The Media Today

What does a Joe Biden presidency mean for tech?

November 12, 2020

While Donald Trump does his best to muddy the election waters with lawsuits alleging non-existent voting fraud and other nefarious behavior, pragmatists in a number of fields are busy preparing for a Biden presidency, and trying to anticipate what to expect from his administration in terms of regulation. For the technology industry, one of the big questions is whether Biden will pursue the same kind of anti-tech agenda that Trump did. Will the new administration, for example, feel the same about revising Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects the digital platforms from liability for content that is posted by their users? Will the new administration keep pushing  for antitrust regulators to go after Google, Facebook, and Amazon for their alleged anti-competitive behavior?. Or will it take a more tech-friendly approach?

The Trumpian animosity towards Section 230 was driven in large part by conservative fear-mongering which alleged censorship of right-wing views and users by Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Studies have shown this kind of censorship doesn’t exist. Early in his presidency, Trump argued that Twitter was deliberately preventing him from gaining more followers, and a number of congressional hearings on the social media platforms were hijacked by accusations that Facebook and YouTube were reducing the reach of conservative personalities like the duo known as Diamond & Silk. Many tech observers believe that this kind of attention led to Facebook in particular making extraordinary efforts  to placate the Trump administration. In one incident, policy director and former Republican operative Joel Kaplan convinced Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg not to crack down on disinformation because he was afraid it would hit conservative news sources hardest.

Biden  has spoken out against Section 230, and his concerns seem to be driven by the idea that the platforms distribute disinformation and then face no penalties for doing so. “Section 230 should be revoked, immediately,” Biden said last year, adding that Facebook and the other platforms are “propagating falsehoods.” The idea that the major digital companies should do more to stop disinformation isn’t controversial: a number of experts CJR spoke to as part of an interview series using our Galley discussion platform said they believe Section 230’s protections could be amended in some cases, as a way of forcing the platforms to take action. How exactly that might happen remains to be seen.

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A number of political tea-leaf readers expect the Department of Justice case against Google to continue under a Biden presidency, if only because there appears to be fairly broad support for it across both political parties, and the case is narrowly focused from a legal standpoint. When it comes to more aggressive moves against either Google, Facebook, Amazon, or Apple on the antitrust front — such as a breakup of one or more of the platforms — the future is a lot less certain. Biden has spoken out against the power wielded by the platforms, but it’s not clear whether he would go so far as to pursue a breakup, or whether he could gain enough support for such a move even if he did. A recent congressional report on antitrust recommended what it called “structural remedies,” but a number of top Republicans said while they agreed with the general thrust of the report, they disagreed with some of the more aggressive proposals.

There are signs of some friendly ties emerging between a Biden administration and the tech industry: Biden has hired a former associate general counsel at Facebook and a former Apple vice-president for government affairs for his transition team, and former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt — who has been a big fundraiser for Biden — is rumored to be in the running to head a new White House technology industry task force. Vice president-elect Kamala Harris has been supported by Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and Salesforce founder Marc Benioff. But despite these connections, a spokesman for the Biden campaign told the New York Times that “many technology giants and their executives have not only abused their power, but misled the American people, damaged our democracy and evaded any form of responsibility.” What sort of solution Biden has in mind is unknown.

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Here’s more on the tech platforms:

  • Ban extended: Both Facebook and Google have said they are extending their bans on political advertisements for another several weeks, to prevent any confusion about the outcome of the election as some Republicans, including the president, continue to make unfounded accusations of voter fraud. Facebook told advertisers it is continuing to “temporarily pause” all ads on social issues, electoral or political ads for another month, and that this move is “part of our ongoing efforts to protect the election.” Critics of these policies argue that users and campaigns can still engage in disinformation from personal accounts, since the only thing affected by the ban is advertising.
  • YouTube hands off: While both Twitter and Facebook have taken steps to label and even remove tweets or block accounts that are distributing disinformation, YouTube is much more lax in its approach, according to a report by Vice. If you post election disinformation on the site, Vice says, “the video will not be taken down, even if it includes multiple false claims. A small fact-checking label may be applied and the video probably won’t be promoted in YouTube’s recommendations or search results. But the video will remain on the platform and it can still be monetized.”
  • Parler rises: A report from The Verge says that conservative angst over Trump’s loss has resulted in a flood of downloads for Parler, a conservative social network founded as an ideological alternative to Facebook and Twitter. According to data from a company that tracks app downloads, Parler’s app saw almost a million downloads between election day on November 3 and November 8, with more than half of those on the weekend following the election. It has gone from being below 400 on the most-popular app list to number one on both iOS and Android.


Other notable stories:

  • The New Yorker has fired staff writer Jeffrey Toobin after a weeks-long investigation into an incident in which he exposed himself during a video call with colleagues, which he said was inadvertent. “I am writing to share with you that our investigation regarding Jeffrey Toobin is complete, and as a result, he is no longer affiliated with our company,” Conde Nast executive Stan Duncan said in an email to employees that was obtained by The Daily Beast. The magazine suspended Toobin in mid-October.
  • A postal worker who said a supervisor ordered postal employees in Erie, Pennsylvania to back-date ballots mailed after election day — accusations that were referred to by Sen. Lindsay Graham in a letter to the Justice Department calling for an investigation into ballot tampering — has recanted his story, according to the Washington Post. Richard Hopkins signed an affidavit saying the accusations were untrue, but he has since recorded a YouTube video denying that he recanted.
  • The New York Times writes about how some of the central actors in the QAnon conspiracy theory universe have gone quiet since the election, raising questions within the community about the accuracy of its claims that Trump was going to emerge victorious against the operatives of the “deep state.” The paper says that “no posts from the account bearing Q’s tripcode, or digital user name, have appeared on 8kun [formerly 8chan], the website where all of Q’s posts appear. And overall QAnon-related activity on the site has slowed to a trickle.”
  • British TV news channels should no longer be required to meet impartiality standards, according to former BBC chairman Michael Grade, a member of a panel advising ministers on the future of public broadcasting. Lord Grade said it was an “anomaly” that the UK still required broadcasters to meet impartiality rules. “I don’t see why the Daily Mail shouldn’t have its own news channel with its point of view, or the Financial Times, or the Mirror, or the Sun,” he said. “Do we still need licensed news providers? It’s a bit odd. That seems like a relic of a bygone patrician age.”
  • In an announcement that gave rise to a thousand “future of journalism” puns, BuzzFeed is launching its own branded line of sex toys, according to a report in Digiday. It will be selling a vibrator called the BuzzFeed AirVibe.
  • CJR’s Savannah Jacobson talks with Matthew Desmond, a sociologist at Princeton University, where he also founded and runs the Eviction Lab, and a contributor to the New York Times Magazine. As Jacobson notes, Desmond has long warned of an eviction crisis in the United States, one whose dynamics COVID-19 has exacerbated. He is the author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, a case study of the American eviction crisis set in Milwaukee amid the financial crisis of 2008.
  • A new episode of Gimlet’s podcast “Resistance,” hosted by Sierra Leonean poet, producer, and storyteller Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr., focuses on the recent #EndSARS movement in Nigeria, from the perspective of the activists on the ground in Lagos. The episode premiered on Wednesday and is the first of the series to spotlight stories of resistance from outside of the US. It features interviews with a number of young activists including Adaeze Fèyísàyò, a 24-year-old queer activist who set up a safe house in Lagos for queer people facing persecution.
  • Gabriel Escobar, a longtime journalist who has served as editor and vice president of The Philadelphia Inquirer since 2017, has been named executive editor. Escobar is a former foreign correspondent who has been a driving force in the paper’s digital-first strategy and award-winning investigations. He joined The Inquirer in 2007 and has served as metropolitan editor, assistant managing editor, and managing editor. He takes over the position left vacant when Executive Editor Stan Wischnowski resigned in June.
  • In 2016, Donald Trump was widely rumored to be considering starting his own TV network or media operation if he had lost the election. But his doing so now is unlikely according to one analysis in the Los Angeles Times. Launching a cable network with Trump’s name “would be a difficult climb in the TV landscape, where consumers have shifted away from pay TV subscriptions,” the paper says. “As the universe of traditional pay TV customers slowly but steadily diminishes, getting operators to pay a license fee to carry a new channel would be a major challenge.”

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.