Platforms' Election 'Fixes' Are Rooted in Flawed Philosophy

Three and a half years ago, as the country came to understand the outsize role of social media manipulation in electing Donald Trump, you might have imagined that by the next time around the major platforms would have profoundly changed the way politics is conducted online and come to grips with essential design flaws. Instead, 50 days before Election Day, they have devised what amounts to a series of patches and fixes to a buggy operating system, not vital safeguards to our democracy. At Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg announced no fewer than 10 different election-related fixes, including a ban on campaigns introducing new ads the week before Election Day and adding election officials to a category of “high-risk people” needing protection from online intimidation. Google, for its part, said on Thursday that it would turn off the autocomplete feature when its search engine looked up election issues because its suggestions often repeat false information or political bias . That same day, Twitter announced that it would label, play down, or remove election-related material that fit its categories of distortion and disinformation. YouTube had already rolled out a series of correctives concerning elections, including pledging to remove any material that contains hacked information about a political candidate or material “encouraging others to interfere with democratic processes.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren, among the most prominent critics of Silicon Valley on Capitol Hill, quickly pointed out the inadequacy of Zuckerberg’s proposals in a tweet: “Not enough. Facebook has repeatedly fumbled its responsibility to protect our democracy. Now the stakes are higher than ever—and they need to do more than make small, performative tweaks.”Warren’s point is clear: We need nothing less than commitments from these platforms that they will rid themselves of bad actors intent on disrupting free and fair elections. But the big tech companies are constitutionally incapable of providing such fundamental guarantees—and this is by design. They are in the business of providing small corrections, quickly assessed and likely quickly corrected yet again. They do this not to evade responsibility, but because this is their time-tested way of adapting to fast-changing circumstances.

This approach represents the “move fast” part of Facebook’s much-derided philosophy of “move fast and break things,” which, despite the company’s public disavowal over the years, remains at the heart of how it and its peers operate. In this moment of political crisis, however, when the algorithms have been proven to impact behaviors beyond the digital realm, the smallness of such a vision is proving a tragic weakness of these celebrated companies. Their broken code may be repairable, but the damage it does to the real world is not.

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Subscribe to WIRED and stay smart with more of your favorite Ideas writers.The notorious motto’s roots go deeper than the walls of Facebook in its early days. Recently, as I was trying to understand why Zuckerberg’s response to election abuse seemed so hyperactive yet so inadequate, a programmer friend sent me to an essay from the early 1990s about coding best practices by Richard P. Gabriel called “Worse Is Better,” which influenced Facebook’s early thinking. Gabriel knew that his title was absurd—and he later recanted it through an essay he wrote under a pen name with the equally absurd title “Worse Is Better Is Worse”—but there is an insight in that original essay that Silicon Valley leaders, often with a background in coding, took to heart, and haven’t seemed to let go of.In his original essay, Gabriel argues that code, rather than aspiring to be perfect or elegant, should be simple to install and apply universally so that it can spread like a virus, a term that he explicitly uses. The shift from the so-called perfectionism of traditional programming would be subtle. Gabriel advises trying to be “correct in all observable aspects,” but cautions that “it is slightly better to be simple than correct.”