Warren proposes civil and criminal penalties for spreading disinformation

Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful, has announced her intention to crack down on the spread of disinformation of the kind which plagued the 2016 US presidential election.

The proliferation of deliberately deceptive content online during the run-up to the previous US election – much of which could be traced to a Russian effort (led by the Internet Research Agency) to undermine Donald Trump’s opponents – made disinformation a prominent and polarising political issue.

Businesses, activists, academics and politicians have proposed various approaches to combatting disinformation, from focusing on media literacy in education to deploying AI to detect and take down misleading content.

Warren, who is among the frontrunners in the race to win the Democratic presidential nomination, has laid out in detail her plans to tackle disinformation.

“Disinformation and online foreign interference erode our democracy and Donald Trump has invited both,” she wrote on Twitter. “Anyone who seeks to challenge and defeat Donald Trump in the 2020 election must be fully prepared to take this on and I’ve got a plan to do it.”

Warren has called on social media CEOs to work with other platforms; label content created or boosted by state-backed organisations, such as Russia Today (“RT”) or Xinhua; alert affected users; create consequences for accounts that attempt electoral interference; open up data for independent research through an API for research, and share information about algorithms while allowing users to opt out of “algorithmic amplification”.

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She has also committed to a range of policies which she would pursue as president. She has vowed to reinstate the position of cyber-security coordinator at the National Security Council (eliminated under President Trump) and establish rules around data sharing so the government and researchers can identify sources of disinformation without infringing on individual privacy.

Warren also said she would consider additional sanctions against countries engaging in electoral interference through disinformation. She suggests that an appropriate response to Russia’s interference in the 2016 could include sanctions against financial institutions which supported the interference, the Russian cyber sector, and Putin’s closest allies who supported the interference.

Notably, Warren has also promised to push for civil and criminal penalties for “knowingly disseminating false information” about when and how to vote in US elections.

“Anyone who seeks to challenge and defeat Donald Trump in the 2020 election must be fully prepared to take on the full array of disinformation that foreign actors and people in and around the Trump campaign will use […] and anyone who seeks to be the Democratic nominee must condemn the use of disinformation and pledge not to knowingly use it to benefit their own candidacy or damage others,” she wrote.

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Fellow frontrunners Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have made similar pledges not to weaponise disinformation in their campaigns or material otherwise acquired inappropriately. While Warren has stood out among her rivals in her commitment to innovative new policy suggestions – such as a breakup of the largest tech companies to improve competition in the sector – she is polling behind Biden and Sanders with days to go before the primaries begin in Iowa and New Hampshire.

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