Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren recently introduced a plan to stanch the flow of “disinformation” during and after the 2020 election season. Citing alleged foreign interference in the 2016 election, the proposal outlines potential requirements for social media companies and actions she would take as president to prevent “inauthentic” messaging, from more stringent laws to data-sharing schemes.
Major press outlets have heralded Warren’s blueprint in no small part for its willingness to impose criminal penalties for “knowingly disseminating false information” about voting. Superficially, the plan appears to be a good-faith effort to combat voter suppression. But beneath its high-minded promises of transparency and justice lie a series of dangerous ideas.
The very premise of Warren’s plan provides tremendous cause for concern. The proposal takes at face value the DNC-led, and still unsubstantiated, allegation that the Russian clickbait firm Internet Research Agency (IRA) propagandized millions of online users in order to manipulate the 2016 election, and warns that this could happen again. Notably, one of the sources Warren cites, the University of Oxford’s Computational Project, actually contradicts her claims. In 2018, The Nation’s Aaron Maté examined the Oxford initiative’s report, noting that the political content, scale and sophistication were profoundly less significant than politicians and establishment media had indicated.
Still, the plan makes frequent use of these fearmongering maneuvers. Warren claims that Iran and China “have an interest in the outcome” of U.S. elections — a veiled accusation of intent to interfere in a future election, despite a complete absence of evidence. The corollary, under the guise of “national security” and “election integrity,” is a call for bellicose measures against official state enemies. In a particularly arresting example, Warren makes the following recommendation, with pointed regard to Russia: “Consider additional sanctions against countries that engage in election interference through disinformation.”
According to Warren, one of the most effective ways to combat election tampering is for tech companies, in concert with the federal government, to “alert users affected by disinformation campaigns,” such as IRA’s tweets. She also promises to deputize Google, Twitter and Facebook to label content created by “state-controlled organizations.” These companies, it should be noted, have already experimented with these disclaimers, consistently reinforcing a U.S.-centric ideological framework.
In 2018, YouTube, which is a property of Google, began to label state-sponsored news videos to help users “better understand” the sources. But the label templates are considerably different for countries that are and are not allied with the United States. For instance, videos uploaded by the news organization teleSUR, which is headquartered in Caracas, Venezuela, read “teleSUR is funded in whole or in part by multiple Latin American governments.” A PBS or NPR video disclaimer, by contrast, states the organization “is an American public broadcast service.”
The following year, Twitter ceased to accept ads from what it deemed “state-controlled news media,” restricting content from countries like China and Iran while continuing to permit ads from Western sources like PBS and the BBC. Twitter’s criteria were derived exclusively from Western, U.S.-allied organizations, including the State Department-backed Freedom House. Relatedly, according to CNN, Facebook stated in October it would “distinguish between state-controlled and publicly-financed media, which likely include the BBC” when labeling media funding. (One might also ask why YouTube, Twitter and Facebook don’t identify, let alone restrict, private funding.)
This evokes a number of prior acts of censorship from U.S. tech companies. After the 2016 election and the ensuing panic about a Kremlin-helmed propaganda campaign, major tech firms — namely, the aforementioned three — cracked down on media they deemed “disinformation.” Rather than unearthing any real threat to election integrity, the move muzzled left-leaning media and activists, including racial justice and anti-fascist organizers. Google, Facebook and Twitter, similarly, have repeatedly removed accounts from Iran, Russia, China and Venezuela that challenge U.S. foreign policy narratives, rendering them “inauthentic.”
The plan at once exposes Warren’s commitment to parroting DNC scare tactics and renders hollow her adversarial stance toward Big Tech. By her own admission, she is critical of platforms like Facebook and YouTube because they aren’t sufficiently nationalistic: Apparently, they haven’t flagged enough IRA memes or labeled enough Iranian press outlets “state-controlled.” These companies have transgressed not because they apply a double standard to countries that bolster U.S. hegemony and those that don’t, but because they haven’t sufficiently maligned our nation’s enemies.
It’s not surprising that a DNC-approved, avowed capitalist like Warren would release such a hawkish policy plan. But that doesn’t mean her campaign’s proposal is beyond reproach. The federal government and the Silicon Valley firms that operate at its behest have already shown who benefits from “counter-disinformation” campaigns; those who suffer from them don’t need another reminder.
Julianne Tveten’s work has appeared at In These Times, Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, The Nation, Pacifica Radio and elsewhere.