More proactive, social media takes on a new role in the US elections

Carlos Affonso’s column in the UOL newspaper

published in

5 de November de 2020


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What makes the average American leave the house to vote? Is it trust in their preferred candidate’s proposals? Is it the rejection of the candidate in the opposing party? Since 2016, new factors entered the equation, such as Russian interference, data usage by Cambridge Analytica, bot attacks, and fake accounts, along with the infamous conspiracy theories. In a certain way, big tech companies are at the center of the debate on the opinion-making of US voters.

After a dozen public hearings in US congress and inflamed speeches by President Trump, as well as by Congress members on both sides of the political spectrum,  the big tech companies have adopted different strategies to preserve the US elections, avoiding the dissemination of fake news and messages that could suppress voters. After all, voting is optional for Americans.

But how do you protect something as important as the presidential elections in one of the world’s most important countries? Each company picked its weapons. Getting to know them and understanding their effects will help understand the role the internet played in one of the most polarized elections in US history.

Are trending topics and exit polls one and the same?

In some countries, there are strict restrictions on what can be broadcast on election day. In Brazil, for example, you can’t broadcast exit polls before the election booths have closed. In France, the timeframe is even bigger, and the press can’t broadcast comments of the candidates or their supporters.

Instagram announced that it would not show American users the most popular hashtags in the “recent” tab. The measure seeks to curb the viral effect of hashtags that could interfere with voting on election day, such as false information or proclaiming fraudulent results in a certain state. In some way, this restriction is similar to the prohibition on broadcasting exit polls in Brazil.

If the voter could see on the app that the hashtag #IvotedforX is more mentioned than #IvotedforY, possibly electors of candidate Y would feel less motivated to vote.

Does the internet have a circuit breaker?

The expression “circuit breaker” came from the stock market and entered the Brazilian common vocabulary after many sessions in the Brazilian stock market (Ibovespa), in which trading was suspended to avoid an even higher drop in value of the negotiated shares. The expression is easy to understand: “circuit breaker” is a tool that halts the functioning of an electronic circuit.

Curiously, it’s the same expression used by the New York Post when Facebook decreased the visibility on its platform of an article with revelations of democrat candidate Joe Biden’s son. The article mentioned his son using his kinship for political gain.

The article was based on data retrieved from a laptop, supposedly left by Hunter Biden in a repair shop. Many facts of this story are highly dubious.

Facebook then decided to pass on the article for evaluation by fact-checkers, reducing its dissemination on its platform. In a certain way, this decision reduced drastically the reach of this content, which could be explosive and potentially change the course of a campaign. It was a circuit breaker. But instead of cutting off an electric current, its purpose here is to stop content from going viral.

Leaked content and “terms of use”

Twitter used its policy against dissemination on its platform of leaked/ hacked content to halt the spread of the New York Post article.

In a US congress public hearing, the CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, acknowledged that the policy was enforced wrongfully since the newspaper was prohibited from tweeting and the URL of the article was blocked on the platform.

In a certain way, if it was applied literally, a policy that prohibits the dissemination of hacked/ leaked content would have blocked in Brazil the Vaza Jato articles, which showcase messages between prosecutors and the former judge Sergio Moro. Keep in mind that these messages were broadcast by almost all major Brazilian media outlets.

Perhaps the articles can exist in the Press, but not on Twitter?

The adoption of these measures (as expected), caused diverse reactions with specialists agreeing or disagreeing on their implementation.

In the American political field, Republicans say these measures demonstrate a bias by these platforms on censoring conservative views. Meanwhile, for the Democrats, these measures are seen as an effort by the companies to curb misinformation on the eve of the elections.

This was the keynote of the US Senate public hearing last week. While Republicans focused on the “democratic bias” of the Silicon Valley giants (among a few allegations of collusion with the Chinese), Democrats alerted that the hearing seemed to be held only to press the executives of the big tech companies to relax measures on content moderation.

All this happens in an environment of suspicion on foreign interference in the US elections, along with allegations of domestic interference. Add to that the important role TV plays, especially local news channels, on the opinion of the electorate.

It’s not always social media’s fault, but the US elections provide a case study to understand how technology entered the political sphere with full force and its capacity of forming the voter’s opinion.

Remember that November 3rd, the last day of the US elections, is also when the period that Mercury is in retrograde comes to a close (according to astrology). Who knows, maybe it’s the fault of the stars?


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