Trump is a problem platforms can't solve

On mail-in voting, COVID-19, and how disinformation spreads. (Also: hi!)

I.

Hello and welcome to Platformer! I’m Casey, and I’m thrilled for the first time in my career to be working solely on behalf of my readership. Usually in this space, I dive right into the news of the day. But you only get one chance to write the first edition of a new publication, and so I’d like to say a few things upfront.

The first is simply: welcome. If you were previously subscribed to The Interface, this newsletter’s predecessor, there’s a lot to take in today. A new platform, a new name, a new logo, and a font with serifs. But for now, you’ll find the format is basically the same. There is still a column, there are still lots of links, and those good tweets are still waiting for you at the bottom of today’s edition. I’m sure the format will evolve over time — it has for three years now — but what you see here today still feels right for this moment.

If you’re newer to my work, I hope you’ll find the mix of original reporting, analysis, and commentary here useful in making sense of a tumultuous moment. I highly recommend checking out this guide to Platformer, which lays out the questions I’m trying to answer here, describes how I do my work, and lays out the rough shape of my worldview. I also invite you to read Platformer’s ethics policy, which describes how I’ll approach this work as an independent journalist supported solely by my readers.

The second thing to say is that today begins the free preview of Platformer. For the next two weeks, every subscriber will receive all four weekly editions of the newsletter. Monday through Thursday at 5PM PT, you can expect analysis and reporting on technology platforms and the regulators working to rein them in. Afterward, all subscribers will continue to receive one weekly edition of Platformer free of charge. To receive the rest, along with commenting privileges and more perks yet to come, I’m asking you to support my work with a contribution of $10 a month, or $100 a year. Together, I truly believe we can chart a new path forward for independent journalism.

To do so, I need to live up to my part of the bargain — and that means delivering good journalism consistently and reliably on your behalf. To that end, here’s Platformer’s posting schedule through the end of 2021. It will be updated along the way, but here’s the rough shape of the next year as I know it so far.

The third thing to say is: thank you. Leaving a great job in the middle of a pandemic, and during what has felt like the freefall of American democracy, has been more than a little scary. But I believe that you all are hungry for a new alternative to existing technology coverage, and I have been so moved by how many of you have rewarded that faith to date. More than 750 of you have subscribed so far, giving me more than enough runway to get Platformer off the ground and see what we can do together. Thank you for helping to me to live my dream, and to build a new community devoted to understanding some of the most pressing issues of the day. If you haven’t yet subscribed, I invite you to do so here:

One last thing before we dive in: as I said I would in The Interface’s final editions, I’ve ported your email addresses over to Substack for the launch of Platformer. As such, my old bosses at Vox Media have asked me to make the following disclosure:

I am now managing the newsletter previously titled The Interface as Platformer; I am now the sole party responsible for the storage and processing of your personal information; and you may opt out of future editions of the newsletter by providing written notice to me indicating you wish to unsubscribe from future editions of the newsletter. (Or by clicking ‘unsubscribe’ at the bottom of this email.) I’ll remove any such individual who provides me with written request to be removed from such future newsletters.

I am solely responsible for compliance with any and all laws regulating the newsletter and relationship with subscribers, including but not limited to the collection, processing, and use of the subscribers’ personal information.

Really, though: happy to unsubscribe anyone, at any time, for any reason.

For the rest of you: let’s dive in.

II.

What do we expect from platforms?

It’s a question I’ve found myself returning to regularly as I prepared to start this newsletter. As I describe here, my thinking about platforms was reshaped by the events of 2016 — and the belated realization that technology companies had come to play an outsized role in governing public discourse.

In the years since, we’ve seen near-daily stories about companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter reckoning with that power. We’ve learned of the significant measures they have taken to rein in the worst excesses of their user base, and also of the ongoing lapses, blind spots, and naïveté in their approaches.

At the same time, the quality of our broader information sphere seems to have degraded considerably over the past four years. Polarization in the United States has accelerated; conspiracy movements like QAnon are growing rapidly and spilling over into real-world violence; and 11,000 American journalists have lost their jobs in 2020 alone.

All of these problems are visible in various ways on tech platforms, which contributes to the sense that these problems must be caused by tech platforms. To me it seems clear that platforms play some role in contributing to all of these problems — and in some cases, a very large one. But to lay it all at the feet of a Facebook, or a YouTube, or a Twitter, seems too convenient. These platforms are part of a larger information sphere, and part of what I hope to do at Platformer is explore the bigger picture. If we can better isolate platforms’ role in the decline of our shared sense of reality, I think we can craft better solutions to the problems they inflict.

We can better determine, in other words, what to expect of them.

It’s for these reasons that I was interested to read a new working paper on disinformation and the election from the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. In “Mail-In Voter Fraud: Anatomy of a Disinformation Campaign,” the authors examine how nearly half of Republicans came to believe that election fraud is a major problem, and that the fraud will be exacerbated by more Americans voting by mail over concerns related to COVID-19.

If you’re a platform determinist, and believe that disinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories are mostly born online and then migrate to mass media channels, you would expect the platforms to play a starring role in the clamor around voter fraud this year. But after analyzing 55,000 news stories, 75,000 public Facebook posts, and 5 million tweets, researchers found something very different. From their highly readable (and wonderfully concise) abstract:

Contrary to the focus of most contemporary work on disinformation, our findings suggest that this highly effective disinformation campaign, with potentially profound effects for both participation in and the legitimacy of the 2020 election, was an elite-driven, mass-media led process. Social media played only a secondary and supportive role. […]

[Results] are consistent with our findings about the American political media ecosystem from 2015-2018, published in Network Propaganda, in which we found that Fox News and Donald Trump’s own campaign were far more influential in spreading false beliefs than Russian trolls or Facebook clickbait artists. This dynamic appears to be even more pronounced in this election cycle, likely because Donald Trump’s position as president and his leadership of the Republican Party allow him to operate directly through political and media elites, rather than relying on online media as he did when he sought to advance his then-still-insurgent positions in 2015 and the first half of 2016.

Note that this analysis doesn’t let platforms off the hook. It says explicitly that they play a “supportive role” in the spread of harmful disinformation about our democracy. (Writing about this study at The Verge, Adi Robertson notes that Trump’s serial spreading of misinformation on Twitter is “an offense that would get many lower-profile accounts banned.”) But by widening their aperture, the researchers are able to give us a more holistic picture of our information sphere. They can also rule out pat solutions — as the authors write, “The primary cure for the elite-driven, mass media communicated information disorder we observe here is unlikely to be more fact checking on Facebook.”

In the lunatic events of the past few days — in which the president and many of his close aides have been diagnosed with COVID-19, reliable information about his health is hard to come by, and he’s tweeting “Don’t be afraid of COVID” to his 87 million followers while dramatically removing his mask for the cameras — we see similar dynamics playing out. Whatever the president says is news, no matter how far it strays from settled scientific fact; every utterance gets sustained mass media coverage, with the right-wing press spinning every new development to Trump’s advantage; and the mainstream journalistic instinct toward balance often results in deference to official statements, however suspect they might be.

These outcomes are all echoed, amplified, and distorted on social networks. But they do not always originate there.

III.

I don’t want to mislead you about my intended focus at Platformer. This is a publication about the technology industry during a turbulent time, and most days I’ll take a narrower focus on the day’s news. I’ll mostly leave to others the important tasks of good-faith media criticism and fact-checking the president.

But I am increasingly of the belief that if we want healthier tech platforms and a healthier information sphere, we can’t continue to write about either in total isolation. Social networks and the wider world both reflect and shape one another. I hope to do my part in holding platforms to account for their promises, and what they owe us. But there is much more that has been promised to us, and much more that we are owed.

As the historic next several weeks unfold, I hope we can keep all of that in mind.

Bonus Trump links: Twitter says you can’t wish the president dead (on Twitter). Here’s the latest misinformation about Trump’s diagnosis. Social networks are scrambling to direct users to accurate information about the president’s health. Trump is “a super-spreader of disinformation,” says Anne Applebaum.

Coming tomorrow: Instagram turns 10.

The Ratio

Today in news that could change public perception of the big tech companies.

🔃 Trending sideways: Amazon reported that nearly 20,000 of its employees have tested positive for COVID-19. That’s 1.44 percent of the total workforce, though it doesn’t include third party drivers. But it’s lower than the prevalence in the wider community, and Amazon deserves a small measure of credit for reporting this figure publicly.

🔃 Trending sideways: Twitter is working on a fix for its automated image cropping. Users had found numerous cases in which case Twitter seemed to favor light-skinned faces over others. (Karissa Bell / Engadget)

Governing

The top tech CEOs will testify before the Senate on October 28. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey are expected to address Section 230 reform, data privacy, and — just a guess here — wild conspiracy theories hatched in the fever swamps of the right. Here’s John Hendel at Politico:

Many Democrats want to revamp the tech industry's liability protections over a concern that the social media platforms aren't doing enough to crack down on hate speech and misinformation swirling through their popular networks. Several members of this Senate panel raised these concerns during Thursday's meeting and said they were eager to question tech CEOs. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the ranking member, has pledged to release Democrats report on what she calls "the value of local journalism and unfair competitive practices of tech platforms" ahead of the session.

Trump and his reelection campaign, meanwhile, have repeatedly sparred with the platforms over his claims about mail-in voting, which is likely to remain a pressure point in these immediate days before the election.

A 14-page document prepared by Facebook lays out the arguments it would make in the event that the US government seeks to break it up on antitrust grounds: “Facebook says unwinding the deals would be nearly impossible to achieve, forcing the company to spend billions of dollars maintaining separate systems, weakening security and harming users’ experience.” (Jeff Horwitz / Wall Street Journal)

Ten American states and Guam are now using exposure notification technology from the Apple-Google partnership, with New York and New Jersey releasing COVID-19 alert apps in the past week. (Kif Leswing / CNBC)

The Texas attorney general, who has been leading 50 states in an antitrust investigation of Google, now stands accused of improper influence, bribery, and and abuse of office. Top aides to Ken Paxton have requested a formal investigation. (Tony Plohetski and Chuck Lindell / Austin American Statesman)

An NPR investigation found no evidence of systematic bias against conservatives on Facebook. The report says Facebook could combat the false perception by being more “transparent,” but it’s not clear to me what data would change conservatives’ minds. They have every incentive to keep complaining forever. (Bobby Allyn / NPR)

A Facebook page called “Prepare to Take America Back” has nearly 800,000 followers, appears to be linked to the 3 Percenter militia, and “has been warning of a stolen election, and suggesting this will lead to civil war.” It appears to be run by a father-and-son duo who run a sprawling network of right-wing sites with heavy social-media presences. (Jason Wilson / Guardian)

The federal government is appealing a judge’s ruling that prevents it from banning WeChat. The judge ruled that the ban could violate the First Amendment. (David McCabe / New York Times)

Republicans and Democrats are now deeply divided on how to reform Section 230. The split happened after the Trump administration pressured Republicans to spend more time bashing tech companies ahead of the election. (Christopher Stern / The Information)

17 Republicans voted against condemning QAnon after a Democrat got death threats from its followers. Dark stuff here. (Sarah Mims / BuzzFeed)

As QAnon grew, Facebook and Twitter missed years of warning signs about the conspiracy theory’s violent nature. Platforms just didn’t see QAnon as a big deal, until suddenly it was. What are the lessons here? (Craig Timberg and Elizabeth Dwoskin / Washington Post)

Despite Twitter’s QAnon crackdown, more than 93,000 accounts linked to the movement remain active — and their rate of posting has increased. That’s according to new research from a nonpartisan group called Advance Democracy. Twitter says Q-related discussions have fallen by half. (Craig Timberg / Washington Post)

QAnon has begun spreading rapidly on LinkedIn as well. Hundreds of members have updated their profiles with Q-related phrases and acronyms; LinkedIn owner Microsoft says it will remove all traces of the conspiracy movement. (Stu Woo / Wall Street Journal)

There sure is a lot of QAnon stuff on Etsy. (Ryan Broderick / Garbage Day)

Joe Biden named a former Facebook employee as the general counsel of his transition team. Jessica Hertz worked on government regulations at the company, and her hiring drew criticism from watchdogs. (Alex Thompson and Theodoric Meyer / Politico)

England may have under-reported COVID-19 cases because so many people were infected that it broke the country’s Microsoft Excel spreadsheet devoted to tracking them. (Matt Brian / Engadget)

Industry

Twitter is building ‘Birdwatch,’ a system to fight misinformation by adding more context to tweets. The system will apparently allow users to flag bad tweets and allow Twitter to add short editorial notes to them. Highly interesting — I’ll be keeping a close eye on this one. (Sarah Perez / TechCrunch)

Google officially abandoned its Daydream virtual reality project. We know it’s working separately on augmented reality glasses, though. (Hagop Kavafian / Android Police)

In the wake of a talk that many listeners found to be anti-Semitic, Clubhouse announced its next steps to improve moderation. Notably, the company appears to be modeling itself on Reddit: Clubhouse will set a “floor” of rules, but individual “clubs” can “raise the ceiling” and set their own norms.

Amazon banned the practice of buying good reviews, but merchants have evaded enforcement by organizing in Facebook groups. Amazon arguably still promotes the practice by posting a public leaderboard of the people who have completed the most reviews, incentivizing reviews on a mass scale. (Zoe Schiffer / The Verge)

Facebook pushed back on the popular Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, arguing that it is sensationalistic and attempts to scapegoats social networks for broader societal issues. Here’s hoping for more movie reviews from Facebook. (And here’s the review itself.) (Todd Haselton and Jessica Bursztynsky / CNBC)

Instagram is adding shopping tools to Reels and IGTV. If it helps creators make money, I’m all for it. (Karissa Bell / Engadget)

Insiders say TikTok rival Triller reported monthly active users that were 5 times higher than what some internal metrics showed. “In August, Triller threatened to sue a third-party app-analytics company, Apptopia, after it provided estimates of Triller's app downloads that contradicted the company's publicly reported numbers.” Red flags as far as the eye can see here. (Dan Whateley / Business Insider)

Gay couples are posting pictures on Twitter under the hashtag #ProudBoys to disrupt discussions of the far-right group with the same name. (Jaclyn Peiser / Washington Post)

A security flaw in Grindr let anyone easily hijack user accounts. It could be used by anyone who knew a user’s registered email address, offering disturbingly easy access to the personal data of users on the hookup app. (Zack Whittaker / TechCrunch)

Things to do

Stuff to occupy you online during quarantine

Watch a panel about China and the rise of digital authoritarianism that I moderated on Thursday. I learned a lot from this interview with Alex Stamos of the Stanford Internet Observatory, Megha Rajagopalan of BuzzFeed, and Mary Hui of Quartz.

Those good tweets

Talk to me

Send me tips, comments, questions, and feedback on issue No. 1: casey@platformer.news.