We don’t know what chaos will unfold on and after Nov. 3, when voting ends in an election whose legitimacy the president is already trying to undermine. But it’s a good bet some of it will unfold on Facebook.
In 2016, domestic misinformation and Russian disinformation ran wild on the platform, and we didn’t comprehend the extent of it until months, and in some cases years, later. It wasn’t until this year that Facebook removed ads from the Trump campaign—it took the inclusion of an actual Nazi symbol—and updated its policies to try to prevent the president from lying about voting on the social network.
Election Day and its aftermath are when we’ll see what Facebook’s efforts are worth. On Tuesday Nick Clegg, the company’s head of global affairs, began outlining to journalists how the platform might handle election-related bedlam on the platform. In preparation, Facebook has reportedly conceived of about 70 scenarios for when the results begin to come in that range from the uneventful to the downright anarchic. The plans draw from what Facebook has witnessed in 200 elections around the world in the last four years. Though the company has generally been cagey about what scenarios it’s preparing for and the moderation measures it’s considering for fear that bad actors could use the info to game the system, Clegg did signal that moderators are looking at misinformation around voting and incitements to violence.
Some of the descriptions sound significant, but vague. As Clegg told USAToday, “We have developed break-glass tools which do allow us to—if for a temporary period of time—effectively throw a blanket over a lot of content that would freely circulate on our platforms in order to play our role as responsibly as we can to prevent that content, wittingly or otherwise, from aiding and abetting those who want to continue with the violence and civil strife that we’re seeing on the ground.” He added, however, that there would have to be a “highly worrisome and abnormal situation” before the platform would do so. Facebook did not respond to Slate’s inquiry seeking more detail on the scenarios it was anticipating.
With the coronavirus upending how the U.S. typically conducts elections and forcing many to rely on mail-in voting, there will likely be more opportunities for bad actors to sow doubt about the results—something that the Trump campaign, in its various lawsuits over state mail-in voting processes, is already trying to do. Clegg told outlets that Facebook is specifically looking at the possibility that in-person ballots, which could skew Republican, will be counted much more quickly than mailed ballots, which could skew Democratic. If that happens, it’s possible that President Trump will try to declare victory on Facebook and elsewhere before all the votes are in. Clegg, echoing what CEO Mark Zuckerberg previously announced at the beginning of the month, said that Facebook would place a label on top of a premature victory post notifying users that the outcome is still up in the air and directing them to an official results page.
It’s hard to imagine conscientious labelling achieving much in a constitutional crisis, but aside from taking such a post down, which would be an unprecedented step, it’s not clear what else Facebook could do. “This [labeling of posts] is probably the only position that they could take here, because the decision on what it means to declare victory is going to be tough,” said Sinan Aral, an MIT professor and author of the book The Hype Machine: How Social Media Disrupts Our Elections, Our Economy, and Our Health – and How We Must Adapt. For instance, Aral posits a scenario in which a candidate writes something along the lines of “everything we’ve seen so far indicates that I’m the winner,” even though not all the votes are in, which would be a difficult edge case in which labeling might make more sense that taking the post down. Aral said, “In that moment you need to hear from these two candidates. To muzzle Joe Biden and Donald Trump in the moments that the election is happening also has its costs.”
Clegg also addressed the possibility that the election could fuel street-level violence. The company is facing pressure to prepare such a scenario as it’s come under fire for failing to remove an event page that encouraged people to take up arms amid civil unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shortly before Kyle Rittenhouse fatally shot two people there in August. Clegg again has declined to say what exactly Facebook would do in the face of an eruption of violence, but he did point to the company’s response during India’s election last year when fake accounts and hate speech were running rampant on the platform. Among other things, the platform placed a limit on how many times a user could share a message in order to stem the spread of misinformation. (Facebook nonetheless faced accusations from India’s lawmakers that it resisted removing hate speech spouted by a member of the country’s ruling party.)
One issue is that incitements to violence wouldn’t be contained to public posts and pages. “Limiting sharing is definitely something that they should think about, but also Facebook is so much more than that. It’s these private groups; it’s these chats,” said Jessica Feezell, a University of New Mexico professor who studies social media’s impact on politics. “How would people coordinate violence? It would probably start in private groups.” She added that Facebook, which also includes WhatsApp and Instagram, has in the past been too late to quell violence, particularly in Myanmar, and is skeptical that it will be quick enough to pull the trigger on countermeasures that would prevent such incidents during the U.S. election.
It’s a bit difficult to determine just how equipped Facebook is for a potentially tumultuous election scenario given how close to the vest it’s been with its preparations. Feezell said she understands Facebook’s concerns about tipping its hand to bad actors, but worries that this ends up leaving the public to just hope that it’ll do the right thing. “What they’re relying on is for people to trust that they have it handled,” she said. “Without full information, all we have to go on is trust, and their record doesn’t make me very likely to trust them in these scenarios.”