Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke’s campaign is demanding that Facebook, Twitter, and Google more aggressively counter disinformation on their platforms. In letters addressed to the companies Friday, O’Rourke’s team outlines how they believe each of them could address the issue after his campaign was falsely linked to a suspected shooter on social media last weekend.
That attack occurred in Odessa, Texas, killing seven people and leaving 25 injured. In the aftermath, bots worked to spread false information across social media with many claiming that the suspected shooter supported Beto O’Rourke. Posts on Facebook and Twitter suggested that the shooter had an O’Rourke sticker on his vehicle. Texas officials have denied any link between the shooter and the O’Rourke campaign.
“As a campaign, we’re almost entirely powerless to stop misinformation,” Jen O’Malley Dillon, O’Rourke’s campaign director, wrote in a tweet earlier this week. “We can tweet corrections, but only a fragment of the people exposed will see it. This rests on Twitter, Facebook, and Google who let this go completely unchecked.”
The campaign was first made aware of the posts from the Democratic National Convention, and O’Malley Dillon said in a Twitter thread on Monday that she was able to identify the original poster’s account — an account that had been suspended and later reinstated before. That tweet is still up and has over 11,000 retweets and 15,000 favorites.
In the campaign’s letter to Twitter, they ask that the platform take down any fake accounts that shared the original tweet. “And moving forward,” they continued, “no matter the purpose or intention, every time a propagandistic tweet, disseminated by a bot campaign, is posted, the fake accounts responsible for its amplification should be removed from the platform without any delay.”
Twitter declined to comment.
Outside of the actions demanded by the campaign regarding bot accounts, they are also asking for Twitter to roll out labels for false tweets on issues that are “of major public importance” and are “being spread rapidly.”
“These are a few specific suggestions — but no one understands your platform better than your own employees,” O’Malley Dillon wrote to Twitter. “So we are calling on you to come up with ideas of your own to end this epidemic of disinformation. We know this problem won’t be solved overnight, but that’s no longer an excuse for inaction.”
Claims of a connection between O’Rourke and the Odessa shooter were posted across Facebook as well. O’Malley Dillon wrote to the company demanding that it identify and remove any posts originating from inauthentic accounts that are spreading disinformation be removed. Going forward, they ask that any accounts that go viral on the platform for spreading false information be removed if other bot accounts are found to have amplified them in any way.
Facebook said that the posts outlined in the letter have been deemed false and that they are reducing their distribution in news feeds. Articles debunking the disinformation accompany the posts in news feeds now, too, and anyone who engaged with these posts will be sent a notification saying that they’ve been fact-checked.
As far as Google’s concerned, O’Rourke’s campaign is asking that it be more transparent about how its algorithms arrange breaking news on results pages, YouTube, and its auto-complete feature in its search bars.
Following the racist attack in El Paso, Texas last month, O’Rourke’s hometown, he announced a new, sweeping plan targeting hate speech on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. If elected president, O’Rourke would seek to make changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in order to demand platforms to remove harmful speech from their platforms. If they did not more aggressively enforce policies against hate speech, they could possibly lose the 230 protections that shield them from liability for what’s said on their sites.