U.S. Elections

Social Media and the 

Midterm 2022 Elections

Anticipating Online Threats to Democratic Legitimacy

    Washington, D.C. — (CAP) - Nov. 5, 2022 - As social media companies continue to allow attacks on American democracy to proliferate on their platforms, a new issue brief from the Center for American Progress reveals the top threats to democratic legitimacy facing social media platforms and explains how these companies must confront them.

    “Online platforms are not the sole cause of this democratic crisis,” said Adam Conner, CAP’s vice president of Technology Policy and co-author of the brief. “But companies’ continued refusal to make the fundamental changes required to stop their tools from becoming platforms for hate and election subversion make them complicit in these assaults on our democracy.”

    Over the past few years, there has been an extraordinary informational assault on the legitimacy of U.S. elections fueled by the spread of baseless claims of fraud. Despite continuous calls for product changes, social media platforms continue to abdicate their responsibility to prevent these attacks.

    The new issue brief identifies the three most significant threats to democratic legitimacy that social media platforms must address: 1) election subversion theater, 2) online harassment and intimidation of election workers, and 3) post-election informational chaos.

    “Many candidates and elected officials now promote baseless claims of fraud in order to create the impression that there were instances of fraud or election insecurities, even when there were not,” said Ashleigh Maciolek, research associate for Structural Reform and Governance at CAP and co-author of the brief. “Online platforms need to be aware of this election subversion theater and take steps to prevent their platforms from being used to delegitimize elections.”

    Anticipating that these informational threats will continue to undermine U.S. democracy, fuel violence, and sow chaos, CAP and its partners issued a clear set of demands to major social media companies ahead of the midterm elections to protect the freedom to vote and fairness of elections. Unfortunately, many of these demands have been ignored. The three informational threats identified by CAP remain major threats to the legitimacy of our elections, including:

  • Election subversion theater: Social media companies continue to allow election denialism and baseless claims of fraud to spread on their platforms, providing a platform for perceptive assaults on the legitimacy of the U.S. election process.
  • Online harassment and intimidation of election workers: Online disinformation and violent rhetoric have made the election process seem untrustworthy, implicating election workers who are simply carrying out their vital jobs to protect U.S. elections.
  • Post-election informational chaos: Between the time that the public casts their ballots and elected officials are sworn into office, social media companies must double down on countering baseless claims of fraud, declarations of a “stolen” or “rigged” election, and other election conspiracy theories.

    Recognizing these online threats, CAP again recommends that social media companies take serious, proactive steps to prevent informational assaults on U.S. democracy to proliferate online. Among other recommendations, these steps include:

  • Employing viral circuit breakers to ensure that the spread of false election information or delegitimization is not immediately damaging
  • Proactively monitoring for—and expeditiously removing—attempts to create conspiracy theories about election workers
  • Prohibiting advertisements that promote the “big lie,” delegitimize the election, or otherwise declare elections stolen or rigged

    It is critically important for social media companies to address these ongoing threats now, as CAP expects the 2022 midterms to see the same flood of informational assaults as in 2020. These will only get worse as the 2024 election gets closer.

    Read the issue brief:Social Media and the 2022 Midterm Elections: Anticipating Online Threats to Democratic Legitimacy” by Erin Simpson, Adam Conner, and Ashleigh Maciolek

    For more information or to speak with an expert, please contact Sam Hananel at shananel@americanprogress.org.

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