Big Tech and the US midterms

Social media giants have announced new guidelines but fears persist that few lessons have been learned

Capitol Hill at sunset
Capitol Hill was attacked on 6 January 2021 by rioters claiming the presidential election had been rigged
(Image credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

TikTok, Twitter, Meta and YouTube are amplifying false claims about US election fraud, according to a newly published report that calls on the platforms to strengthen and enforce their “flawed” content policies.

The report – from New York University’s Stern Center for Business and Human Rights – concluded that social media “platforms need to recognise that electoral mis- and disinformation have become a perpetual threat, not an issue that materialises each election cycle and then disappears”.

With the midterm elections just weeks away and the next White House election due in 2024, questions are increasingly being asked about the role that Big Tech will play.

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What happened in 2020?

Facebook and Google took “record amounts of revenue” in the run-up to the 2020 US election, reported Al Jazeera as voters went to the polls.

“But even as candidates pour tens of millions of dollars into advertising on the platforms, there is widespread discontent both about the rules the companies have set around the election and the manner in which they’ve enforced them,” said the news site.

Critics say little has changed since. “The wave of falsehoods in the wake of that election – including the ‘big lie’ that Donald Trump won – has continued to spread, espoused by hundreds of Republican candidates on ballots this fall,” according to NPR’s tech correspondent Shannon Bond.

Many experts are “wondering what lessons tech companies have learned from 2020 – and whether they are doing enough this year”, Bond added.

What new guidelines have been introduced?

Election-related announcements on the major platforms in recent weeks indicate that the tech giants are taking a “business as usual” approach in the run-up to the November midterms, Katie Harbath, a former elections policy director at Facebook, told NPR.

“It’s actually a quite confusing landscape because there is no regulation, there are no standards these companies have to follow,” said Harbath, now a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center. So “everyone is just making the choices that they feel are best for them”, she added.

Social media firms including Twitter and TikTok and online platforms including Google have introduced a “series of tools to mitigate what might turn into a war room among the electorate”, according to a recent report by the Warsaw Institute.

“Fighting misinformation, disinformation and enacting prebunk mechanisms” are “top priorities” for these companies, the think tank reported. Twitter has introduced a redefined set of guidelines intended “to protect civic conversation on the platform”, including the identification of misleading pictures.

Google has modified its Political Content Policy “to clarify the disclosure requirements for election advertising using ad formats” and has also joined a voluntary commitment to the EU’s new code that seeks to demonetise disinformation.

What about TikTok?

The video-sharing platform is owned by Chinese tech firm ByteDance, intensifying scrutiny about the platform’s potential cultural and political influence in the West. In 2019, TikTok announced a ban on paid political advertising in 2019.

Verdict reported last month that TikTok was also launching an educational programme “for its content creators so that they better understand the rules surrounding election content and regarding misinformation”.

But, the tech news site added, TikTok has “done little else to combat the problem, beyond the guidelines it already has in place”.

What about ads?

As Big Tech platforms have cracked down on political ads, political advertisers have “increasingly flocked to the new Wild West of programmatic ad companies”, said Axios.

An analysis by the University of North Carolina's Center on Technology Policy found that these companies – which automate the buying and selling of ads on various platforms – had “minimal transparency tools and few specific content restrictions”, the news site reported.

The review found that none of the programmatic advertising companies analysed had explicitly prohibited lies about election processes or outcomes, and that few made their policies around political misinformation clear.

What else can be done?

TikTok has pledged to weed out election misinformation and harassment targeting election workers, but critics insist a more robust approach is needed by all of the social media giants.

“Instead of playing whack-a-mole” by “retroactively banning harmful content”, social media needs to take “a more proactive approach to combat the issue”, concluded Verdict.

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