Aug 18, 2022 - Podcasts

Big Tech braces for disinformation in the midterms

After the 2020 presidential election, President Trump and his allies waged a disinformation campaign about the election’s legitimacy, focused on polling tech and vote counting. And big tech was not ready. Now, tech companies are trying to get ahead of misinformation that could affect the coming midterms.

  • Plus, Georgia’s election interference probe heats up.
  • And, the rise of anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers.

Guests: Axios' Sara Fischer, Emma Hurt and Oriana Gonzalez.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Alexandra Botti, Lydia McMullen-Laird, Alex Sugiura, and Ben O'Brien. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Thursday, August 18th.

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s what we’re following today: Georgia’s election interference probe gets more politicized. Plus, the rise of anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers.

But first, today’s One Big Thing: Big Tech braces for disinformation in the midterm elections.

NIALA: After the 2020 presidential election President Trump and his allies waged a disinformation campaign online about the election's legitimacy focused on polling technology and vote counting and big tech was not ready. Now tech companies are trying to get ahead of misinformation that could affect the coming midterms. Sara Fisher is here to break this down for us. Hi Sara!


NIALA: First, why were tech companies not able to keep up with the attempt to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the 2020 election results?

SARA: Leading up to the 2020 election, tech companies were focused on the types of playbooks that they had seen in the past, which were one: huge, you know, sort of state backed efforts from countries like Russia to deploy misinformation. They were not prepared for this different type of election interference, which was people trying to disrupt the actual act of voting through things like misinformation around the integrity of the election, misinformation around what time ballots can be casted or how mail-in ballots work. And part of that was because we were in the middle of a pandemic and we had as a country changed some of these policies, including, you know, the accessibility and rules around mail-in ballots that made it really easy for misinformation to flourish.

NIALA: And so what's driving fears of a resurgence of disinformation campaigns now.

SARA: Well, for one we've seen in the wake of January 6th, that this momentum, this movement around challenging the integrity of the election has only gotten stronger. You're starting to see it now in the wake of the FBI raid, where people are calling this country a banana republic, and that they're questioning the validity of our institutions, including our voting institutions. And so I think this is a huge issue in the news and it's top of mind for tech companies, because they know that they're going to be held to account on this thing in particular, leading up to 2022.

NIALA: And in the meantime, what are they doing now with the tools that they have at their disposal to try to combat this?

SARA: Yeah, so a bunch of tech platforms have introduced new policies over the past few days. Meta said that it would no longer allow advertisers with pre-approved ads to edit those ads in the week leading up to the midterms. TikTok said that it would no longer allow paid influencer content from any sort of political campaign or political group. I spoke with Meta's president of public affairs Nick Clegg and one thing he told me was that what makes this midterm unique is that Meta is actually strengthening its defenses both because one, the amount of energy, including ad revenue, is expected to match what we saw in 2020. But also because two, the threats are just becoming increasingly worse as opposed to in the past in midterms they tend to alleviate.

NIALA: Sara Fisher covers media for Axios. Thanks, Sara.

SARA: Thank you, Niala.

Georgia’s election interference probe heats up

NIALA: Speaking of the 2020 election and misinformation, Rudy Giuliani testified for six hours before a special grand jury in Atlanta, yesterday. Giuliani, who was Trump’s personal lawyer following the election, is a target in the Georgia investigation into possible election interference in 2020. Now the state’s governor Brian Kemp, is trying to get out of appearing before the grand jury in the same case. Axios Atlanta’s Emma Hurt has been following all of this, and she’s got this dispatch from Warner Robins, Georgia.

EMMA HURT: So I think the big picture here is that this investigation is getting really politicized. We've just seen the pace and the combativeness pick up. We've seen this from Rudy Giuliani who tried to fight his subpoena, as we know, but did show up today. We don't know anything about what he said. Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina has been fighting his subpoena as well, and is continuing to do that. And now Governor Brian Kemp, who has not been a target of this investigation that we know of, in fact, he was a willing participant in it for a while, but in a filing that posted yesterday, we learned that that has really devolved into more of an aggressive posture and Kemp’s attorneys are accusing the District Attorney of using the investigation as a quote “sword” to undermine and affect the 2022 election cycle, Kemp's own reelection. And so it's just getting very messy and political, despite the District Attorney's repeated comments that she's trying very hard not to do that.

NIALA: Emma Hurt is a reporter for Axios Atlanta.

In a moment we’re back with how crisis pregnancy centers are growing their footprint in the U.S.

The rise of anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers

NIALA: Welcome back Axios Today. I'm Niala Boodhoo. Crisis pregnancy centers, non-profits that try to dissuade pregnant people from having abortions, outnumber abortion clinics by about three to one in the U.S. And since the end of Roe versus Wade, these centers, which usually have religious affiliations, have been looking to broaden their reach even further. Axios’ Oriana Gonzalez has been reporting on this. Oriana, can you help us understand how these centers work? I know you visited one in Washington, DC. What do they do to convince people not to have an abortion?

ORIANA GONZALEZ: Yes. Crisis pregnancy centers target individuals through ads or notices that might attract people who are scared and have unplanned pregnancies, but that, at the same time, may be somewhat unclear on what exact services they provide. And it's important to mention that most of the staff in these centers are not health professionals. In fact, medical experts have for years criticized them saying that they violate principles of medical ethics, despite suggesting that they provide medical advice. I visited a center here in DC located in, uh, Capitol Hill. They focus on, you know, providing free assistance and material help to pregnant people. And, you know, they may refer them to doctors and counseling if they need help, but will not refer them to abortion clinics, for example. I took a look at some of the brochures that they offer people who visit their center and some of them spread misinformation on abortion claiming, you know, that abortions can lead to breast cancer, they can cause infertility, mental health issues – all of which are claims that have been disputed by health and science experts for decades.

NIALA: And do we have data on how successful these crisis pregnancy centers are at preventing abortion?

ORIANA: There's actually no clear and specific data that shows how many abortions they have stopped from happening. In fact, I spoke to a professor from the University of Georgia, that studies pregnancy centers, and she told me that there is zero evidence that these pregnancy centers actually enhance maternal and infant health outcomes.

NIALA: Where does most of the funding for these centers come from?

ORIANA: It depends on location. So in general, they depend mostly on contributions. But then at the same time, we have state funded programs, what are known as alternatives to abortion programs, that give money to these sorts of centers, in an effort to deter state residents from accessing abortion.

NIALA: And so how and where are these crisis pregnancy centers expanding now in this post-Roe era?

ORIANA: So these types of anti-abortion centers are looking to expand their influence across the country. Researchers say that they expect these centers to proliferate in blue states that protect abortion and that expect an influx of abortion patients. I know, for example, of one center that is set to open in New Mexico right next to an abortion clinic that is relocating from Mississippi, where abortion is banned. That being said, they are also looking to expand in states that have already banned abortion. There's, for example, a big 10 million dollar center that is opening in Texas, that will likely not be medically licensed. These centers are focused on making sure that pregnant people choose to not get an abortion, regardless of where they are.

NIALA: Axios’ Oriana Gonzalez – thanks, Oriana.

ORIANA: Thank you, Niala.

NIALA: That’s it for us today! You can always text me feedback and story ideas at (202) 918-4893. And the number’s also in our show notes.

I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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