Oct 26, 2022 - Technology

Groups demand crackdown on online misinformation ahead of midterms

Illustration of an upside down and tattered American flag with a broken grid in the background

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

There's a growing fear that political misinformation is spiraling out of control on social media two weeks before the U.S. midterm elections.

Driving the news: Activist groups are sounding the alarm on election-related dis- and misinformation, putting pressure on tech platforms to be more vigilant, per a letter to the CEOs of Meta, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube signed by more than 60 groups and shared exclusively with Axios.

  • "[I]t remains painfully clear that social media companies are still failing to protect candidates, voters, and elected officials from disinformation, misogyny, racism, transphobia, and violence," the letter reads. It was signed by organizations focused on abortion rights, women's rights, LGBTQ rights, voting rights, anti-racism and tech accountability, including the National Organization of Women, GLAAD and the Global Justice Center.
  • Concurrently, watchdog group Accountable Tech placed a $250,000 national television and digital ad buy starting this week, criticizing Meta for what the group describes as rolling back election integrity safeguards prior to the midterms.
  • And cybersecurity firm Recorded Future warned this month that both Russian and Chinese state-sponsored actors are likely to conduct "malign influence operations" targeting U.S. audiences to sway perceptions of the elections.

The big picture: Misinformation and inaccurate narratives perpetuated by high-profile figures on both social and traditional media have made the past few elections even more fraught as Americans retreat into echo chambers.

  • "There is so much pressure on the social media companies and yet they seem only responsive to a fraction of it," Jiore Craig, head of elections and digital integrity at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), told Axios. "It is worthwhile to all of these groups to apply this pressure, as long as companies remain the only entities who can immediately impact this at scale, at any moment."

How it works: Platforms have largely gotten a handle on the type of foreign meddling seen in 2016. The misinformation landscape is now mostly driven by domestic forces.

  • In the 2022 midterm election cycle, heated rhetoric toward election workers and public officials has worsened, spurred by continued claims of Trump wrongfully losing the 2020 election, ISD researchers said in an October note.
  • That includes calls for "vigilante" actions at places like ballot drop-boxes and polling locations, ISD researchers noted. Two people were seen last week lingering in tactical gear near a drop-box in Mesa, Arizona.

What's happening: The letter demands platforms remove false information, hate speech, threats against candidates and election workers. It also asks platforms to address widespread misinformation on abortion and to connect users to legitimate news sources.

  • The groups also urge the companies to de-platform users who spread misleading information about LGBTQ issues and call for more transparency around moderation decisions.
  • Accountable Tech's ad buy accuses Meta of disbanding Facebook's Civic Integrity Team, cutting its election-focused staff and not seeing the safeguarding of elections as a priority.
  • Meta has pushed back against claims that its elections-focused Civic Integrity team was disbanded. Guy Rosen, the company’s chief information security, said in a tweet that the Civic Integrity team was integrated into a more central team to do work across the company.

What they're saying: "We know what's possible when platforms don't act," Bridget Todd, communications director at Ultraviolet, the letter's organizer, told Axios.

  • "The problem with platforms is that too often they are reactionary, when election dis- and misinformation can lead to real world violence and threats to democracy."
  • "While we have to hope something happens in this moment that encourages platforms to do the best they can, we don't have data to suggest that's what they'll do," Jiore said.

The other side: Many platforms have publicized their 2022 midterms strategy.

  • TikTok launched an elections center in August, offering election and voting information in both English and Spanish. TikTok does not allow paid political advertising and has a policy against election misinformation.
  • YouTube is prominently recommending authoritative news outlets when users search of midterms content, the company's VP of government affairs Leslie Miller wrote in a September blog post. Miller said YouTube removes content that violates its policies against inciting violence, spreading misinformation or interfering with voting.
  • Meta says it will provide links to official information about voting and the midterms when people search and has a "dedicated team in place to combat election and voter interference," per an August blog post from president of global affairs Nick Clegg.
  • Twitter activated its Civic Integrity Policy banning misleading information about elections, which includes placing labels on tweets with disputed information, for the 2022 midterms in August, the company said in a blog post.
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