stuff nobody wants

they're getting rid of it temporarily

I’m not sure if you heard but there is an election happening next month in the United States. It’s a presidential election, which, as the name implies, decides who is the president — of the entire country! Leading up to this momentous, uh, moment(?), large internet platforms are worried about meddling.

You see, in 2016, there was meddling. The platforms and the government looked into it and there was meddling. Foreign powers meddled, Wikileaks meddled, people who posted false things as if they were true meddled. The exact magnitude and consequences of this meddling has never been fully articulated or quantified — nor has the term “meddling” ever been clearly defined — but rest assured, meddling was afoot. (On a semi-related note: “A sprawling investigation into controversial digital marketing firm Cambridge Analytica and its associate company SCL has found no evidence that it misused data in an attempt to influence the 2016 Brexit referendum or help any Russian intervention in political processes.”)

So in 2020, a lot of platforms are worried about untruths, and falsities, and misinformation, and disinformation, and media-hacking, and attention-hacking, and any other fancy term you can think of for “saying stuff to achieve a certain outcome.” To combat this, Facebook and Twitter have decided to temporarily pause all of the worst parts of their respective products.

The New York Times:

On Wednesday, Facebook said it would take more preventive measures to keep political candidates from using it to manipulate the election’s outcome and its aftermath. The company now plans to prohibit all political and issue-based advertising after the polls close on Nov. 3 for an undetermined length of time. And it said it would place notifications at the top of the News Feed notifying people that no winner had been decided until a victor was declared by news outlets.

Twitter’s blog:

[W]e will now add additional warnings and restrictions on Tweets with a misleading information label from US political figures (including candidates and campaign accounts), US-based accounts with more than 100,000 followers, or that obtain significant engagement. People must tap through a warning to see these Tweets, and then will only be able to Quote Tweet; likes, Retweets and replies will be turned off, and these Tweets won’t be algorithmically recommended by Twitter. We expect this will further reduce the visibility of misleading information, and will encourage people to reconsider if they want to amplify these Tweets.

Twitter is also turning off algorithmic recommendations for tweets that appear in users’ feeds from other accounts that they don’t follow — tweets other users have interacted with that it thinks you’ll also like. You know how a viral tweet in 2012 had like 2,000 retweets and now a viral tweet in 2020 has 200,000? It’s because of this feature.vTwitter is also introducing a bit of friction by asking people to include a comment with their retweets, a move that I suspect will not lead to more substantive commentary, but will lead to an explosion in usage of the 👇 emoji.

These are the features that are meant to maximize engagement and, subsequently, revenue on each of these platforms. Everything else on Facebook and Twitter serves at the behest of these ad products. These features — targeted ads, recommended sources from posts you don’t follow, frictionless tools that lead to tremendously stupid or vile content — are the stuff nobody who uses Facebook or Twitter wants. These things are the stuff that users put up with to get to the stuff they actually enjoy, funny posts and pics of hot people and videos of guys getting hit in the nads.

I do not work at Twitter or Facebook and I readily admit that they operate on immense scales and any product changes probably take months to properly build, test, and implement. But the timing of this, right before the election and explicitly because of the election, leads me to believe that both of these companies could have done this at any time. Mark Zuckerberg has openly bragged that political advertising makes up a small fraction of Facebook’s revenue. And yet he is choosing to pause it at the last possible second. Twitter’s limitation of widely circulated posts it knows to be inaccurate is similarly something it could have done whenever it wanted. It could also have disabled the recommended posts it sprinkles unwelcome into its users feeds at any time. But it has also held off as long as possible. (I am not really a “Twitter must ban Trump” guy but it seems like they’re doing a lot of excessive grandstanding to avoid that simpler route.)

What does it say about these platforms that these features that nobody wants are also the things these platforms are a) most resistant to curtailing until the last possible second, and b) so antithetical to free and fair elections that they must be put on pause? I don’t think it says anything good.


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