Opinion | Why the Social Media Rage Machine Won’t Stop

It’s Election Day 2020, and Silicon Valley cannot save us.

To prepare for potential postelection unrest in the United States, Facebook is suspending political group recommendations, and Instagram said it would temporarily stop featuring recent posts on its hashtag pages. Twitter has added functions to limit the spread of misleading information and recently announced that it will not allow users, including candidates themselves, to claim victory before a race has been called by state election officials or a public projection from at least two authoritative news outlets.

Go to these companies’ platforms on Election Day, and you will be greeted by cheerful messages encouraging voting. After the polls close, you will find election fact-checks and reminders that final results may take some time.

These are important changes, but they are tweaks, not overhauls, and they point to an uncomfortable truth. These networks are operating as designed. The core features that make social media so alluring also make it a particularly effective political rage machine.

Designed to be addictive, these features drive the companies’ profits. If they replaced algorithmically tailored and targeted newsfeeds with ones that simply displayed the most recent posts first, the sites would become less enraging — but also less engaging, losing their grip on the attention of users, who may drift away. Large, publicly traded companies are not going to make changes that fundamentally derail their business.

And what a business it is. Last week, some of the tech giants posted their best quarters ever, adding to their already enormous reserves of cash.

Google’s parent company, Alphabet, raked in over $46 billion in revenue and had its highest ever profit, topping $11 billion. Ad spending on its YouTube platform grew 32 percent.

Facebook’s revenue rose 22 percent from a year earlier, to over $21 billion. Its profits rose even more, to nearly $8 billion. After an advertiser boycott this summer, Facebook ad revenue is growing once more, along with its user base. More than 2.54 billion people worldwide use one or more of Facebook’s platforms (such as WhatsApp and Instagram), a 15 percent increase over a year earlier.

In this land of the giants, Twitter and its $936 million of third-quarter revenue seems small, but its user base and advertising revenue continues to grow.

The statistics reflect the economic power of social media companies in this pandemic year. Americans may be ambivalent about tech’s power and trustworthiness, but they rely ever more heavily on these platforms for connection and communication. (Combine these numbers with the revenue gains for Amazon, Apple and Microsoft, and American capitalism has not seen such wealth generation since the age of Rockefeller and Carnegie.)

The blockbuster earnings reinforce tech leaders’ belief that their products bring far more good to the world than bad. Their critics — journalists, activists, politicians — are being unfair, they contend. How could social media be all that terrible if so many people are willing to participate in it, and so many advertisers willing to pay for it?

“We compete hard. We compete fairly. We try to be the best,” Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and chief executive, told the House Judiciary’s antitrust subcommittee this summer.

A similar attitude colors the social media giants’ relationship with Washington. Tech companies are a more visible presence in the capital than ever before, having assembled formidable lobbying operations to stave off regulation or shape it to their liking. In that way, they are similar to any other big and powerful company. Because of their enormous revenue, they are able to outspend nearly all the rest.

Yet for all the millions poured into lobbying politicians, many Silicon Valley leaders haven’t shaken off the industry’s historic disdain of the government, believing too few lawmakers understand digital technology and the industry that has been built around it.

Events like last week’s silly, shouty Senate hearing on social media regulation don’t help.

The ostensible subject of that hearing, Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, governs social media’s ability to moderate content. The law also prevents internet-based platforms from being held liable for most of what third parties might post.

Its passage was one of the first big political triumphs of the internet industry, whose leaders persuaded lawmakers that platform companies should be exempted from old-media rules that applied to newspapers and television networks. Instead, they could regulate themselves. More than 20 years later, the industry’s thinking is much the same.

Yet the tech landscape is far different, particularly in its relationship to political speech. Section 230 was passed in February 1996, when digital campaign strategy consisted of little more than uploading position papers to CompuServe forums. It wasn’t until later that year that the campaigns of Bill Clinton and Bob Dole built the very first presidential campaign websites.

The arguments for self-regulation that tech companies made in 1996 no longer hold in 2020. Platforms have tried and failed to stop the proliferation of disinformation, and a growing chorus of lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, have come to the conclusion that these companies are too big to avoid government regulation.

Close to half of Americans now agree with them. Whatever the outcome of this election, it is likely that big policy changes are coming for social media and other tech companies in 2021.

Those changes will not, of course, have any effect on how the election results play out over the next few weeks on social media. It is impossible to know exactly what will happen, but no one should expect that social media companies can meaningfully control what happens on their platforms.

Change is certainly possible; American elections have weathered chaotic information environments before. The raucous print culture of the 18th century gave power to anyone with a printing press and some elegantly worded principles, helping to spread the ideas that spurred the American Revolution. In the 19th century, that same free flow of expression also helped spread disinformation and slander, especially during elections.

But publishers and regulators eventually realized that standards and order needed to be imposed if free speech and democratic processes were to be maintained. Over time, the mayhem of the early American political press was tamed into a more orderly system of mass communications, ruled both by new industry standards and court protections of political speech.

The rise of radio in the 1920s brought some of the old chaos back, as a jumble of broadcasters competed for space on the federal radio spectrum. Out of this came first the Radio Act of 1927 and then the Communications Act of 1934, which established regulation of the radio airwaves, and later television. The revision of that act in 1996 gave us Section 230.

Social media operates in a very similar way as Revolutionary-era printers and pamphleteers. The outrage on its newsfeeds echoes the sensationalist newspapers of the Gilded Age. Yet neither Thomas Paine nor Joseph Pulitzer could operate with the speed, scale and precision of tech platforms. Neither can newspapers or television networks today.

What’s more, none have the global reach and targeting of social media apps, which have sowed electoral havoc near and far. When older forms of media became the dominant platforms for political communication, they lost the right to regulate themselves.

So it won’t be up to Silicon Valley to save democracy. It will be up to us: the social media users, voters and government. It’s been our job all along.

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