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Facebook Is Banning Voting Misinformation. Congress Should, Too.

We need to make it illegal to intentionally spread false election information. And we should require that online ads disclose who’s behind them.

October 17, 2018

Facebook will broaden its ban on false information about voting leading up to next month’s U.S. midterm elections, it said Monday. The announcement by the world’s largest social media platform is the latest step in its broader effort to combat election misinformation.

Since 2016, Facebook has banned false information about the location of polls or hours of voting. But now it will also ban posts that spread other misinformation — for instance, false reports of long lines — aimed at keeping people from the polls.  

Facebook’s efforts are a good step in the fight against election misinformation, which has flourished on social media. But on their own they’re not enough. Because they’re voluntary, there’s no guarantee that they will continue beyond a specific election season and no effective way to ensure Facebook sticks to them. There are also other technology platforms beyond Facebook that are vulnerable to the same threat of false information. 

We need federal laws that will help prevent the spread of voting misinformation. Here are two bills that would help:

We should criminalize the intentional spreading of false election information

Election misinformation — such as incorrect polling locations or times — can keep voters away from the polls.  Congress should make it illegal to knowingly or intentionally share false information about voting in order to suppress it. In July 2018, House and Senate Democrats introduced the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act. The Brennan Center played a role in drafting early versions of the bill.  

“The bill is aimed at making it very clear that it is illegal to spread false information on how to vote and when to vote,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, counsel in the Democracy program at the Brennan Center. The Deceptive Practices Act would also create a process to provide correct information through the best means possible to voters affected by deceptive practices.

U.S. lawmakers have considered numerous versions of the Deceptive Practices Act, dating back to an original bill introduced in 2007 by then-Senator Barack Obama. But the threat of false election information has increased in the digital age. “Social media is the perfect vehicle for the mass dissemination of information,” said Morales-Doyle.

We need to update our campaign finance laws to regulate Internet ads

Fighting false election information will also require more transparency on technology platforms, including for Internet advertisements. The United States has long barred foreign actors from spending money on U.S. elections. Television and radio companies, for example, are required to disclose the funding sources of advertisers. Leading up to an election, foreign entities are also banned from paying for ads that mention political candidates. However, these laws do not currently account for Internet advertisements, including those on social media platforms such as Facebook. This vulnerability was exposed during the 2016 election, when at least 11 million people were exposed to Russia-linked paid ads on Facebook alone. 

In October 2017, a bipartisan group of senators introduced the Honest Ads Act. This bill would make a broader range of online activity subject both to transparency requirements and the ban on spending by foreign nationals. “If the Honest Ads Act were in place right now, it would require the public disclosure of critical information behind messages on Facebook, both in terms of the content itself and who’s sending it,” said Ian Vandewalker, senior counsel in the Democracy program at the Brennan Center. That disclosure would likely have a deterrent effect on those looking to spread misinformation, Vandewalker argued.

How to respond to voting misinformation 

The Deceptive Practices Act and Honest Ads Act could help prevent and create real legal consequences for spreading voting misinformation. But in the meantime, if voters think they have encountered misinformation, they should call the Election Protection hotline at 866 OUR VOTE to confirm the right voting information.