May 10, 2021

To Fight the For the People Act, Opponents Resort to Online Disinformation

Frank Bass and Bergen Smith

Opponents of legislation that would overhaul much of the framework of the modern American political process are fighting the measure with every tool at their disposal: Campaign contributions, dark money organizations, political action committee (PAC) expenditures, broadcast radio and television campaigns, and – of course – digital disinformation.

The bill, H.R. 1 (also known as the For The People Act), passed the House by a 220-210 vote on March 3 and is now being considered as S. 1 by the Senate. The legislation focuses on a half-dozen key areas, including voting rights, election security, campaign finance, ethics, gerrymandering, and the composition of the Federal Election Commission.

“The right to vote is sacred and fundamental,” President Joe Biden said in a statement released after the House vote. “This landmark legislation is urgently needed to protect that right, to safeguard the integrity of our elections, and to repair and strengthen our democracy.”

The For the People Act would also combat the increasing problem of digital disinformation by improving online political advertisement disclosure rules. It would require online platforms to keep a public database of advertisements and require them to take action to prevent foreign interference in U.S. elections.  Overall, the For the People Act marks the most significant effort yet from Congress to prevent digital disinformation from wreaking havoc on democracy.

Generally speaking, the proposal has broad appeal, with an April 2021 poll finding at least 62 percent of likely voters – including 43 percent of Republicans, 61 percent of independents and 79 percent of Democrats – support the measure. It’s rare that a comprehensive piece of legislation has such depth of support across partisan lines. Indeed, the measure’s opponents were captured on a March audio call, acknowledging its popularity and conceding that the best way of killing it would be through procedural chicanery in Congress, rather than arguing its merits.

A review of advertisements by Decode Democracy also indicates opponents of the bill are waging their fight via online disinformation campaigns, primarily through platforms hosted by Google and Facebook. Given the widespread influence of social media platforms, the disinformation threatens the ability of voters to make informed decisions about the benefits of the legislation.

If passed, the legislation would expose the sources of disinformation that opposed such basic democratic norms as transparency, fairness, equal representation and ethics. Such exposure might not eliminate support for continued falsehoods, but shining a bright light on them would almost certainly erode the use of blatant lies as an everyday fact of American political life and likely push those tactics back to the fringes of political discourse. Decode Democracy identified five representative examples of digital disinformation being used to oppose the For the People Act. 

Restoration Action

Restoration Action is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit corporation created in 2015 and headquartered in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill. It takes credit for anti-Hillary Clinton commercials aired in 2016 and has supported U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican who has falsely claimed Trump won the 2020 election and voted against the Jan. 6 Electoral College certification of Joe Biden as U.S. president. It’s described the 2020 election as “a Third-World election … onto election machines with shadowy ownership where vote tallies were shipped overseas.”

The dark money organization spent between $16,000 and $20,000 on advertisements that ran between March 18 and April 10, making a number of false claims about H.R./S. 1. The ads, which appeared on more than 1.2 million screens, falsely claimed that the bill would weaken restrictions on vote-by-mail; allow people to vote in places where they don’t live; and block states from signature verification of ballots.

The measure would, in fact, make things easier for voters to cast mail-in ballots if they wish, as long as they follow state rules. It would allow students to vote at universities they attend, and it would prohibit states from requiring notarization of witness of voters’ signatures to cast an absentee ballot.

Another advertisement Restoration Action bought on YouTube and aired from April 1-14 was even less subtle, warning that “some in Congress want to strip away those critical safeguards… effectively allowing non-citizens to vote.”

The law does not contain provisions for non-citizens to vote.

Republican National Committee

The Republican National Committee also used U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock – a Black minister – to rally support against H.R. 1, warning in a Facebook ad that began running on April 7 that the Georgia Democrat “wants to use your tax dollars to elect more radical liberal candidates.”

One of the advertisement’s most demonstrably false claims contends that H.R. 1 would force states to count illegal immigrants as residents, “a ploy to create more Democrat Congressional Districts.” The U.S. Constitution requires the federal government to conduct a decennial Census of all residents of a state, without regard to their citizenship. The results are used to determine the number of congressional districts assigned to each state, a process known as apportionment. The decennial Census is a constitutional requirement, not a ploy.

Turning Point USA

Turning Point USA is a controversial nonprofit corporation organized under section 501(c)(3) of the U.S. tax code, with affiliates in the United Kingdom and Canada. Founded in 2012, it seeks to encourage young people to follow conservative leaders. Turning Point has a history of online disinformation; in 2020, an affiliate sponsored a Phoenix-based “troll farm” that flooded Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter pages with false information about election fraud and missing vote ballots.

The nonprofit was responsible for an overwrought March 25 YouTube advertisement, “The End of The Republic.” The six-minute-long video, which appeared on more than 1 million screens, asked: “If you wanted to destroy American democracy – forever – how would you do it? You would make the process of checking and validating votes illegal … You would mail every person in America an insecure ballot, ensuring that millions of ballots are mishandled. Does this sound like a Third World hellscape? Sadly, this is not an antidemocratic nightmare from a far-off land. It’s reality. Leftists are in the final stages of killing our American democracy.”

The For the People Act would not make checking and validating votes illegal or mail insecure ballots to every person in America. It also would not take away the ability of states to redraw legislative districts; it seeks to end gerrymandering by requiring states to create independent, non-partisan commissions for redistricting. 

Club for Growth

The Club for Growth is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit corporation that supports conservative economic issues, although it also supported 42 conservative Republican lawmakers who challenged U.S. election results, according to an analysis by the Guardian. Hawley; Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas; and Rep. Lauren Boebert, D-Colo. – three members of the “Sedition Caucus” who attempted to prevent Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s electoral victory – have been among its biggest beneficiaries.

The dark money organization spent between $11,000 and $13,500 on three versions of an anti-H.R./S. 1 Facebook ad that ran between March 26 and April 10, and appeared on as many as 2.2 million screens.  The ad urged West Virginians to push Sen. Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat, “to vote NO on Pelosi’s Election Fraud Bill! We cannot let D.C. politicians control West Virginia’s elections.” A similar ad pushed Arizonans to contact Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, also a conservative Democrat, and pressure her to vote against the measure.

“In case you missed it, the Radical Left is plotting some crazy ideas,” the nonprofit said. “This disastrous legislation means states will no longer be able to control their own elections.”

The For the People Act would not strip states of control of their elections.

Jay Sekulow

One of former President Donald Trump’s lead attorneys during his first of two impeachment trials took out a Facebook advertisement that called H.R./S. 1 “one of the most alarming pieces of legislation we’ve ever seen … It enshrines into law everything that went wrong in the 2020 elections.” The lawyer, Jay Sekulow, is the chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, a nonprofit Christian legal advocacy organization that has been criticized by philanthropy watchdogs.

The logic of Sekulow’s claim is difficult to follow. Even though Trump claimed that Biden won because of massive fraud, the former president’s own Department of Homeland Security issued a statement after the Nov. 3 election, noting it “was the most secure in American history … There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.”

Moving Forward

It is ironic, of course, that a bill designed in part to combat political disinformation is being fought with political disinformation. Although all parts of the For the People Act are of a piece, the section that would curb disinformation spread via digital ads by requiring greater disclosure would mark the start of the curing of a number of ills that affect our democracy. Ensuring that all voters have access to accurate, thorough information about the money being spent on campaigns, the security of elections, the integrity of our elected officials, and the ways in which special interests influence our democracy would mark a sea change in the current political environment.

Our country is less than four months removed from a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol Building encouraged by the incumbent president and fueled by disinformation spread widely on social media platforms. Yet a vast amount of untraceable money is being spent on a “Big Lie” broadcast via social media and supported by seditionist lawmakers in an attempt to persuade gullible Americans that they did not see what they saw.

In Arizona, an “audit” of Maricopa County votes from the Nov. 3 election is being conducted under the supervision of a firm whose chief executive has endorsed 2020 conspiracy theories. The GOP-controlled Georgia Legislature passed an overhaul of its laws to make voting more difficult for people who traditionally have voted for Democrats. And already, candidates such as Alaska’s Kelly Tshibaka are using Trump’s “Big Lie” to position themselves for 2022 challenges to moderate Republicans.

It should not be considered a coincidence that the anti-democratic forces who sought to overthrow our government in January are now using disinformation to fight legislation that would strengthen our democracy. The For the People Act is our best, and perhaps last, chance to ensure that Americans of all political persuasions have an opportunity to cast their ballots based on facts, rather than manipulative falsehoods.

 

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