Pattern Matching

What Social Media Companies Have Fixed Since the 2016 Election

And a few things they haven’t

Will Oremus
OneZero
Published in
9 min readOct 31, 2020

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Photo: NurPhoto/Getty Images

In 2016, everyone from Russian agents to British political consultants to Macedonian teenagers to randos in the American suburbs used social platforms with impunity to spread misinformation ahead of the U.S. presidential election. Much of it favored Trump, who pulled off a stunning upset victory.

Just how much influence those campaigns had on the outcome has never been established, and probably never will be. There is at least some research to suggest that Russian trolls, for instance, are not particularly effective at changing Americans’ political opinions. Still, it was widely agreed in the aftermath (though not by Trump) that the platforms had been far too easily exploited for the purpose of election interference, and that their dynamics had favored hoaxes and hyperpartisanship over reliable information sources.

On the eve of the next U.S. presidential election, it is fair to say that the platforms have come a long way in acknowledging and taking steps to address the most blatant of those abuses. What isn’t yet clear is how much of a difference those steps will make.

The Pattern

Social media companies are fully prepared for this moment… right?

  • It’s almost hard to believe now, but the last time the United States elected a president, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube had essentially no policies on misinformation, conspiracy theories, or foreign election interference. Now, all the major platforms have such policies — but they are constantly evolving, inconsistently applied, and often hotly contested, both on the national stage and within the companies themselves. Together they amount to a convoluted patchwork in which the same post, ad, or user might be banned on one platform, slapped with a warning label on another, and fully permitted on a third.
  • When it comes to political speech, social platforms have gone from being essentially anarchies to something more like a Wild West. There are laws now, and there are sheriffs, but outlaws and banditry still abound. Perhaps the most effective changes, relatively speaking, have been the companies’ approaches to foreign…

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