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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The 2020 election outcome presents Facebook, Twitter and other online platforms with a worst-case scenario for misinformation management even as it takes some of the regulatory pressure off the wider tech industry.

Why it matters: Aggravated red state/blue state grievances look to usher in an open-ended era of partisan trench warfare online — but a split Congress shrinks the likelihood of new laws reining in tech's power.

The big picture: For the past two years, the tech industry's biggest threat from the political sphere lay in regulation and antitrust enforcement.

  • That threat remains. But the election outcome points to a world in which a divided government is less likely to pursue a coordinated regulatory effort — while a divided nation forces the industry into ever more bruising dilemmas over what to do about problematic content online.

Be smart: Tech leaders hoped that the election would represent a peak in their political role, after which they could return to business as usual.

  • Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg suggested to employees last month that the social network's more active efforts at limiting misinformation could slow post-election, per a Buzzfeed News report.
  • "Once we’re past these events, and we’ve resolved them peacefully, I wouldn’t expect that we continue to adopt a lot more policies that are restricting of a lot more content,” Zuckerberg reportedly said.

The dream of a return to normalcy looks naive now. Instead, the tech platforms face a near-term future of deepening strife, ever-tougher decisions on content labeling and takedowns, and two sides determined to audit their every move.

What we're hearing: Assuming the likeliest election outcome — a Biden presidency, a Republican Senate, and Trump leading a revanchist movement from outside government — here's what Facebook, Twitter and the rest of tech's platforms can look forward to:

  • Activists, particularly aggrieved Trump supporters, pushing every limit and testing every edge case in the platforms' rulebook.
  • Continued obsessive media coverage of every instance of lax, inconsistent or over-aggressive policy enforcement.
  • A new wave of employee discontent at the tech giants, as idealistic, mission-driven workers ask themselves, "Is this what we got into tech for?"

Of note: President Trump's future remains a particularly challenging question for the companies — especially Twitter, which has served as Trump's chief megaphone to 88 million followers even as he has repeatedly flouted the platform's rules.

  • If he leaves office Jan. 20, Trump may find that some exceptions that protected him from a Twitter ban while he was president — like Twitter's "world leader" rule — no longer apply.
  • Yes, but: It would be easy enough for Twitter to find excuses or pretexts to duck a hard call and just keep the Trump megaphone turned on.
  • Either way, half the country will be mad.

Go deeper

Jan 29, 2021 - Technology

Big Tech is outsourcing its hardest content moderation decisions

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Faced with the increasingly daunting task of consistent content moderation at scale, Big Tech companies are tossing their hardest decisions to outsiders, hoping to deflect some of the pressure they face for how they govern their platforms.

Why it matters: Every policy change, enforcement action or lack thereof prompts accusations that platforms like Facebook and Twitter are making politically motivated decisions to either be too lax or too harsh. Ceding responsibility to others outside the company may be the future of content moderation if it works.

Jan 29, 2021 - Technology

Facebook seeks a new head of U.S. public policy

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Facebook is looking externally for a new U.S. policy chief as it moves Kevin Martin, a Republican who now holds the job, to a different position, per a memo seen by Axios.

Between the lines: Facebook is moving on from the Trump era in which Republicans held most of the power in Washington and Facebook was particularly eager among tech companies to forge warm relations with GOP policymakers.

Jan 28, 2021 - Technology

Facebook Oversight Board overturns 4 of its 5 first cases

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Facebook's independent Oversight Board published its first set of decisions Thursday, overturning four of the five cases it chose to review out of 20,000 cases submitted.

Why it matters: The decision to go against Facebook's conclusions in four out of five instances gives legitimacy to the board, which is funded via a $130 million grant from Facebook.