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The Responsibility of Social Media Giants to Help Protect Elections
November 20, 2020 - Over the past four years, fact checking and inaccurate information has become a critical issue in U.S. politics. Throughout the 2020 presidential election, many leaders struggled to quell the spread of disinformation that threatened to undermine trust in legitimate election outcomes. However, many of these deceitful campaigns were able to gain viral traction via social media despite warnings from credible news sources and political leaders. One such campaign proliferated on Facebook the day after the 2020 Presidential election. The New York Times reported that the Stop the Steal Facebook group joined the platform early Wednesday morning as a forum for individuals who were concerned about the election being rigged against President Trump. By Thursday morning it had nearly 320,000 members. Seemingly in response to President Trump’s tweet saying that the election was being stolen, group members posted photos and videos of his supporters at polling stations protesting the vote count, citing personal anecdotes of voter intimidation and fraud targeted at Republicans. As the group gained traction, prominent Republican operatives joined and began sharing its content to thousands of Twitter followers. Facebook finally deleted the group Thursday morning but only after group members began to call for violence. There is much to unpack from this incident, and it raises questions about the role of social media companies like Facebook and Twitter in preventing the spread of disinformation. Both Facebook and Twitter acknowledged their responsibility and they did take some preventative measures during the election. Twitter added labels to factually incorrect tweets cautioning people that the content was disputed and may contain misleading information about an election or other civic process. The company also prohibited the liking and sharing features on such tweets. In contrast, Facebook took a more reserved approach by adding disinformation warnings to President Trump’s posts, while leaving the like and share features enabled. Based on the success of the Stop the Steal group, it’s safe to say that these efforts were simply not enough. It’s clear that social media giants need better processes for identifying and shutting down disinformation campaigns that attempt to organize on their platforms. When groups like this are allowed to go unchecked in pushing their agenda, the results can be disastrous and, in this case, threaten our democracy. When groups such as Stop the Steal amass thousands of supportive followers on social media, the legitimacy of the election is undermined. By brazenly claiming that the election is being stolen by one of the candidates, grassroots conservative groups damage the general public’s trust in the credibility of election results, creating voter disillusionment and potentially decrease voter turnout. In addition to discouraging potential voters from heading to the polls, these groups have the potential to incite violence. One member of the Stop the Steal group alluded to using violence as a means to prevent votes from being counted, writing: “This is going to take more than talk to fix.” Statements like this one are especially alarming given there have been several reports of citizens likely influenced by this rhetoric showing up to polling places and vote-counting centers with firearms. Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has fought back against the notion that he and other social media executives have a responsibility to regulate disinformation on their platforms, stating that, “we must continue to stand for free expression.” However, when millions of Americans rely on social media as their primary news source, continuing to stand for expression that includes harassment, hate speech and disinformation is a direct threat to our democracy. Simply put, social media companies must take stricter measures to protect the sanctity of the electoral process. When the content being circulated on these sites provide false information to voters and make polling stations targets of violence, there is a responsibility among the leadership of these companies to take action to ensure the survival of our democracy.