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Social media, free speech and political disinformation: This DC policy expert weighs in

"The U.S. general election has particularly highlighted the risk that social media can be used for voter suppression," said Center for Democracy & Technology's Emma Llansó. Plus, how to spot and stop mis- and disinformation.

Emma Llansó, director of the Free Expression Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology. (Courtesy photo)

As Americans wait to see the final results of the 2020 presidential election, many are turning to social media for live updates and hot takes. And for the past several months, social media companies have been preparing for the aftermath.

There’s no question that social media has played a pivotal role in how people have built their political perceptions, especially since President Donald Trump has been an avid user of Twitter during his term. But even beyond that, there has been much discussion about how people spread information on social media sites, and ways we should be combatting the lies. With several high-profile examples — including Facebook’s attempt to stop the spread of a New York Post article about Hunter Biden’s laptop that could be part of a disinformation campaign — tech firms have been trying to stop disinformation and voter intimidation, and oftentimes come up short.

“Social media is a powerful tool for organizing and sharing information, and has been used to highlight injustices in our societies, help people find supportive communities, hold politicians accountable — and to spread disinformation and hate speech,” Emma Llansó, director of Center for Democracy & Technology’s (CDT) Free Expression Project, told “The U.S. general election has particularly highlighted the risk that social media can be used for voter suppression, by spreading information that can, intentionally or not, deceive or intimidate voters and prevent them from casting their ballot.”

CDT is a public interest advocacy organization with offices in D.C. and Brussels. The nonprofit advocates for individuals’ fundamental rights and civil liberties in internet and technology policy, which includes work to promote transparency and accountability from governments and companies in online content regulation.

Fighting online hate speech and disinformation (which is intentionally wrong or harmful information, as opposed to misinformation, which is incorrect information that may not be malicious in its intent) can be a complex task like all content moderation issues, Llansó said. But it can start with social media services being more transparent about what kind of content is and isn’t allowed, and how they address content that violates their rules. Llansó said it may be difficult to define “political ad” in a way that captures the intended kinds of content that fuel disinformation campaigns, but that doesn’t scope too broadly.

“There are many examples of everything from bookstores to news outlets to small business owners getting swept up in sites’ policies against ‘political ads’ when they are merely trying to advertise information, products, and services that relate to important issues like health care and racial justice,” she said.

Since CDT is a nonpartisan organization, Llansó would not comment on campaigns or candidates specifically.

We often create perceptions on major social and policy issues based off of what is seen on social media, but Llansó said people are using other websites, message boards, forums, mailing lists and SMS groups to share information as well.

“The internet can support much more diversity of places to speak and to access information than just the major social media sites,” Llansó said. “That’s a key of how the Internet, as a communications medium, enables freedom of expression.”

Check out CDT’s guide for elections officials on spotting and countering voter suppression content, and below, its public service announcement on election misinformation. The big takeaways, per the video:

  • Read content critically and look for its sources.
  • Check social media sources for suspicious follower counts or posts.
  • Don’t share or amplify anything you suspect may be misinformation or disinformation.
  • Report suspicious content to social media platforms.

Series: Election 2020

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