How to combat online voter suppresion

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With five months to go until a presidential election that promises to be a major test of American democratic institutions, American laws are in desperate need of update to address digital forms of voter suppression and how political debate and campaigning has moved online. Several ideas for rules that government could enact to provide the necessary transparency to help ensure that voter suppression does not run unchecked online include:

  1. Updating campaign finance laws to include digital advertising. In addition to setting enforceable rules for companies like Facebook and Google to follow, this would allow the Federal Election Commission to fulfill its mandate of tracking money in political advertising. One lingering piece of legislation that addresses some of this is the bipartisan Honest Ads Act.
  2. Limiting the ability of advertisers to target users based on criteria—which the civil rights community could help define—that would allow campaigns to broadcast divisive ads about voting to the those who are most receptive while reducing public scrutiny of those ads. Just as the U.S. government sued Facebook in 2019 for violating the Fair Housing Act by allowing housing ads to target users by race and gender, the U.S. government should ensure that the platforms do not allow political ads that violate the tenets of the Voting Rights Act.
  3. Demanding transparency about how ads are targeted that goes beyond the basic details contained in the Facebook ads library, such as whether custom audiences and “look-alike tools” are used, whether the company algorithms amplify the ads, and whether the advertiser listed in the “paid for by” disclaimer is verified and matches the actual name of the authorized advertiser.

I believe that if Facebook continues to allow blatant lies about our elections system continue unabated, they will be on the wrong side of history. And when, in 2021, Facebook executives roll out the same excuses that “nobody could have seen this coming,” remember this moment.

[Yael Eisenstat is a visiting fellow at Cornell Tech’s Digital Life Initiative, a former elections integrity head at Facebook, and a former intelligence officer and White House advisor.]

How to combat online voter suppresion