Platforms and Politicians
The factors a company takes into account when thinking about politicians' use of their service
Greetings from the Amtrak train on my way back to DC after a day and a half in New York City for my first in-person board meeting since the pandemic started. It was lovely to see people again, but also exhausting.
Thank you so much for subscribing to my newsletter. I’m glad that you found the first one interesting enough to get these in your inbox each week. I hope I live up to your expectations.
For this week’s topic, I’m jumping right into the deep end of the pool on a topic that I am highly close to - whether or not politicians should get special treatment from social media platforms.
I figured that after the Wall Street Journal series last week - particularly the one about Facebook’s XCheck (pronounced “cross-check”) system - and then the Oversight Board yesterday saying they were asking for more info that this would be a topic of interest.
However, I’m not going to go into detail on what Facebook’s system is. I don’t know the latest details and that’s not my info to share. Facebook did address some of it here and let’s see what they give the Oversight Board. I do want to point out that the WSJ story is about two types of XCheck systems - one that provides the extra check on influencer content and one that completely exempts them from enforcement. It’s important that the Oversight Board and the company address both of these.
That said, this issue is not just a Facebook one. It’s something all platforms face and so I’m going to zoom out and look at that.
I've spent most of my career supporting and encouraging politicians to use the internet to engage with their constituents. I was reading my notebooks from the 2003-2005 era and the first training I did on the hill was to explain who bloggers were and why politicians should pay attention to them. Six years later at Facebook, I started to help build the team that supports politicians and governments around the world on using the platform. I spent another ten years doing that, so I’m going to have biases. But, I’m trying to check those and the whole goal of this newsletter is to rethink my assumptions. What topic to better start with than questioning my entire career?
When I started to map out how I wanted to approach this topic, I quickly realized that there is no way to answer this problem in one newsletter. As you’ll see below there are many factors platforms take into account when thinking about politicians. So consider the goal of today’s newsletter to lay the foundation for further explorations on what the platforms - and regulators - should do when deciding what politicians can do online. Many of you will be like but what about X or what about Y?! I’m not purposely leaving anything out so send those to me and I’ll make sure to incorporate them into future newsletters.
Let’s start with the question of why platforms would want to give politicians special treatment at all. In my experience it’s generally because of one of these reasons:
Politicians and their teams are using said platform and start to ask questions about how to use it. The platform needs to designate someone to do that.
The platform wants them to use the platform to show that it is a place where influential people want to spend time which will hopefully lead to more people using the platform to see what these influential people have to say.
The platform wants to do its civic duty and help people be more informed voters. This includes helping them to know who the candidates and elected officials are. This usually requires said candidates and politicians to then put content on the platform.
To keep the politicians on the platform you need to keep them happy so they don’t go to a competitor or complain publicly. This means:
Setting up processes to prevent enforcement mistakes or at least explain to the person why their content violated the policies so they won’t go to the press.
Building teams of people to answer all their questions and fix things when they break so they don’t get frustrated and complain publicly or leave the platform.
Legal - It’s different by country, but most have rules about how candidates can raise money, run ads, and all that fun stuff. There are also rules to ensure outside entities are being fair when working with candidates and not benefiting one over their opponent. So you need experts on staff to help ensure all this is happening.
There are offline norms for politicians and political speech standards, and people expect those to be mirrored in the online world.
Politicians have power over these platforms. They can regulate them or even prevent them from operating in their country. We may not like that this is a reason, but it’s a real one.
Then there are all the different ways that a platform might engage with or build products for politicians. I came up with 15 different ways a platform might need to look at how they handle politicians (though I’m sure I’ll think of more):
Product access - special and exclusionary
Direct company contact including access to execs
Training on using products
Closer review on if a politician has actually violated a policy
Exemption to the policies
The appeals process
Ability to monetize content
Lives and event partnerships
Public case studies
Corporate PAC donations
Consultation on new products/policies
Algorithmic - Suppression or amplification of content
Amplifying messages in a non-algorithmic way
Pressure from a government to take action against a user and/or specific content
I’m sure I’ve missed some, and if you can think of any, please send them my way. Not every platform will need to consider all of these, but most do.
Then there is the question of what values and principles the platform should consider when making these decisions. Criteria for those might include how the efforts above:
Protect political speech
Prevent offline harm
Make it more transparent about how politicians are using the platforms
Make it more transparent why the platform took a particular action that impacted a politicians account
Ensure fairness amongst politicians
Reduce the likelihood that platform will impact election results
Increase the likelihood of a politician using the platform
Follow the law
People challenge my assumptions the most around these criteria. The first two alone can be in direct conflict and where much of the public debate is occurring. I’ve generally been very adamant about protecting political speech and not removing it. I feel that people should have a right to see what the people who want to represent them have to say and don’t like the idea of a platform deciding what those things should be.
However, research shows how rhetoric from politicians can cause harm. Temporarily banning President Trump on January 6th seemed like the right thing to do to restore order. Campaigns and political entities will skirt the rules and exploit loopholes. In the quest for likes, clicks, and shares, they will be incentivized to produce the content that gets the most reach, engagement, or brings in the most dollars. Research shows this content contributes to polarization.
On the other hand, online platforms have made it easier for challengers to compete against incumbents who have a lot more money. In some countries, they are the only way opposition voices can be heard. They’ve been used to organize political movements and bring more awareness to important issues.
On top of all of that, the platforms now have to grapple with constant lobbying or more heavy-handed efforts to take action on political speech. In their most recent Freedom of the Net report released this week, Freedom House said in the last year, “Authorities in at least 48 countries pursued new rules for tech companies on content, data, or competition over the past year. With a few positive exceptions, the push to regulate the tech industry, which stems in some cases from genuine problems like online harassment and manipulative market practices, is being exploited to subdue free expression and gain greater access to private data.” How are platforms supposed to stand up to this type of exploitation when the governments threaten their employees like Russia did to Apple and Google this week?
Feeling confused and your brain tied up in a pretzel? I don’t blame you. Navigating all of these questions and tradeoffs can be paralyzing. Some platforms have already decided that they’d rather not deal with some of these headaches and have banned political ads completely. Facebook is working to reduce the amount of political content on the platform. I worry that some of these platforms may just decide to ban politicians altogether rather than deal with the headaches this brings.
I don’t think the answer is just getting rid of it all. Politicians will just move elsewhere on the internet and the questions will remain. Instead, we need to further explore what the criteria should be when platforms make these decisions and the priority of that criteria. We need to look at what standards politicians should be held to and who makes those decisions. We need to be looking for more nuanced ways to handle content where perhaps making adjustments to reach or labeling is the answer. We even need to look at defining who a politician is (that’s harder than you think).
In the early days of the internet many - including myself - talked about how great it would be if politicians could use online tools to talk directly to their constituents. After the last six years, many are wondering if we need to go back to having some sort of gatekeepers. Those are the questions I’m still grappling with and the above gives you a framework for how I’m thinking about it which I’ll share in future newsletters!
A note on Project Amplify
Last night the New York Times published a piece about Facebook doing a pilot where they have been inserting a unit with positive stories about Facebook into the feeds of people in three cities. I’m quoted in the story and tweeted about it. It’s also worth reading FB spokesman Joe Osborne’s tweets about it, including a screenshot of what they were inserting. To be super clear, they were not making any changes to the algorithm - this is the same type of unit Facebook uses to insert things like the Election Day Reminders or the COVID messages from last year. I think it seems pretty transparent that these stories are from Facebook, but as Samidh points out, it’s also important to know what characteristics they used to target this unit and how they measure success.
I’m new at writing a newsletter and need all the feedback to get better! Please send me any thoughts, questions, or ideas you might have about this newsletter or future ones.
What Am I Reading
News that I’ve been paying attention to this week.
The Packers won. Thank goodness.
Canada had an election. Trudeau won … barely.
My colleagues at the BPC published a blog about the Dems new voting bill - What's in, What's out - Democrats' New Voting Bill Short on Republican Sweeteners
Read Freedom House’s Freedom of the Net report. It’s not a pretty picture, but one that shows we don’t just need to be thinking about the platforms….
NDI released a playbook for Addressing Online Misogyny and Gendered Disinformation: A How-To Guide
Pew released a new study looking at news consumption across social media.
Stanford professors Rob Reich, Mehran Sahami, and Jeremy M. Weinstein have a new book called System Error: Where Big Tech Went Wrong and How We Can Reboot. I took their tech ethics seminar earlier this year and loved it. Can’t wait to read this.
Facebook’s Andrew (Boz) Bosworth and Nick Clegg will be at the Atlantic Festival Monday talking about the metaverse.
Cool job opportunities I’ve seen come across my radar.
NYU Center for Social Media and Politics - Research Operations Director: Work with NYU to support their 50+ projects. The role will identify & strategize new research ideas and processes, while also supporting each project toward completion.