How 2020 Changed the Internet

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In this lengthy (and nonetheless ongoing) election season in America, there are two issues I’ve discovered about the web firms via which many people expertise the world.

First, Facebook, Google and the relaxation have reluctantly embraced their function as our gatekeepers to info, and there’s doubtless no going again. Second, a lot about how these gatekeepers train their energy stays unknown to the remainder of us.

In the early hours on Wednesday, the factor occurred that many individuals had been warning about: President Trump made unfounded claims that the election was being stolen from him, and he falsely declared victory earlier than all of Americans’ votes had been counted.

Twitter and Facebook comparatively rapidly utilized warning labels to posts from Mr. Trump together with his false claims, as the firms mentioned they’d, so as to add context and keep away from amplifying his message. They did this with different voting-related on-line misinformation, too.

How they dealt with the president’s claims confirmed how a lot America’s web firms have modified in the final yr or extra. Slowly, inconsistently and sometimes reluctantly, they’ve carried out extra to stop individuals from utilizing their web properties to blare info that may mislead or hurt others.

To the people who find themselves upset that Facebook, Twitter or Google are intervening in what occurs on-line, and even name it “censorship,” let me say: Yup.

The functioning of the net as we all know it has all the time been a results of firms’ continually altering decisions to place their thumbs on the scale. Nothing occurs by likelihood.

The web powers have determined what search end result seems first, that Aunt Shirley’s baking images ought to be at the prime of your Facebook feed and that spam received’t attain your e-mail inbox. The web provides everybody a voice, however the web firms resolve which voices get heard and prioritized.

What has modified is that these zillions of largely invisible choices have change into seen with some excessive profile interventions, like these labels on Mr. Trump and the deletion of misleading health information about the coronavirus. Those measures might be temporary, but the internet companies will find it hard to retreat to a place where they pretend that they give equal weight to all the information in the world.

The obvious hands-on interventions have enabled more people to notice the invisible ones, too.

To that I say, thank goodness. Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Google, TikTok, Twitter and more are intermediaries to what we know and understand about our friends, communities and the world around us.

This is helpful in many ways and also terrifying, because we still have little idea how these intermediaries work or how our beliefs and behaviors are being shaped by those invisible internet choices on our screens. By design, how they work is shrouded in mystery.

Only Facebook knows something as basic as what articles or other information get seen most on its site. YouTube can reprogram its computers and give different people or channels more attention without us being aware of it. This is not necessarily censorship or something else nefarious. YouTube is acting as a gatekeeper. Important decisions go through it.

The current scenario in the United States — a close presidential election with perhaps days before we know the outcome — is a mismatch for human impatience and internet information in which attention-grabbing falsehoods often travel faster than nuanced and boring truth. There will be so much nonsense on the internet in the next few days, and the online superpowers will probably do a lot wrong.

One good thing about this year is that the internet companies and those of us who rely on them have dispensed with the fiction that what we experience online is “neutral” or happens by chance. The first step is admitting it.

My job is to write a technology newsletter, but I am also a human being. I just noticed there was so much tension in my shoulders that they were scrunched right up to my ears. Maybe you are feeling the same.

Whitney Phillips, the expert in online information who was featured in Monday’s newsletter, also shared some wisdom on how we can maintain ease in times like this when we’re waiting on many results from Tuesday’s election. She suggests the following:

Take a minute and sketch out some responses to the following questions:

  • What kinds of things calm you down when you feel stressed?

  • Who are the most grounding and supportive people in your life?

  • What are your “chicken soup” shows — the entertainment that soothes your soul?

Now sketch some responses to the following:

What specific plans can you make to do those calming things? For example, identify a few times you can set aside for chicken soup shows with no other screens or discussions.

What are concrete ways you can minimize contact with stressful people in your life? Perhaps give yourself permission not to respond to messages or make up an excuse to get out of social situations that give you anxiety.

What are some ways you can maximize contact with supportive people in your life? Could you create a group thread for support throughout the week, or keep Zoom open during key moments to feel connected to others?

What kind of treat or reward might make you feel happy?

Another thing to reflect on:

What are the behaviors or feelings that precede feelings of anxiety or depression? It takes practice to identify what they are, but once you’re able to notice that you’re heading to a panicked place, you can engage in any one of the above ideas, meditation or yoga, or go for a walk.

  • A big threat averted for Uber and Lyft: California voters on Tuesday approved a ballot measure that allows gig economy companies like Uber and Lyft to continue treating drivers as independent contractors. My colleague Kate Conger writes that Uber and similar companies are now expected to pursue federal legislation to preserve contractor status elsewhere in the United States for millions of app company workers.

  • A complicated use of facial recognition software: To identify someone accused of assaulting a law enforcement officer at a Washington protest in June, law enforcement authorities fed Twitter photos of the person into facial recognition software, The Washington Post reported. The Post walked through the benefits and potential pitfalls of a facial recognition system that has operated almost entirely outside the public view.

  • In praise of (virtual) crackling fireplaces: Live streams or online videos of a roaring fire are the moment of restorative calm that we need, says Medium’s Debugger site.

Here are some adorable kiddos who came with grown-ups to vote on Tuesday.

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