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Source: United States House of Representatives – Congresswoman Lauren Underwood (IL-14)

Underwood’s first official action as Chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection, and Innovation

WASHINGTON— Congresswoman Lauren Underwood (IL-14), Chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection, and Innovation, is urging executives at Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to address ongoing reports of election-related disinformation targeting Black voters on their platforms. During the 2016 election, social media platforms were used by malicious actors attempting to silence Black voters and sow racial division. Four years later, social media companies have made too little progress toward containing this growing threat. Underwood requested information on the steps the companies are taking to prevent voter suppression, interference, and disinformation targeting Black voters.  

“The tragic reality of voter suppression tactics is that, too often, they work. The 2016 election cycle saw ‘the first fall in Black turnout in 20 years.’ While I appreciate that social media companies have taken some corrective actions since 2016, I am concerned that too many blind spots remain. As the new Chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection, and Innovation for the Committee on Homeland Security, I would like to understand what measures you have put in place to counter voter suppression, interference, and disinformation targeting Black voters, as we head into the last few weeks before Election Day,” Underwood wrote. 

The full version of the letters can be found here and below.  

 

October 2, 2020 

 

Mr. Mark Zuckerberg 

Chairman and Chief Executive Officer 

Facebook, Inc. 

1 Hacker Way 

Menlo Park, CA 94025 

 

 

Dear Mr. Zuckerberg: 

 

With the election already underway, I write to you with deep concern about the myriad of ways that social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp may continue to be used to spread disinformation targeting Black voters, or to otherwise suppress, intimidate, and interfere with Black voter turnout in 2020.  

 

The 2016 election was a watershed moment for social media companies, as platforms were hijacked by malicious actors aiming to silence Black voters and sow racial division.  Investigations revealed a sophisticated Russian plot to flood the social media accounts of American voters with inflammatory, divisive content that was—most often—designed to prey on racial tensions and dampen enthusiasm among Black voters.  As the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence noted in 2018, “no single group of Americans was targeted…more than African-Americans.”   

 

As you know, these tactics remain in use on your platforms today, and have been employed by a wider range of countries, organizations, and individuals, including within the U.S.  Since 2016, China and Iran have entered the disinformation space, with varying motivations and sophistication levels.  Further, there has been a massive surge in domestic disinformation, misinformation, and conspiracy theories spread on social media which can be repurposed by foreign actors.  Meanwhile, Russian disinformation has not abated, with reports showing new activity by the Internet Research Agency and the operatives responsible for the “hack-and-leak” of DNC emails in 2016.  Moreover, the Kremlin appears to be outsourcing some disinformation operations to troll farms in Ghana and Nigeria in the hopes that African nationals will be able to more convincingly speak to American audiences about racial division in the U.S.  Content generated by these troll farms reportedly uses “a mixture of sentiments to cultivate followers and manipulate U.S. narratives about race, racial tensions and police conduct” specifically crafted to encourage distrust in Black communities.    

 

Four years later, the scope and persistence of such threats on Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp to Black Americans’ civic participation remain extremely concerning. While platforms have made some improvements when it comes to disrupting this activity, these takedowns are often spurred by tips from law enforcement or external researchers rather than surfaced through internal investigation and reporting structures.  

 

We have also learned more about the direct role some social media companies played in supporting the Trump campaign’s voter suppression effort. Just this week, an investigation by Channel 4 News shed light on how President Trump’s 2016 campaign was able to use Facebook’s data, algorithms, targeted advertising tools, and even embedded employees to try to convince 3.5 million Black Americans to “stay home” on Election Day.   

 

Unfortunately, the continued efforts to maliciously target Black voters on your platforms raise questions of whether you, as Chief Executive Officer of Facebook, fully appreciate the range of tactics that have been used to suppress Black turnout and the many forms that such suppression may take. This election will take place under unprecedented circumstances, and accurate and inaccurate information will no doubt spread quickly on Facebook. Social media companies need clear, unambiguous policies prohibiting voter inference and suppression—and the ability and willingness to seek out violations and enforce those policies against all users equally. I am deeply concerned when I see, for instance, studies showing uneven enforcement of disinformation and misinformation policies across platforms.  And, I am even more dismayed when I see Facebook’s independent civil rights auditors excoriate the company for “[being] far too reluctant to adopt strong policies to limit misinformation and voter suppression,” and ignoring their “biggest concern [that] domestic political forces would use the platform as a vehicle to engage in voter suppression.”  

 

The tragic reality of voter suppression tactics is that, too often, they work. The 2016 election cycle saw “the first fall in Black turnout in 20 years.”  While I appreciate that social media companies have taken some corrective actions since 2016, I am concerned that too many blind spots remain.  

 

As incoming Chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection, and Innovation for the Committee on Homeland Security, I would like to understand what measures you have put in place at Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp to counter voter suppression, interference, and disinformation targeting Black voters, as we head into the last few weeks before Election Day. Accordingly, pursuant to Rule X(3)(g) and Rule XI of the Rules of the House of Representatives, I respectfully request that you respond by October 9, 2020.  

 

Thank you for your attention to this request. 

 

Sincerely, 

 

Lauren Underwood 

Chairwoman 

Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection, and Innovation 

 

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