Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, and YouTube are failing to curb the spread of right-wing extremism and disinformation on their platforms and must immediately implement safeguards with the pivotal U.S. midterm elections less than two weeks away, a watchdog warned Thursday.
In Empty Promises: Inside Big Tech’s Weak Effort to Fight Hate and Lies in 2022, Free Press analyzed the policies of the four social media giants to measure how prepared each one is to combat Trump-backed efforts to sow doubt about upcoming electoral outcomes.
According to Free Press, “The problem is just as dire in advance of the 2022 U.S. midterms as it was during the nation’s 2020 elections.”
In particular, the report found that the major social media networks have:
- Failed to clearly update their election integrity systems in time for the elections;
- Created a labyrinth of company commitments, announcements, and policies that make it difficult to assess what they’re really doing, if anything, to protect users; and
- Failed to close what they call “newsworthiness” or “public interest” exceptions that give prominent users and politicians a “get out of jail free” card and allow them to post lies without consequences from the platforms.
Free Press warned that these failures are likely to be felt not only at polling stations on November 8, “but also on the streets.”
“The unchecked spread of online lies about the 2020 election fueled real-world violence on January 6,” said Nora Benavidez, report author and senior counsel and director of digital justice and civil rights at Free Press. “And although most people in the United States now believe that Big Tech should do more to curb the online spread of disinformation and incitements to violence, social media companies keep failing to protect users.”
As the report notes:
Change the Terms, a coalition of more than 60 civil and consumer rights organizations, developed a set of 15 priority reforms for social media companies to implement ahead of the midterm elections that would fight algorithmic amplification of hate and lies, protect users across all languages, and increase company transparency. Our coalition, of which Free Press is a founding member, then met with Meta, TikTok, Twitter, and YouTube throughout the summer of 2022, calling on each company to implement these 15 priority reforms as soon as possible and to share more data about their enforcement practices around election integrity.
Although tech companies had promised to fight disinformation and hate on their platforms this fall, there is a notable gap between what the companies say they want to do and what they actually do in practice. In sum, platforms do not have sufficient policies, practices, AI, or human capital in place to materially mitigate harm ahead of and during the November midterms.
“Even in writing, platforms like Meta, TikTok, Twitter, and YouTube can’t commit to the most basic online protections to limit the spread of disinformation and hate,” said Benavidez. “And in practice, our research shows ongoing gaps in companies’ enforcement of their own meager safety policies.”
“These are systemic failures across all of the major social media companies that show how little the companies care about safeguarding elections and fighting extremism and lies on their platforms,” she added.
After Twitter’s new mega-billionaire owner, Elon Musk, fired several of the platform’s key leaders immediately upon taking over on Thursday night, Benavidez warned that content moderation on the site is poised to become even worse.
Our new @freepress report out today found Twitter ranks in the bottom half of platform preparedness for midterms. Musk firing key leaders won’t limit toxic content & it won’t protect “free speech”. It’ll just engender fear & distrust in staff and make moderation harder. https://t.co/ItHXnYJo9q
— Nora Benavidez (@AttorneyNora) October 28, 2022
Free Press urged Facebook parent company Meta, TikTok, Twitter, and YouTube to take the following steps to stem the spread of bigotry and lies on their platforms:
- Stop amplifying hate and disinformation content and implement algorithms without discrimination;
- Protect people equally around the world and across languages through increased resourcing for civic integrity teams year-round; and
- Boost transparency about company business models and moderation and enforcement practices, ensuring access to data for external researchers and journalists.
“We are less than two weeks from the U.S. midterms,” Benavidez tweeted. “Over 30 other national elections have occurred around the world this year, featuring conspiracy theories and lies fanned by online rhetoric that social media companies allow to flourish.”
“What will it take for the culture of Big Tech to change?” she asked. “What will it take for civil and human rights to become a real priority with evidence to show for it?”