Tech Platforms Must Do More to Avoid Contributing to Potential Political Violence

Yaël Eisenstat, Justin Hendrix, Daniel Kreiss / May 22, 2024

This piece is co-published with Just Security.

Washington, DC - January 6, 2021: Protesters seen all over Capitol building where pro-Trump supporters riot and breached the Capitol. Lev Radin/Shutterstock

At the end of March, we convened a working group of experts on social media, election integrity, extremism, and political violence to discuss the relationship between online platforms and election-related political violence. The goal was to provide realistic and effective recommendations to platforms on steps they can take to ensure their products do not contribute to the potential for political violence, particularly in the lead-up to and aftermath of the U.S. general election in November, but with implications for states around the world.

Today, we released a paper that represents the consensus of the working group titled “Preventing Tech-Fueled Political Violence: What online platforms can do to ensure they do not contribute to election-related violence.” Given the current threat landscape in the United States, we believe this issue is urgent. While relying on online platforms to “do the right thing” without the proper regulatory and business incentives in place may seem increasingly futile, we believe there remains a critical role for independent experts to play in both shaping the public conversation and shining a light on where these companies can act more responsibly.

Indications of potential political violence mount

The January 6th, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol looms large over the 2024 election cycle. Former President Donald Trump and many Republican political elites continue to advance false claims about the outcome of the 2020 election, a potential predicate to efforts to delegitimize the outcome of the vote this November.

Yet such rhetoric is but one potential catalyst for political violence in the United States this political season. In a feature on the subject this month, The New York Times noted that across the country, “a steady undercurrent of violence and physical risk has become a new normal,” particularly targeting public officials and democratic institutions. And, a survey from the Brennan Center conducted this spring found that 38% of election officials have experienced violent threats. And to this already menacing environment, add conflict over Israel-Gaza protests on college campuses and in major cities, potentially controversial developments in the various trials of the former President, and warnings from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security about potential threats to LGBTQ+ Pride events this summer. It would appear that the likelihood of political violence in the United States is, unfortunately, elevated.

The neglect of tech platforms may exacerbate the situation

What role do online platforms play in this threat environment? It is unclear if the major platforms are prepared to meet the moment. A number of platforms have rolled back moderation policies on false claims of electoral fraud, gutted trust and safety teams, and appear to be sleep walking into a rising tide of threats to judges and election officials. These developments suggest the platforms have ignored the lessons of the last few years, both in the United States and abroad. For instance, a year after January 6th, supporters of Brazil’s outgoing president Jair Bolsonaro used social media to organize and mobilize attacks on governmental buildings. And an American Progress study of the 2022 U.S. midterm elections concluded that “social media companies have again refused to grapple with their complicity in fueling hate and informational disorder…with key exceptions, companies have again offered cosmetic changes and empty promises not backed up by appropriate staffing or resources.”

Platforms’ failure to prepare for election violence suggests that in many ways, 2024 mirrors 2020. In advance of that election, two of the authors (Eisenstat and Kreiss) convened a working group of experts to lay out what platforms needed to do to protect elections. Sadly, platforms largely ignored these and many other recommendations from independent researchers and civil society groups, including enforcing voting misinformation restrictions against all users (including political leaders), clearly refuting election disinformation, and amplifying reliable electoral information. The failure of platforms to adequately follow such recommendations helped create the context for January 6th, as documented by the draft report on the role of social media in the assault on the Capitol prepared by an investigative team of the House Select Committee on the January 6 Attacks.


To avoid a similar outcome, we propose a number of steps the platforms can, and should, take if they want to ensure they do not fuel political violence. None of the recommendations are entirely novel. In fact, a number of them are congruent with any number of papers that academics and civil society leaders have published over the years. And yet, they bear repeating, even though time is short to implement them.

The full set of seven recommendations and details can be found in our report, but in general they center on a number of themes where online platforms are currently falling short, including:

  • Platforms must develop robust standards for threat assessment and engage in scenario planning, crisis training, and engagement with external stakeholders, with as much transparency as possible.
  • Platforms should enforce clear and actionable content moderation policies that address election integrity year-round, proactively addressing election denialism and potential threats against election workers.
  • Politicians and other political influencers should not receive exemptions from content policies or special treatment from the platforms. Platforms should enforce their rules uniformly.
  • Platforms must clearly explain important content moderation decisions during election periods, ensuring transparency especially when it comes to the moderation of high profile accounts.

This election cycle, so much of the conversation about tech accountability has moved on to what to do about deceptive uses of AI. But the distribution channels for AI-generated content still run largely through the online platforms where users spread the “Stop the Steal” narrative in 2020 and galvanized the people who ultimately engaged in political violence at the U.S. Capitol. We will continue to draw attention to these unresolved issues, in the hope that rising demands for accountability will prompt platforms to act more responsibly and prioritize the risk of political violence both in the United States and abroad.


Yaël Eisenstat
Yaёl Eisenstat is a Senior Fellow at Cybersecurity for Democracy, working on policy solutions for how social media, AI-powered algorithms, and Generative AI affect political discourse, polarization, and democracy. Previously, she was a Vice President at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), heading the ...
Justin Hendrix
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & ...
Daniel Kreiss
Daniel Kreiss is the Edgar Thomas Cato Distinguished Associate Professor in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a principal researcher of the UNC Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life.