California state officials pressured tech companies to censor social media posts about the 2020 election — informed in part by daily “misinformation” briefings from a consultant tied to the Biden campaign — according to documents from the California secretary of state.
Officials from California Secretary of State Alex Padilla’s office complained to major social media companies about posts containing “misinformation regarding the administration of California’s elections” and were able to pressure several platforms into removing content officials found objectionable, according to records obtained by watchdog group Judicial Watch through the California Public Records Act.
The secretary of state’s office combed through social media for problematic posts, even flagging content from users with tiny followings and videos that had only a couple thousand views. In some cases, it appeared to offer no other reason for flagging the content than that the officials disagreed with the opinions expressed.
One such tweet claimed that the Twitter user was staying with a friend in California who had received two ballots in the mail. The tweet stated that “a system of mass mail outs does not work as there are many mistakes and high potential for fraud. This is especially evident in blue states because Democrats have terrible leadership and love to cheat.”
In its report of the tweet, the office stated, apparently falsely, that the tweet had claimed California ballots “will all have errors due to registered voters receiving mail ballots.”
At least 31 times, the California secretary of state’s office requested that specific posts be removed. At least 24 of those times, the social media company removed the post or attached a misinformation warning.
Leading the office’s aggressive push was Jenna Dresner, senior public information officer for the secretary of state’s Office of Election Cybersecurity. Her unit tracked social media posts and saved the posts that officials deemed misinformation in an internal database. The platforms monitored included Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, Instagram, Google-owned YouTube, and Citizen, an app that alerts users about potentially dangerous incidents near them.
Meanwhile, SKDKnickerbocker, a communications firm that works with dozens of Democratic politicians, provided Padilla’s office with “Misinformation Daily Briefings” that flagged posts on a slew of platforms, the documents showed.
SKDKnickerbocker sent the briefings almost daily during September to Padilla’s office. The firm touts its work with Biden for President along with other prominent Democrats as well as Demand Justice, which supports expanding the Supreme Court, and pro-abortion group Emily’s List.
In one email, Dresner complained to Facebook about an Instagram video in which participants claimed California Governor Gavin Newsom “changed everyone’s voting status to automatic, permanent mail in votes.”
“We are concerned for the spread of this misinformation as it already has upwards of 40K views,” she wrote, adding that because of the pandemic, California sent active, registered voters a mail ballot for the 2020 election only.
“This does not change individuals voter preferences permanently and this misrepresentation of the method to vote/register this year has the potential for voter suppression and confusion,” Dresner wrote.
Facebook responded about an hour later confirming that the video had been removed for violating Facebook’s Community Standards.
“Post from this morning was removed (and fast!),” Dresner celebrated in an email to colleagues soon afterwards.
The secretary of state’s office also reported tweets from users who said they planned on trying to vote twice.
On September 24, the secretary of state’s cybersecurity office reported as containing misinformation a Judicial Watch video posted two days earlier, according to an internal chart from the office. The office complained to YouTube that the head of a “conservative group” was “alleging Democrats benefit from incorrect voter rolls and ballot collection.” The video “misleads community members about elections or other civic processes and misrepresents the safety and security of mail-in ballots,” the office wrote in its complaint.
In the video, Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton discussed his group’s 2019 federal lawsuit settlement with Los Angeles County that required the county to begin the process of cleaning up voter rolls. Officials did not admit wrongdoing in the settlement, but agreed to try to contact people on the “inactive voter” list to see if they had moved or died.
The video was removed from YouTube three days later.
Another tweet that was reported and entered into the database urged, “audit every California ballot” and stated the user’s opinion that “election fraud is rampant nationwide and we all know California is one of the culprits. Do it to protect the integrity of that state’s elections.” Several other posts urged Californians to vote in person because “dropboxes are unsafe.”
Some of the people who posted the flagged content reportedly had questions when they learned that their posts had been targeted by the state. Freddy Brewster, a Cal Matters journalist who authored a December report about the office’s internal database, told the secretary of state’s office that he had spoken to two of the people who posted flagged content.
“Both individuals wanted to know how their posts ended up being labeled misinformation and how, given their relatively small following, they came to the attention of the Office of Election Cybersecurity?” Brewster wrote in an email to Padilla’s office that was included in the documents.
An internal email thread showed officials expressing concern about Brewster and discussing how to handle his questions.
“I am not necessarily comfortable with his line of questions and the additional doors that this will open,” wrote Paula Valle, the secretary of state’s chief communications officer at the time, adding that she would “simply like to give him a statement about what our goal is and leave it at that.”
Officials also griped about Facebook taking two weeks, “way too long,” to respond to a request that content be removed. Sam Mahood, Padilla’s press secretary at the time, remarked that they should raise the issue with Facebook.
In the meantime, Twitter appeared eager to officially partner with state governments on combating misinformation. In August 2019, Twitter streamlined its process for state officials to report content, according to an email from Maria Benson, director of communications for the National Association of Secretaries of State.
The California secretary of state’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
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