2020 in One Word: Antitrust

Whoever wins the US Presidential election will rule over a divided nation. But there is one area that members on both sides of the House agree is ripe for reform.

The late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was once asked how she would describe this period in US history. “As an aberration,” Ginsburg replied, with her trademark wit.

The results of the 2020 US election, which Ginsburg did not live to see, will have far-reaching ramifications. This includes many LGBTQ+ people the world over who see President Trump’s re-election and right-wing ideology as a direct threat to their hard-won rights. Indeed, Harvard professor Maya Sen pointed out that Trump’s fast-tracked replacement for Justice Ginsburg has already shifted the US Supreme Court “sharply to the right.”

There are scarcely few ideological areas that all Americans generally agree over. Opinions on issues such as the two candidates’ trustworthiness, and belief in the impartiality of the newly-settled Supreme Court nominee, are deeply divided by party lines.

Pew Research shows that very few registered voters admit to having any close friends who support the other party. Discussion therefore becomes more fraught and difficult. Televised debates erupt into “dumpster fires”. Even the legitimacy of the election process itself is being questioned. When the results are announced, political analysts predict a close contest and violent clashes.

It was therefore all the more remarkable to see cross-party support recently, for a proposed review of the sweeping powers held by social media platforms.

Broadly speaking, the concerns are threefold. The first relates to social media’s unique power to spread or stifle information. Another relates to the business tactics used by social media giants to increase influence or gain advantage over competitors. Thirdly, big tech companies are notorious for storing, sharing and profiting from our data. (These issues intersect. For instance, Google Analytics is now applying AI to predict consumer behaviour.)

Throughout the campaign, both sides have accused the other of election interference through hacking, misinformation or censorship. Democrats have focused on Trump’s collusion with Russia in both the 2016 and 2020 campaigns. Twitter initially prevented users from sharing compromising images of Biden’s son, Hunter, allegedly obtained from a personal laptop. The move led to widespread criticism from Republicans and, ironically, drew more attention to the existence of the content.

These high-profile incidents have highlighted the unique power of social media to shape public opinion. This is well backed up by research. According to a recent survey, at least 17% of all US adults say their views about a political or social issue have changed because of something they saw on social media in the past year.

As calls for meaningful antitrust reform and transparency grow, tech giants are under mounting pressure to change from within. Mark Zuckerberg memorably wilted in 2019 during cross-examination by the Democratic lawmaker, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Its policy of not restricting deliberate misinformation on the platform was widely condemned at the time.

An ensuing audit singled out Facebook’s decision to leave up Trump’s most inflammatory posts as a “significant setback for civil rights.” In response, Facebook considered a tactical blackout on election ads and is reportedly planning “exceptional measures” in anticipation of result-related “chaos.” Hopes that this marked a sea-change in Facebook’s policies were soon dashed however, when a recording of an all-staff meeting leaked by an employee appeared to confirm that these were only temporary measures.

In response to the industry’s various blind spots and failings, Harvard has been blazing a trail in “thoughtful” tech research. Since early 2017, Harvard has encouraged students to think more ethically about technology’s increasing applications and its relationship to human rights. The question faculty want the next generation of tech leaders to ask themselves is not “can I make something”, but “ I?” The question is rooted in antitrust ethics.

This moment in US history will be remembered for its volatility, divisiveness and partisanship. And as we look beyond the election and into the future, trust and antitrust will continue to be debated. How much trust are we willing to place in machines, our elected leaders, information sources, corporations — and each other? What are the repercussions if that trust gets broken?

Opinion is split over whether the current calls for reform will lead to meaningful change or legislation. Critics are unsure whether, if elected, President Biden would prioritise the issue, especially given his contradictory position on Facebook ads. In contrast, as parallels between President Trump and dictators increase, there are fears a re-election would lead to legislation that deliberately benefits the right-wing agenda and suppresses the left.

Whoever wins the US Presidential election will preside over all Americans, not simply their own voting base. He will also, theoretically, be more powerful than the tech giants. However, they are now too powerful to be ignored. And as the pandemic forced much of this year’s campaigning online, we are once again reminded that real-life reputations and social media presences are intrinsically linked.

Moving on from her “aberration” remark, Ginsburg concluded that she had faith, and was hopeful for America in “the long haul.” If there was ever a time to take the late Justice at her word, this is it.

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Karl Finn

Writer in London. Currently run events at Google, formerly V&A and Sotheby’s. Founder of Predictedit, a newsletter bringing together trends, research and ideas.