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In this long (and still ongoing) election season in America, there are two things I have learned about the internet companies through which many of us experience the world.
First, Facebook, Google and the rest have reluctantly embraced their role as our gatekeepers to information, and there’s likely no going back. Second, so much about how these gatekeepers exercise their power remains unknown to the rest of us.
In the early hours on Wednesday, the thing happened that many people had been warning about: President Trump made unfounded claims that the election was being stolen from him, and he falsely declared victory before all of Americans’ votes were counted.
Twitter and Facebook relatively quickly applied warning labels to posts from Mr. Trump with his false claims, as the companies said they would, to add context and avoid amplifying his message. They did this with other voting-related online misinformation, too.
How they handled the president’s claims showed how much America’s internet companies have changed in the last year or more. Slowly, inconsistently and often reluctantly, they have done more to prevent people from using their internet properties to blare information that can mislead or harm others.
To the people who are upset that Facebook, Twitter or Google are intervening in what happens online, and even call it “censorship,” let me say: Yup.
The functioning of the web as we know it has always been a result of companies’ constantly changing choices to put their thumbs on the scale. Nothing happens by chance.
The internet powers have decided what search result appears first, that Aunt Shirley’s baking photos should be at the top of your Facebook feed and that spam won’t reach your email inbox. The internet gives everyone a voice, but the internet companies decide which voices get heard and prioritized.
What has changed is that these zillions of largely invisible decisions have become visible with some high profile interventions, like those labels on Mr. Trump and the deletion of misleading health information about the coronavirus. Those measures might be temporary, but the internet companies will find it hard to retreat to a place where they pretend that they give equal weight to all the information in the world.
The obvious hands-on interventions have enabled more people to notice the invisible ones, too.
To that I say, thank goodness. Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Google, TikTok, Twitter and more are intermediaries to what we know and understand about our friends, communities and the world around us.
This is helpful in many ways and also terrifying, because we still have little idea how these intermediaries work or how our beliefs and behaviors are being shaped by those invisible internet choices on our screens. By design, how they work is shrouded in mystery.
Only Facebook knows something as basic as what articles or other information get seen most on its site. YouTube can reprogram its computers and give different people or channels more attention without us being aware of it. This is not necessarily censorship or something else nefarious. YouTube is acting as a gatekeeper. Important decisions go through it.
The current scenario in the United States — a close presidential election with perhaps days before we know the outcome — is a mismatch for human impatience and internet information in which attention-grabbing falsehoods often travel faster than nuanced and boring truth. There will be so much nonsense on the internet in the next few days, and the online superpowers will probably do a lot wrong.
One good thing about this year is that the internet companies and those of us who rely on them have dispensed with the fiction that what we experience online is “neutral” or happens by chance. The first step is admitting it.
Quick check: How are you doing?
My job is to write a technology newsletter, but I am also a human being. I just noticed there was so much tension in my shoulders that they were scrunched right up to my ears. Maybe you are feeling the same.
Whitney Phillips, the expert in online information who was featured in Monday’s newsletter, also shared some wisdom on how we can maintain ease in times like this when we’re waiting on many results from Tuesday’s election. She suggests the following:
Take a minute and sketch out some responses to the following questions:
What kinds of things calm you down when you feel stressed?
Who are the most grounding and supportive people in your life?
What are your “chicken soup” shows — the entertainment that soothes your soul?
Now sketch some responses to the following:
What specific plans can you make to do those calming things? For example, identify a few times you can set aside for chicken soup shows with no other screens or discussions.
What are concrete ways you can minimize contact with stressful people in your life? Perhaps give yourself permission not to respond to messages or make up an excuse to get out of social situations that give you anxiety.
What are some ways you can maximize contact with supportive people in your life? Could you create a group thread for support throughout the week, or keep Zoom open during key moments to feel connected to others?
What kind of treat or reward might make you feel happy?
Another thing to reflect on:
What are the behaviors or feelings that precede feelings of anxiety or depression? It takes practice to identify what they are, but once you’re able to notice that you’re heading to a panicked place, you can engage in any one of the above ideas, meditation or yoga, or go for a walk.
Before we go …
A big threat averted for Uber and Lyft: California voters on Tuesday approved a ballot measure that allows gig economy companies like Uber and Lyft to continue treating drivers as independent contractors. My colleague Kate Conger writes that Uber and similar companies are now expected to pursue federal legislation to preserve contractor status elsewhere in the United States for millions of app company workers.
A complicated use of facial recognition software: To identify someone accused of assaulting a law enforcement officer at a Washington protest in June, law enforcement authorities fed Twitter photos of the person into facial recognition software, The Washington Post reported. The Post walked through the benefits and potential pitfalls of a facial recognition system that has operated almost entirely outside the public view.
In praise of (virtual) crackling fireplaces: Live streams or online videos of a roaring fire are the moment of restorative calm that we need, says Medium’s Debugger site.
Hugs to this
Here are some adorable kiddos who came with grown-ups to vote on Tuesday.
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