Officials urge social media groups to weed out election disinformation targeting minority voters
Officials on Tuesday urged social media platforms to take further steps to root out and remove disinformation and misinformation targeting minority groups that could lead to voter disenfranchisement in the upcoming elections.
Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.), who took over as chair of the House Homeland Security Committee’s cybersecurity subcommittee last month, sounded the alarm on disinformation efforts against minority groups, in particular against the Black community.
Underwood sent letters to the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube on Tuesday expressing concerns that both malicious foreign actors and those in the U.S. could use social media to spread disinformation aimed at preventing Black individuals from voting.
“The continued efforts to maliciously target Black voters on your platforms raise questions about whether you, as Chief Executive Officer of Facebook, fully appreciate the range of tactics that have been used to suppress Black turnout and the many forms that such suppression may take,” Underwood wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “This election will take place under unprecedented circumstances, and both accurate and inaccurate information will no doubt spread quickly on Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp.”
Underwood was not alone in expressing concerns on Tuesday.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, sent separate letters to the leaders of Facebook, Google, and Twitter also raising strong concerns around the steps the platforms have taken to address disinformation and misinformation in the years since 2016, when Russia launched a sweeping election influence campaign.
“Russia’s attacks on our democracy were amplified by social media and our failure to anticipate the misuse of American media – both traditional media and social – by foreign bad actors,” Warner wrote. “But we’ve also increasingly seen domestic actors utilize – and iterate on – the media manipulation techniques utilized by Russia, spreading disinformation and misinformation, sowing and exacerbating social, political, and racial tensions, and undermining confidence in the upcoming election.”
Both Facebook and Twitter were used by the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm, to spread disinformation aimed at swaying the 2016 election towards now-President Trump, with Facebook later estimating that around 150 million U.S. users were exposed to IRA content prior to the presidential election.
Former special counsel Robert Mueller found that the IRA specifically targeted racial divisions to sway potential voters. A Channel 4 investigation published last month found that the Trump campaign classified around 3.5 million Black voters as those they hoped would not show up at the polls, with 2016 becoming the first presidential election in 20 year to see a drop in Black voter turnout.
Social media platforms have taken steps to address misinformation and disinformation, including Twitter banning political ads and Facebook announcing it would ban all political ads in the week leading up to Nov. 3. Facebook on Tuesday also announced it would ban all QAnon accounts, which is a conspiracy theory that has grown increasingly in the weeks leading up to the election.
Underwood and Warner’s letters were sent the same day a House Administration Committee panel held a hearing on election disinformation, during which officials also underlined threats posed by disinformation to the voting process.
“The public servants that administer elections can only do their best when it comes to limiting the impact of widespread misinformation and disinformation about our elections,” Election Assistance Commission Chairman Ben Hovland, who was nominated by President Trump, testified to the Subcommittee on Elections.
“Political campaigns and interest groups are spending billions of dollars to influence Americans,” Hovland said. “Foreign adversaries are amplifying our divisions and mimicking traditional voter suppression tactics to dissuade participation or provide inaccurate information about how voters can participate. In the face of that, Americans must come together to protect our nation, the electoral process, and voter confidence.”
Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold (D) called on Congress to take steps to address disinformation and misinformation on social media, including considering reforming Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a hotly debated clause that protects social media platforms from being held liable for what is posted on their sites.
“Social media companies are not neutral platforms and third-party content posted on their sites can promote ill-intentioned foreign activity,” Griswold testified. “They should no longer be shielded from accountability.”
Hovland, Griswold, and other witnesses urged Congress to provide more resources for state and local election officials to educate voters about the election process in a bid to cut down malign influence online.
“We have less than a month to work together to prevent the burning of our democracy, we need all hands on the bucket line,” Spencer Overton, president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, testified.
Subcommittee Chairwoman Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) emphasized that she was doing everything in her power to give election officials the resources they needed to combat disinformation and misinformation along with other threats to elections. She promised Hovland that Congress would do far more if Democrats win big in November.
“Commissioner, know that if this election goes the way I want this election to go, we will be coming to you with the resources to give to all of these states to do this the right way, and to not be afraid to cast their ballot, not to be afraid or be intimidated because someone says ‘I am going to send poll watchers to watch you,’” Fudge said, referring to recent comments by President Trump. “This is the end.”
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