Oct 27, 2020 - Technology

Tech battens down the hatches for Election Day chaos

Illustration of a computer with plywood and wood planks over the screen

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A week out from Election Day, online platforms are bracing for impact, making announcements and conducting internal tests to show they're ready for chaos.

Why it matters: The internet is guaranteed to be awash in misinformation and superheated rhetoric in the days before and after the election, and digital gatekeepers hope to avoid shouldering blame for "undermining democracy" as happened after 2016.

Driving the news:

Twitter on Monday started pinning a pair of election-related warnings to the top of U.S. users' timelines.

  • One says users might run into misinformation about voting by mail and directs them to accurate information on the topic.
  • The other cautions that election results may well be delayed this year given the unprecedented number of people voting by mail.
  • Twitter took unprecedentedly fast action Monday night in hiding a tweet from President Trump that alleged, without evidence, "big problems and discrepancies" with mail-in voting and insisted that we "must have final total on November 3rd," which is not true.

Facebook has been preparing to deploy in the U.S. tools it originally developed to curb internet-fueled instability in countries like Myanmar, per a Wall Street Journal report.

  • The measures, which may be used if violence breaks out around Election Day, include brakes to broadly slow the spread of viral content and stricter standards for what constitutes dangerous material, the Journal reported.
  • Facebook also clarified to Axios Monday that its week-long pre-election ban on new political ads would cover not only standard ads but boosted posts.

Google in a pair of Tuesday morning blog posts touted the work it's been doing to make both its core search products and YouTube into hubs for authoritative information about electoral processes and results.

  • Google is, among other things, serving up instructions for how and where to vote, as well as election results as they come in.
  • The company — like Facebook — also plans to pause U.S. political ads as soon as polls close to stop ongoing advertising from creating confusion.

Between the lines: The companies are all telling their users, and their own teams, the same thing: The period before and right after Election Day will probably be a mess, and they aim to do everything in their power to provide clarity through the chaos.

  • It's a message they've been broadcasting for months now. That's in no small part because the shadow of 2016 — when misinformation spread far and wide through the canny use of largely oblivious online platforms — still lingers over this election year.

The catch: It's not 2016 any more, and the challenges this time around won't look the same as then. The controversy triggered by conservative press outlets' coverage of emails and files apparently misappropriated from Hunter Biden is a case in point.

  • Twitter and Facebook are still scrambling to address Republican charges of bias and electioneering over their moves to limit the sharing of images, videos and text snippets taken from the trove, and of the stories based on them.
  • The platforms expected to face something resembling the 2016 WikiLeaks dump of emails hacked from the DNC. But they were caught off guard when material of questionable provenance trickled out in major press outlets courtesy of President Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.

Be smart: The Hunter Biden controversy illustrates another added challenge facing the platforms ahead of Election Day: They're not making their moderation decisions in a vacuum, and the blowback against their moves is itself a source of further discord.

  • That gives players who deliberately want to sow doubt and confusion this year an incentive to bait platforms into politically exploitable reactions.

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