Big Tech’s new ‘Big Lie’ to address: all elections are corrupt
The ‘Big Lie’ has metastasized. From a backward-looking claim that Joe Biden did not legitimately win the 2020 presidential election, it has spread to become a Republican article of faith that U.S. elections generally are corrupt.
With November’s midterms fast approaching, Republican nominees in federal and state races in key battleground states are making election denialism a central theme of their campaigns.
In Arizona, Kari Lake, the GOP nominee for governor, has claimed on Twitter that there were “tons of election irregularities” in her primary race — presumably intended to benefit one or more of her Republican rivals. Taking to Twitter to condemn the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s search for classified documents at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, Kristina Karamo, the GOP nominee for secretary of state in Michigan, posted: “With all this corruption happening, are we still naive enough to think these people wouldn’t cheat in elections[?]”
Nearly two-thirds of Republican nominees in swing states have made election denialism an element of their campaigns, according to a Washington Post analysis. If even a handful of these deniers are elected this year to state offices that oversee presidential elections — such as governor and secretary of state — the 2024 process could descend into chaos and violence, making the events of 2020-2021 seem tame by comparison.
A number of factors are feeding election denialism: Donald Trump’s uniquely corrosive lies and disregard for democratic norms; Republican leaders’ gutless obeisance; and cynical cheerleading from Fox News and even-more-extreme cable outlets, talk radio, podcasts and websites.
Social media companies also play a major role, amplifying the deniers, as falsehoods and conspiracy theories ricochet from platform to platform, gaining credibility on the political right by means of sheer repetition. A new report published by the Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University’s Stern School of Business finds that while the social media companies have promised to protect the upcoming midterms from mis-and disinformation, their flawed policies and inconsistent enforcement are exacerbating election denialism, especially in battlegrounds like Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Consider:
- Continuing a misguided policy it announced in 2019, Facebook exempts politicians from its fact-checking program. This facilitates election-denial lies by a particularly influential cohort of public figures.
- Twitter has a reasonable-sounding “civic integrity policy” centered on labeling and sometimes removing falsehoods, but between election cycles, it suspends enforcement of the policy, allowing denialism to gain damaging momentum. In August, a Twitter whistleblower went public with allegations that the company’s anti-misinformation effort is poorly managed, starved for resources and focused on putting out public relations “fires.”
- Increasingly plagued by political misinformation, Chinese-owned TikTok also has announced stringent policies related to elections. But the platform’s haphazard enforcement has failed to slow the spread of deniers’ lies.
- YouTube, which is owned by Google, has allowed its popular long-form video platform to be exploited by proponents of manufactured conspiracies. These include the myth of widespread “ballot trafficking” as portrayed in the debunked movie “2000 Mules.”
The consequences of social media-fueled denialism are grave. Beyond undermining trust in elections and inciting violence — such as the mob assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 — the phenomenon is being used to justify the enactment of restrictive voting laws that disproportionately harm people of color. It has also fueled harassment and death threats aimed at election administrators, causing experienced officials to quit. In a pernicious feedback loop, this intimidation is increasing the chances of logistical snafus that will reinforce baseless claims of election fraud.
As outlined in the NYU Stern Center report, there are steps the social media platforms can take now to mitigate the damage of denialism in November and in 2024.
Facebook maintains the most extensive outside fact-checking network in the industry. Other companies should step up their programs in this area. Fact-checking is not a panacea, in part because the scale of the major platforms precludes review of more than a tiny fraction of potentially untruthful viral material and in part because determining falsehoods can be fraught with uncertainty. But some lies are demonstrable — for example, that thousands of Democratic-paid “mules” stuffed hundreds of thousands of fraudulent ballots into drop boxes in 2020 — and social media should not lend its capacity for amplification to promoting such falsehoods.
Research has shown that fact-checking has a positive effect on people’s ability to distinguish truth from lies. Research has also shown that fact-checking has an even more positive effect if people who previously have shared the lie in question are informed of that fact — a retrospective boost for the truth that social media has the technology to accomplish.
But protecting elections requires steady, year-round enforcement. Facebook’s exemption of politicians from fact-checking gives voters access to what candidates and incumbents are saying, but that interest is outweighed by the need to protect the democratic process from a surging wave of falsehood. Twitter’s putting “civic integrity” on hold between elections has allowed denialism to gain momentum in the interim.
Facebook, now a part of Meta, unfortunately, undercuts its fact-checking efforts by failing to remove demonstrably false content. Instead, Facebook labels false material and demotes it in users’ feeds. Other platforms are similarly hesitant to remove provable falsehoods. Removal makes a more definitive statement, and there is a way to preserve the false content so it may be studied by researchers, journalists and anyone else who might be interested — namely, by retaining a clearly marked record copy that can be retrieved by a search but cannot be liked or shared or otherwise disseminated.
Social media companies have been too reactive in addressing election denialism. They need to focus more on “threat ideation,” meaning research and analysis aimed at identifying the danger that is just over the horizon. “It’s really, really hard in my experience to get executives to focus on that sort of thing,” says Katie Harbath, who formerly headed election policy for Facebook. But unless the top brass overcomes this reluctance, platforms will forever be playing a game of catch-up.
The platforms cannot stamp out dishonesty in politics. They can, however, do much more to help steer our elections toward clarity and rationality.
Paul M. Barrett is the deputy director of the Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University’s Stern School of Business and the author of the center’s new report on election denialism. Follow him on Twitter @authorpmbarrett