California Attorney General Rob Bonta is urging Big Tech platforms to censor election-related content ahead of the Tuesday midterms, saying uncontrolled speech on social media was fueling violent incidents like the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol and the attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband.
“In advance of the upcoming November 2022 midterm election, social media platforms must take critical steps to stop the spread of disinformation and misinformation that attack the integrity of our electoral process,” Bonta wrote Thursday in a 16-page letter to the heads of the of Meta, YouTube, TikTok, Reddit, and Twitter.
Bonta said more efforts were needed to stem the flow of “fake news” that he said has played a role in some political violence seen over the last few years. He partly blamed social media for the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, and said the event was “derived from and deeply connected to hoaxes and conspiracy theories amplified on social media.”
He added that the attack on Pelosi’s husband is another example of an incident that was “fueled by social media” that “amplifies extremist messaging and perpetuates falsehoods.”
Bonta said that while he “appreciates” free speech, these events show more needs to be done to mitigate the “spread of election-related disinformation.”
“I urge you to strengthen and accelerate your companies’ ongoing efforts to consistently, transparently, and aggressively address violations of your policies with respect to disinformation and violations of state and federal law,” he wrote. “I also implore you to employ your immense resources, tools, and familiarity with the operation of your social media platforms to stop the spread of disinformation, misinformation, conspiracy theories, and threats that fuel political violence,” he continued.
“While I appreciate that you must work to balance the free exchange of ideas and opinions, implementing your policies will mitigate the real-world threat that the spread of election-related disinformation poses to our democracy and its citizens,” Bonta added.
Bonta cited research that said a majority of U.S. adults get some of their news from social media, but that most overestimate their skill at weeding out “fake news.” He said that leaves many Americans vulnerable to “coordinated disinformation attacks,” such as “Russia’s brazen interference in the 2016 election.”
“The spread of misinformation and disinformation on social media platforms has led to a proliferation of conspiracy theories, political violence, and threats to democracy ahead of the 2022 midterm elections,” Bonta said in a statement.
Bonta’s letter said that while social media companies have tried to fight false information, “its continued spread and increasingly violent consequences demand greater corrective action.”
“Reasonable users expect that social media platforms will vigorously enforce their terms of service and that they will provide a safe medium for engagement,” he wrote. “It is therefore incumbent on your companies to institute and enforce durable, dynamic policies that will actually prevent disinformation and misinformation from spreading, as well as aid law enforcement in protecting the integrity of the democratic process.”
Bonta cited a report produced in August by the majority-Democratic staff of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Oversight and Reform, which he said found that “the greatest current threat to democracy legitimacy now comes from lies by domestic actors who seek to convince Americans that their election systems are fraudulent, corrupt, or insecure.”
“Hoaxes and fabricated claims of election fraud are prompting angry and misinformed actors to disrupt orderly election processes and inundate local government offices with baseless accusations and demands for investigations,” Bonta wrote.
“False narratives about ballot harvesting have prompted armed vigilantes to patrol ballot drop-boxes and film or photograph voters as they deposit their ballots,” he continued.
Bonta used his letter to cite California law that he said gives him the authority to ensure the midterm election is run fairly and to fight the “dissemination of disinformation that interferes with our electoral system.”
“As the chief law enforcement officer for the State of California, I cannot tolerate attacks on our elected leaders and civil servants,” he wrote.