Social Media Platforms vs. Democracy

My parents have always passionately followed politics. Ever since I can remember, car rides and early mornings were marked by the smooth, sweet sound of NPR.


Any large family gatherings were spent discussing politics and getting in fiery debates. All this to say: Election Day was incredibly important in my family. Us kids would go the polls with my parents, crawl under all the empty booths, and collect as many “I voted” stickers as possible. Election night was like a mini-holiday: we were allowed to stay up late, and we would watch TV with commercials (!), rather than our usual PBS Kids channel. If you aren’t rolling your eyes yet, I am incredibly impressed—when they talk about “bleeding liberals” on Fox, I think my family fits that bill. Just wait until you hear about our menu on election nights.


The 2000 election of George W. Bush vs. Al Gore is forever burned in my memory. Going into an incredibly tight race, it was all my parents had been talking about for weeks. That night we cooked a “blue” meal (cornbread made with blue cornmeal and blueberry pie to mention just a few), and my parents were white-knuckled as we watched the TV. And then the networks announced two winners.

This context is extremely important, and the resulting dictation that came down from Congress is vital to understanding what is going on right now in Congress’ hearings with Facebook, Google and Twitter. In a strange way, both incidents (the early calling of the 2000 election by news channels and the outsized influence Google, Facebook, etc. had in the coverage of the 2016 election) follow a parallel path.

News Outlets Appear Before Congress

The 2000 election came down to the state of Florida, where less than 1,000 votes separated Bush from Gore. Before the Florida polls closed, various news outlets declared the state won by Gore. As exit polls results and actual vote counts were reconciled, the winner was changed from Gore to Bush. And then to “too close to call.” The Voter News Service (VNS) caused the faulty counting. The now defunct organization, created in 1990 by six media companies (ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News, NBC, and the Associated Press), was intended to aid in the reporting of exit-poll numbers during national elections.

There were many claims that the early calling in Florida swayed voting still underway in western states, and at the very least added to the general confusion of that night. Because of this outsized influence, in 2001 the major networks testified before Congress to answer questions about their failure on Election Day to call the state correctly. David Westin (President, ABC), Andrew Heyward (President, CBS), Tom Johnson (CEO, CNN), Roger Ailes (CEO, Fox News), Andrew Lack (President, NBC), and Louis Boccardi (CEO, AP), all conceded their mistakes, and as Roger Ailes said “We let our views down…it will not happen again.” The public airing of grievances before Congress led to sweeping internal investigations at the networks, and ultimately disbanding the Voter News Service.

Facebook, Google and Twitter Appear Before Congress

On Tuesday, Facebook, Google and Twitter sent representatives to appear before the Senate to testify and speak to Russian influence in the 2016 election through the use of their platforms. For two days, Congress showed samples of ads purchased by Russian actors that were aimed at deepening the political divide between the American public. Additionally, they showed Russian-created accounts of the same nature, meant to further divisiveness on particular political issues (while posing as American institutions).


Ad created by a Russian-linked account.

There was considerable anger and frustration displayed on both sides of the aisle for a number of reasons, not the least of which was Facebook, Google and Twitter’s failure to send chief executives to testify. There was also anger over the companies delayed response to acknowledge Russian influence on their sites. Many senators also were frustrated by the lack of insight provided by these tech companies into why these actions were allowed to transpire.


Another ad linked back to a Russian account

There was no official outcome of the hearings, besides a promise by the three company representatives, and a threat of potential legislation by the Senators. The lawyers representing Facebook, Google and Twitter, promised to improve their security and technology to prevent foreign interference in future elections. But, as they stated in front of Congress, they couldn’t guarantee that they would be able to prevent or detect all misinformation attempts. The legislation being considered would create restrictions on the companies operations, and specifically political advertising. As Senator Dianne Feinstein (Democrat, CA) stated: “You’ve created these platforms. And now they are being misused. And you have to be the ones to do something about it. Or we will.”

Why it is Useful to Compare to Bush vs. Gore

Pressure from Congress directly resulted in a change of business practices among six media giants. Thus far, the timeline of events has rolled out very similarly to the 2000 election. In this case, however, the lines are blurrier. Now the topic is social media platforms and influence of an election by a foreign state. Where does the blame lay, and with whom? During the congressional hearings, Google insisted that it was not a social network, attempting to remove itself from a large swath of the blame. But does a title actually matter, if the results (i.e. users being influenced by material posted on the platform) are the same? Have the Silicon Valley platforms been duly reprimanded, so that actual change will occur (like during 2001)? Zuckerberg at least has promised to make serious investments in security(LINK HERE). If legislation does end up being created, how is the whole swath of Internet that these companies cover ever going to be able to be regulated?









  1. Nice post! I think the younger elements of the class don’t probably fully appreciate the chaos of 2000. I do wonder how the 2016 election will shape the use of social media in elections. As I have noted before, though, each new cycle has been significantly different from the past, such that I’m fairly confident that 2020 won’t be a repeat of 2016 – even without intervention. I certainly can’t predict what that difference will be, though.

  2. chloeshepard18 · ·

    This reminds me of when Professor Chang talked about how it’s difficult for the law to catch up to tech companies. It’s so difficult now to pinpoint exactly which industry a company is in, as Google is doing right now. They’re using this loophole of “not being a social media company” to get out of this mess. But, like you said, it really doesn’t matter what industry their in, Google was still involved and should face the same repercussions as Facebook.

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