California launches new office to take on election fake news

With less than two months until the 2018 midterm election, California has launched a new program with a goal of fighting online disinformation campaigns seen on social media.

A recently passed law allows The Office of Elections Cybersecurity to “monitor and counteract false or misleading information” that could “suppress voter participation or cause confusion and disruption of the orderly and secure administration of elections.”

The goal of the program is to counter disinformation aimed at lowering voter turnout such as this ad that told voters to “Save Time, Avoid the Line” by voting from home with a text message:

“People deserve to have confidence in our elections systems, and countering wrong information has become an important part of that,” Secretary of State Alex Padilla told NPR.

The new office will attempt to identify similar campaigns and work with the likes of Facebook, Twitter, etc. to take some of the false information down.

The program comes about after the 2016 election saw Russian nationals use hundreds of fake social media accounts to stoke discord in voters, according to an indictment earlier this year by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Social media companies have already taken some measures to combat the misinformation campaigns. Microsoft announced that it found and shut down half a dozen websites created by a Russian groups impersonating Senate and conservative think tanks,  Facebook took down hundreds of accounts, and Twitter removed hundreds of accounts engaging in what the they called “coordinated manipulation.”

Critics say that the program gives the secretary of state too much power to subjectively decide what is false or misleading, but Padilla says that false campaign claims and conspiracy theories will not be part of the program.

“I know in some quarters, there’s some concern that we’re going to get into the censorship business, which is not true,” Padilla said. “We support the First Amendment and freedom of speech. But it’s also incumbent upon us to ensure that voters have correct, accurate information about voter registration and about being able to participate in the elections.”