The importance of elections
How much time and effort should tech companies be devoting to protecting the integrity of elections on their platform? Plus, pictures from my fishing trip.
Greetings from Eagle River, Wisconsin. I’m back after a phenomenal week of fishing in Canada with Thunderhook Fly-Ins where between the four of us we caught 476 fish. My mom and I tied for the most caught - 156 - and she got the biggest walleye at 26 inches and I got the biggest northern pike at 38”. Probably best for peace in the family that it ended in a tie. 😂 Note in case anyone from the Canadian government is reading: The vast majority of this was catch and release. We only kept what we ate for shore lunch and brought home our limit of eight walleye.
While I was reeling in those fish the New York Times published a story on how elections are no longer a priority not just for Mark Zuckerberg and Meta but also for Twitter and other tech companies.
There’s no doubt that Facebook/Meta, Twitter, Google, and others are still doing a lot of work on election integrity around the world. However, it is also true that they have made changes since the 2020 election ended. Google, for instance, is the only one that I’ve seen so far put out a blog post about what they’re all doing for the midterms. Meta and Google did announce updates to their political ad policies. That of course doesn’t mean the others aren’t doing anything - we just don’t know what it all entails.
Ever since I left Facebook I’ve grappled with the question of if work specifically around election integrity is the right focus. These feelings/thoughts have intensified over the last few weeks as I’ve had various conversations with people and in reading the Times article. After all, protecting democracy goes way beyond elections and maybe I’m just holding onto the past. Maybe Mark and Meta are right that there shouldn't be a lot of people specifically focused on elections and instead it should be just broader integrity work. After all, despite all the work they and other companies have done all they seem to get is more criticism.
On the flip side, elections are major moments and milestones in any democracy. They are events where we see a dramatic increase in the amount of content pushed out across platforms and when we are likely to see interference. While you can’t anticipate every single issue that might emerge you can plan for them. You can learn from previous elections. You can keep improving your defenses.
So, while I understand why companies might be pulling back it also makes me very sad and worried. I feel like we are normalizing and accepting how various actors exploit the systems rather than tackling the really hard problems. I continue to be incredibly worried that we are not ready for all of the elections that will happen in 2024 - many of which will actually start in 2023. I’m worried that we continue to mainly focus on Facebook and aren’t thinking about the role that newer platforms like TikTok, Discord, Telegram, and others will play. If we only turn our focus to this two years from now we will be at a serious disadvantage for what we can actually do.
Thus, for this newsletter, I thought I’d go through some of the things I would like to be seeing not just from tech companies but also from regulators, civil society, and the media. Before I begin I do want to acknowledge how incredibly biased I am on this topic. If anyone disagrees with any of this and is willing to chat about it I would love to do that. I don’t want to be stuck in the past, but I also just can’t bring myself to think that this still shouldn’t be a priority.
Start planning and research now: During my time at Facebook we usually started planning for an election a year and a half to two years from Election Day. For countries where there were strong rumors of snap elections (looking especially at you UK and Israel) I called them the “keep the car running” countries. This meant we got things ready so we would be ready as soon as an election was called. At the very beginning, we’d be
Identifying the team members across the company that should be a part of the group working on that election.
Conducting research trips to understand how the platforms were being used by voters, political parties, candidates, and others.
Assessing the various election laws such as those around political advertising.
Conducting threat ideation exercises.
Looking at what products we wanted/needed to build.
Identifying what partnerships we wanted to do.
Building all of this into a two-year roadmap with key milestones and reviews identified.
This is the time to identify the gaps so you have time to hire the people, build the tools/products and develop the partnerships before things get crazy. This goes not just for tech companies but anyone who is paying attention to and doing work in this space.
Pay attention to company announcements: This one is for all those watching closely what the tech companies are doing. There are so many aspects to what companies have promised around elections in the past that it can be easy to get confused over what they are – or aren’t - doing. Some of the things to pay attention to are:
What did they do during the U.S. 2020 election that they are no longer doing in the U.S. and/or have or haven’t expanded to other countries elections? Twitter, for instance, stopped “enforcing the civic integrity policy in relation to 2020 election lies ‘since March 2021.’" Facebook announced it was labeling posts in Brazil around the election but not in other countries and we don’t know why they are choosing to do this in some but not others. We’re also still waiting on the results of the 2020 research Facebook partnered with academics on. They delayed it last July saying it would be ready by the first half of 2022. Will we see something this week?
What products are they building? Building proactive classifiers to find problematic content is different from products for political ad transparency or election day reminders. They are often even run by different teams. You know a company is serious about this work depending on how much the product teams care about it and are dedicating resources to it. This is not to diminish the work the policy, partnerships, ops, and other teams do, but at the end of the day, there’s only so much non-product work that can do to protect the integrity of the platform. When reading the lengthy posts that the companies release about their work pay special attention to what ISN’T mentioned. Moreover, pay attention to which platforms aren’t saying anything.
Side note on this. It’s perfectly reasonable that some products don’t make sense for all elections or maybe the research shows it doesn’t work as intended. Maybe it’s being replaced with something else. But I think companies should be transparent about this and the criteria they use to determine what to do versus not.
Platform policies about elections. Keeping track of all the company policies around elections is a nightmare. There are different ones for different countries. Some were one-time things that are no longer enforced. Each platform is a little different. Where are platforms being clear and transparent about what policies do or do not apply to different elections? What are the values and priorities they are using to determine their decisions?
Research and transparency efforts. How are companies helping researchers understand what is happening on the platform? What internal research are they doing to understand their own impact? While not all of this may be prudent to release publicly there should be some plans for transparency.
Compliance with government regulations. Not all regulations are great. As Freedom House noted in their report earlier this year many countries have implemented laws that will suppress minority voices versus elevate them. In other places like the European Union, we have a bunch of new rules about to be put into effect. How are companies thinking about compliance in these areas and how should actors in those countries prepare?
Partnerships. Whether it’s working with fact-checkers or civil society groups, partnerships are key to any successful elections program. Understanding how these work and where or where they don’t have input on a company’s decisions is important.
Exec involvement. This is a double-edged sword. In some cases, people feel uncomfortable with a single person like Zuckerberg or Musk having the final say on what is or is not allowed on the platform. On the other hand, their interest and involvement mean engineers will want to work on it and resources will be allocated. Goes back to what I said about how product interest and involvement is the real measure by how much effort a company is putting into this work.
If you are a company executive - don’t promise you can do things that you know the technology is not able to do yet. One of the biggest mistakes I think companies made post-2016 were all these grand announcements of the things they would do and build that they couldn’t execute to the level that people were expecting. I would have much rather seen FB and others manage expectations far better.
Define success. One of my biggest frustrations about all of this is that when I ask people about how they would define success and feel like a company is “doing enough” they don’t have an answer. No one knows how to define this yet. Most people base it on what they are reading in the news which will come from what journalists choose to pay attention to, how they frame it, and the academics and others who are researching it. We need to do more to help companies know what we are looking for. I’m working on a white paper that looks at the last twenty years of tech company work on elections, comparing what different platforms did and how it is evolving.
There are many other things that need to be paid attention to in preparation for elections, but this is a start. Maybe over time how we expect companies to protect the integrity of elections on their platforms will evolve, but given how perilous this time currently is I would hope to see more attention being paid, not less. My gut is that instead, we’ll find ourselves scrambling once again to be reactive as certain events happen versus being as proactive as we could be. It doesn’t have to be that way though.
What I’m Reading
The Sunday Show Podcast: Peering Inside the Platforms
Washington Post: Sen. Charles E. Schumer targeted in battle over Big Tech regulation
Politico: What's wrong with the GDPR?
Sens. Cotton, Braun, Young, Sasse, Rubio and Wicker: Letter to Secretary Yellen about Tik Tok
Reuters Institute: Digital News Report 2022
Murmuration: A Gen Z Research Report
Knight First Amendment Institute: Rereading Bluman v. Federal Election Commission
NYU Stern Center: You Tube: A Platform “Weaponized”
Journal of Quantitative Description: Digital Media: Repeat Spreaders and Election Delegitimization
European Union: Strengthened Code of Practice on Disinformation
Topics to keep an eye on that have a general timeframe of the first half of the year:
EU Passage of DSA and DMA
Facebook 2020 election research
Oversight Board opinion on cross-check
Senate & House hearings, markups, and potential votes
June 25 - July 1: Aspen Ideas Festival, Aspen, Colorado
June 14 - Nevada Primary (Cortez Masto defending Senate seat)
August: Angola elections
August 2 - Arizona and Missouri Primaries (AZ Kelly defending Senate seat, MO open Senate race)
August 9 - Wisconsin Primary (Ron Johnson defending Senate seat)
August 9 - Kenya elections
September 11 - Sweden elections
September 13 - New Hampshire Primary (Hassan defending Senate seat)
September 13 - 27: UN General Assembly
Sept 20 - High level general debate begins
September 28 - 30: Athens Democracy Forum
October 2 and 30 - Brazil
November 8 - United States Midterms