Uh-Oh, It’s Another Election Year on Social Media
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- 2022 had barely dawned when Facebook and Twitter waded into their first big political controversy of the year. On Jan 2., Twitter Inc. permanently suspended the personal account of Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, citing the Republican’s continued use of the account to spread misleading health information about Covid‑19 in violation of the platform’s rules. The next day, Meta Platforms Inc. followed with a 24-hour suspension of her Facebook account.
The move inspired predictable condemnation from Republican politicians. “Welcome to the Woketopia,” tweeted Florida Representative Matt Gaetz; Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance tweeted a screenshot of Greene’s suspended account, along with the message: “These companies need to be crushed.”
2022 is likely to be a year full of social media companies making content moderation decisions that politicians don’t like. Elections create an incentive for overheated or misleading claims, and all 435 seats in the House are up for grabs, as well as 34 of the 100 Senate seats. “Campaigns are using election disinformation in really novel ways, and we’re going to see more of that in 2022,” says Jesse Littlewood, vice president for campaigns at the good government group Common Cause.
This puts the companies in an awkward situation. Greene may be violating their policies, but she’s also a sitting public official running for reelection. At a time when most candidates rely on social media to communicate with voters, such a ban is effectively a decision to keep someone from being a full participant in electoral politics.
Republicans consistently accuse Twitter and Facebook of abusing their power, but Littlewood and other critics say social media companies allow too much content designed to undermine voters’ faith in the integrity of the electoral system to spread on their platforms.
In February 2020, Facebook employees outlined the ways its products could be used to discourage voting, according to a document that whistleblower Frances Haugen shared with regulators last year. The report rated the company’s readiness to detect ads containing obvious forms of voter suppression—such as trying to trick people about the logistics of voting—as moderate. But it had a grim assessment of Facebook’s ability to address content that took subtler approaches to voter demotivation, like saying voting wasn’t worth the trouble given the long lines.
“We know this will happen, and we have no product protections in place for it,” the employees concluded. Since then, Meta has expanded its voter suppression policy to fight content that questions lawful voting methods or election outcomes.
Both Facebook and Twitter sought to remove such messages or label them as misleading during the 2020 election. Neither company has said whether it’s planning to do anything new related to election security for the midterms. Experts predict that, even if the companies set firm guidelines and try to enforce them, the coming election season is going to be an exhausting game of cat and mouse. “The clearer the rules are, the more that you can expect campaigns to push up right up against the rules,” says Stanford Law School professor Nate Persily.
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