Casting a spotlight on the U.S. government’s lack of preparedness for handling the deluge of disinformation circling the 2020 elections, White House hopeful Senator Elizabeth Warren on Wednesday released a 14-bullet-point plan for combating the spread disinformation on social media—should she win the day.
The federal government, Warren said, has taken few, if any, real steps to steel itself against the same tricks employed by malicious foreign actors during the 2016 election. The efforts of social media companies such as Facebook to secure their own platforms have been, she said, “no more than nibbles around the edges: periodic purges of inauthentic accounts, banning political ads on some platforms, and slow, inconsistent fact-checking.”
“The same fundamental threats to our election remain,” Warren said.
Over the past year, a slew of academic experts have lined up to issue this same warning repeatedly in testimony before members of Congress. Yet so far, legislators have yet to take any meaningful action against what experts now say is a multimillion-dollar global industry aimed at manipulating U.S. voters, among others around the world, through the use of propaganda and other deceptive, if not illegal, tactics.
“This emerging economy of misinformation is a threat to national security,” Joan Donovan, a research director at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center, said during a House subcommittee hearing last month. “Silicon Valley corporations are largely profiting from it, while key political and social institutions are struggling to win back the public’s trust.”
Warren’s bifurcated plan proposes placing the burden of dealing with disinformation on the shoulders of both government and tech companies, the latter of which, she writes, has prioritized design that purposely generates profit by feeding users lies. “The safety of our democracy is more important than shareholder dividends and CEO salaries, and we need tech companies to behave accordingly,” she said.
The plan calls on CEOs such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey to coordinate their efforts to address disinformation; to ramp up and follow through on promises to properly label content created by state-controlled organizations; to alert individuals “who have interacted with fraudulent accounts,” regardless of origin; and to allow users to opt-out of “algorithmic amplification.”
“Algorithms decide what information users see and don’t see on social media platforms—and experts worry that they work to promote false or misleading information. Social media platforms owe the public insight into how these algorithms that affect their lives so deeply actually function,” the Warren plan states.
Moreover, social media accounts that disseminate “false information about the time, place, and manner of voting,” should face immediately bans on social media, it says.
As far as government, Warren promises to push for new civil and criminal penalties for anyone involved in online efforts to suppress the vote. The campaign points to research by Young Mie Kim, an affiliated scholar at the Brennan Center for Justice, which found that Facebook ads purchased by the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency in 2016 specifically aimed to suppress the turnout of nonwhite voters.
Warren says she will, if elected president, also reinstate the position of cybersecurity coordinator at the National Security Council, which was eliminated by Trump administration officials nearly two years ago.
The plan also calls for increased coordination among countries struggling to address disinformation and for the establishment of rules around data sharing between the government and tech companies so they can communicate more freely about threats “while respecting individuals’ privacy.”
Warren also says she would consider additional sanctions against countries engaged in election interference: “In the case of Russian interference, this would include sanctions for financial institutions that supported interference, Russia’s cyber sector, and people in Valdimir Putin’s orbit who supported and facilitated interference.”
An NPR poll this week found that 56 percent of voters overall think the Trump administration has “not done very much or has done nothing at all” to protect future elections; though, 75 percent of Republicans said he had done enough.
Facebook announced earlier this month that it would take steps to block videos manipulated by artificial intelligence, known as deep fakes; however, experts later testified in a Consumer Protection and Commerce subcommittee hearing that “cheap fakes”—such as the widespread video of Nancy Pelosi that had been slowed down to give off the false impression she was intoxicated—are the bigger threat.
A recently distributed video of former Vice President Joe Biden seemingly endorsing a white supremacist talking-point was found to be deceptively clipped. “Because the Biden video was clipped from non-augmented footage, platforms refused to take down this cheap fake. Millions have now seen it,” Donovan testified.
“Platforms, like radio towers, provide amplification power and as such they have public interest obligations,” she added.
While in October, Twitter announced that it would ban political ads entirely, Facebook has repeatedly doubled down on its decision to allow false and misleading political ads to run on its platform. In response, Warren “trolled” Facebook last fall by running an ad declaring (falsely) that Zuckerberg had endorsed Donald Trump for re-election.
Alongside plans for what she’ll do if and when she takes the White House is a separate promise that, prior to the election, the Warren campaign won’t knowingly use or spread any manipulated news reports, nor any doctored images, videos, or audio. (The Biden campaign issued a similar vow last summer.)
“I’m sending a clear message to anyone associated with the Warren campaign,” the candidate said. “I will not tolerate the use of false information or false accounts to attack my opponents, promote my campaign, or undermine our elections.”
Added Warren: “And I urge my fellow candidates to do the same.”