Social Media Disinformation Discredits Democratic Elections

A virtual forum hosted by GW’s Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics explored how online disinformation contributes to voting suppressions and undermines elections.

Social Media
July 06, 2020

By Tatyana Hopkins

Currently, the global COVID-19 pandemic, impending economic crisis and national movement against racial injustice pose a triple threat of interference from hostile foreign powers and voter suppression to the upcoming 2020 U.S. presidential elections, said Stacy Abrams, a former Georgia gubernational candidate.

“Hostile foreign powers, we know, are using social media platforms to undermine our elections, to sow discourse, confuse voters and to try to derail the process as we saw in 2016,” she said.

Ms. Abrams, former Democratic leader of the Georgia House of Representatives and founder of Fair Fight, an organization that combats voter suppression and defends voting rights, called for immediate action on the part of social media companies to curtain inauthentic accounts and the amplification of election-related misinformation on their platforms during reamarks at a virtual forum hosted Monday, June 29, by the George Washington University Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics, which is based in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences.

“We appreciate the small steps that have been made, but we need to demand social media meet this moment with the full might of their capacity,” she said.

Ms. Abrams said while Facebook recently pledged to proactively monitor misleading information in the 72 hours immediately before U.S. elections, in the era of COVID-19, where voting by mail is one of the safest and most accessible ways to vote and voting starts almost 40 to 60 days ahead of election day, waiting until three days before an election to take action on misinformation is “useless.”

Moderated by Frank Sesno, whose time as director for the School of Media and Public Affairs ended on June 30, and Rebekah Tromble, IDDP's director, the event was held in collaboration with the International Grand Committee on Disinformation, a global consortium of lawmakers who work to protect consumers from disinformation on social media. It was the second in a series about social media disinformation. The first addressed the impact of false news about COVID-19.

“We must hold social media platforms responsible because they are the single most effective conduit of information to some of the most vulnerable voices in our democracy,” Ms. Abrams said. “Because communities that are often new to the process turn to social media for their information, misinformation has the death knell effect on their active participation in our democracy.”   

In two separate panels, international activists, journalists and lawmakers discussed how hostile foreign actors weaponize disinformation in elections around the world and disinformation’s impact on democratic integrity and voter suppression.

Kailee Scales, managing director of the Black Lives Matter Global Network, said foreign and domestic hate groups are actively working to “undermine the liberation work of Black organizers.” She said such groups have co-opted the Black Lives Matter hashtag to spread incorrect information about polling places, employ scare tactics to intimidate voters and promote messaging that voting does not matter.

Hector Sanchez Barba, executive director and CEO of the national civic engagement organization Mi Familia Vota and senior fellow at the GW Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute, said similar tactics are being used to discourage Latinos from voting including the spread of misinformation about undocumented immigrants committing fraud to vote in elections and threats of ICE being present at polling places.

“The kind of wild west environment that we have online right now is just breeding rampant disinformation, division within our own society and poses a real threat to democracies around the world,” said U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the of House Intelligence Committee.

He called for Congress to consider legislative remedies to “incentivize or insist” on a more societally beneficial form of regulation of social media platforms, suggesting removing immunity from liability of user generated content granted to social medial companies under Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act as well as oversight in the design of platform algorithms that may amplify harmful content based on engagement.

Sasha Havlicek, founder and CEO of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, an organization that provides in-depth analysis on social media networks and content to intercept and fight violent extremism, said social media regulation has long focused on content and content removal but instead should move toward transparency of the platform’s algorithms and recommendation and moderation systems.

“The real challenge is that we have plenty of anecdotal evidence but nobody has access, except for the platforms, to the data in order to verify what the algorithmic outcome is,” Ms. Havlicek said. “We desperately need third party review of the systems and real robust transparency and oversight of the protocols that cover disinformation flows.”

Others to join the conversation included Jocelyn Benson, Michigan secretary of state; Phumzile van Damme, one of the youngest members of parliament in South Africa; Sen. Mazie K. Hirono (D- Hawaii); Dominic LeBlanc, president of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada; and Maria Ressa, journalist and Rappler co-founder recently convicted of “cyber libel” in the Philippines.

Mr. LeBlanc said Canada has taken a unified approach between government agencies and the private sector to curb threats to democracy. He suggested several measures he believes helped Canada build public “immunity” to false news including the Critical Elections Incident Public Protocols, which notifies and warns Canadian citizens of threated to electoral integrity.

“Fake news not only masquerades as the truth, it also masquerades as legitimate political debate,” he said. “Trolls and bots are dispatched to stoke anxiety and, in some cases, inflame sensitive debate around issues. Their main goal is chaos. It takes the whole of government and the whole of society effort to combat disinformation.”

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