our voting systems or illustrating how to vote on a ballot, to inoculate voters against election misinformation when it arises.” 

Some watchdog groups are concerned that the disinformation surrounding the recall is aimed at an audience far broader than Californians themselves. 

“The disinformation narratives about California are not contained within California. The individuals who are amplifying it have national platforms,” said Jesse Littlewood, vice president of campaigns at Common Cause, one of the groups that signed the letter. “When there’s an opportunity to lift up a narrative that focuses on California, disinformation actors grab that because it continues to activate their audience and their base.” 

The groups say tech giants have restricted access to advertising data on their platforms that researchers used to identify those who spread misinformation and disinformation, a threat that persists both before an election takes place and after the votes are counted. 

Polls show the recall attempt against Newsom failing. Surveys conducted in August and the first days of September show voters favor keeping Newsom in office by anywhere from a 4-point margin, in a CBS News poll, to a 19-point margin, in a survey from the Public Policy Institute of California. 

But how the tech companies respond to disinformation ahead of next week’s elections will offer a preview of the midterm election landscape next year, when voters across the nation will be subject to the same bad actors using California’s recall to sow seeds of distrust. 

“There is no such thing as an off year for election. The election conversation is not stopping at the borders of the electoral calendar,” Littlewood said.