Discover more from Anchor Change with Katie Harbath
Platforms run away from politics and news
They can run, but they can’t hide
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Why does it feel like all the news happens when I go on vacation? Between the Cambodian Prime Minister kicking out all Meta employees and banning everyone from the Oversight Board from entering the company; Bolsonaro being banned from running for office; the judge in Lousiana issuing an injunction limiting the government’s engagement with social media companies; Threads launching; and Adam Mosseri - the head of Instagram - telling everyone that politics and news aren’t “worth the scrutiny, negativity, … or integrity risks,” it was a busy week.
Not surprisingly, that last one really got to me. I was with my parents in Green Bay, trying to head to dinner, and they could see me typing furiously on my phone. I looked like this cartoon:
And it wasn’t just Adam saying that politics and news weren’t worth it. It was this post that really started to make my blood boil:
Won’t lie. My first reaction - and thread that I first drafted in response - was not a pretty one. I took it as an attack on my work at the company for ten years. Since the 2020 election, we’ve seen Meta running from politics by dissolving the civic integrity team and downranking politics on the Facebook feed. Other platforms like TikTok have followed suit banning political ads and even banning politicians from fundraising in organic posts. TikTok likes to say they are, first and foremost, an “entertainment” platform.
Meta is trying to say something similar about Threads. In his post about how politics and news weren’t worth it, he also said, “There are more than enough amazing communities – sports, music, fashion, beauty, entertainment, etc. – to make a vibrant platform without needing to get into politics or hard news.”
Moreover, according to the Washington Post, “Tech companies are gutting their content moderation staffs, researchers are pulling back from studying disinformation and key government communications with Silicon Valley are on pause amid unprecedented political scrutiny.”
Watching all of this over the last two and a half years has really made me wonder if my career, in some ways, has been a failure so far. After all, I’ve dedicated 20 years to politics and the Internet. And now, many online platforms want nothing to do with it. Kate Klonick’s piece about the end of the golden age for tech accountability ages well. Especially this part:
“What I’m trying to point out, is that some good things actually were happening while we were so angry and maybe that their disappearance now isn’t fixed by more anger. Please note that in those five years in which technology companies chose to voluntarily engage, public outrage was at its peak and government regulation failed to pass any legislation that might have mandated such continued good efforts by tech companies.
My point here is somewhat uncomfortable: that maybe some of the blame here is on us. Politically we have missed a huge opportunity to formally mandate these types of voluntary initiatives by technology companies. Or even barring regulation, socially we have failed to create an environment that acknowledged and encouraged the social planner efforts so they continued long enough to improve and normalize.”
So where do we go from here? I strongly believe we need a new framework for how online platforms should engage with governments and politicians. I’ve been trying to get funding to do a series of roundtables and research into this topic (if you are interested in funding this, let me know!).
And if I want to be generous to Adam, that would mean that I agree with him about courting politicians differently. I also agree that many platforms promised too much to many creators and organizations in the early 2010s. It was a time when everyone was racing to prove that they were relevant - and one of the best ways to do that was to be where people discussed what was happening. It was the era of Obama when using social media for politics was celebrated. Ben Smith’s book, “Traffic,” is a great historical primer of that era.
If I want to be less generous to Adam, it seems like Meta - and other online platforms - are shrinking from their civic responsibility. That has real long-term implications that I don’t think we’ve thought through. Especially since these platforms are where people go to stay current on news and events, just look at this poll from June and this story from Taylor Lorenz about how TikTok has become the place for current events:
To answer this question, I’ve developed some recommendations for online platforms grappling with handling politics on their platforms. The theme is you can run but can’t hide. So you had better have a plan.
Given my background, this is more focused on politics than news, but don’t take that to mean that I don’t think news isn’t important. It very much is. I just think that how platforms think about news should be different than how they think about engaging with governments and politicians.
Here are my recommendations:
Everything is political. Adam wants Threads to be about “sports, music, fashion, beauty, entertainment?” There are political stories in all of those categories. As my former colleague Olga reminded us, Russian and Chinese state media love to mix politics and entertainment. Even deciding not to engage in politics is a political decision. You can’t avoid it.
Values are important. Adam is not wrong that these topics bring scrutiny, integrity problems, and negativity. Online platforms will have to make hard calls. You won’t make everyone happy - in fact, you’ll likely make no one happy. This is why you need a strong set of values you communicate transparently and often to base your decisions on. That brings me to my third piece of advice …
Make the hard calls - no one will do it for you. If online platforms could outsource all the hard decisions, they absolutely would. Meta created the Oversight Board for this exact reason. Many relied on the CDC or World Health Organization during COVID to guide them on health misinformation. Having these types of partners to help think through these hard problems is important. But, at the end of the day, the platform has to make the call. You can’t buck that responsibility. So be prepared to make them and to show your work for how you got to that decision. A lot can be learned from how the Oversight Board explains its decisions.
Make realistic promises. When a platform rolls out a new product, they want adoption. They make promises about the benefits that creators and organizations will get when they use it. Platforms also like to make promises about their actions to keep their platform safe. Then, over time, products are deprioritized, shut down, newsfeed algorithms are changed, and people get mad that they aren’t getting the numbers they once did. People think platforms will catch all the bad stuff and get mad when they don’t. Platforms need to do better in managing expectations.
Have a strategy and rules of engagement. When I was at Facebook, we put a lot of effort into our principles of support for politicians and governments. This included providing the same tools and advice to everyone allowed on the platform. We created a dedicated website where our training and best practices were made available. If you are a platform where politicians and governments create accounts, you need to think through your strategy of how you will - or won’t - support them when they inevitably have questions or problems.
Jawboning is a thing - be ready for it. Jawboning refers to the informal ways governments, politicians, and other organizations try to persuade or strong-arm private platforms to change their content-moderation policies. You will face pressure from all directions. Governments will make requests that you and others don’t feel comfortable with. That will bring up some hard choices - especially if that government threatens to shut your app down in that country. If you have employees in that country, they could be put at risk.
Ads are an important part of politics but need disclosure and transparency. I know many people don’t like political ads, but they are an important part of the process. It’s how many people learn about candidates and other issues. Online platforms are much more affordable for organizations that don’t have much money to spend on television and other types of advertising. I don’t think online platforms should ban them. I also think all platforms must provide disclosure and transparency tools so the public can see what ads are running.
Remember the good. As human beings, we tend to focus on the negative. Since 2016, I feel like all we do is focus on the bad things that can happen online and forget many of the positive benefits it brings us. This goes for political and news content as well. These platforms have brought attention to issues that might not otherwise get attention. People have organized to bring about change. They’ve gotten people civically involved in their local communities. It’s worth remembering this.
Have a civic integrity plan. There’s always an election happening somewhere in the world. And even when there aren’t elections, civic issues are always discussed. Even if you try to ignore politics, you will need to define what that content is and plan for when it does show up on your platform. At the Integrity Institute, we created a handy guide for dealing with elections that might be helpful. Have someone whose job it is to think about these things.
You are not the public square, but you do play a role in it. In the early days, Twitter and Facebook loved to describe themselves as the public square. But it’s not true that any one platform was or is THE public square. As Mike Masnick wisely said this week, “The wider internet itself is the modern public square. Each private social media app is simply a private establishment on that public square.” So don’t take on all the responsibility for online discourse, but don’t shirk away from your role in it.
I’m obviously very biased in this entire discussion. I’m pre-disposed to thinking that politics has a place in our online environment. I think it’s overall good that politicians engage with their constituents online. Platforms might not want the responsibility, but the fact is that people do turn to them to stay up to date on what is happening. That means they must engage and not stick their heads in the sand.
What I’m Reading
Washington Post - Analysis of Missouri Judge's Censorship Ruling against Biden
Washington Post - Doughty's social media injunction undoes election disinformation efforts
NY Times - Bolsonaro Banned from Office in Brazil
January 15, 2024 - Iowa GOP Caucus
Topics to keep an eye on:
June 25, 2023 – Guatemala election
June 27, 2023 - SXSW Panel Picker Opens
July 10, 2023 - Trust and Safety Hackathon
July 11-13, 2023 - TrustCon
July 2023 – Sudan election (likely to have further changes due clashes erupted mid-April, despite temporary humanitarian ceasefire,)
July 23, 2023 – Cambodia election
July 23, 2023 - Spain Election
August 10 - 13, 2023 - Defcon
August 20, 2023 - Guatemala runoff
August 23, 2023 - Zimbabwe Election
August-2023 – Eswatini election
August 23, 2023 - First GOP Presidential Primary Debate
Mid-September: All Tech Is Human - Responsible Tech Summit NYC
September 10, 2023: Russia to hold elections in four Ukrainian provinces
September 19, 2023 - UN General Assembly high-level debate begins
September 27-29, 2023: Athens Democracy Forum
September 28-29, 2023 - Trust & Safety Research Conference
TBD September: Atlantic Festival
TBD September: Unfinished Live
September 2023 – Bhutan election
September 2023 – Tuvalu election
September 9, 2023 – Maldives election
September 28-29, 2023 - The Atlantic Festival
September 30, 2023 – Slovakia election
September 2023 – Rwanda election
October 2023 – Oman election
October 2023 Poland election
October 8, 2023 – Pakistan election
October 10, 2023 – Liberia election
October 14, 2023 – New Zealand election
October 22, 2023 – Switzerland election
October 29, 2023 – Argentina election
October 2023 – Gabon election
October 2023 – Ukraine election
November 15, 2023 - Aspen Cyber Summit
November 20, 2023 – Marshall Islands election
November 29, 2023 – Argentina election
December 1-3, 2023: Build Peace 2023 Conference
December 20, 2023 – Democratic Republic of the Congo election
December 2023 –Togo election
2023 or 2024 – Peru election
TBD – Dominica election
TBD – Luxembourg election
TBD – Myanmar election
TBD – Spain election
TBD – Gabon election
TBD – Madagascar election
TBD – Haiti election
TBD – Libya election
TBD – Singapore election