Nov 6, 2020 - Technology

How the razor-edge election could scar tech

Illustration of a cursor tearing apart a red screen.

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.
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