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Free Press just released a damning report on the democracy-threatening failures of the social-media platforms. Empty Promises: Inside Big Tech’s Weak Effort to Fight Hate and Lies in 2022 — which just dropped in a Washington Post exclusive reveals the ongoing failures of Meta, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube to curb the spread of election disinformation and extremism across their networks.

Democracy hangs in the balance

During the summer, Free Press and our partners in the Change the Terms coalition met with the four companies and called on them to implement 15 priority reforms to safeguard the election. In the ensuing months, we repeatedly followed up with each company, but received no substantive responses from Meta, Twitter or YouTube (we heard from TikTok, but the response was insufficient).

Free Press reviewed the policies of the four companies to consider how prepared, both in writing and practice, the companies are for the upcoming elections. Our report finds that the problem is just as dire in advance of the 2022 U.S. midterms as it was during the nation’s 2020 elections.

With less than two weeks to go before the midterms, hate speech, harassment, conspiracy theories, threats and lies about the election are reaching millions of social-media users in the United States. And there’s an all-too-real potential for this online crisis to have horrific offline consequences.

A systemic failure

As our report shows, social-media platforms haven’t adopted or enforced equitable content-moderation policies. Their efforts to address non-English disinformation are lackluster at best. All four companies allow VIPs like right-wing members of Congress to play by a different set of rules than the rest of us, even though these high-profile figures account for the highest volume of hate speech and lies on the platforms. And these companies have failed to offer the transparency necessary to fully evaluate whether they are enforcing the policies they have on the books.

“Platforms like Meta, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube can’t commit to the most basic online protections to limit the spread of disinformation and hate,” explains Free Press’ Nora Benavidez, the lead author of Empty Promises. “And in practice, our research shows ongoing gaps in companies’ enforcement of their own meager safety policies. These are systemic failures across all of the major social-media companies that show how little the companies care about safeguarding elections and fighting extremism and lies on their platforms.”

Change the Terms — the coalition of more than 60 civil-rights groups that we co-founded to hold the platforms accountable — held a briefing on Thursday alongside the Real Facebook Oversight Board. I spoke during the call to highlight our Empty Promises research and the threat that social-media platforms’ inaction poses to our democracy.

A USA Today Op-Ed that I cowrote with Heidi Beirich notes that Meta has shown a callous disregard for the risks at hand. “Meta has cut its election-integrity staff by 80% — from 300 people to 60, according to The New York Times. This means fewer experts on hand to detect election lies, voting misinformation and foreign interference in the midterms — and put in place the safeguards to stop them.”

Things also look dire at Twitter, which was already failing to take crucial steps and seems likely to become even more of a cesspool under Elon Musk’s leadership. Already Musk has fired Vijaya Gadde, who played a key role in the decision to ban Trump from the platform following the Jan. 6 insurrection (a decision Musk has indicated he wants to reverse).

The stakes couldn’t be higher

This election is a dress rehearsal for even greater threats in 2024. It’s yet to be seen whether we can count on peaceful transitions of power and become a multiracial democracy. We need a media system that confronts these threats and builds toward a more just world — not one that exploits and profits from its demise.

A big part of Free Press’ work is calling out corporate media’s failures and moving to protect people from concrete and immediate harms. We believe that online platforms have a responsibility to us — their users — to protect public safety and democracy.

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