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Elizabeth Warren wants harsher penalties for sharing disinformation about voting

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‘Anyone who seeks to be the Democratic nominee must condemn the use of disinformation,’ says Warren

Presidential Candidate Elizabeth Warren Campaigns In Eastern Iowa Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

On Wednesday, presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) unveiled a new plan to fight disinformation, aiming to stem the effect of the Russian troll campaigns that plagued the 2016 election.

In particular, Warren proposes harsher laws against spreading misinformation for the purpose of voter suppression, as in ads spreading the wrong date for election day.

“I will push for new laws that impose tough civil and criminal penalties for knowingly disseminating this kind of information,” Warren writes, “which has the explicit purpose of undermining the basic right to vote.”

It’s part of a broader policy against the use of disinformation, requiring action on the part of both platforms and the government. Warren would also establish clear rules around data sharing within platforms, potentially allowing networks to raise the alarm about disinformation campaigns earlier and faster.

As part of that policy, Warren pledges not to employ disinformation in her campaign in any way. “Anyone who seeks to be the Democratic nominee must condemn the use of disinformation,” Warren says in the post, “and pledge not to knowingly use it to benefit their own candidacy or damage others.”

She subsequently pledges not to spread manipulated news reports, promote content from fraudulent online accounts, or allow campaign staff or surrogates to spread manipulated information.

Reached by The Verge, the Biden campaign pointed to a similar pledge their candidate made in June as part of the Transatlantic Council on Election Interference. The Sanders campaign pointed to a similar commitment made in April: “Nearly a year ago our campaign vowed never to knowingly use stolen or hacked material,” a Sanders campaign representative said, “and that pledge extends to disinformation as well.”

The Buttigieg campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

President Trump has been more equivocal on the question of foreign election interference, particularly from Russia. During the 2016 election, he openly invited Russia to hack his opponent and continues to question whether the country was involved in the hack of the Democratic National Committee.

Manipulated media has already become a factor in the upcoming presidential race. In May, President Trump promoted a slowed-down video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, which was altered to make her seem confused or ill. More recently, online activists critical of Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden have been accused of spreading deceptively edited videos of the candidate. Crucially, most of the videos have been edited using rudimentary and widely available technology, rather than more sophisticated “deepfake” techniques.

Warren’s pledge also includes specific demands from Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. She calls on the platforms to share information on disinformation campaigns, and alert users when such campaigns are discovered. She also recommends the labeling of state-sponsored media, similar to the warnings currently in place on YouTube, and making more data available to researchers, along the lines of Facebook’s ongoing social science project.

Warren asks the platforms to disclose more information about their algorithms and, more controversially, allow users to opt out of algorithmic amplification entirely, a request that could potentially lead to the option of a chronological feed.

“Users should have more choice in determining how their data and preferences are used to influence the information they see,” Warren writes. “Social media platforms should allow users to understand how algorithms affect their use of the platform, and to opt out of algorithmic amplification.”

Update 12:31PM ET: Updated with statement from the Sanders campaign.