Rantz: Auditor’s office censors online political speech, calls voting on Election Day ‘misinformation’
Thurston County Auditor Mary Hall’s office coordinated with local and federal officials to remove constitutionally protected speech from social media sites and YouTube. It believes telling voters to submit ballots on election day is “dangerous” and is even proactively seeking content to report and censor.
In an Oct. 6 Facebook post, the office’s account deemed election disinformation “the biggest problem facing free and fair elections.” The post asked voters to “protect our republic” by emailing the so-called disinformation posts to the office. It says the auditor will “work with our state and federal partners to respond.”
Emails obtained by the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH show Hall’s staff attempted to remove, censor, or otherwise flag online content from Facebook and YouTube. The office works through the Department of Homeland Security’s Center for Internet Security (CIS) and the Office of the Secretary of State (OSOS).
Meet the government censor
Emmett O’Connell is an Outreach and Education Specialist for the Thurston County Auditor’s Office. He’s also a small-time donor to the Thurston County Democrats, according to records obtained by the Public Disclosure Commission. Some of his “outreach” to CIS involves reporting content he doesn’t like — including content concerning elections outside the county.
On October 17, 2020, O’Connell emailed CIS a screenshot of a Facebook post in a then-public group. It showed a photo of a white truck with a mail-in ballot box housed in the bed. The poster wrote, “seems legit,” with an emoji of a woman crossing her arms.
O’Connell saw this as disinformation that must be dealt with.
“We have confirmed with the Grays Harbor County Auditor’s Office that this ballot drop box was being transported by them from Pierce County. This is being shared as if the ballot drop box has been stolen,” O’Connell wrote to CIS.
But the post is political commentary and unquestionably protected speech. It didn’t even make a comment about election security. But O’Connell didn’t see the post as harmless. He interpreted it as “nefarious.”
“From our point of view, the implication was obvious that something nefarious was going on with the box. The comment thread made it fairly clear that the audience reading the post thought the ballot box was being stolen,” O’Connell told the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH.
Auditor’s Office got the post flagged
Two days after his email to CIS, the post was flagged by Facebook. A CIS representative informed O’Connell of the action.
“Facebook reviewed the content and flagged the post: ‘Official ballot drop boxes are secure and reliable. You can confirm official locations with your local elections office. (Source: Bipartisan Policy Center)’ Facebook also added a link to ‘Get Voting Information.'”
Who determines what constitutes election misinformation? When it comes to protected speech, should government agents — who might have reason to silence legitimate criticism of the office under the auspices of tackling “disinformation” — influence social media companies to take action?
“We are directed by our partners at OSOS and DHS to report election misinformation. What happens to the post after that, whether they include broader context or remove the post, is up to the platform itself,” O’Connell told the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH.
This claim is obviously disingenuous. The intent is to flag or remove content, otherwise O’Connell or the auditor could simply post in the thread the context they feel is missing. They could also post their own commentary about the story, without engaging in third-party censorship.
Going after Glen Morgan
O’Connell also took issue with government watchdog Glen Morgan on October 29, 2021.
Morgan posted a YouTube video with a “homeless whistleblower” who he said exposed apparent voter fraud. O’Connell was not a fan and reported the video to CIS and Google, which owns YouTube. He offered several refutations of the video’s claim.
“Thank you for looping us in on this report. Have you heard back from Google yet?” a CIS Election Operations Analyst wrote O’Connell.
O’Connell responded that he had not yet heard back. The CIS staffer then offered more contacts at Google, along with people at Facebook, to reach out to.
“We sent the misinformation report to the contacts at Google that you suggested, but we haven’t heard anything back or seen any action otherwise. Is there anything else that we can do?” O’Connell asked CIS.
Morgan tells the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH that Google never took any action against his video.
“Here is the thing, they only want to intervene if they think the story doesn’t glorify the office or promote their agenda,” Morgan explained.
Taking issue with Washington elections
Washington allows voters to mail their ballots on the day of the election, so long as the postmark is by 8 p.m. Voters can also place their ballots in a ballot box or deliver them to a county elections office by the 8 p.m. deadline. O’Connell, however, considers some of this information to be misinformation.
“Also, take for example, the ‘drop off your ballot on Election Day’ narrative we see circulating now. This is a very dangerous misinformation narrative; it makes it more likely that a ballot will be rejected for being turned in late. The last pick-up time on many mailboxes is 3 p.m. on Election Day. We close drop boxes promptly at 8 p.m.,” O’Connell explained. “49.63% of the ballots rejected in the August primary were because they were turned in late. And, due to trending results, we know more conservative voters tend to vote late anyway. By encouraging even further delay in voting, it could mean even more ballot rejections.”
Waiting until Election Day to vote might be bad strategy, as the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH has maintained, but it is unambiguously not misinformation. I pressed O’Connell to explain.
“We want every ballot to count, we assume any encouragement to vote late means it is more likely the ballot would be submitted after the deadline. Nearly half of the ballots rejected in the August primary were because they were turned in late, some were even left on top of drop boxes after they closed,” he responded.
That is quite the assumption over the intent. It also shows the dangers of government censorship.
Assumptions aren’t fact
To “assume” a message means the Thurston County Auditor’s Office is acting on information that wasn’t presented. The Auditor’s Office is not correcting misinformation. They’re attempting to silence or influence information it does not support. And at least one staffer reporting content donates to a local Democrat group that could benefit from taking down certain political content.
CIS is not intended to censor or flag protected speech. And a spokesperson for the OSOS’s office explains that it “hasn’t gotten directly involved in trying to remove county-specific postings from social media or actions of that nature.”
O’Connell and Hall are working to influence elections. They may think they’re doing it for the right reasons, but it doesn’t make it appropriate. They’re using the power of the government to influence companies that may not see it the way they do, but are not looking for a fight with an adversary that has a lot of power to regulate it. What if O’Connell or Hall is wrong? There’s no mechanism for a constituent to correct the auditor’s misinformation. And we don’t have a government agency to back our demands to social media giants.
The auditor’s office can very easily post commentary or corrections on threads they see or on their own social media accounts. They can reach media outlets to amplify their corrections in ways that Washingtonians cannot. The way to combat protected speech you dislike — or speech that is factually inaccurate — is with more speech.
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