Civil Rights and Pro-Democracy Groups Work to Stop Disinformation, Protect 2022 Midterm Election

Interview with Yosef Getachew, media and democracy program director with Common Cause, conducted by Scott Harris

The critical 2022 midterm elections this November comes at a time when America’s democratic electoral system is under attack by the Republican party nationwide. Challenges to hold a free and fair election this year include 393 bills in 39 states that restrict voter access, disproportionately impacting communities of color. Another 148 election interference bills in 27 states open the door to partisan disruption in accurately counting ballots and fairly certifying the winner. Multiple states have also engaged in partisan gerrymandering.

Republican candidates, many endorsed by former President Donald Trump, are running for governor and secretary of state on platforms that clearly indicate a willingness to subvert election results in future contests. 

What’s more, recently released recordings of GOP operatives revealed their plan to install partisan poll workers and election officials in key battleground states to both disrupt and subvert election results.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Yosef Getachew, media and democracy program director with Common Cause. Here, he talks about how more than 120 civil rights and democracy groups have called on social media companies to take action to combat the spread of political disinformation ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. Such disinformation can amplify conspiracy theories and stoke distrust in the electoral process, as well as cast doubt on the integrity of candidates declared winners and losers.

YOSEF GETACHEW: I think it’s really disheartening to see that there are still a significant percentage of our country and even higher percentage of Republicans that think the 2020 election was stolen. This was primarily proliferated through the spread of disinformation around that election. During the 2020 election cycle, you saw former President Trump, many of his allies continue to spread disinformation around mail-in ballots, around the spread of voter fraud and essentially saying that the election was stolen, which led to the insurrection shortly the year after.

And that really shows how disinformation can lead to specific violence and offline harm. It’s not just about spreading harmful content online. It’s about the damage it can do offline that can lead to physical harm or even death, as we saw at the insurrection. Fast forward to where we are now. A lot of those disinformation talking points are getting proliferated again today.

We have candidates who are using the 2020 election and saying that was stolen as a reason to say that the 2022 election is going to be stolen. So they’re pre-emptively coming out and saying that the election that we’re having in the next few months isn’t going to be accurate. And that’s again further spreading this false narrative of voter fraud, election fraud in the elections, which simply isn’t true.

We have to do more to combat these false narratives and beat them out at their root. As you mentioned, Republicans are really continuing to hammer down on this are Republicans, mainly Trump supporters. And so the reforms we put in place are really designed to try to inoculate as many people as possible from this kind of harmful content while at the same time trying to combat it from its roots.

So a lot of the work that we are doing in this particular period, months before the midterm elections and even during the primaries, is trying to get (social media) platforms to enforce and expand their policies around election disinformation. A lot of the lessons that we learned in the 2020 election and the 2018 elections are that platforms have been inconsistent in terms of how they’re applying their policies and how they’re enforcing their policies.

Our own research at Common Cause showed that shortly after the 2020 election, big platforms like Facebook and Twitter no longer enforced against the Big Lie. So in other words, they were no longer removing or flagging posts from individuals or groups saying that the 2020 election was stolen. As we just talked about minutes ago, it’s still being used to pre-emptively declare the 2022 elections are going to be stolen.

So these types of inconsistencies are issues that we’re fighting now to make sure that the 2022 election is secure and allows as many voters to vote as possible without undermining their rights.

SCOTT HARRIS: Yosef, have any of these these big social media platforms responded to the demands of not only your group? I’ve read that there was some 120 civil rights democracy and public interest organizations that have sent letters to these social media companies asking them to clamp down on disinformation that could jeopardize our election.

YOSEF GETACHEW: Yes. So as you mentioned, we at Common Cause helped organize a letter that was joined by over 120 democracy, civil rights and public interest groups which included a series of demands that we hope platforms comply with. These demands focus on issues I mentioned earlier, including consistent enforcement of policies, closing loopholes that bad actors exploit to spread disinformation in those policies.

More transparency, so we know how some of these business models operate and how disinformation spreads. Or recommendations around removing or mitigating algorithms that help amplify harmful content. In a lot of cases, it’s the algorithms that are actually generating more and more of this harmful content, leading folks and individuals down dangerous path of potentially taking offline harm and violence.

So to answer your question, we sent that letter a few weeks ago. Many of the platforms have responded saying that they’re confirmed receipt of our letter and they’re reviewing it. We look forward to meeting with them and further discussing the demands in our letter and actually holding them accountable to it. We’re months away from midterms. Many places are already having primary elections. And so we don’t have a lot of time to figure out what recommendations they’re going to comply with and which ones they’re not.

The time to act is now and we can’t afford to wait any longer for these reforms to be put into place.

Listen to Scott Harris’ in-depth interview with Yosef Getachew (27:43) and see more articles and opinion pieces in the Related Links section of this page.

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