U.S. election could be Twitter’s darkest day

The social networks are wrestling with new electoral challenges

  
People holding mobile phones are silhouetted against a backdrop projected with the Twitter logo in this illustration picture taken in Warsaw, Poland, September 27, 2013.

People holding mobile phones are silhouetted against a backdrop projected with the Twitter logo in this illustration picture taken in Warsaw, Poland, September 27, 2013.

REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

SAN FRANCISCO  - Twitter and Facebook can’t win in the Nov. 3 U.S. election. On top of their usual wars against hate speech and misleading information, the social networks are wrestling with new electoral challenges like how to handle political ads, how to avoid appearing to favor one party over the other, and what to do about premature claims of victory – all amid a pandemic. In this entirely fictional email, Breakingviews imagines Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey proposing one radical option to his Facebook counterpart, Mark Zuckerberg.

Hey Mark.

This election is troubling me. Normally I can get mental clarity through fasting and silent meditation, plus maybe an ice bath. But I’m just not sure how we can balance the need to take care of our companies, our billions of combined users and the health of the American political system come Nov. 3. After some thought, I’ve got an idea I want to run past you.

I know that, like us, you’ve rolled out pragmatic policies. Kudos for temporarily following our lead in banning political ads before and after the polls close. I think it’s a good decision to flag premature declarations of victory and remove posts inciting election interference or violence. Likewise on setting up teams to respond quickly to harmful activities and look out for foreign actors.

We can’t catch everything though. We’ve seen from other events like the Christchurch mosque shooting how hard it is to stop misinformation and inflammatory content before it’s seen by huge numbers of people. As we learned in 2016, foreign interference is nearly impossible for us to filter out. And this year is, well, crazy. The surge in mail-in ballots could make it look like one candidate is initially winning, only for the count to turn in favor of his rival. President Donald Trump still hasn’t committed to a peaceful transition of power.

Whatever we do, we will be blamed and could make the problem inadvertently worse. You’ve seen the way we’re getting hauled over the coals for trying to stop the spread of a New York Post story about Joe Biden and his son’s business interests. You and I are already appearing in front of Congress this week – and now the Senate has approved subpoenas for another round.

So here’s a moonshot for you. What if we shut our platforms down Just for, say, 36 hours after the polls close

I know what you’re thinking. It’s never been done, and it’s totally opposed to our philosophy of facilitating free speech. But it’s the only way to avoid being used to unfairly tilt the election scales, or worse. If you and I do it, it will put pressure on the folks at Alphabet to do the same with YouTube. TikTok and Reddit might even follow. There’s definitely safety in numbers.

It’s frustrating because we all know most of our users aren’t talking about politics, particularly during the pandemic. And we do play an important role in informing voters. I’ve struggled with weighing the harm of a shutdown versus the harm of forging on. But the hack of accounts like Biden’s and Bill Gates’ in July really opened my eyes about the limits of our power. If we get this wrong and violence erupts, we’ll be a Washington target for years.

Remember when things weren’t so political I haven’t slept this badly for years, judging by the readouts from my Oura ring. I think 36 hours off the grid, and some mindful breathing, would really help, and I’m sure you would find the same. I’m sending over a bottle of my favorite organic, low-alcohol vino for you to enjoy while you mull this one over.

Jack

CONTEXT NEWS

- Facebook will temporarily ban political ads in the United States after polls close on Nov. 3. The social network did not say when the ban will be lifted.

- It will also remove calls for people to engage in poll watching or other activities aimed at intimidating election officials or voters. For posts by a candidate or party that prematurely declare victory, Facebook will add information that ballot counting is ongoing and no winner has been determined.

- Separately, Twitter will label premature claims of victory and direct users to its official U.S. election page. Tweets that are aimed at inciting election interference or violence could be removed.

(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

(Editing by John Foley and Oliver Taslic) ((gina.chon@thomsonreuters.com; Reuters Messaging: gina.chon.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net))

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