In addition, in August, Facebook launched a hub to help users with US election information. Facebook said that the Voting Information Center connects Facebook and Instagram users to accurate, easy-to-find information about voting wherever they live and will “help them hold their elected officials accountable.”
As far as the search behemoth goes, researchers have noted that there are loopholes in Google’s policies that have let misleading voting- and election-related ads slip through. The Election Integrity Partnership (EIP)—a coalition of research entities focused on supporting real-time information exchange between the research community, election officials, government agencies, civil society organizations, and social media platforms—said in September that analysts had come across a campaign that apparently sought to undermine voter confidence in voting by mail.
One example of what Google’s ad policies have let through: An ad that read “MIT Election Lab says mail-in voter fraud ‘more frequent’ than…” directed users to a Washington Times article and four other Washington Times pages that seemed to misrepresent the findings of the MIT publication to which it referred. Five other, similar ads appeared around the US, including in some battleground states, when users searched on terms such as “electoral fraud,” “mail-in voting,” and “voter fraud.” Some of the headlines on the ads:
“No, voter fraud isn’t a myth: 10 cases where it’s all too real”
“Millions of mail-in ballots went missing in 2018: Report”
“Unraveling the problems with mail-in voting – Washington Times”
“Donald Trump: Mail-in voting ‘corrupt’ – Washington Times”
“Election fraud is no myth – Washington Times”
The Stanford Internet Observatory’s Daniel Bush, writing on behalf of the EIP, said that Google could fix the problem in two ways: first, it should enforce its prohibition on clickbait ads and unreliable claims around political advertising. “Since the advertisers pay for the words that appear in the ads, these words should have some reasonable connection to the underlying content they are advertising,” he said. As well, the EIP suggested that Google repeal its policy exempting media outlets from its transparency report. As it is, there’s a loophole that allows an organization that classifies itself as “media” to evade reporting requirements, Bush said, calling it “a loophole that is being used to spread partisan content without accountability.”
Facebook and Twitter both have policies that mitigate advertisers’ ability to manipulate ad services in this way, he said.
Google’s also been trying to address misinformation and disinformation by muzzling its search suggestions. The company said in September that, among other changes meant to fight election tampering, it’s eliminating autocomplete suggestions that target candidates or voting. Some examples: predictions such as “you can vote by phone” or “you can’t vote by phone,” or a prediction that says “donate to” any party or candidate, won’t appear in autocomplete. That doesn’t mean you can’t search for whatever you like, of course, and still find results.
As well, like the other major platforms, Google’s been working on getting out the vote. When users type “how to vote” into Google, the search engine instantly populates the search results with location-specific instructions.
The above is just a sampling of what the bigger online platforms are trying to do to strip disinformation and misinformation in the runup to the elections, as well as what they’re doing to try to get out the vote and provide voters with the reliable voting information they need. But will it be enough to make up for the gunk that’s saturated social media?
Carly Miller, a research analyst at the Stanford Internet Observatory who’s been tracking how different social media platforms are addressing election misinformation, said that the platforms have taken decent first steps, but time will tell if they enforce policies effectively. “The next step is to enforce these policies in a clear, transparent, and timely manner, which we have seen really makes a difference in preventing the spread of election-related misinformation,” she told Time in late September.
Time also quoted Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which tracks misinformation. The devil’s going to be in the details, he predicted: “It will depend on how strongly and quickly they enforce these policies.”