California AG warns social media companies over election misinformation

California Attorney General Rob Bonta (D) has asked the chief executives of top social media companies to step up efforts to combat disinformation and misinformation ahead of Tuesday’s midterm election.
California Attorney General Rob Bonta makes his way to the podium before the start of a news conference in San Francisco, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022. California’s attorney general said Wednesday that he has sued online retail giant Amazon, alleging the company’s policies drive up consumers’ prices. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

California Attorney General Rob Bonta (D) has asked the chief executives of top social media companies to step up efforts to combat disinformation and misinformation ahead of Tuesday’s midterm election.

In a letter to Meta chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter owner Elon Musk on Friday, Bonta warned that false information spreading on social media channels poses a threat to democracy and the rule of law. 

“While your platforms have taken some efforts to combat disinformation and misinformation campaigns, past efforts have proven inadequate, especially given the growing tide of politically motivated violence nationwide,” Bonta wrote in the letter, which also went to the chief executives of YouTube, TikTok and Reddit.

In a statement accompanying the letter, Bonta invoked the recent attack on Paul Pelosi, husband of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D), which Bonta said was fueled by “baseless conspiracy theories.”

“This unacceptable act of violence is demonstrative of the growing threat to our elected officials and our democracy,” Bonta said.

As California’s top law enforcement official, Bonta is responsible for protecting the right of Californians to vote. He said online misinformation has the potential to disenfranchise voters. Specifically, he cited the spread of false election information and conspiracy theories about voter fraud and election results.

The letter to the social media companies cited recent news reports, including a New York Times story that reported the term “stolen election” showed up on Twitter more than 325,000 times in one month, up 900% from the same period in 2020.

Bonta also highlighted a Bloomberg report from last month that said Twitter, under Musk’s leadership, had blocked employee access to tools that are used to moderate content. In his letter, he urged the companies to enforce their terms of service and “aggressively” respond to violations.

“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,” the letter said.

Bonta’s letter comes just a week after Musk took control of Twitter after purchasing the company for $44 billion. Musk tweeted Friday that “nothing has changed with content moderation.” Last month, he announced that Twitter will form a “content moderation council” and said no major decisions about content or the reinstatement of accounts would be made before the council convenes. 

Twitter, Meta, YouTube and TikTok did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In an email Friday, a Reddit spokesperson said the company has “strong policies against disinformation and dedicated Safety teams that enforce these policies.” The company said it prohibits false information intended to interfere with voting, including posts that feature incorrect information about polling times or locations.

NetChoice, an industry trade group, criticized the letter from Bonta.

“It is appalling to see the Attorney General using this heinous attack as an excuse to try and censor speech he doesn’t like,” said Carl Szabo, NetChoice’s vice president and general counsel in a statement. “Here we go, watching another government try to coerce private companies into suppressing speech online.”

Szabo also called on Congress to pass the Protecting Speech from Government Interference Act introduced by U.S. Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) and James Comer (R-Ky.)

In January, a first-of-its-kind California law will go into effect that requires social media companies to post their terms of service, including a description of behaviors and activities that could result in a user being sanctioned.

The law will also require social media companies to submit twice-yearly reports disclosing their policies on content such as hate speech, misinformation or harassment. The reports must include data on violations, including the number of flagged items that were removed or deprioritized.