The year that changed the Internet

As platforms grow more comfortable with their power, they are recognizing that they have options beyond taking posts down or leaving them up. In addition to warning labels, Facebook implemented other “break glass” measures to stem misinformation as the election approached. It tweaked its algorithm to boost authoritative sources in the news feed and turned off recommendations to join groups based around political or social issues. Facebook is reversing some of these steps now, but it cannot make people forget this toolbox exists in the future. Twitter is keeping, and even expanding, a number of election-related changes meant to encourage more thoughtful sharing. Even before the pandemic, YouTube had begun adjusting its recommendation algorithm to reduce the spread of borderline and harmful content, and is introducing pop-up nudges to encourage users to think before posting comments that might be offensive.

U.S.-based platforms have long been even more likely to neglect the by-products of their presence in global markets. But that trend also began to reverse in 2020. Twitter removed tweets from Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro for violating its COVID-19 policies. Facebook rolled out a suite of election-specific policies in Myanmar for its election, including labeling disputed claims of voting fraud. (It turns out that expressing frustration in all caps at being labeled is a reaction that crosses cultures.) In early December, Twitter put a warning label for the first time on a tweet of a prominent Indian politician whom BuzzFeed described as “notorious for posting misinformation.” The bar is low enough that steps like these can be considered progress.

Platforms don’t deserve praise for belatedly noticing dumpster fires that they helped create and affixing unobtrusive labels to them. Social-media companies still devote far too little attention and resources to markets outside the United States and languages other than English.