Don’t let Big Tech influence the elections yet again this year

5 min read

In less than six months, Americans will head to the polls.

The stakes are high, and given the controversy surrounding our last two presidential elections, it’s more important than ever for states to ensure the integrity of their democratic processes, so that the people’s voice can be heard loud and clear. 

Thankfully, numerous states have passed reforms to address vulnerabilities and improve the integrity of their elections, as documented by the Heritage Foundation’s Election Integrity Scorecard.

Yet election integrity is threatened by another danger: the censorship and manipulation of political information and opinions by large tech platforms.

This isn’t just a threat to free speech; it’s election interference at its worst.

Silicon Valley giants use powerful reactive and proactive methods of social manipulation to shift public opinion and influence election outcomes.

Reactive methods usually involve censoring or deplatforming voices out of step with progressive values.

One of the most infamous examples is Facebook and Twitter’s suppression of the Hunter Biden laptop story ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

According to a McLaughlin and Associates poll, that suppression almost certainly influenced the outcome of the election.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Other companies like Google use secret blacklists to suppress targeted websites and communications.

Facebook even has a covert whitelist called “XCheck” it employs to give certain favored high-profile users a pass on its content policies.

Large platforms also use proactive methods to push users toward content or actions that further Big Tech’s political agenda.

A leak from Google in 2018 revealed that the company can personalize search results and feeds to reinforce its values.

Google, along with other platforms, appears to be doing just that in the name of voter “education and mobilization.”

While this might sound benevolent, it hides a dark secret: These platforms control which users receive election-related information through their services and can even target certain users with go-vote reminders.

Per research by Robert Epstein, Google targeted go-vote reminders to liberal users during the 2020 Georgia US Senate runoff — presumably to boost turnout for Democrats.

Facebook has also sent out targeted go-vote reminders since at least 2008.

The platform found that reminders increased the overall number of votes cast by 340,000 in 2010.

Taken together, Epstein finds that political bias reinforced through search algorithms, “suggested search” features, AI chat bots and targeted go-vote reminders has a significant cumulative effect on user attitudes and voting behavior.

If observed levels of liberal bias are present on major platforms ahead of an election, they could shift millions of votes to Silicon Valley’s preferred candidates.

These manipulative practices likely violate state and federal election laws.

Federal law bans corporations from using their resources to support candidates for federal office.

To the extent they engage in independent expenditures, those have to be reported. 

The same is true in many states that outright ban political giving — or “in kind” contributions — or require corporations to disclose it.

Manipulating Internet searches or user feeds to ensure that results, ads or opinions disproportionately favor one political candidate or party is akin to making a political contribution.

Considering Big Tech’s questionable legal conduct around elections and political information, Congress and the states should act swiftly to open investigations and demand transparency ahead of November.

A good place to start is to demand platforms disclose all factors used to target or personalize election information, like go-vote reminders.

Lawmakers, state attorneys general and election officials should confirm that platforms are not employing partisan go-vote and registration notifications to subtly shift votes toward favored political candidates.

One way to evaluate this would be for platforms to archive their election-related messages and provide detailed breakdowns of how users are targeted within each voting precinct.

Congress and the states should also demand platforms report ad hoc changes to content policies and algorithms through at least November.

Where necessary, authorities should subpoena platforms’ internal records around content moderation decisions and algorithmic tweaks and also consider whether these companies are likely to act on an outside group’s request to censor or suppress constitutionally protected speech.

Enforcing content or ad policies in ways that advantage certain partisan interests — or colluding with others to do so — should be treated as political activity, banned under federal law and a reportable activity in states that allow corporate contributions in state races.

Ultimately, reining-in Big Tech’s election interference will require legislation to permanently cement rigorous transparency standards around content moderation and algorithms, as well as to ban manipulative practices outright.

As we look toward what promises to be one of the most consequential elections in our nation’s history, all these options and more should be on the table.

A government of the people, by the people and for the people is threatened by Silicon Valley political manipulation.

The time is now for Congress and the states to step in and protect our elections from Big Tech.

Hans von Spakovsky is a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Legal and Judicial Studies. Daniel Cochrane is a senior research associate at its Tech Policy Center.

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