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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.

(Image: Shut­ter­