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California Launches New Effort To Fight Election Disinformation


California election officials are launching a new effort to fight disinformation during political campaigns. But it comes with thorny legal and political questions. Capital Public Radio's Ben Adler reports from Sacramento as part of our series this week on election security.

BEN ADLER, BYLINE: As Russian agents sought to influence the 2016 election, they didn't just hack into email accounts or try to get into voting systems. They also planted what's known as disinformation intended to drive down voter turnout.

BRET SCHAFER: So telling people to go to the wrong polling place, telling people that the date of the election is different, telling people that they can text in their vote.

ADLER: Bret Schafer with the Alliance for Securing Democracy tracks Russian influence operations on social media. And he offers an example of an official-looking Clinton campaign graphic that encouraged voters to vote from home by sending a text. It even had a paid for by Hillary for president 2016 disclaimer at the bottom. In other words, no need to actually go to a polling place to cast your vote for president. Just send a tweet or a text.

SCHAFER: This obviously wasn't true, and it violated voter suppression laws.

ADLER: And that's the kind of disinformation California wants to fight, says Secretary of State Alex Padilla.

ALEX PADILLA: People deserve to have confidence in our elections systems, and countering wrong information has become an important part of that.

ADLER: So Padilla is opening a new Office of Elections cybersecurity, and he's hiring now with hopes of getting started before the November election.

PADILLA: This allows us to be able to identify campaigns along those lines more quickly, correct information and, as appropriate, work with social media platforms and others to bring some of that information down.

ADLER: Bret Schafer says, as far as he knows, California is the first state to target disinformation. And he says it's a vital, proactive step forward. But he warns it's dangerous to give government officials the power to decide what kinds of disinformation should be taken down.

SCHAFER: That very quickly is going to be a slippery slope, and it's going to become political and problematic on many levels.

ADLER: And when the California legislature gave final approval for the new office last month, Republicans like Assemblyman Matthew Harper voted no.


MATTHEW HARPER: If, indeed, this was about making sure to avoid situations in which someone was giving wrong information about when to vote, how to vote, et cetera, then it should've been specifically and narrowly tailored to that.

ADLER: The law states the office will monitor and counteract false or misleading information that could suppress voter participation or create confusion and disruption. It's silent on the issues of false campaign claims and conspiracy theories, but Secretary of State Padilla insists they'll be off limits. And Bret Schafer thinks the language in the law is pretty clear.

SCHAFER: From the way that is written, I consider that a positive.

ADLER: Of course, Padilla's successor could choose to interpret it differently. As for the social media companies, Twitter and Facebook are working with Padilla's office to create a process for reporting and removing disinformation. But they're also quite clear that they too are targeting disinformation about the voting process, not campaign claims. For NPR News, I'm Ben Adler in Sacramento.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ben Adler