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Social Media
and Disenfranchisement

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The United States government cannot stand idly by and allow voters to be purposefully misled on a scale greater than ever before. Some may argue that few rely on the internet for critical information and instead look to edited news sources. However, it is clear that as social media has become widely used and respected, more and more citizens look to their social media feeds for information in real time. 

“In its 2006 rulemaking, the Federal Election Commission noted that only 18 percent of all Americans cited the internet as their leading source of news about the 2004 Presidential election; by contrast, the Pew Research Center found that 65 percent of Americans identified an internet-based source as their leading source of information for the 2016 election.” 

Text - S.1989 - 115th Congress (2017-2018): Honest Ads Act ... https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/1989/text. 

 

As more news outlets begin to flock to various social media platforms to disseminate their information, people become more trusting of other, less reputable sources. This creates opportunities for malicious actors to prey on vulnerable voters and exploit unequal access to information.

Thomas Jefferson believed that a well-informed electorate was a prerequisite for democracy. Many today believe that the internet can provide us with the information we need. Yet, internet platforms also provide us with a significant amount of information that is not true and often dangerous. Lies and manipulation have been a large part of elections and campaigning  years prior to the advent of the internet or social media. The creation of algorithms designed to help companies capitalize on controversy have disproportionately skewed the spread of these lies. 

According to Statista, Facebook has seen massive growth in revenue over the past decade, notably an increase from 2019 to 2021 from $70-$85 billion to a whopping $117 billion. As a public company, Facebook places a premium on profitability, and to continue this growth model it cannot spend resources restricting user activity. It is clear that Facebook’s retrenchment of its own self-regulation was financially beneficial—Facebook saw the highest growth in revenue since the company’s founding. 

Using Facebook as an example, we can assume that social media companies will not, of their own free will, choose to stop disinformation from spreading on their platforms. If not the companies themselves, then the government must step in: 

“The Federal Government has a compelling interest in “protecting voters from confusion and undue influence” and in “preserving the integrity of its election process.” (Burson v. Freeman, 504 U.S. 191, 199 (1992).

 

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Former Governor of Maryland Bob Ehrlich

Senator Ben Cardin in his bill regarding online voter intimidation found the following,“These voter suppression tactics frequently target historically disenfranchised communities, including communities of color, low-income communities, and immigrant communities. For example, during Alabama’s U.S. Senate special election in 2017, residents of Jefferson County — where the largest city, Birmingham, is predominantly African American — received text messages with false information about polling site changes. And on Election Day in 2010, Maryland gubernatorial candidate Bob Ehrlich’s campaign manager targeted African American households with robocalls claiming that Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley had already been reelected, implying that his supporters could stay home instead of voting.”

Text - S.1834 - 116th Congress (2019-2020): Deceptive ... https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/1834/text

 

As described above, these voter suppression actions are not limited to random individuals, but political leaders are complicit as well. Although these political actors may participate in similar activity online they are not treated with the same attention. Even in instances where Facebook was playing close attention to disinformation on its platforms, political leaders were frequently exempt from scrutiny. 

 

“The documents report, for example, that Facebook research, based on data from 2019, found that misinformation shared by politicians was more damaging than that coming from ordinary users. Yet the company maintained a policy that year that explicitly allowed political leaders to lie without facing the possibility of fact checks.” (Washington Post).

To allow individuals to spread disinformation unchecked, especially those in positions of influence, is undemocratic. Voting is a fundamental right of United States citizens and the ultimate expression of political freedom. How long must we wait for companies to protect its users from blatant lies, especially voter information, before we turn to the Federal Government?

We cannot wait any longer, the time to act is now, and social media companies' unilateral control over damaging information must end. 

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