Why James O’Keefe’s latest hoax about voting should set off alarms in the tech world
If content platforms have plans to prevent disinformation-driven democratic decay, they aren’t working
Conservative filmmaker James O’Keefe’s latest exposé on ballot fraud and bribery in Minnesota has fallen apart under the absolute lightest bit of scrutiny. The man who made his way into America’s hearts by dressing up in a Spirit Halloween-quality “pimp” costume on Fox & Friends has repeatedly failed to deliver on big promises to expose mainstream media outlets and people on the political left.
This latest disastrous episode echoes his past failures — like an April video in which he claimed that the COVID-19 death toll was being inflated, a 2019 attack on Google for supposedly censoring conservative voices, his failed attempt to trick The Washington Post into publishing a false sexual assault report as a way to prove that mainstream media outlets don’t actually investigate such claims, or the time he claimed to have proof that Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign was engaging in money laundering.
Even though he’s spent more than a decade spreading disinformation for political gain, O’Keefe remains in the good graces of conservative media. From his latest flop of a project, O’Keefe was able to milk a Hannity segment, a round of promotion by the likes of Breitbart and One America News, and even a tweet from the president. Sure, the video later fell apart, but reporting undermining it came out after the story had already served its purpose as propaganda. It makes sense that right-wing media eat these stories up, even if they’re not true. It helps them politically, and they will no doubt continue to promote O’Keefe’s work.
While there’s plenty of frustration and blame to be directed at right-wing media outlets and their collective disregard for the truth, it is the online content platforms that help O’Keefe and his group Project Veritas thrive in any sort of mainstream sense.
It’s long past time for digital platforms to take misinformation seriously and reject their roles as vectors of right-wing propaganda.
O’Keefe’s Minnesota effort is a video titled “Ilhan Omar connected Ballot Harvester in cash-for-ballots scheme: ‘Car is full’ of absentee ballots,” which had more than 1.14 million views on YouTube as of 1 p.m. EDT on October 8. On Twitter, the video has more than 8 million views, and it trended on the platform at one point. On Facebook, the video posted by the Project Veritas page has nearly 250,000 views, and posts containing the YouTube link have more than 108,000 interactions.
The Project Veritas YouTube channel has 593,000 subscribers. Over 310,000 people follow its Facebook page. On Twitter, Project Veritas has more than 637,000 followers; O’Keefe himself has more than 765,000 followers.
Twitter, Facebook, and Google (which owns YouTube) have all hailed the importance of election integrity and claim to care about stopping the spread of misinformation. But as O’Keefe and his content continue to flourish on these platforms, it is hard to take their claims seriously. Though Google has appended a context box to the YouTube video with a message from the Bipartisan Policy Center, that’s hardly enough. On other platforms, no fact check or additional context seemed to appear at all. Labeling these videos with fact checks should be the bare minimum these companies are expected to do.
If these companies really want to show that they take election integrity and misinformation seriously, they need to implement an actual strategy to prevent bad actors like O’Keefe from using their platforms to manipulate media. Will Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube just let him use their platforms to rack up a couple million views of information that, should history be any guide, will turn out to be blatantly false?
When this type of content gets debunked, will Facebook and Twitter commit to sending notifications to people exposed to that content? Will YouTube push videos containing fact checks into the feeds of people who watched an O’Keefe video later shown to be false? What, exactly, is these tech giants’ plan to prevent digital miscreants from using their platforms’ powers to mislead the public?
Imagine if O’Keefe or another right-wing smear merchant were to release a video in the days before the election, edited to confirm their audience’s fears of rampant voter fraud. It’s not much of a stretch to see how a particularly viral piece of propaganda could serve as a spark for right-wing militia groups to jump into action to “protect” the election, leading to confusion, violence, and chaos.
Information is powerful, but so is disinformation. Members of the press have an incentive to report the truth if they hope to be viewed as reliable sources of information. If a journalist at a mainstream publication got caught fabricating quotes or repeatedly cutting corners on fact-checking, that person would likely lose credibility in the eyes of the public and quite possibly their job. But on social media, the incentive structure is built around engagement and shares far more than it is based on accuracy, which leads to disinformation proliferating on the platforms.
Social media companies have long tried to distance themselves from the content they host. But as shown by Facebook’s galling decision to team up with serial misinformer Breitbart as a trusted news partner (Breitbart has repeatedly shared O’Keefe’s flimsy and deceptive sting operations dating back to 2009), this distancing from the ideas that get shared has always been something of a performative sham.
Social media companies need to be held accountable for the spread of disinformation destructive to democracy, and it’s up to the press to do it.
Congress has demonstrated that it is incapable of cracking down on social media platforms and tech companies, as hearings on anything remotely tech-related seem to inevitably turn into opportunities for Republicans to make unfounded accusations of “anti-conservative bias.” Journalists, on the other hand, can chronicle the election integrity efforts of social media platforms, and perhaps even nudge the companies in the right direction. A lot has been said and written about political ad policies, and Facebook has announced it will indefinitely pause political ads following the election. Comparatively little is being done to get companies on the record about how they will prevent the type of doomsday situation I described earlier sparked by an organic post filled with disinformation.
These problems aren’t new, and it’s a shame that with mere weeks to go before this year’s election, it’s not entirely clear whether online content platforms realize the type of destruction they may yet end up facilitating. It’s remarkable that someone like O’Keefe can launch such a lengthy list of politically motivated, falsehood-filled influence campaigns and not have his content under constant scrutiny. If these companies feel obligated to allow him use of their platforms, his history certainly justifies them down-ranking his pages’ content until verified by a third-party fact-checker.
If there are actual plans in place to crack down on election-swinging disinformation, they aren’t publicly available; if they don’t exist, it’s time tech companies get to work changing that. The chaos that is to come is astonishingly predictable, and that only makes the unpreparedness that much more inexcusable.