Ramifications of social media giants involvement in elections
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Social media giants played an outsized role in the recent US election. They took upon themselves the job of adjudicating ‘facts’ and what they considered to be misleading information. They flagged and censored Tweets and threatened to suspend accounts. It was a major intervention, although it was ostensibly on the side of good intentions. Prior to the election they telegraphed that they would do this.
Social media giants increasingly work with governments, including authoritarian governments, shutting down dissent and removing content, potentially eroding democracy and freedoms. Ostensibly in western countries the opposite is true, the social media giants work to protect democracy from populists and foreign interference and political adds and misleading information. But these giants could be instrumentalized to help certain agendas, and they already appear to be using a heavy-handed approach. It’s only a matter of time before they may decide elections. Most people already get their information via social media sites, given them power over who can post content and which content gets boosted or banned, and which algorithms are used to determine why. A small tweak can drive millions one way or another, like being able to shift half the traffic of cars in the United States with the click of a button, except its viewership traffic.
The social media giants decided to intervene more heavily in the election after being critiqued in 2016 for basically doing nothing. At the time these huge companies with hundreds of millions of users had a more nonchalant or laissez faire attitude. That is one reason that hundreds of thousands of accounts, many of them likely duplicates, supported ISIS and extremist groups in 2014. Social media giants had been trying to cut down on this extremism when they were alerted to another problem. Far-right accounts were accused of spreading “fake news” prior to the 2016 election. Not all of this was political.
The tech giants had several interlaced problems. On the one hand they were being pressured to be more of a public good, take responsibility for hosting terrorist supporters and fake news and even foreign “bots” that were influencing elections. Second they wanted to keep users on their site longer, not have their platform be just a vehicle for advertising or for others to post their links on. They changed their algorithms to reward those who posted less links and who “engaged” more in “healthy” discussion. They also seemed to punish the old-style ‘viral’ vidoes of cats or “lists” at sites like Buzzfeed. They moved against clickbait. They experimented with pushing more user-generated videos “going live” and other models.
Eventually they also coordinated to get rid of what they termed alt-right or far-right personalities, such as Laura Loomer, Alex Jones, Milo Yiannapolus, and people like Baked Alaska. As they coordinated efforts against these right wing voice they began to play a greater role in politics. They were also, it turns out, selling user information.
The run-up to the 2020 election gave them ample opportunity to fully engage with the election. But they didn’t set up an election headquarters in coordination with the government. Instead they adjudicated things themselves, with Facebook allowing more “misleading” adds and Twitter less. They had their own “fact checkers.” But there was coordination behind the scenes as was evident from the New York Post “Biden emails” story. They claimed a new policy of not having “hacked information” in new stories, but for the first time they were censoring a major media platform. They had already used algorithms to reduce the spread or shares of various right wing sites. To do this in general and have things shared less they simply showed users less content. With users seeing only the same 15 accounts a day they were sharing in narrower circles.
After the election they went further with changes to how people could tweet and also with endless fact-boxes about the election, banning information that critiqued the election. This was unprecedented and raises some questions.
Social media giants didn’t get their cue from an elections commission, but from major media. However it is unclear what will happen when they are told by an authoritarian regime to only public results that are acceptable to the ruling party. Already social media giants appear to ban accounts at the behest of authoritarian regimes such as Turkey. This raises questions about whether these giants, unregulated and without transparency, will soon decide elections.