We're still in the beginning stages of understanding the 2020 U.S. election specifically and Information Age elections more generally.
We're growing out of our earlier years of internet election adolescence. We're maturing.
Here are 15 initial lessons, broken into three categories:
I. The Information Ecosystem
II. The Psychology of Polarization
III. The Evolution of Democracy
I. THE INFORMATION ECOSYSTEM
1. OUR POLLING SENSING LAYER NEEDS WORK
Society is getting better at sensing and surveilling ourselves. For example, we have a global sensing layer that analyzes and predicts the climate crisis. We have also developed powerful sensing layers for COVID. In Taiwan, a privacy-preserving contact tracing system helped them go 200 days without community spread.
But how good is our sensing layer for elections? Still not great, it seems.
After media and pollsters largely missed the 2016 election, they had a reflective moment epitomized by the New York Times piece: How Did The Media—How Did We—Get This Wrong?
In 2020, everyone was focused on getting it right. Pollsters updated their tactics. Quants updated their models. Media updated their coverage. And yet it seems the polls have missed, and again in the Republican direction.
Sure, this is a bit premature. All the votes haven't been counted yet. "You can't measure the difference between votes and polls until you know the number of the former." Still, by the time all votes are finished, it looks likely to be a national error of 3 or 4 percent. This is a normal polling error. The question is whether there's a trend towards Democratic-leaning polls. Perhaps it's because of "shy" Trump voters. Perhaps it's because Trump voters distrust institutions and don't want to participate in polls. Perhaps it's just a coin flipping heads twice—there was pro-Democrat bias in 2016 and 2020. (Though it was tails with a pro-Republican bias in 2012.)
2. PREDICTION MARKETS DIVERSIFY OUR SENSING LAYER
Instead of using polling as an input to models, should we let the money decide and use prediction markets? Short the experts. Long crowdsourced financial skin-in-the-game.
In some ways, prediction markets got this election "right". PredictIt and FTX gave Trump a 40% chance of victory, while BetFair gave Trump a 30% chance. These odds were much higher than models from The Economist, 538, and NYT.
But in other ways, they got it wrong. Prediction Markets flipped to a 70% Trump victory after Florida went Republican, but before the Red Mirage turned into a Blue Shift.
Really, there's no right or wrong in predictions. They are just that, predictions. Bets by thousands of people that aggregate everyone's hunches about the election.
Still, why was there such a big discrepancy between expert models and prediction markets? Perhaps it's because prediction markets are full of casual, unknowledgeable users. Or maybe it's because transaction costs mean that a $0.40 price actually implies a 25% chance of victory.
As we get better at modeling and decrease the transaction costs of prediction markets, I expect them to converge.
3. HUMANS CAN'T GROK UNCERTAINTY
But our biggest issue isn't the polls or prediction markets. We have a problem with how we analyze and communicate uncertainty.
This happened most recently with COVID. Media didn't communicate the risks well. As an example retrospective, Vox asked: What Went Wrong With The Media’s Coronavirus Coverage? Media too often gave binary outcomes: COVID was nothing or everything. How should media communicate uncertainty instead? By outlining the probability of various scenarios and what to do in each.
But even if you do probabilistic "parallel worlds" explanation (as many media outlets did for the election), we humans don't quite grok it. Even if it was predicted, it's difficult for us to really feel a Red Mirage, into a Blue Shift, into Trump's claims of fraud.
Plus, there's another issue that Zeynep Tufekci raises: "Why are we so focused on forecasts that don't have reliable data and whose models can only be evaluated once every four years?" Predictions are helpful for repeated events, less so for one-offs.
Furthermore, there are issues unique to election modeling—there's a feedback loop where the models affect reality itself. 18 days before the 2016 election, Edward Snowden famously tweeted: "There may never be a safer election in which to vote third party." Predicting rain doesn't make it more or less likely. Predicting election outcomes changes them.
However, what should we do instead? As Samo Burja says: "All societies need their version of entrail reading." And Jessica Hullman asks: "I wonder what people would be doing if professionals didn't do forecasting? Overanalyzing polls? Anxiously querying friends?"
Of course, there's no right answer here. My hope is that, as our polls and models get better, media will get better at communicating uncertainty, and audiences will get better at receiving it.
4. THE ARMS RACE FOR (MIS)INFORMATION
Beyond predicting the future, we're also trying deal with information in the present.
As much as we can still throw shade on social media's moderation policies, platforms have gotten better at moderation since 2016. Platforms annotated contested election results, decreased foreign disinformation, removed misleading political ads, and censored explicit calls to violence.
Platforms are improving because of one kind of arms race, a race to the top. They want to be seen as the best at moderating information. As NBC reporter Brandy Zadrozny asks: "who will be first to label Trump's premature claim of victory?" Platforms get praise (and dodge shame) for promptly moderating misinformation.
In addition, there's another arms race occurring: disinformation campaigns are using increasingly nuanced tactics to skirt increasingly robust platform moderation policies and disinformation research teams. One especially interesting tactic here is that disinformation campaigns are moving to video: Youtube, TikTok, and Snapchat. Video feels more trustworthy—it's easy to fake high production values and put attractive people on screen. (Like how AirBnB built trust by taking pictures with DSLRs.) It's more difficult to proactively moderate video than text (ML doesn't work as well). As Alex Stamos from the Election Integrity Partnership says, video is "hard mode" for moderation.
5. ADDING FRICTION: MODERATION IS NOT CENSORSHIP, FREE SPEECH IS NOT FREE REACH
Politicians spread disinformation throughout this week, mostly on the right but also on the left. Platforms responded by moderating and taking down content. At one point on Wednesday, “50% of Trump’s tweets from the last 24 hours received a contextual label from Twitter.”
Although there were cries that this is "censoring free speech", a more nuanced discussion is emerging. A firehose of falsehoods is in no one's best interest. Adding a contextual label is not the same as taking down content. And yes, platforms should (and did) remove content that incites violence.
You can't say "fire" in a crowded theater. You can't say "behead the FBI director" to 200,000 followers (as Steve Bannon did last week). Free speech is not free reach.
The internet made information sharing frictionless. We're learning how to add friction back in.
6.INFORMATION VACUUMS CREATE OPPORTUNITIES FOR DISINFORMATION
Given the nature of mail-in voting, it took a bit longer to determine who won the election. This information vacuum provides space to make false claims. When no networks have called the race, Trump can call it for himself. As Nate Silver wrote:
News network decision desks are facing some pressure here in an era where Trump is trying to undermine trust in the vote count. You certainly don’t want to make a call prematurely, but you also don’t want to give him more time to make unfounded and incorrect claims.
We've also seen information vacuums play out over the long-term. QAnon can only thrive in a fake news, post-truth world. Humans want to make sense of the world. As the right has rejected science, disinformation narratives become a primary sensemaking mechanism.
7. INFLUENCERS ARE MORE INFLUENTIAL THAN NEWS
Since the dawn of the internet, every election was seen as the digital election. In 2008, Obama's data team outspent McCain 8-to-1. In 2016, Trump mastered Twitter, spoke directly to the people, and received billions of dollars of "free" attention from news networks.
In 2020, we saw a further maturation of what it means to have a "social media election". On the mainstream media side, seven different news networks (Fox, NBC, etc.) combined for a total of 50 million viewers on election night. Joe Rogan's End of the World show had nearly 9 million by itself. Steve Bannon's Facebook livestream had 200,000 views (before it was removed when Bannon encouraged beheading Dr. Fauci and the current FBI director). Wikipedia's top pages had well over 1 million page views on just election night. Conservative pundit Dan Bongino continued to consistently rank in the top 10 of Facebook's most-shared links. Two QAnon-supporting candidates won seats to Congress. Facebook groups like Stop The Steal were key breeding grounds for mobilizing and inciting violence.
So did we final have a "full" social media election this year? Not quite. Mainstream news networks still had the power to call the election (since when was that a thing?). But as their viewers age and more young people gain the right to vote, future elections may be called by your favorite TikTok dancer 😉.
8. DOOMSCROLLING IS IN
Want to watch Australia in flames? Or the exponential curves of COVID in March? Or police brutality in the George Floyd protests? Or the smoke enveloping the American West Coast? Don't worry, there's an app for that. It's called The Feed. Welcome.
You can "scroll" if you'd like, but if we're honest, that's a bit basic. Instead, we recommend "doomscrolling". It's like scrolling, but better. (Well, worse, actually.) When more than 50% of tweets have a sense of impending doom, you know you're doing it—you're doomscrolling. Congrats!
Doomscrolling started with COVID but really came into it's own during this election. (See the Google Trends graph below.) COVID had one kind of doomscrolling—you'd scroll to see which new celebrity had COVID, or the new highest point on the exponential. Election Doomscrolling is a slightly different beast—you're scrolling to see the latest vote count or baseless Trump tweet signaling the end of American democracy.
Doomscrolling is part of the 21st century. Climate change is just starting. There will be many many more wildfires, floods, hurricanes, and refugee crises to come. Plus, we're just at the beginning of the internet reshaping Westphalian politics in its image. There will be more protests and authoritarian backlash. If you liked your first taste of doomscrolling, don't worry, there's more.
II. THE PSYCHOLOGY OF POLARIZATION
9. SHAMING INCREASES POLARIZATION
In the last couple decades, America has gotten more polarized. If anything, it's gotten worse since 2016. We continue to see the Other Side as, well, other. Here's a 30-second video of the crazy Other Side:
It's tough to watch that video and not feel disgusted. Like, what the hell is that guy thinking?
But it's also immensely sad. What has happened in that man's life to make him so angry and delusional?
Unfortunately, the left's response to the right is often judgmental. (The reporter's tweet response to that video is "I just love how long his sad walk ended up being.") We're trying to make the right feel ashamed. How do they respond? Not by listening to us. Instead, they move towards Trump, who accepts them for their full, authentic (sometimes problematic) self. As Maya Angelou wrote:
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
Many on the right don't care what Trump says or does, but how him makes them feel. They're scared and Trump makes them feel safe.
In the days after the election, there was a great thread on r/Conservative where a liberal asked Republican folks why they voted for Trump. Some of their responses:
I refuse to feel bad about America being a dominant country or our past accomplishments. I refuse to hate myself because I’m white or straight or a biological female. I will not tolerate people that belittle those who believe in God and treat them like they’re toxic.
Yes, there are racist people in this county. No, they are not all conservatives. Yes there are bad cops. No, they aren't anywhere close to the majority.
I can only imagine what the margins would have been if they switched up on the whole “all women and POC are victims, and all white men are racist” nonsense. Even more so if they laid off the “anyone not voting blue are fascist super Nazis and racist rednecks” shtick.
Or, the most powerful comment:
Imagine being picked-on by a group of private school kids your whole life. They called you stupid. They said your church teaches bigotry and your family teaches racism. They took 20% of every dollar you earned, then they shipped your brother off to die in Afghanistan.
Then some guy from Queens moves in next door. He laughs at those private school kids. He pushes them around until they give back some of your money. They call him a bigot too, but he doesn’t seem to care. He promises you another of your siblings will never come home in a box.
It might bother you when he uses vulgarity and invectives, but that’s easy to overlook because for the first time, someone is standing-up to those private school kids, calling-out their foolishness and self-righteousness. He might be a bully, but he’s on your team.
You believe diversity means more than skin tone, gender, and sexual identity. You believe a diverse society is one where different ideas are allowed and even encouraged to co-exist.
But these private school kids, they don’t like that idea. They won’t leave you alone until you embrace their ideas, adopt their lifestyle, and share their vision for the future—a future that has no room for the person you are or the community to which you belong.
I'm not saying the above comments are true. I am saying they represent an individual's lived experience. Their deep story.
There's no silver bullet to decreasing polarization. There's no perfect way to lovingly challenge each other. There's no step-by-step process for de-radicalizing a conspiracy theorist.
But damn, what we're doing ain't it. We should more often criticize in private Dark Forests and praise in public squares. Woke neoliberalism vs. plutocrat-friendly ethnonationalism isn't our final form.
10. UNITY IS DIFFICULT IF YOU'VE STAKED YOUR IDENTITY ON DISUNITY
After the election, we've seen many calls for unity with the other side. Biden himself has called for this: "We stand together as one America. We will rise stronger than we were before." Katy Perry called her Republican family members to tell them she loved them.
Needless to say, these intentions have not been well received. Just check out the responses on Perry's tweet. Or see how subreddits have responded. Many of the top posts on progressive subreddits are rejecting unity in favor of things like "Fuck Them". Conservative subreddits are rejecting calls for unity too. They think it's dishonest to flip from "screw racists" to "let's be friends." African-American sci-fi author N.K. Jemisin can't fully support prison abolition because she wants Republican "mfs to die in prison". God only knows what alt-right folks are saying on Gab and Parler.
So Biden can try all he wants to unify the country. But Trump is refusing to concede, Mitch McConnell is supporting Trump's baseless claims, and voters from both sides still hate each other. This makes unity feel like a conspiracy theory itself—completely detached from reality. Just another load of fake news.
11. RECOGNIZING AND IGNORING THE REAL
Right now, everyone is feeling of fear in the face of uncertainty. Many Americans were already financially unstable in 2019. The pandemic has only increased that. Institutions were losing their trust in 2019. 2020 has only decreased that trust further.
This is Recognizing The Real. People are in precarious positions and act from that scarcity mindset.
And yet, we're also Ignoring The Real.
I naively thought that Trump supporters would desert their candidate after seeing him repeatedly fail at both policy making and tests of character. If nothing else, I thought the biological realities of COVID would change their minds. 240,000 death is enough, right? Or maybe when Herman Cain died of COVID. Or when Trump himself got it. Or when their neighbors and family contracted the disease. It's difficult to ignore the death of your parents.
I was wrong. 3 million more people voted for Trump than did in 2016. Hell, in South Dakota they even voted for a Republican congressman who had died of COVID a month earlier.
In their minds, Trump was trying his best. The pandemic wasn't his fault, it was China's.
Perception matters so much. I thought we'd see a Revenge of the Real. In fact, we just saw a break between their perception of the Real and reality itself.
12. TRUMPISM SURVIVES ON ATTENTION, NOT MONEY
My naivety showed up in another way too. I thought the Trump-led Republican Party was running out of money. If we think of the party as an organism, that organism needs to feed itself (primarily with money).
In the four elections since 2008—2008, 2012, 2016, and 2020—Democratic presidential candidates out-raised Republican candidates by 1.6 times: $2.9 billion to $1.8 billion. In 2016, Clinton raised nearly two times more than Trump, but lost. It was the first time the more well-resourced candidate had lost since Jimmy Carter in 1976. In 2020, Biden out-raised Trump $822 million to $557 million. Mike Bloomberg spent $100 million in Florida alone. I thought that would lead to a Biden victory. And indeed, it did. But not as decisively as I would've expected given the financial resources.
Money isn't the most important resource anymore, attention is. Winning coalitions used to be well-resourced GOTV operations across many civil society organizations. But now, Trump speaks directly to his followers. He tells it like it is. He accepts them for who they are, without shame.
He doesn't get the big donors, sure. But he and his army of Pepe/Kek/Q memers still show up in your feed. They don't need money. They have attention.
III. THE EVOLUTION OF DEMOCRACY
13. WEAK META GOVERNANCE
America has poor democratic outcomes. Part of this stems from a warped information ecosystem (see above). But part of this stems from bad protocols for democracy itself, and bad meta-protocols to change the protocols.
In 2020, we saw the continued use of inane direct democracy ballot measures. In California, lay citizens voted on complex rules around dialysis. In Colorado, lay citizens voted on whether to reintroduce wolves to the state. (They voted YES by less than 1% or roughly 40,000 votes. The people have spoken. Let there be wolves!)
Meanwhile, measures to introduce ranked choice voting (which most experts believe would strengthen democracy) failed in both Alaska and Massachusetts. (Though they did succeed in five cities around the nation.)
If we're to revive American democracy, we need to have better mechanisms for changing the rules themselves.
14. BUREAUCRACY SAVES DEMOCRACY
On the other hand, the slow bureaucracy of the U.S. government seems to have saved democracy itself. Strong, impersonal rule of law has been upheld in baseless lawsuits by the Trump campaign. For all of its criticisms, more than 65 million Americans voted by mail this year. Infrastructure matters.
In a time of frictionless and abundant information, a bit of bureaucratic slowness goes a long way.
15. THE RISE OF NETWORKED DEMOCRACY
To some extent, all of the above are simply symptoms of the internet. The zero marginal cost of information transmission leads to massive winners and wealth inequality. Climate change and technology create more uncertainty, which fuel populism and our authoritarian reflex. A disintermediated information ecosystem creates a post-truth vacuum, ripe to be filled by conspiracy theories and anti-science thinking.
But there is hope. Across the globe, we're maturing into 21st century institutions and mindsets.
FiveThirtyEight, polling, and prediction markets all have issues. But they're getting better every election.
Our digitally-native information system is adding friction back in, while info-hardened parseltongues mature to voting age. We're developing better curation protocols, like meta voter guides that aggregate other guides.
Experiments in civic technology are redefining the nature of how democracies understand their people and provide public goods. In Taiwan, they are creating open-source versions of government websites and new platforms for elevating citizen's voices.
Social justice activism is continuing to advocate for marginalized folks while demonizing less and empathizing more. Longtermism and intergenerational justice are becoming cool.
Democracy itself is maturing. 30 years ago, there were less than 50 democracies around the world. Now there are nearly 100. Nigeria had massive nonviolent protests against police brutality. The UAE just announced new laws that expanded personal freedoms (and criminalized “honor killings”).
Yes, the U.S. Vice President had been 45 white men before Kamala Harris. But before those white men, there hadn't been any democracy at all!
If we work hard, the world can look a lot better by 2100. Almost all countries will be democracies (not just 50%). We'll have a better sensing layer between governments and their people, and more empathetic sensemaking in interpersonal relationships. We won't be stuck with legacy systems of Web 2.0. Instead, platforms will be cooperatively owned and governed, and they'll meet real human needs, not filter bubble dopamine hits. Women, minorities, the Global South, and poor folks will be increasingly empowered. The future is female, Asian, and African. (And full of compassionate masculinity.)
Thanks for reading. See y'all in 2024, and hopefully in 2100.
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