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How 2020 modified the web

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In this long (and ongoing) election season in America, I learned two things about the internet companies that make many of us see the world.

First, Facebook, Google, and the others have been reluctant to take on their role as information goalkeepers, and there's likely no going back. Second, the rest of us don't know how these goalkeepers wield their power.

In the early hours of Wednesday happened what many people had warned about: President Trump made unsubstantiated claims that his election had been stolen and falsely declared victory before all of the Americans' votes were counted.

Twitter and Facebook were relatively quick to put warnings on Mr. Trump's posts of false claims, as the companies said, to add context and avoid reinforcing his message. They did the same with other online misinformation related to voting.

How they dealt with the president's allegations showed how much America's internet companies have changed in the last year or more. Slowly, inconsistently, and often reluctantly, they have done more to prevent people from using their internet properties to disseminate information that may mislead or harm others.

To the people who are upset that Facebook, Twitter or Google intervene in online events and even call it “censorship”, I would like to say: Yes.

The functioning of the web as we know it has always been the result of ever-changing decisions by companies to keep their fingers crossed. Nothing happens by accident.

Those responsible for the internet have decided which search result should be displayed first, that Aunt Shirley's back photos should be displayed at the top of your Facebook feed and that spam will not reach your e-mail inbox. The internet gives everyone a voice, but the internet companies decide which voices are heard and prioritized.

What has changed is that these millions of largely invisible decisions have been made visible through some high profile interventions, like the labels on Mr. Trump and the deletion of misleading health information about the coronavirus. These measures may be temporary, but internet companies have found it difficult to retreat to a place where they pretend to give equal weight to all information in the world.

The obvious practical interventions have allowed more people to notice the invisible ones as well.

I say thank God. Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Google, TikTok, Twitter and more are conveyors of what we know and understand about our friends, communities and the world around us.

This is helpful in many ways, and also terrifying as we still have little idea how these intermediaries work, or how our beliefs and behaviors are affected by these invisible internet options on our screens. How they work is inherently puzzling.

Only Facebook knows something as basic as the articles or other information that appears most frequently on its website. YouTube can reprogram its computers and pay more attention to different people or channels without us even realizing it. This is not necessarily censorship or anything else nefarious. YouTube acts as a gatekeeper. Important decisions go through.

The current scenario in the United States – a tight presidential election with maybe days before we know the outcome – is a mismatch between human impatience and internet information, where attention-grabbing lies often spread faster than nuanced and boring truths. There will be so much nonsense on the internet in the next few days and the online superpowers are likely to get a lot wrong.

Updated

Nov. 4, 2020, 1:23 p.m. ET

A good thing this year is that internet companies, and those of us who rely on them, have dispensed with the fiction that what we experience online is "neutral" or happens randomly. The first step is to admit it.

My job is to write a technology newsletter, but I'm human too. I just noticed that my shoulders were so tense that they were squeezed up to my ears. Maybe you feel the same way.

Whitney Phillips, the online information expert featured in Monday's newsletter, also shared some wisdom on how to keep calm during times like this when we are waiting for many Tuesday election results. She suggests the following:

Take a minute and sketch some answers to the following questions:

What things do you calm down when you feel stressed?

Who are the most informed and supportive people in your life?

What are your "Chicken Soup" shows – the entertainment that soothes your soul?

Now sketch some answers to the following:

What specific plans can you make to do these comforting things? For example, identify a few times that you can reserve for chicken soup shows without other screens or discussions.

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

How can you maximize contact with supportive people in your life? Could you create a group thread for support during the week or leave Zoom open at key moments to feel connected to others?

What kind of reward or reward might make you happy?

Another thing to think about:

What behaviors or feelings precede feelings of fear or depression? It takes practice to realize what they are. However, once you find that you are in a panicked place, you can indulge in any of the ideas above, meditation or yoga, or go for a walk.

A major threat to Uber and Lyft: California voters on Tuesday approved an election measure that would allow 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 law to obtain contractor status for millions of employees in app companies in other parts of the US.

A complicated use of facial recognition software: To identify someone accused of assaulting a police officer during a protest in Washington in June, law enforcement agencies fed Twitter photos of the person into facial recognition software, the Washington Post reported. The Post discussed the benefits and potential dangers of a facial recognition system that works almost entirely outside the public domain.

In praise of (virtual) crackling chimneys: Live streams or online videos of a blazing fire are the moment of restful calm we need, says Medium's debugger site.

Here are some adorable kids who got to vote with adults on Tuesday.

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