On Election Day, Facebook and Twitter Did Better by Making Their Products Worse

Nowhere was this shift more apparent than at Facebook, which for years envisioned itself as a kind of post-human communication platform. Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s chief executive, often spoke about his philosophy of “frictionless” design — making things as easy as possible for users. Other executives I talked to seemed to believe that ultimately, Facebook would become a kind of self-policing machine, with artificial intelligence doing most of the dirty work and humans intervening as little as possible.

But in the lead-up to the 2020 election, Facebook went in the opposite direction. It put in place a new, cumbersome approval process for political advertisers, and blocked new political ads in the period after Election Day. It throttled false claims, and put in place a “virality circuit-breaker” to give fact-checkers time to evaluate suspicious stories. And it temporarily shut off its recommendation algorithm for certain types of private groups, to lessen the possibility of violent unrest. (On Thursday, The New York Times reported that the company was taking other temporary measures to tamp down election-related misinformation, including adding more friction to the process of sharing posts.)

All of these changes may, in fact, make Facebook safer. But they also involve dialing back the very features that have powered the platform’s growth for years. It’s a telling act of self-awareness, as if Ferrari had realized that it could only stop its cars from crashing by replacing the engines with go-kart motors.

“If you look at Facebook’s election response, it was essentially to point a lot of traffic and attention to these hubs that were curated by people,” said Eli Pariser, a longtime media executive and activist who is working on Civic Signals, a new project that is trying to reimagine social media as a public space. “That’s an indication that ultimately, when you have information that’s really important, there’s no substitute for human judgment.”

Twitter, another platform that for years tried to make communication as frictionless as possible, spent much of the past four years trying to pump the brakes. It brought in more moderators, revamped its rules, and put more human oversight on features like Trending Topics. In the months leading up to the election, it banned political ads, and disabled sharing features on tweets containing misleading information about election results, including some from the president’s account.