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Arizona Secretary of State, Maricopa County censor election information: First Amendment is ‘thorn’

Government cooperation with social media messaging: Maricopa County drew up plans to ban social media users from the county social media accounts and use influencers to spread their approved message.

Published: April 28, 2024 11:35pm

Maricopa County and the Arizona Secretary of State have worked together with nonprofits, social media platforms, and the federal government to combat what they consider to be election mis- and disinformation, as the county’s recorder called the First Amendment “a thorn in the side.” 

The offices of both the Maricopa County recorder and the Arizona secretary of state work together with third parties to censor social media content that they believe is mis- and disinformation, including drawing up plans to ban social media users from the county social media accounts and using influencers to spread their message, according to public records obtained from both Maricopa County and the Arizona secretary of state by The Gavel Project

One of the documents from Maricopa County was a draft of a Sept. 17, 2021, speech to Maricopa Community Colleges given by Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer, who is running for reelection this year. 

According to the draft, Richer said, “I posit that the gravest threat to voting rights and our elected form of government is no longer the systematic disenfranchisement of a particular class of people, but instead the undermining of the entire election system through lies and disinformation. And it is in this respect, that the Constitution today is in some ways a thorn in the side of my office. Specifically the First Amendment.” 

The recorder’s office told Just the News on Wednesday that “Richer stands by his speech, especially the part where he says he’s ‘a huge fan of the Constitution.’” 

However, the rest of the sentence in Richer’s speech reads, “despite what I’m going to later say, I’m a huge fan of the Constitution.” 

Other county records reveal Maricopa’s plans in countering mis- and disinformation. 

In another document labeled “Building a Partnership of Election Fact Ambassadors,” Maricopa County created a plan to partner “with influencers in our community and across the country who share our desire to spread accurate information about elections and combat disinformation.” 

While the document doesn’t specify which year it was created, based on context and recommended deadlines, it was likely for the 2022 midterm elections. 

The plan included daily emails being sent from Maricopa County Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Gates in the week leading up to Election Day that would include “the big election topic of the day, the facts about it, and links and examples of our social posts or videos on the topic” and explain how the ambassadors “can help us educate the public.” 

The document listed the reasons for the plan: “We are the source of truth for most questions about the elections we run. While our reach has grown significantly since 2020, our messaging often does not spread as far and wide as misinformation. We are probably close to maxing out our reach through normal channels (media coverage, newsletters, news conferences, public events). We should partner with people whose opinions are respected, whose values of democracy we share, and whose reach is greater—or different in important ways—than ours.” 

Maricopa County told Just the News that the plan “was a draft document of ideas that were brought up in a meeting but never implemented.” 

An undated document from Maricopa County labeled “Banning a User on Social Media” explains how to add social media users to a “Social Media Tracker” where comment violations on Maricopa County's social media pages can be tracked. Upon a user’s second violation after receiving a warning from Maricopa County's social media account for the first violation, the document explains how to “ban the user.” 

Violators could also be “banned without a warning,” the documents reads. 

As with the ambassadors’ plan, Maricopa County told Just the News that it “was a draft document of ideas that were brought up in a meeting but never implemented.” 

Maricopa County also works with the federal government regarding mis- and disinformation. 

As previously reported by Just the News, in March 2022, Richer appeared before the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency's Protecting Critical Infrastructure from Misinformation and Disinformation Subcommittee to brief the members on combating election misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation. 

Richer "suggested that CISA hold bootcamps for media representatives such as FOX News or CNN to enhance media's understanding of how elections are administered." He also said that the "malinformation" his office has encountered included "Abuse of Arizona's permissive public records process," as they received more than 350 public records requests last year regarding the 2020 election. 

Last week, when asked by Just the News whether the recorder’s office works with CISA, the Center for Internet Security, the Election Integrity Project, and/or the Arizona Secretary of State's Office for monitoring and reporting mis/dis/malinformation, the county responded, “The Recorder’s Office works with those organizations to protect staff, voters, and critical election infrastructure – and to help ensure constituents have access to accurate information.” 

According to the public records, Maricopa County explained how the recorder’s office worked to combat misinformation in an email chain regarding a response to the Associated Press on “combating misinformation.” 

An email dated Sept. 1, 2022, was sent between Maricopa County employees explaining how the county’s election offices respond to “mis-, dis- and mal- information.” 

The email reads, “The Recorder’s Office and County Office of Enterprise Technology have six staff members actively threat monitoring. The teams work to identify specific threats to county and elections staff and property and report them to law enforcement. The reason why monitoring social media and other internet channels for threats and misinformation is important is because these can lead to physical threats. As a direct result of the Primary, half of our information Security Officer’s time was reporting threats and online harassment to law enforcement. Because of this, we’ve implemented a new reporting system to help manage this information.” 

In addition to Maricopa County, the office of then-Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D) worked with social media companies and censorship nonprofits to track election information online and combat it when they deemed necessary. 

In an email dated Sept. 30, 2019, Facebook told the Arizona secretary of state’s office, “We've heard feedback from elections authorities that they need better tools to track potential voter interference content on Facebook. In response to this feedback, we are building a dashboard that will track this content in each state - and we'd like to share those dashboards with the respective elections authorities. These Dashboards will allow for keyword searches of public content on Facebook in each state - and will be able to be customized to each state's needs.” 

The secretary’s office responded, calling it “great news” and asking if it was “something we can share with our county partners?” 

On July 25, 2022, the secretary’s office sent an email to Google, verifying the company’s protocols for reporting mis/disinformation to explain in materials the state was putting together “for the volunteers monitoring Twitter on Election Day.” 

In another email chain dated Nov. 4, 2020, the day after Election Day, the secretary’s office corresponded with the Center for Internet Security (CIS) and the Election Integrity Project (EIP) regarding the claim that using Sharpies markers on ballots made them unreadable by tabulation machines. They coordinated with each other and social media platforms to combat the claim. 

According to an email from CIS to the secretary’s office, EIP informed them that Facebook and YouTube hadn’t yet taken any action. CIS also wrote, “Most Tweets related to Arizona about the felt tip markers are labeled & or put behind notices that these claims are misleading. The smaller claims about #sharpiegate but do not specifically mention Arizona are not labeled.” 

Additionally, CIS said, “TikTok has taken down the larger videos that we have flagged for them, including the one we screenshot in our twitter thread.” 

The offices of the secretary of state and the governor didn't respond to requests for comment. 

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