Elon Musk May Turn the Digital Town Square into a Colosseum
The world’s richest man could use Twitter to radically disrupt politics
Ten years ago, Google did something unprecedented for a giant tech company. It blacked out the landing page for search and replaced it with a call to action, urging people to email their elected representatives in Congress to stop legislation that Google feared would break the internet. It was part of a much bigger day of action against the Stop Online Privacy Act and the Protect IP Act (SOPA/PIPA) that thousands of websites and organizations participated in, which ultimately resulted in an estimated 15 million calls, faxes and emails that melted down Congressional offices on both sides of the aisle and led to the quick withdrawal of the flawed legislation. Google alone channeled somewhere between two and three million of those email messages.
Since 2008, Facebook has been nudging its users to go vote, mainly by giving them a button to click showing that they’re voting and then showing that to their friends. A study by its research scientists revealed that in 2010, the “I’m Voting” button generated sufficient peer pressure to induce voter turnout up by more than half of one percent compared to the previous mid-term elections. In 2012, as I reported for Mother Jones, the company’s researchers experimented with increasing how much “hard news” its prioritized on the news feeds of nearly two million American adults, finding that 67% of the people in this group reported voting that fall, compared to just 64% in a control group who weren’t shown more hard news.
Ever since tech collided with politics, a handful of us have worried that companies with giant platforms might use their ability to directly engage millions of users at once to tilt the political process to their personal benefit. For the most part, the companies have been relatively restrained in using their platform power. After the SOPA/PIPA fight was over, Google did nothing with the email list it had suddenly accumulated, even though those two or three million people could have been converted into a grassroots lobby for internet freedom. For years, Facebook tried to keep itself neutral in the political arena (even though its “I’m Voting” button undoubtedly tipped Democratic turnout more, since its…