Way back in the early Before Times, a socially awkward Harvard dropout with a copycat hot-or-not website semi-accidentally created the world’s biggest social media company, built on a credo of “move fast and break things.” A dozen or so years later, we’re about to find out if the list of things Mark Zuckerberg has since broken permanently will include basic tenets of a functioning democracy.
It’s a question that needs an answer not just from Zuckerberg’s companies–Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and, increasingly importantly, Oculus–but also from all their social media progeny, cousins, competitors, design inspirations, and future takeover targets.
They’re all grappling with fundamental questions about their roles in the penultimate days of this brutal, endless election cycle. And just about all of them have been breaking key parts of their interfaces to reduce the tsunami of crap washing over us like something out of a climate-change warrior’s fever dream. Here’s a sampling of social media companies in political news from JUST THE LAST FEW DAYS:
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Chopping up their own interfaces
- The CEOs of Google (because YouTube), Facebook, and Twitter trooped before a Senate committee to be hectored by GOP senators regarding alleged anti-conservative bias, and to discuss removing “safe harbor” provisions that largely hold harmless the platforms for jerky stuff too many of their users post. The platforms said they had no bias against users who don’t violate their community guidelines, but that wasn’t really the point of a Congressional hearing less than a week before Election Day (especially given that the senators couldn’t be roused to deal with more pandemic relief money before the election). The point was to send a shot across the bows of the respective social powerhouses, like coaches working the referees in a big game to get a potentially favorable call at the end.
- Instagram changed the way its platform handles recent searches, to reduce the auto-amplification of fake election news. Instagram announced the decision, somewhat weirdly, on Twitter. The company said it was removing its “Recent” tab from hashtag search menus to “reduce the real-time spread of potentially harmful content that could pop up around the election.”
- Facebook, for all the conservative bias complaints, hasn’t dished out sanctions such as reduced traffic and lower search prominence that Facebook rules call for when its independent fact-checkers determine community guidelines are repeatedly violated, according to a Washington Post study. The reason: fear of political reprisals if it locked down violators such as a pro-Trump PAC and Donald Trump Jr., who actually had a strike removed after another problematic post.
- Facebook froze a group recommendation feature that even its own employees think is problematic. An internal Facebook presentation said the groups recommendation feature uses “algorithms (that) exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness,” The Wall Street Journal reported.
- On the flip side, Facebook removed a 30,000-strong Group called New Jersey Women For Trump three days before the election, after a string of problematic coronavirus posts, Fox News reported. The timing led Donald Trump to tweet, at 1 a.m., “Put them back NOW!” It’s less clear why Trump chose Twitter to talk to Facebook, but it seems like the thing both he and Facebook do when they want to communicate with each other.
- When it comes to advertising, Facebook’s targeting algorithms are even more impossible to parse. But the literal bottom line is that Trump campaign ads cost about 11 percent less than Democratic ads, according to an analysis by The Markup. Last summer, the differences were huge: the Joe Biden campaign paid about double the rates of the Trump campaign in July and August (not incidentally, Facebook’s CEO was headed before Congress in early August). The Markup acknowledged its study is sharply limited by its limited access to key issues like which audiences were targeted, and Facebook denied the allegations. Regardless, the study suggests more disclosure and visibility is needed on the ad side too.
- The Biden campaign was also unhappy when a Facebook “glitch” shut down advertising outreach last week, costing what it said was the chance to raise $500,000. That a day’s interruption on Facebook could mean that much to the Biden campaign’s already record fundraising says a lot about the platform’s central role in yet another part of the election process.
- Facebook issued a slew of other prophylactic interface changes to head off election hijinks, including banning new political ads in the final week before Election Day (though the Trump campaign easily worked around that one by posting an ad early). Facebook and other platforms also issued rules against posts featuring premature claims of election victory.
New ways to cause electoral mayhem
- Twitter earlier in the month said it would block any tweets that call for people to interfere with the election or election results, especially by violent means. The company also moved to slow down the velocity of reposting, redirecting users to the quote-retweet button to encourage more thoughtful commentary instead of mindless button-mashing. (This could be wishful thinking.)
- Trump, of course, earlier tried to engineer a corporate fire sale of U.S. operations of the red-hot TikTok, in a deal that would have given control to Oracle and Walmart, whose CEOs just happen to be big supporters of his campaign. As of last week, the courts had helped TikTok stave off the forced sell-off. Should Trump lose, I’m guessing TikTok will be able to run out the clock and avoid this legally dubious fire sale altogether.
- Even Spotify is getting in on the political mayhem. In May, the company ponied up $100 million for exclusive rights to podcaster Joe Rogan‘s shows, which CEO Daniel Ek since has said have “outperformed our expectations.” Less clear is whether Rogan also outperformed expectations with his decisions to interview extremists such as Alex Jones and anti-trans author Abigail Shrier. As Spotify employees pointed out, what good is an anti-hate content policy when your biggest show features some of the biggest hatemongers around?
- Politics is also tapping new areas, such as social gaming, to reach younger audiences in particular.. U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez drew 430,000 Twitch viewers, including fellow “squad” member and U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, to play breakout game Among Us. Soon after, pro-Trump spam hit Twitch.
- The Biden campaign also got into gaming, setting up a custom map in Fortnite. The campaign told Mashable, “With voting underway and days until Election Day, we are continuing to meet people everywhere they are online and offline with innovative and thoughtful activations.”
We’re only going to see more and more of these innovations exploiting corners of existing platforms and expanding their reach onto new ones, trying to leverage the engagement tools that our social media sites have so assiduously and effectively build over the past decade or so.
As many of the news items above highlight, however, the platforms are temporarily freezing functions they know will make a bad situation worse. Good for them. But here’s an idea: When this election cycle finally ends, let’s keep those frozen functions on ice permanently.
Don’t wait for self-regulation
As it is, more regulation seems near certain and way overdue for social media, as even former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who remains one of parent company Alphabet‘s biggest shareholders, acknowledged at a Wall Street Journal virtual conference last month.
“The context of social networks serving as amplifiers for idiots and crazy people is not what we intended,” Schmidt said. “Unless the industry gets its act together in a really clever way, there will be regulation.”
I’m dubious about the likelihood of “really clever” self-regulation.
Policymakers in the next administration and Congress should consider forcing more government oversight and regulatory visibility into the black-box algorithms that run the networks; revamped antitrust laws to rein in the platforms’ market power; and divestiture of significant assets into separately run companies under different ownership and management. Post-election, I hope these and other ideas are part of a broader effort to right-size the platforms and reduce the harmful effects of their exquisitely optimized interfaces.
Two weeks ago, Purdue Pharma paid the federal government more than $8 billion as woefully inadequate compensation to settle a lawsuit for its soulless and egregious marketing of highly addictive opioid painkillers that left millions of Americans strung out or dead.
Some social media platforms have built an even more addictive and widely accessible product, and profited even more than Purdue. It’s time we bring them back in line, with guardrails to keep people like Mark Zuckerberg from breaking anything else, at any speed. This election is a good place to start.