Around here we’re generally most interested in the push and pull between platforms and governments. But everything the platforms are working on right now, from exposure notification to symptom tracking and expanded testing, is downstream of federal inaction. And meanwhile, many basic questions about COVID-19 — how it works, how it spreads — are not fully or even mostly understood
And so … would anyone object to me changing the subject? Here are three other storylines I’m following as they work their way through the big tech platforms and our democracy.
One, how’s Joe Biden doing?
The presumptive Democratic nominee has had a bruising week
, vehemently denying Tara Reade’s allegations of sexual harassment. And elsewhere, reporters are digging into the question of how a candidate should campaign in 2020. The answer would seem to be: digitally. But what does that mean?
“Empathy is just as good at getting engagement,” Biden’s digital director Rob Flaherty said in an interview. “The suburban Facebook empathy moms that we think about a lot, those folks are just hungry for the contrast between the darkness of Donald Trump and the goodness of Joe Biden.”
Flaherty added that “if we did what the algorithms told us what to do all the time, it would be punching Trump in the face.” While “that will always be part of the toolkit,” a negative-first approach wouldn’t create the stan culture
— or avid following — that campaigns need to develop. “The way you win online in 2020 is [by] building enthusiasm and enthusiastic online communities that talk to and bring people in.” The campaign argued the approach is beginning to work. Views across platforms have about doubled since February, rising from 27.4 million to 61.7 million in March and 51.1 million in April.
In the New York Times
, David Axelrod and David Plouffe, former senior strategist and campaign manager for Barack Obama, lay out a blueprint for Biden
that includes recruiting more platform-savvy Democratic stars as surrogates, creating a “virtual content production studio” with programming for every social platform, and planning for an online convention.
Two, should Facebook and Google fund the news business? Journalism has been in crisis for some time now, and the pandemic has made it worse. This is particularly true for local newspapers, which have seen advertising revenue plummet. And with much of the advertising business having migrated from newspapers to the Google/Facebook duopoly, a growing number of countries have sought to tax the latter to support the former.
Facebook may have an even stronger argument against a scheme that would force it to pay for linking to publishers’ content. That’s because their articles are posted to the News Feed by users — including the publishers themselves — rather than being surfaced automatically by Facebook’s software. When France tried to require it to pay publishers to show previews of their articles in the News Feed, it simply stopped showing them
unless the publisher agreed to waive the fee. Otherwise, when a user posted a link to that publication, Facebook would only show the URL with no accompanying headline or image. Again, that might hurt news organizations more than it hurts Facebook, whose primary appeal is not news but the social connections between its users.
Oremus suggests that governments explore models that would tax big tech platforms to fund public and nonprofit media, which we desperately need more of. And on Twitter, Fortune
’s Jeff John Roberts offers another suggestion I love
: “Google could provide an immense boost to news media if they built a one-click pay/subscribe button into Chrome, which would eliminate a huge amount of friction for readers.”
Google and Facebook get outsized benefits from the mostly free-to-them contributions of journalists, and some form of taxation to keep journalism in live strikes me as being in everyone’s best interest. And one-click subscriptions could go a long way to help, too.
Finally: can Twitter encourage us to be nicer online? More than two years ago
, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced that he was going to work to make the service nicer. “We’re committing Twitter to help increase the collective health, openness, and civility of public conversation, and to hold ourselves publicly accountable towards progress,” he tweeted.
History will probably not remember the period that followed as a turning point for public conversation. Twitter did take several steps to reduce harassment and make it easier to report bad actors, but it’s not clear that the median interaction between Twitter users is measurably more positive than it was before.
On Tuesday, Twitter announced a test designed to help: if you attempt to reply to a tweet using “harmful” language, the company will ask you if you’re sure you want to do that. Nick Statt wrote about it at The Verge
Twitter describes it as a limited experiment, and it’s only going to show up for iOS users. The prompt that is now supposed to pop up in certain situations will give “you the option to revise your reply before it’s published if it uses language that could be harmful,” reads a message from the official Twitter Support channel.
The approach isn’t a novel one. It’s been used by quite a few other social platforms before, most prominently Instagram
. The Facebook-owned app now warns users before they post a caption with a message that says the caption “looks similar to others that have been reported.” Prior to that change, Instagram rolled out a warning system for comments
I frequently write really mean tweets in the composer just to see how they look, and then delete them without tweeting, and find the process hugely cathartic. Building this feature into the system feels like a win, even if it puts us in the position of relying on an algorithm’s judgment once again. But it seems to be working well enough for Instagram — the company saw “positive results” from its own anti-bullying algorithms for comments last year, the company told me today, which led to it rolling out a similar feature for mean captions in December.