Big Tech and a Functioning Democracy

The Topline

In a perfect world functioning democracy, we wouldn’t rely on the tech platforms to regulate elected officials and campaigns on social media. We’d have laws and regulations in place about hate speech, harassment, and harm that the tech platforms would have to follow. We’d have politicians who respected democratic norms and didn’t use social media to incite violence, post racist and misogynist memes and run ads that spread disinformation. On the rare occasion when candidates and elected officials ignored these norms there would be regulations in place to deal with it.

But America right now isn’t a functioning democracy. And as Charlie Warzel pointed out in his New York Times column yesterday, part of the anger at the tech platforms is an extension of the anger we feel at all of our American institutions for their failure to rein in candidate and then President Trump.

The tech platforms understandably do not want to be put in the position they’re in. They also don’t want to change their products, which have been successfully gamed by Trump, Republicans, and other assorted bad actors for years now. As much as I believe the only way we’ll ever emerge from this hell is by strongly regulating Big Tech, I’m still angry at the tech platforms for putting their own profit ahead of saving civilization. 

Apparently, we can’t even count on the platforms to stick to the policies they do have. Last week, after invoking its hacked materials policy in response to Rudy Giuliani and the New York Post’s botched October surprise, Twitter changed course and changed the policy twice in two days.

I don’t necessarily object to Twitter’s updated policy, especially since it’s more in line with their other disinformation and civic integrity policies, but the timing is absolutely terrible. It creates the perception that Twitter is caving to Trump and the GOP. Especially as the first change was rolled out just a few hours after the Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee announced their plans to subpoena Jack Dorsey over the incident. 

Worse, how are Twitter’s users supposed to keep up with policies that can change at a moment’s notice? The vast majority of users probably weren’t aware that the policy existed in the first place, and now Twitter is changing the rules in the middle of the ball game -- twice! Hacked materials were a major issue in the 2016 election, arguably Russia’s most successful attempt at interference. Given that, it’s completely irresponsible for Twitter to change the rules --again, twice!-- so late in the game. With just 15 days left until Election Day, how can we trust Twitter to not suddenly change its policies again because of political pressure? 

Regulating the tech platforms is an essential pitstop on the road to restoring a functioning democracy. If the platforms won’t commit fully to repairing the damage they’ve done, the American people, ideally with a new presidential administration and a functioning Congress, need to hold these companies accountable. Personally, after years of trying to put out one fire after another, I’m looking forward to going on offense. 


Driving the Conversation 

But endless scrolling, commenting, and pushing back is unsustainable. However capable or committed a person might be, and however necessary their work, there’s always a limit—whether physical, emotional, or spiritual—to what they can give, or what they should be expected to give. At a certain point everyone runs out of energy, and when that happens, they need to recharge.

Transformational leadership is determined not only by the character, or even by the ideology of a particular leader, but by a complex interplay of social forces and historical circumstance. Perhaps most importantly, mass popular mobilizations can shift the frame of debate and push leaders beyond where anyone expected them to go. History demonstrates that this dynamic can produce surprising breakthroughs, even when activists may least expect them.

Now, only weeks before Election Day, there’s a growing realization that the complexity of this year’s electoral landscape—from pandemic-related social distancing and poll-staffing disruptions to mail-in voting and a combustible year of public protests—likely means that some of the presidential campaign’s biggest drama might very well play out in the hours and days after Election Day. 

In one of the most important battlegrounds in one of the most critical swing states in the 2020 presidential race, the Republican county chairman, Verel Salmon, 73, sees “passion like never before in my lifetime, for good and bad, and I started with ‘I Like Ike.’ I don’t think I’ve heard a single optimistic thing this year.”

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This Friday I’ll be speaking on a panel organized by the Center for American Progress: After the Polls Close: Countering Election Disinformation on Social Media.  

Please join the Center for American Progress for a discussion about the steps that social media platforms should be taking to prepare for potential attempts to stoke conflict or delegitimize the election. Panelists will discuss the unique threats after polls close and the preparation, product, and policy steps that social media platforms can take to prevent their products from causing real-world harm and delegitimizing elections.


Ifeoma Ozoma, Founder and Principal, Earthseed; Board Member, First Draft

Melissa Ryan, CEO, CARD Strategies; Co-Author, American Interregnum

Sabrina Stevens, Campaign Director for Digital and Democracy, Color of Change

Kip Wainscott, Senior Adviser, Stanford Cyber Policy Center


Adam Conner, Vice President for Technology Policy, Center for American Progress

You can RSVP here

You can also submit questions on Twitter using #AfterThePollsClose.

Your Moment of Cute

Thanks for reading all the way to the end. Enjoy what many people (well by many people I mean me) consider to be the greatest GIF of all time. You deserve it.

American Interregnum is a pop-up newsletter covering the Presidential transition period from November 3rd, 2020 to January 21st, 2021. It is written and edited by Justin Hendrix, Greg Greene, and Melissa Ryan. Got questions or comments? We love your feedback. Reply directly to this email. We read all responses and respond to most.