A July 4 injunction that places extraordinary limits on the government's communications with tech companies undermines initiatives to harden social media companies against election interference, civil rights groups, academics and tech industry insiders say.
After companies and the federal government spent years expanding efforts to combat online falsehoods in the wake of Russian interference on the platforms during the 2016 election, the ruling is just the latest sign of the pendulum swinging in the other direction. Tech companies are gutting their content moderation staffs, researchers are pulling back from studying disinformation and key government communications with Silicon Valley are on pause amid unprecedented political scrutiny.
With voting in the 2024 primaries just months away, tech companies also are facing new election threats as leaps in artificial intelligence give bad actors new tools to create fake videos, photos and ads.
Amid that rapidly changing social media landscape, civil rights groups say U.S. District Judge Terry A. Doughty's order will be a boon for election lies.
"As the U.S. gears up for the biggest election year the internet age has seen, we should be finding methods to better coordinate between governments and social media companies to increase the integrity of election news and information," said Nora Benavidez, a senior counsel at Free Press, a digital civil rights group.
Doughty's order marks a watershed development in the years-long, partisan battle over the rules for what people can say on social media. As Democrats warn tech companies aren't doing enough to check the proliferation of falsehoods on their platforms, Republicans continue to say the companies unfairly pick on them because of their political views, criticizing the companies for developing misinformation policies and deploying fact-checkers and contractors to enforce them.
Republicans have used their control of the House of Representatives to advance such allegations, and conservative activists have targeted academics studying online disinformation with lawsuits and open records requests. Their efforts have been aided by Elon Musk, who has used his ownership of Twitter to release a slew of internal communications about content moderation decisions that he dubbed "The Twitter Files."
"We have watched as conservatives have weaponized this kind of false idea of conservative bias throughout Silicon Valley," said Rashad Robinson, the president of the civil rights organization Color of Change. "And so it's no surprise that they've used their soft power within corporate America to make companies afraid to actually live up to their responsibility and to be accountable."
Meta, Google and Twitter did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Justice Department has sought a stay of the injunction because of the risks. In an appeal filed Thursday night, DOJ lawyers warned that the judge's order could prevent the government from "working with social media companies on initiatives to prevent grave harm to the American people and our democratic processes."
Already there are signs of how the judge's order and other conservative moves are chilling efforts to combat election interference. A day after the ruling, the State Department canceled its regular meeting with Facebook officials to discuss 2024 election preparations and hacking threats.
The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, whose contacts with social media companies are also limited under Doughty's order, has played a major role in getting accurate voting information out. A private nonprofit with some government funding, the Center for Internet Security, which is mentioned in Doughty's order, has connected local election officials with the social media companies when the local officials spot falsehoods about election mechanics. CIS is not specifically barred from contacting social media companies, but people who have worked with both organizations expect a chill in coordination.
"For several years now, CISA's productive working relationship with election officials and social media platforms has been an essential part of tamping down false rumors that can impact the public's participation in election processes," said Eddie Perez, a former Twitter director of product management who led a team on civic integrity and similar issues. "This sweeping injunction has the potential to 'green light' bad actors' efforts to undermine confidence and suppress the vote."
Doughty included some exceptions that appeared to acknowledge that restricting the government's communications with the tech industry could exacerbate national security threats. His injunction permits communications between the government and the companies to discuss illegal voter suppression or foreign interference in elections. But it's not always immediately clear if disinformation on a site is originating from a foreign actor, and it could result in the government being extra cautious and only sharing threats with the tech industry when they're positive they originate from people abroad, said Katie Harbath, a former public policy director at Meta.
"Does that put us back to where we were in 2016?" Harbath said.
The scrutiny from conservatives is also affecting how tech companies are talking with one another about potential disinformation threats, according to a former tech industry employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of harassment and concern about discussing confidential interactions between companies. Following the revelations of disinformation during the 2016 election, officials from Twitter, Facebook, Google and other social media companies began regular contacts to discuss election threats. Details of those communications have become public, opening up tech employees to harassment.
Now people are "wary of having those conversations," the person said.
Academic researchers were reeling from the injunction and still sorting out how to respond to it. The order placed new restrictions on communications between key U.S. government agencies and academic institutions studying online disinformation, including the Election Integrity Project, an initiative led by Stanford University and University of Washington that in past elections tracked election disinformation.
"There's no version of us being able to do our job, or other versions of the field of trust and safety, without being able to communicate with all stakeholders, including government and including industry," said a leading researcher on extremism and foreign influence who asked not to be named due to the ongoing litigation.
The order comes as a series of conservative lawsuits and records requests are already vexing academics doing social media work. Evelyn Douek, an assistant professor at Stanford Law School, said it's difficult to quantify the impact of the litigation and investigations on social media researchers, but that it is undoubtedly "making people think twice before working on these issues."
"The First Amendment is supposed to protect against exactly this problem - that people will just shut up because they're worried about bad consequences or think it's just not worth the hassle," she said. "It's being flipped on its head here and being used to chill people from doing important and legitimate academic work."
Tech companies have also cut back on content moderation initiatives in recent months. Under Musk, Twitter unwound programs intended to limit the spread of misinformation and fired many employees working on content moderation. Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, has also laid off significant swaths of its workforce, including employees who worked on trust and safety.
The order's focus on the government also distracts from badly needed attention on how the companies are acting on their own, advocates say.
"While we're covering the issue of how the government can or cannot engage with Big Tech, we're not talking about Big Tech failing to do its job of moderating lies," Benavidez said.
Meanwhile, companies are releasing new products that could be abused to spread disinformation. The day after the ruling, Meta launched its Twitter competitor, Threads, which attracted more than 70 million sign-ups in 48 hours. The launch underscores how quickly the social media landscape can change and why it's so necessary for the government to be able to talk to the companies, said Leah Litman, a professor at University of Michigan Law School.
The ruling "is just going to compound the inability to adapt to new challenges that are coming," Litman said.