Discover more from Anchor Change with Katie Harbath
Platforms & Elections - Are They Doing Enough?
Breaking down how to look at companies’ efforts - plus - who are we not paying enough attention to?
I probably get asked at least once a day if the platforms are doing enough in the lead-up to the midterms. Some might ask me about Brazil (the second round is happening October 30) and very few ask me about elections in Israel or Denmark (both happening November 1).
Setting aside the fact that in the United States we should care more about what is happening in the rest of the world, answering the question of if they are doing enough is a tricky one. Ultimately, it will be hard to know if it was “enough” until after the election is over.
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That said, we need to break this question down because I see so many things get boiled down to some version of “do better” when in fact it’s a lot more complicated than that.
First, there are questions of policy. Does the platform fact-check politicians? Where do they draw the line on hate speech? What constitutes voter suppression? What is organizing for a legitimate protest versus one that might turn violent? All of these are questions of judgment. When people say the platforms should do better here, what they really mean is I disagree with how they are defining things. That’s a fine debate to be had (though we’ll never all agree) but if you are having that debate say where you would draw the line versus where they have.
Second, are questions of execution. Because researchers have no other way, you will often see studies like this one from Laura Edelson and her team who will run what they think are policy-violating ads to see if the systems will catch them or not. In their most recent study, they found that YouTube caught all of them, Facebook missed 20 to 30 percent and TikTok missed 90 percent. Now, because they don’t share all the ads they ran it’s hard to know if the platforms would agree that they violated policy, but that said these are execution problems. This could mean the platform’s automated systems aren’t sophisticated enough to catch them. Maybe it’s a problem with how the human reviewers were trained. Maybe it’s just human error. Regardless, this is a problem with the system that is set up and it is fair to say that the platforms should do more to improve these systems. Most of the platforms would agree with you.
But again, this is not something that people should assume is a flip of a switch. Building these tools takes time. Training people takes time. AI tactics continue to improve. Unfortunately, we can’t hit pause on all elections until things get built to a satisfactory level - so there will be things that get missed and all you can really ask is if they are getting better.
Third, are questions of resourcing and prioritization. Nick Clegg did an interview at the Council on Foreign Relations this week where the Q&A got quite spicy. Nick was asked about the pivot to the metaverse as well as what the company was doing to prevent harm on the platform. But no one asked him how the company was balancing its people and money between the two. It is true that more money and people could mean classifiers in other languages are launched faster. How are they balancing their spending across different parts of the company? That’s the first question I think any tech exec should be asked - especially for the more emerging platforms. It’s worth noting here in the context of elections that Facebook is the only one to actually put numbers around their efforts. Do I wish they’d spend more? Yes, but they should at least get some credit for being transparent about that.
The hard thing about evaluating against all three of these is that those of us on the outside have imperfect information. We know the most about what the policies are, but even then reasonable people can disagree on if a piece of content would or would not violate. Execution we can only measure by doing experiments as Edelson did. Resources and prioritization we only know if the companies choose to tell us. Having more transparency on all of these would be useful for us to be able to really know how prepared the platforms are going into any election.
One thing I am excited about is that the Oversight Board announced seven strategic priorities and the first one they listed was looking at Meta’s role in elections. The other that really interested me was looking at how governments use the platform. These efforts might at least help for more transparency around Meta’s properties and might help smaller ones think through what they should do.
This takes me to the second part of what I wanted to talk about this week. It makes sense that Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and TikTok are getting the bulk of the attention; but, that doesn’t mean there are others who aren’t. Here’s who I think should be getting a bit more scrutiny:
FEC/Congress: This is the third election in the U.S. since 2016 and we still have no real updates to regulations for campaigning online. I’m shocked one of the companies hasn’t yet asked the FEC for an advisory opinion on what, if anything, they do might be against the law if they choose to not let Trump back on and he does run again.
Text Messaging: The FCC doesn’t allow text messages sent via an autodialer but clearly campaigns have found a way around that rule. Political text spam is only getting worse and there’s NO transparency about who they are coming from. Only a matter of time before a bunch of texts are sent out that spread disinformation.
TV Streaming Services: I think I posted about this the other week, but campaigns can now do the same level of microtargeting on streaming services as they could on Facebook and Google. I’m not seeing any pressure for them to have ad libraries and they should. Alas, a place where regulation would be lovely, but see point number one.
Podcast Platforms: Not only should podcasting platforms also have to have ad libraries where is the outrage that you can still listen to Steve Bannon’s War Room on Apple podcasts? What about IHeartRadio? What are they doing in terms of recommending political content, fact-checking, or any of the other things we ask of the bigger platforms?
Radio: Old-school radio continues to be a huge communications platform - especially for those on the right. Tracking it is incredibly hard and there are some stations - like one in Missouri - still streaming Kremlin programming.
Campaigns/campaign vendors: Speaking of data, why can’t I request from the RNC, DNC, or any other campaign what data they have on me? How do they protect it? Should there be rules for how they can use it for targeting voters?
Uber: This week Uber launched an ads division including something called “Journey Ads” where they will run ads for people while they are waiting for a ride and while in the car. I will bet money, some political digital agency has already inquired to ask them if they can run ads to people on Election Day when they might be on their way to vote. On the flip side, will Uber maybe run some in-house ads that day encouraging people to vote? They’ve done stuff in the past for elections so they might be thinking about it.
Gaming platforms: The gaming community is increasingly becoming one that politicians want to court as well as one where political organizing is happening. Whether it’s platforms like Twitch where people can watch live streams of people playing games (or of anything really) or conversations happening on devices like Xbox and others - this is a community where political communication is happening but the platforms that serve them aren’t getting a lot of questions about what they are doing to protect the integrity of elections.
Going into the midterms and 2024 while I do still have concerns about what the bigger platforms will be doing to prepare for elections around the globe, I don’t think they’re going to be where the next “bad thing” happens. I think it’s going to happen across a bunch of different surfaces like the ones I listed above which will make it harder to track and detect unless we start asking questions now.
What I’m Reading
New York Times: Ahead of Midterms, Disinformation Is Even More Intractable
Washington Post: Few election offices have implemented a key defense against hackers
Financial Times: Turkey passes ‘disinformation bill’ ahead of elections
New York Times: The Rise of Salem Media, a Conservative Radio Juggernaut
Council on Foreign Relations: Social Media and Digital Diplomacy: A Conversation With Nick Clegg of Meta
Center for a New American Security: Lighting the Path - Framing a Transatlantic Technology Strategy
Knight Foundation: American Views 2022: Part 1 – Knight Foundation
Atlantic Council DFR Lab: What Russia reads on Telegram
Oversight Board: Oversight Board announces seven strategic priorities
US Digital Response: Chief Executive Officer
Now updated with a bunch more 2022 and 2023 elections thanks to Ana Khizanishvili who is on my student strategy team at Georgetown! If there’s anything you see wrong or missing please do let me know.
Topics to keep an eye on that have a general timeframe of the first half of the year:
Facebook 2020 election research
Oversight Board opinion on cross-check
Senate & House hearings, markups, and potential votes
Second Summit of Democracy
October 30: Brazil Second Round
November 1 - 2: Frontiers fo Digital Development Forum
November 1: Israel Election
November 1: Denmark Election
November 4: Workshop on technology, trust, and coordination
November 8: United States Midterms
November 12, 2022 - Bahrain Election
November 17: Obama Foundation Democracy Forum
November 19, 2022 - Malaysia Election
November 20, 2022 - Equatorial Guinea Election
November 20, 2022 - Kazakhstan Election
November 20, 2022 - Nepal Election
November 2022 - Fiji Election
December 17, 2022 - Tunisia Election
2022 TBD - Libya Election
January 2023 - Czech Republic Election
January 7: Meta/Trump Decision
February 5, 2023 - Cyprus Election
February 23, 2023 - Nigeria Election
February 2023 - Djibouti Election
February 2023 - Monaco Election
March 5, 2023 - Estonia Election
March 10 - 19: SXSW
March 20 - 24, 2023: Mozilla Fest
March 2023 - Antigua and Barbuda Election
March 2023 - Federated States of Micronesia Election
March 2023 - Guinea Bissau Election
March 2023 - Sierra Leone Election
April 30, 2023 - Benin Election
April 30, 2023 - Paraguay Election
April 2023 - Andorra Election
April 2023 - Finland Election
April 2023 - Montenegro Election
May 7, 2023 - Thailand Election
May 15-16: Copenhagen Democracy Summit
June 5-9: RightsCon
June 25, 2023 - Guatemala Election
June 25, 2023 -Turkey Election
July 2023 - Cambodia Election
July 2023 - Timor-Leste Election
July 2023 - Zimbabwe Election
August 6, 2023 - Greece Election
August 2023 - Eswatini Election
September 2023 - Mauritania Election
October 10, 2023 - Liberia Election
October 12, 2023 - Pakistan Election
October 22, 2023 - Switzerland Election
October 2023 - Argentina Election
October 2023 - Luxembourg Election
October 2023 - Oman Election
November 12, 2023 - Poland Election
November 20, 2023 - Marshall Islands Election
November 29, 2023 - Ukraine Election
November 2023 - Bhutan Election
November 2023 - Gabon Election
November 2023 - Rwanda Election
December 10, 2023 - Spain Election
December 2023 - Bangladesh Election
December 2023 - Democratic Republic of the Congo Election
December 2023 - Togo Election
TBD - Belarus Election
TBD - Cuba Election
TBD - Equatorial Guinea Election
TBD - Guinea Election
TBD - Madagascar Election
TBD - Maldives Election
TBD - Myanmar Election
TBD - Singapore Election
TBD - South Sudan Election - (Unlikely to happen)
TBD - Turkmenistan Election
TBD - Tuvalu
TBD - Haiti
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