Sep 11, 2020 - Technology

Tech's election-season survival plan: transparency

Animated illustration of a laptop becoming more transparent to reveal binary code
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Leading U.S. tech platforms are going out of their way to reveal how their businesses, policies and algorithms work ahead of November in a bid to avoid blame for election-related trouble.

Why it matters: Until recently, tech companies found it useful to be opaque about their policies and technology — stopping bad actors from gaming their systems and competitors from copying their best features. But all that happened anyway, and now the firms' need to recapture trust is making transparency look like a better bet.

Driving the news: With just weeks to go before the election, many companies are taking steps to shine light on how their algorithms and policies aim to stop election meddling and misinformation.

Google said on Thursday that it recently implemented a new policy to stop auto-complete search queries from popping up if they seem to support a candidate or contain misinformation about voting or the election.

  • The company walked reporters through how it plans to determine the quality of search results on Election Day.

TikTok, on Wednesday, revealed some of the elusive workings of the prized algorithm that keeps hundreds of millions of users worldwide hooked on the viral video app.

Twitter Wednesday said it will label or remove unverified election result claims and will flag tweets from President Trump if he claims an early victory.

  • In recent months, Twitter has been much more forthcoming about how its policies are meant to work to weed out misinformation, especially regarding the election and voting.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been making the rounds with media to defend Facebook's election-protection choices.

Flashback: In 2016, when it was revealed foreign actors used American tech platforms to meddle in the election, the companies shouldered much of the blame and have been dealing with the fallout ever since.

Between the lines: With confusion already spreading over election mechanics during a pandemic, tech companies want to make it absolutely clear that they have tried everything they can to be on top of the chaos — and whatever the election's outcome, they're not to blame.

  • Many have rolled out extensive voter initiatives to try to promote civic engagement ahead of November, including efforts to push more young people to work as poll workers.
  • They've also made much more serious efforts to label misleading posts from politicians and to fact-check or curtail misleading political advertising.

Our thought bubble: Some critics will fault these firms for doing too little, others for acting too aggressively. But by explaining their choices ahead of time, the companies' message seems to be: Don't say we didn't warn you.

  • "This election, people will have strong opinions, and given the backdrop of COVID-19, the change with elections is to be more conservative in terms of the queries," David Graff, Google's senior director of trust and safety, told reporters Thursday.
  • This means "benign" predictions may be swept up in Google's new policy, he said. Still, he points out, blocking an auto-complete "doesn't mean you can't search for whatever you want."

Yes, but: Big Tech's transparency push goes only so far.

  • Firms still hold tons of information close — everything from the details of their algorithms, like Google's search or Facebook's News Feed, to the list of their government contracts.
  • Tech's tougher critics call not just for transparency from Silicon Valley, but also for deeper accountability.

Go deeper: Big Tech pushes voter initiatives to counter misinformation

Go deeper