From deep fakes to swatting, Minnesota lawmakers confront emerging threats they face

People sit in meeting room02
State Sen. Erin Maye Quade, DFL-Apple Valley, pictured before members of the Senate Elections Committee on Feb. 15, said: “I’d like us to have a really robust protection from the dissemination of deep fakes to influence an election before we have an election.”
Dana Ferguson | MPR News

Elected officials across the country are facing heightened threats just for being in the public eye.

And in an effort to deter hazards for candidates and officials, Minnesota lawmakers want to sharpen the teeth of a state law that makes it a crime  to make and share distorted images and videos intended to influence an election — often called deep fakes.

They’re also weighing a proposal to toughen penalties for those who dispatch law enforcement to the homes of elected officials under false pretenses, called swatting.

To keep up with rapidly progressing technology that can misrepresent what candidates say or do, DFL lawmakers argue that the deep fake law needs to be fortified.

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“I don’t want there to be examples of holes that are in the bill after the 2024 election,” said state Sen. Erin Maye Quade, DFL-Apple Valley. “I’d like us to have a really robust protection from the dissemination of deep fakes to influence an election before we have an election.”

Last month, New Hampshire voters got what sounded like an urgent message from President Joe Biden. The deep fake recording shared over robocalls seemed to discourage residents from voting in the primary. It was quickly flagged as a fake and an investigation ensued.

Maye Quade said it’s that kind of misinformation campaign that worries her as Minnesota enters into an active election year.

She is carrying a proposal to toughen penalties for candidates that make or share distorted photos, videos or other representations that misrepresent actions or words of their opponents. Those found guilty of making or circulating the deep fakes could lose their nominations or offices and be deemed ineligible to hold office in the future.

As more realistic deep fake incidents geared at political candidates crop up around the country, Maye Quade said it’s critical that Minnesota put extra teeth in its law. The proposal includes more specific timelines around primary and general elections and nominating conventions when the deep fakes would be barred.

“The goal is to make sure that we’ve set the rules of the road for campaigning. And that doesn’t include misleading people through deep fakes to influence elections,” Maye Quade said.

Deep fake laws in some places have attracted free-speech legal challenges. And a federal district court judge on Wednesday is set to consider whether a separate election law passed last year squares with the First Amendment. The law bars someone from sharing false or deceptive information within 60 days of an election.

The latest Minnesota bill advanced through a Senate committee last week, despite concerns from Republicans that it might be premature. It’s due for consideration in a House elections panel Wednesday morning.

Sen. Andrew Mathews, R-Princeton, said the state should give the current law time to sink in before adding on.

“It hasn’t even had time to be tested and implemented,” Mathews told a Senate panel last week. “And I would prefer us to let that bipartisan work continue to stand, see how it plays out in an election cycle and see if it needs to be addressed again.”

GOP lawmakers have their own bill to confront another threat aimed at elected officials — it’s called swatting.

House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth has introduced a bill that would make it a felony offense to report a false emergency and send law enforcement to the home of an elected official.

Demuth, R-Cold Spring, said she brought forward the bill after someone dispatched law enforcement to U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer’s home in Delano over a false emergency — just one of several recent episodes around the country.

“We do have some laws out there, but I thought we could make it a little bit better,” Demuth said.

The bill would make it a felony to call law enforcement to the homes of judges, prosecutors and correctional officers in fake emergency situations. Violators could face a year in prison, a $5,000 fine or both.

“When there is a report of swatting, it puts both the residents of the home, if their home in danger, and it also puts law enforcement in danger,” she said. “It diverts resources on the ground from other needs in another area of the community that would actually need legitimate law enforcement help at the time.”

While the bill has yet to be scheduled for a committee hearing, Demuth said she’s hopeful that Republicans and Democrats will want to stiffen the penalty for swatting.

DFL legislative leaders said they support efforts to crack down on misinformation and intimidation efforts this year.

“It is terrifying as a public official to think that people could distort your words and convince people to believe that you’ve said or done something that you haven’t said or done,” said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park. 

“I think we definitely should take action but I think it will be very difficult to control and voters are going to need to not be patsies to those who would prefer misinformation,” she continued.

Senate Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, agreed that lawmakers should prioritize changes that prevent misinformation in campaigns.

“So fundamental to our democracy is the relationship between candidates running for office and the voters. And I don’t think there should be things coming in between,” Murphy said. “That includes the excessive spending by corporations in our campaigns, and it includes things like deep fakes. We have to make sure that that relationship is intact.”

Whatever action lawmakers take would be put to the test quickly with election-year campaigning already ramping up. Lawmakers have a May 20 deadline to finish their work.