Nov 3, 2020 - Technology

Tech ran from politics, but couldn't hide

Illustration of a cursor with three spotlights focusing on it.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Tech companies that entered the 2020 election season hoping to stay out of politics find themselves more embroiled in partisan conflict than ever on Election Day.

Driving the news: Twitter and Facebook have scrambled to make late changes in complex misinformation policies — intended to dampen candidates' premature claims of victory — as they face a barrage of complaints and censorship charges from President Trump and his camp.

The big picture: Companies know that their platforms are where misinformation and rumor are likely to spread on election night, and they're bracing for impact.

  • Twitter on Monday named seven outlets it will lean on to help it determine whether a race is officially called.
  • Facebook hours later revealed details of its own slate of sources for election results.
  • Both platforms say they will hide or label posts from candidates or anyone else claiming or reporting victory that don't rely on calls made from those authoritative sources.
  • As Axios has reported, President Trump is expected to claim victory if his camp feels he has a wide margin in enough states, even if mail-in ballots are still being counted.

Tech's efforts extend beyond Facebook and Twitter.

  • TikTok last week added Election Day resources and live results from the AP to its election guide.
  • Snapchat has taken perhaps the most aggressive stance in tech, promising to take down any unverified premature election calls, as well as any election-related misinformation.

Where it stands: In prior elections, tech companies were happy to represent themselves as tools for both parties, offering their services, helping get out the vote and assisting with targeted advertising.

  • That attempt at cordial civic engagement got scrambled after 2016, as it became clear that online platforms had been exploited to influence that year's election.
  • That angered Democrats. But then the companies' efforts to prevent a repeat made them a target for Republicans, who said their crackdowns on misinformation and inauthentic activity were just anti-conservative censorship in disguise.

This year, many tech companies sought to distance themselves from politics.

  • Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Spotify and others banned political ads altogether, while Google limited their targeting capabilities.
  • Facebook, Twitter, Google, Microsoft and other firms throttled back their presence at the 2020 political conventions compared to prior years.
  • TikTok, whose enviable algorithm keeps tight control over what videos get served up, has tried to keep contentious political battles from reaching its users.

Yes, but: None of those moves have kept politics at bay.

  • Each party ended up charging tech companies with being pawns for the other side: Republicans denounced ad bans and limits as censorship, while Democrats decried the spread of conspiracy theories and disinformation online.
  • TikTok's attempt to become a politics-free entertainment zone has bumped up against widely reported efforts by political operatives and others to bring partisan conversations to the platform. And the company's new election resources could drag it into future political battles, particular if there's a contested outcome.

The ad market is what made tech a political lightning rod. Even with some platforms banning political advertising, candidates have funneled more political ad dollars into online advertising this election than ever before.

  • Facebook and Google dismiss political ad revenue as being a small part of their business.
  • Speaking to investors last week, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said political and government ad revenue was a single-digit percentage of the company's total ad revenue last quarter.
  • But it's still a substantial chunk of U.S. political spending.

By the numbers: More than $1.4 billion has been spent on political and issue ads on Google and Facebook so far this election, per Advertising Analytics, nearly a fifth of the roughly $7.7 billion spent on all 2020 political advertising.

  • Donald Trump's campaign has spent more than $260 million on Google and Facebook ads this year. Joe Biden's has spent more than $180 million.

Between the lines: While Facebook and Google say news traffic only makes up a small amount of what's searched for and shared on their platforms, Pew Research Center data finds that about 20% of U.S. adults rely primarily on social media for political news. That number jumps to nearly 50% for those ages 18-29.

The bottom line: That big role as an information source gives parties, public officials and candidates an incentive to draw tech companies into political fights: The battles help them nudge the companies' policies in a digital version of working the refs.

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