“Lie Detectives” SXSW Panel Tackles Political Disinformation Ahead of Election

Katie Harbath and Sasha Issenberg share political insights

Sasha Issenberg (left) and Katie Harbath at the Lie Detectives: How Political Campaigns Fight Disinformation panel at SXSW. (Photo by Austin Sanders)

With Super Tuesday behind us, political campaigns around the country will be focusing their attention on the November general election. But as candidates for elected office and their campaigns focus on November, the amount of disinformation spreading online about those candidates and their campaigns could also surge.

How much of a threat disinformation may pose throughout 2024 elections – and what individuals and campaigns can do to combat it – was the focus of a discussion between Katie Harbath and Sasha Issenberg at a panel during SXSW’s opening day. Harbath currently works at tech consultant firm Duco Experts, but before that she worked at Facebook as the social network’s public policy director – including during the 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns when online disinformation first emerged as a prominent issue in political campaigns. Issenberg is a journalist who has covered presidential campaigns since 2008 and is the author of five books, including the forthcoming The Lie Detectives.

When interviewing people for his book, Issenberg found that since 2016, the very concept of disinformation had become a partisan issue. Democratic operatives and left wing groups were interested in researching the topic and pressuring social media platforms to do more to prevent its spread online, but Republicans would “dispute the premise” that disinformation could be harmful to American elections. Issenberg said he would hear from Republicans that “disinformation as a category has been invented by Democrats so that they can get the federal government to lean on tech companies to censor conservative voices.”

But as Harbath indicated, election disinformation is not a problem that will be going away anytime soon. “We can’t stop elections from happening, we can’t stop these events from coming, and we’re not going to stop technology,” Harbath said. She said she is encouraged by conversations about AI tools – she is especially concerned about the disruptive effect audio deepfake technology could have on elections – and how to regulate them is happening now.

Both speakers agreed that political campaigns will have to use data to determine when it is appropriate to try to address online disinformation as a way of mitigating it and when to just ignore it and not amplify inaccurate information. They also agreed that government actors and social media platforms will have to strike the right balance between allowing for free speech online, and the easy dissemination of it, and the regulation of tools that enable disinformation.

Lie Detectives: How Political Campaigns Fight Disinformation

Government and Civic Engagement Track

Friday, March 8, 2:30pm, Austin Convention Center, Room 10AB

Catch up with all of The Austin Chronicle's SXSW 2024 coverage.

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