Facebook and Twitter tried to stop voter intimidation… and they failed miserably

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Neither disinformation nor voter intimidation is anything new. But tools developed by leading tech companies including Twitter, Facebook, and Google now allow these tactics to scale up dramatically.

As a scholar of cybersecurity and election security, I have argued that these firms must do more to rein in disinformation, digital repression, and voter suppression on their platforms, including by treating these issues as a matter of corporate social responsibility.

Earlier this fall, Twitter announced new measures to tackle disinformation, including false claims about the risks of voting by mail. Facebook has likewise vowed to crack down on disinformation and voter intimidation on its platform, including by removing posts that encourage people to monitor polling places.

Google has dropped the Proud Boys domain that Iran allegedly used to send messages to some 25,000 registered Democrats that threatened them if they did not change parties and vote for Trump.

But such self-regulation, while helpful, can go only so far. The time has come for the U.S. to learn from the experiences of other nations and hold tech firms accountable for ensuring that their platforms are not misused to undermine the country’s democratic foundations.

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Voter intimidation

On Oct. 20, registered Democrats in Florida, a crucial swing state, and Alaska began receiving emails purportedly from the far-right group Proud Boys. The messages were filled with threats up to and including violent reprisals if the receiver did not vote for President Trump and change their party affiliation to Republican.

Less than 24 hours later, on Oct. 21, U.S. Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and FBI Director Christopher Wray gave a briefing in which they publicly attributed this attempt at voter intimidation to Iran. This verdict was later corroborated by Google, which has also claimed that more than 90% of these messages were blocked by spam filters.

The rapid timing of the attribution was reportedly the result of the foreign nature of the threat and the fact that it was coming so close to Election Day. But it is important to note that this is just the latest example of such voter intimidation. Other recent incidents include a robo-call scheme targeting largely African American cities such as Detroit and Cleveland.

It remains unclear how many of these messages actually reached voters and how in turn these threats changed voter behavior. There is some evidence that such tactics can backfire and lead to higher turnout rates in the targeted population.

Disinformation on social media

Effective disinformation campaigns typically have three components:

  • A state-sponsored news outlet to originate the fabrication
  • Alternative media sources willing to spread the disinformation without adequately checking the underlying facts
  • Witting or unwitting “agents of influence:” that is, people to advance the story in other outlets