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In many ways, the 2016 presidential election was a watershed moment for the big social media companies. It was just about at that time that public perceptions about companies like Facebook and Twitter began to turn negative. They were criticized relentlessly for letting Trump win by failing to scrub their platforms of “Russian bots” and rampant misinformation coming from the political Right. According to this view of the world, the Trump team partnered with the Russians to take over social media and win the election. So, surely, the big social media companies learned a lesson from 2016, right?
The case for and against social media safeguarding the 2020 election
On one hand, companies like Facebook have been doing everything right. For example, Facebook now has more than 35,000 people worldwide working on safety and security, including 40 dedicated teams focusing only on elections. Over the past three years, says Facebook, it has worked to safeguard nearly 200 elections worldwide. And it has ruthlessly been implementing new machine learning algorithms to weed out state propaganda from the likes of Russia and China. Twitter has even gone so far as to ban all political advertising from its platform in 2020, so concerned was it that it would be blamed for a second Trump election win if it accepted pro-Trump campaign ads. And Twitter is now fact-checking controversial political content that appears online – including political content emanating from the White House.
Yet, on the other hand, social media is still not doing enough. For example, Facebook still doesn’t fact-check posts and ads from politicians. Thus, say critics, President Trump might be able to run all sorts of false ads about the economy, the coronavirus, or any hot-button issues designed to appeal to the Trump base (such as anti-immigration or pro-gun messages). And, despite all the progress made with AI and machine learning, there’s no guarantee that we won’t see a few “deep fakes” around the time of the November election. Imagine what would happen, for example, if someone made a deep fake video of Trump and Putin hanging out in the White House while laughing and joking about “the Amerikans.” And, says critics, social media is still not doing enough to clamp down on and suppress so-called conspiracy theories.
Engagement and attention vs. “the truth”
The problem, quite simply, is that social media companies are publicly-traded companies designed to make a profit. The way companies that Facebook make a profit is by selling ads, and the way they can charge a certain rate for an ad is by showing plenty of engagement and attention on its platform. Just as TV advertisers choose to advertise with highly-rated TV shows guaranteed to bring in plenty of new eyeballs, online advertisers choose to advertise with highly-rated social media platforms guaranteed to bring in plenty of new eyeballs.
So you can see the problem here. To make money and win over advertisers, Facebook must do everything in its power to juice up the engagement and attention online. It needs people clicking, sharing, voting and commenting as often as possible – and it will continue to make changes to its news feed algorithm to ensure that this happens. Who cares about “the truth” when you can get people clicking on hot-button issues and sharing dangerous half-truths?
To get Facebook or any other social media company to change, then you need to make deep, fundamental changes to the way they are regulated and governed. For example, if we begin to think about Facebook as a “public utility” rather than a “platform” or “publisher,” then that would have very dramatic changes to the type of content appearing online.
Issues to watch in the run-up to the 2020 election
That being said, there are several key issues to watch in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election. One of the most important is the situation involving COVID-19. If the Democrats can convince the entire country to remain locked down until November, then there’s a good chance Trump could lose the election. A country in perpetual lock down and roiled by social protests means a ruined economy and lots of fear and anxiety (always good for “the other guy”). From this point of view, Facebook would be helping President Trump if it runs any content urging people to go back to work and kids to go back to school – or if it helps to support any positivity in the nation by suggesting that the COVID-19 pandemic has run its course. From the perspective of the Democrats, it’s far better if we continue to hear about a “second wave” and the need for “mandatory mask mandates.” (“That’ll get rid of Trump!”)
On social media, the bad actors are always changing their tactics, in an effort to adapt to new trends and new approaches to policing the online world. For that reason, it’s hard to believe that misinformation will completely go away in 2020, or that online activists will stop using fake social media accounts and political disinformation to achieve their goals. The big question, of course, is whether social media companies will ramp up their efforts as we head into the pivotal months of September and October, or whether they will be content to let things run their course, no matter the outcome, in order to protect their online advertising business models.