Platforms are Abandoning U.S. Democracy

Bridget Barrett, Daniel Kreiss

Tech Policy Press

Digital Infrastructures

(Research summary by Katherine Furl)

With the 2024 election fast approaching, have social media platforms learned a lasting lesson about moderating electoral disinformation? In their Tech Policy Press article “Platforms are Abandoning U.S. Democracy,” Bridget Barrett and Daniel Kreiss argue platforms risk repeating the mistakes of the 2016 election nearly eight years on. 


Social media platforms made positive strides during the 2020 election as “democratic gatekeepers,” taking steps to protect the integrity of U.S. elections and to ensure the peaceful transition of power. More recently, however, Barrett and Kreiss found platforms are backpedaling on this progress. For example, Donald Trump has been reinstated on platforms including Meta, YouTube, and X/Twitter “despite the fact that the former president continues to spout lies about the 2020 election and is actively working to undermine confidence in the next one.”  


While these platforms appear to be taking a hands-off approach to the 2024 election, Barrett and Kreiss point out that doing so ignores the potential widespread harm of election denialism and other electoral disinformation. The idea that permitting more and more information, regardless of its validity, in the hope inaccurate information will naturally be countered and corrected is not supported by Barrett and Kreiss's research. As the authors put it,  


“Platforms seem to have the naive view that speech and expression is always in good faith and that more political speech is always beneficial since the best ideas will ultimately come out on top. This is both blind to political manipulation and the real world empirical evidence.” 


Instead, repeated exposure to electoral disinformation tends to increase people’s belief, rather than increase the likelihood that disinformation will be countered. Adding to this, false information tends to spread more quickly than actual news on social media platforms. 


So, what can platforms do to avoid a repeat of the 2016 election? Barrett and Kreiss strongly urge platforms to engage in de-platforming antidemocratic accounts involved in the spread of electoral disinformation. Doing so “decreases audiences for those who would take away the political freedom of others.” 


There is still time for platforms to engage in practices protecting the democratic integrity of the 2024 election. As Barrett and Kreiss make clear, however, the clock is ticking and the time for platforms to act is now.