In Order to Succeed, The Biden-Harris Administration Must Address the Disinformation Crisis

Alec Saslow | December 21, 2020

This week, MapLight helped to convene a diverse coalition of more than 30 organizations working across a broad spectrum of public interest issues to encourage the Biden-Harris administration to treat the spread of disinformation as a fundamental and intersectional threat to advancing progress on key issues during their administration. In an open letter, organizations focused on issues including racial justice, faith, women’s rights, environmental protection, government accountability, gun violence prevention and more called on the incoming administration to recognize and respond to the role of disinformation in degrading public debate, increasing division, limiting trust in institutions, and hindering our ability to create public policy to address pressing concerns.

The Biden-Harris administration has already signaled it understands the importance of improving our online ecosystem, including a campaign proposal to convene a national task force focused on online harassment and abuse. As a next step, the coalition letter encourages the new administration to treat the threat of disinformation with the attention it deserves.

Click here to view the letter from MapLight, Accountable Tech, Avaaz, Common Cause, Marked by COVID, UltraViolet, Friends of the Earth and more.

“The spread of online disinformation is not only a threat to the integrity of our elections and democratic institutions, it also prevents progress across key priorities for the country and the Biden administration — from responding to the pandemic, to combating climate change and growing our economy,” said Ann Ravel, Digital Deception Project Director at MapLight and former Chair of the Federal Election Commission. “In order to achieve important change, the new administration should prioritize a democracy agenda and recognize the need for a healthy information ecosystem.” 

The letter outlines specific examples of how disinformation, which spreads easily across social media platforms that have so far done little to address the problem or alter algorithms that reward outrageous content, is acutely impacting our ability to grapple with the most pressing issues facing our country. In the face of a surging pandemic, Americans have quite literally paid the cost of disinformation with their lives. 

As the letter explains:

The National Bureau of Economic Research found that localities exposed to content downplaying the severity of coronavirus saw more cases and deaths because residents simply ignored public health precautions. From the politicization of masks to viral conspiracy theories about the forthcoming vaccines, our toxic information infrastructure is undermining the pandemic response and every American is paying the price.

 Climate denialism is running rampant as our window of opportunity to protect the future of the planet closes. The deluge of election lies is not only sowing chaos and division, but being used as pretext for new voter suppression laws. Racist and misogynist disinformation has incited acts of domestic terrorism; it is weaponized to silence and threaten women, thwart police reform, and justify cruel immigration policies. Anti-choice extremists have spread blatant lies about abortion to roll back reproductive rights. No issue is untouched by disinformation.

To begin to address the problem, the letter also proposes nearly a dozen concrete steps the new administration can take, including: appoining disinformation expert to the COVID-19 task force to coordinate a whole-of-society response to the infodemic; launching a website to combat viral disinformation as it occurs; and establishing an interagency task force to study the harms of disinformation across major social media platforms.

It’s not too late to solve our disinformation crisis, but it may be soon if lawmakers don’t recognize the urgent threat and respond. MapLight will continue to push the Biden-Harris administration and Congress to take bold and aggressive action on these fronts in 2021.