With The Facebook Papers adding daily to the evidence of the inability and unwillingness of social media giants to combat disinformation and other harmful content, Common Cause today released an extensive report on election disinformation, including a comprehensive set of reforms needed to curb this huge and growing problem and protect our right to vote in elections next week, next year, and beyond. Based on more than 15,000 hours monitoring social media in the 2020 election cycle, together with legal and policy expertise, “As a Matter of Fact: The Harms Caused by Election Disinformation” details the seriousness and scale of the threat, current applicable state and federal laws, and the woefully inadequate and inconsistent civic integrity policies of the social media giants. The report concludes with a sweeping series of reform recommendations to better enable us to fight back against election disinformation.
“In America, we expect and deserve clean elections but Facebook and other social media giants have largely failed in their duty to identify and remove election disinformation from their platforms. It is time for more regulation and outside oversight before these companies allow still more damage to be done to Americans’ faith in our elections,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, Common Cause President. “The social media companies are not the only culprits here, but they have to varying degrees stood by while The Big Lie has gained momentum on their platforms. Today, roughly 1 in 3 Americans—and nearly two-thirds of Republicans—wrongly believe the 2020 election was ‘rigged and stolen from Trump.’ Those lies, which flourished on social media, ultimately fueled the January 6 insurrection.”
The report provides an overview of election disinformation, explaining what it is, how it’s being spread, and who is spreading it. It identifies the most common forms of election disinformation to include communications providing the wrong election date, bogus election rules, voter intimidation, untrue claims about election integrity or security, and untrue claims post-election about results. It finds most common vehicles for disseminating disinformation include social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, junk websites, mainstream media like Fox News, search engines like Google, as well as email, text messages, and robocalls.
“Common Cause staff, disinformation analysts, and thousands of volunteers have been on the front lines fighting election disinformation and we have witnessed firsthand its explosion on social media in recent years,” said Jesse Littlewood, Common Cause Vice President for Campaigns. “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. The current state of affairs is nothing short of dangerous and the time is now for comprehensive reforms.”
The report goes on to detail current federal and state laws regulating election disinformation—voting rights, campaign finance, communications, consumer protection, media literacy, and privacy laws—and the shortcomings of current laws. It then examines the civic integrity policies of some of the largest social media companies, the policies Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have put in place to address abuses of their platforms for the dissemination of election disinformation. Those policies, the report shows, have proven insufficient and ineffective in combatting the very serious threat of election disinformation.
“The time to act is now before any more damage is done and our actions must be sweeping in order to combat the dire threat of election disinformation,” said Yosef Getachew, Common Cause Media and Democracy Program Director. “The reforms must include changes to state and federal laws encompassing voting rights, campaign finance, privacy, media, as well reforms to federal and state executive and regulatory agencies. Social media companies must also take additional steps to strengthen their civic integrity policies and close loopholes that allow bad actors to spread harmful content.”
The report’s final section and primary focus is a series of state, federal and corporate reforms to help stem the flow of election disinformation that is undermining Americans’ faith in the nation’s elections. Reform recommendations detailed in the report include the following.
Social media companies must strengthen their policies around combating content designed to undermine our democracy, including by providing users with authoritative information regarding voting and elections, reducing the spread and amplification of election disinformation, and providing greater transparency concerning their content moderation policies and practices.
Congress and state legislatures should amend voting rights laws to explicitly prohibit intentional dissemination of false information regarding the time, place, or manner of elections or the qualifications or restrictions on voter eligibility, with the intent to impede voting.
Congress and state legislatures should update campaign finance disclosure laws for the digital age, to include “paid for by” disclaimers on digital advertising, and effective provisions shining a light on money transferred between groups to evade disclosure.
Congress and state legislatures should pass comprehensive data privacy legislation to protect consumers from the abusive collection, use, and sharing of personal data.
Congress should enact legislation strengthening local media and protecting public access to high-quality information about government, public safety, public health, economic development, and local culture.
Congress should pass legislation to protect researchers’ and watchdog journalists’ access to social media data, enabling researchers to study social media platform practices without fear of interference or retaliation from social media companies.
Congress should pass legislation to prohibit online platform discriminatory algorithms and to create greater transparency about how these algorithms operate.
The White House and governors in states around the nation must play a leading role in combating election disinformation, including by issuing executive orders directing agencies with enforcement, rule-making, and investigatory authorities to use these capabilities in combating election disinformation.
To read the “As a Matter of Fact: The Harms Caused by Election Disinformation” report, click here.