Twitter, Facebook face rocky future post-Donald Trump

Social media companies limited and couched the president's false posts, but it’s too early to tell whether that made a difference

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Posted November 10, 2020 at 5:59am

For Facebook and Twitter — social media companies that spent much of last week limiting the spread of election-related misinformation and disinformation by President Donald Trump, his acolytes and even some Democrats — the big game is over.

But with the high drama surrounding last week’s presidential election largely subsided, the Monday morning quarterbacking is just beginning.

And with the next occupant of the White House outspoken about cracking down on social media companies specifically because he doesn’t think they do enough to stop the spread of disinformation, each company’s election performance review could carry significant weight.

Both Facebook and Twitter went into Election Day under enormous pressure from both parties, but in the end it was Trump and other Republicans whose posts were labeled most often for containing misleading or false information about the vote count and the integrity of the election.

Disinformation experts are skeptical that Twitter and Facebook’s labeling did much to quell the spread of Trump’s claims and conspiracy theories that spread using hashtags like #SharpieGate and #StopTheSteal throughout the week.

“We don’t really know what the impacts of the labels are,” Kate Starbird, a professor at the University of Washington who studies the flow of information online, told reporters last week during a briefing organized by the Election Integrity Partnership.

“At this point, no matter how fast they take action and no matter what labels they put on those messages, they’re getting out and they’re landing in a soft audience that is going to soak it up because it’s telling them what they want to hear,” Starbird added.

People believe what they want

Alex Stamos, a former chief security officer at Facebook who now runs the Stanford University Internet Observatory, said the false narratives born from #SharpieGate and #StopTheSteal will outlast the election.

“Even after the inauguration, there will be a significant portion of people who believe the election was stolen, who will use these narratives as the basis of that belief,” Stamos told reporters.

Technology industry representatives defended the companies, arguing that they performed admirably under impossible conditions, as new false claims from Trump popped up throughout the week when vote tallies in states such as Georgia and Pennsylvania swung in Biden’s favor.

“If you were seeking perfection, then you had unrealistic expectations,” said Carl Szabo, vice president of NetChoice, an industry group that represents Facebook and Twitter.

[Facebook endorses Section 230 changes ahead of Senate hearing]

“I see few complaints that could actually be lodged against social media platforms for how they addressed and dealt with this unprecedented scenario,” Szabo told CQ Roll Call. “And I think you’ll get the same takeaway for most Americans.”

Szabo expects the companies to continue taking flak from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, starting with a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing next Tuesday where Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive officer, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey are scheduled to testify.

“Some lawmakers will ignore the amazing successes we saw over the past week and instead zero in on edge-case errors,” he said.

Section 230 debate

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Much of the debate, including how to stop the spread of disinformation, is focused on a 1996 law known as Section 230 that protects social media companies from being sued over how they moderate third-party content posted on their sites. For instance, Twitter cannot be sued for labeling Trump’s posts, and Facebook cannot be sued for deleting a #StopTheSteal group.

Lawmakers from both parties have floated changes to Section 230 as a way to wield more control over the companies. Two bipartisan Senate proposals picked up momentum in the months leading up to the election and could lay the groundwork for a legislative compromise at some point during the next session of Congress.

Silicon Valley is largely opposed to changing Section 230, which has been credited with the technology industry’s meteoric rise in the past two decades. But the results of the election don’t change much when it comes to debating the law’s future: President-elect Joe Biden, like his soon-to-be predecessor, has said he supports a full repeal of Section 230.

Of course, Trump and Biden arrived at the same position via different paths. Trump’s call to repeal Section 230 stems largely from his own annoyance with the companies and unfounded claims of widespread anti-conservative bias in the technology industry, while Biden has said they aren’t sufficiently stopping the spread of disinformation, hate speech and extremist content.

When it comes to overhauling Section 230, the technology industry is counting on the fact that Republicans and Democrats are approaching the debate from radically different starting points.

But Biden’s call for a full repeal is still a threat, and Szabo said he hopes the next administration will temper its Section 230 position.

“I would hope that an administration centered on notions of free speech and giving voices to those without a voice would wholeheartedly and enthusiastically embrace Section 230 and the role it plays in enabling everyday Americans to have a voice,” he said.