Noise-canceling headphones that pair big sound with sweet silence

I never thought I’d need a pair of serious noise-canceling headphones. I don’t mind hours of droning white noise on international flights and generally don’t like feeling like my head’s been locked in an airless tomb, so I’ve always used open headphones that let ambient sound in. But 2020 broke me.

I’ve always preferred the hushed, mild chatter of a coworking space to the distractions of home (no offense to my wife who has to be on Zoom all day, every day!). Stranded without the productivity-inspiring hum of a lot of people doing their own thing in one space together, I suddenly needed quiet in a serious way. And I was ready to invest in it. 

We’ll focus on over-ear headphones here because if you need the absolute best noise canceling money can buy, chunky ear-hugging headphones are always going to blow earbud-style options out of the water. And after you listen to any of these picks, you’ll agree with us when we say the same goes for sound quality.

Sony WH-1000XM4 laying on table

Image Credits: Taylor Hatmaker/TechCrunch

Sony WH-1000XM4

Sony’s line of premium wireless over-ear active noise canceling headphones has been regarded as the crème de la crème for a minute now and that title is very well-deserved. At $350, Sony’s new Sony WH-1000XM4s aren’t cheap, but from the quality hard-sided case to the solid build quality, you’ll definitely get what you paid for here. Full disclosure: The previous generation of these headphones are what I opted for back in the beginning of the pandemic and I’ve recommended them to many friends with similar needs since.

The sound quality on these is a joy. If you’re the kind of audiophile that wouldn’t be caught dead in a serious listening session wearing white earbuds, you’re in for a treat. Set-up on the Sonys was painless and the app is actually useful, providing fine-tuned EQ adjustments, sound profiles and a slider that dials the intensity of the noise-canceling up or down, though cupping your hand over the earphone also allows ambient sound to pass through. These headphones also went loud if you’re a fan of listening to big music at full volume (I am).

This pair of headphones does a lot of things right. The music quality is excellent, the noise canceling is eerily good, even with no music playing. A few little quality of life perks makes this pair even more appealing than its already very appealing predecessor (the previous version now makes for a great value). Something very subtle also seems to have changed with the fit here, and the M4s did feel less pinchy on the top of my head than the M3s. Sony also added multi-device pairing and a new ear-detection sensor with this generation so they pause automatically when you remove them, which I personally find to be a totally necessary feature. Sony also improved the call quality for the M4s, but it isn’t their strong suit.

Other strikes against the Sony WH-1000XM4s? There aren’t many, but these headphones like most in their class are kind of heavy. You probably can’t wear them for five hours at a time without wanting to take a little break, but they work really well for hourlong bursts of total silence when you really need to put your head down at work. If you aren’t a fan of Sony’s characteristically punchy, bass-forward sound, you might look elsewhere. They have a classic chunky over-ear headphone design which probably won’t excite anybody but it’s still a good look. And if you’re someone who plans to take long calls on their over-ear headphones, you might want to look elsewhere.

If you need absolute top tier noise canceling to drown out whoever you’re sharing your makeshift office with these days, this is the pair of headphones you want. The fact that music sounds so incredible is just icing on the cake.

Verdict: Top-notch noise-canceling with incredible sound

Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700

Image Credits: Taylor Hatmaker/TechCrunch

Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700

Between this pair of headphones and the Sonys, anyone who doesn’t mind the sensation of over-the-ear headphones should find something to like. The noise canceling on the Bose 700s is top-notch, offering Bose’s signature accuracy and crisp sound along with the ability to totally hush the world around you.

These sounded great for a feature rich pair of wireless do-it-all headphones. Bose’s neutral, clean sound is lighter on the bass than Sony and feels slightly less vibrant, but if you’ve liked Bose headphones in the past you’ll probably be more than happy here too. 

The Bose pair is a bit of a departure from the norm design-wise. Rather than extending in the middle of the headband, this pair has a kind of stalk on the side of the earcup that slides up or down. The sizing mechanism probably isn’t going to make or break the headphones for anybody, but it does give them a different look, feel and balance when compared to traditional, chunkier designs. Touch controls were very responsive and you can toggle between noise-canceling modes using a set of mirrored buttons on the earcup. They also get a respectable 20 hours of battery life, which is really quite a lot though 10 hours less than the Sony pair if extreme longevity is a concern.

Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700

Image Credits: Taylor Hatmaker/TechCrunch

Set up was a little rocky with these as I thought they sounded muddy and awful, but really they just needed a firmware update. Unfortunately, Bose requires you to sign up for an account to use the app and set up your headphones, which is silly and really off-putting but ultimately probably not a meaningful hurdle for most people. I also got an error message with a second firmware update the app prompted me to download and had to mess around with things to get them to connect again which was annoying but did resolve eventually. Without that update I wasn’t able to make EQ adjustments, so be sure to check that if yours don’t ship with the latest update. It’s worth noting that you don’t get full EQ sliders after the update, just bass, mids and treble. That’s either going to bug the hell out of you or be a total non-issue. 

The Bose 700s cost $340 now on Bose’s website, with a light “soapstone” color variant marked down to $300. If you’re not into standard black headphones and would prefer some lighter options this is probably a great option. We tested a silver review unit that had a kind of futuristic vibe, paired with the smooth, matte material on the headband. Bose’s pair is sleek and modern, offering something a bit more eye-catching, especially in its non-black color variations.

If you’re using your noise-canceling headphones for frequent phone calls, this Bose pair is well-regarded in terms of its mic and call quality, though the new Sony pair has made strides there too. Both the Bose pair and the Sonys come with an aux cable to extend their use beyond the already impressive battery life that each boast. Both also connect to Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri if you’re the spoken commands type.

For anyone who likes Bose’s signature clean sound and needs a pair of headphones with excellent noise canceling and a good mic, this pair of headphones is a very solid choice.

Verdict: Another great pick for serious noise-canceling needs

Sennheiser PXC 550-II

Image Credits: Taylor Hatmaker/TechCrunch

Sennheiser PXC 550-II

Sennheiser’s PXC-550 II might not be vying for the title of absolute premium noise-cancelingest headphones, but they emerged as a dark horse in our testing. Like the others on this list, Sennheiser’s noise-canceling headphones are wireless with an over-ear design, but that’s where the similarities end.

While the Bose and Sony pairs feel expensive and substantial, the Sennheiser PXC 550-IIs are relatively plasticky — but that might actually be a good thing. The noise canceling here is totally adequate for normal needs, but not top-of-the-line extreme like the other two picks. It mutes background noise within reason rather than transporting you to an eerily totally silent realm, and that’s probably sufficient for a lot of people. The sound quality notably good for the lower price range ($200 from Sennheiser, at the time of writing), defined by Sennheiser’s signature clean, clear style. If you’ve liked Sennheiser sound in the past, you’ll like it here.

Where the Sennheisers really shine is day-to-day use. I found myself reaching for this pair more often than not during my testing, which was surprising given that I have quite a few higher-end pairs of headphones laying around. The reason? For one, they are made of plastic; they’re light and wearing them for very extended periods of time (many hours at once) was comfortable. Pairing and set-up was a breeze.

Sennheiser PXC 550-II headphones on table

Image Credits: Taylor Hatmaker/TechCrunch

I was also surprised by how much I liked the mechanism for turning the PXC 550-IIs on: Rather than feeling around for a tiny button usually proximal to other tiny buttons, you can actually twist the headphones on and off with a satisfying click. I thought this would be a gimmick but it’s super convenient and it feels nice to know your headphones won’t be burning any battery life by accident. There’s also a small battery indicator light that gives you an idea how much juice is left, a feature that might seem vestigial to some people but I personally found it super useful.

The knocks against the PXC 550-IIs? The less premium feel isn’t for everyone. They charge via an outdated micro-USB port, which is annoying because generally it meant toting around an extra cable. The headphones can also pair to more than one device at once, which is cool but did result in a British AI voice repeating “phone one connected, phone two connected” in a maddening monotone more than I cared for.

I’m not sure what it is about these Sennheisers, but I really fell in love with them. In spite of using a pair of Sony WH-1000XM3s as my day-to-day headphones, I’ll probably pick a pair of these up too eventually. They’re just that charming — and for $150 less than our other picks, they’re a great value too.

Verdict: All-day noise canceling headphones with crisp sound and a great price

If you can’t stand ear-hugging headphones, don’t fret — we’ve got some earbud-style noise-canceling recommendations coming soon. But if you’re open to big ol’ headphones and need top-notch noise canceling paired with incredible sound, none of these picks will disappoint.

Trump didn’t concede, but he will move Biden’s transition forward

With an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots, election results took a bit longer this year than usual. But if Americans were expecting an election week, November stretched on into a month of election drama, with President Trump mounting an unprecedented effort to undermine election results and stall the transition process, even as states certified Biden’s win.

President Trump at last appeared to accept the election results Monday, but not in so many words. It certainly wasn’t a concession speech, but it was probably the closest thing yet.

“… In the best interest of our Country, I am recommending that Emily and her team do what needs to be done with regard to initial protocols, and have told my team to do the same,” Trump tweeted, seeming to contradict a fresh claim made by GSA Administrator Emily Murphy that the White House did not influence her decision to block the transition. The General Services Administration (GSA) plays a role in making election results official and moving the transition forward on the federal level.

President-elect Biden’s transition work proceeded in spite of the roadblocks, with the incoming leader introducing aspects of his plan to get COVID-19 under control and working out the names of officials he plans to appoint. But with the head of the GSA refusing to release $6.3 million in federal funds for the transition, Biden’s hands were tied in some important ways. Murphy’s extremely unusual refusal to recognize the election results also blocked the president-elect’s ability to access secure government devices and receive briefings from federal agencies, including those involved in the pandemic response.

Apart from getting Biden’s transition on track, Trump’s words and GSA’s belated cooperation could help the nation move on in another important way. For weeks, election conspiracies have roiled the internet, inspiring a number of Trump supporters to denounce mainstream social networks, which reminded users of the election results and cracked down on some forms of misinformation. Those conspiracy theories were often spread right from the top, with President Trump promoting baseless claims of fraud involving mail-in ballots and voting machines as he refused to concede.

The president’s online supporters may not move on from the election quickly, but they’re likely to follow his lead — and for now at least, it looks like Trump will signal defeat.

Tech in the Biden era

President-elect Joe Biden may have spent eight years in an administration that doted on the tech industry, but that long honeymoon, punctuated by four years of Trump, looks to be over.

Tech is on notice in 2020. The Russian election interference saga of the 2016 election opened the floodgates for social media’s ills. The subsequent years unleashed dangerous torrents of homegrown extremism and misinformation that either disillusioned or radicalized regular people. A cluster of tech’s biggest data brokers further consolidated power, buying up any would-be competitor they stumbled across and steamrolling everything else. Things got so bad that Republicans and Democrats, in uncanny agreement, are both pushing plans to regulate tech.

Suddenly, allowing the world’s information merchants to grow, unmolested, into towering ad-fed behemoths over the last decade looked like a huge mistake. And that’s where we are today.

Biden and big tech

Biden didn’t make attacking tech a cornerstone of his campaign and mostly avoided weighing in on tech issues, even as Elizabeth Warren stirred the big tech backlash into the campaign conversation. His attitude toward the tech industry at large is a bit mysterious, but there are some things we do know.

The president-elect is expected to keep the Trump administration’s antitrust case against Google on track, potentially even opening additional cases into Facebook, Amazon and Apple. But his campaign also leaned on former Google CEO Eric Schmidt for early fundraising, so the relationship to Google looks a bit more complex than the Biden team’s open contempt for a company like Facebook.

As Biden picked up the nomination and the months wore on, it became clear that Mark Zuckerberg’s chumminess with Trump’s White House was unlikely to continue into a Biden administration. By September, the Biden campaign had penned a scathing letter to Mark Zuckerberg denouncing Facebook as the “foremost propagator” of election disinformation, and that frustration doesn’t seem to have dissipated. His deputy communications director recently criticized Facebook for “shredding” the fabric of democracy. It appears that Facebook could come to regret the many decisions it’s made to stay in the Trump administration’s good graces over the last four years.

Still, it’s not doom and gloom for all tech — big tech isn’t everything. There are plenty of potential bright spots, from Biden’s climate plans (lack of Senate control notwithstanding), which could crack open a whole new industry and shower it in federal dollars, to his intention to revitalize the nation’s infrastructure, from telecommunications and transportation to energy-efficient housing. 

And antitrust legislation, usually framed as an existential threat to “tech” broadly, actually stands to benefit the startup scene, where the largest tech companies have walled off many paths to innovation with years of anti-competitive behavior. If Congress, states and/or the Justice Department manages to get anywhere with the antitrust actions percolating now — and there are many things percolating — the result could open up paths for startups that would prefer a more interesting exit than being bought and subsumed (best case) or shuttered (worst case) into one of five or so tech mega-companies.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is another wildcard. Hailing from tech’s backyard, Harris brings a distinctly Bay Area vibe to the office. Most interesting is Harris’s brother-in-law Tony West. West is Uber’s chief legal officer and played a prominent role in pushing for California’s Proposition 22, which absolved gig economy companies like Lyft and Uber from the need to grant their workers benefits afforded to full-time employees. Siding with organized labor, Harris landed on the other side of the issue.

The extent of her relationships in the tech world isn’t totally clear, but she apparently has a friendly relationship with Sheryl Sandberg, who was a frontrunner for a Treasury or Commerce position four years ago in the advent of a Hillary Clinton win. 

The Biden administration will also have all kinds of quiet ties to power players in the tech world, many of whom served in the Obama years and then made a beeline for Silicon Valley. Apple’s Lisa Jackson, formerly of Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency, and Jay Carney, a former Obama spokesman who sits comfortably as SVP of global corporate affairs at Amazon, are two examples there.

Transition names from tech

The Biden administration’s transition list is generously peppered with names from the tech industry, though some of them are likely grandfathered in from the Obama era rather than pulled directly for their more recent industry experience. The list named Matt Olsen, Uber’s chief trust and security officer, for his prior experience in the intel community under Obama rather than his ridesharing industry insights, for example.

The list doesn’t include any names fresh from Facebook or Google, but it does include four members from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and one from Eric Schmidt’s philanthropic project Schmidt Futures. The list also suggests a degree of continuity with the Obama era, with the inclusion of Aneesh Chopra, the first U.S. CTO, and Nicole Wong, a former deputy chief technology officer under Obama who previously worked at Twitter and Google. The transition also includes a smattering of names that served in the digital services agency 18F and some from the USDS, which borrows talent from the tech world to solve public problems.

Other names from the tech world include Airbnb’s Divya Kumaraiah and Clare Gallagher, Lyft’s Brandon Belford, Arthur Plews of Stripe, Dell CTO Ann Dunkin and quite a few more. These transition figures will help the administration fill the many open slots in a new government, but they’re less telling than who gets called to the cabinet. 

Tech in the cabinet? Maybe.

Beyond reading the tea leaves of the transition team and Biden’s previous statements here and there, we’re in for a wait. The administration’s picks for its cabinets will say a lot about its priorities, but for now we’re mostly left with the rumor mill. 

What does the rumor mill suggest? Meg Whitman, the former HP and eBay CEO most recently at the helm of failed short-form streaming platform Quibi, keeps coming up as a symbolic across-the-aisle pick for the Commerce Department, though Quibi’s spectacular dive probably doesn’t bode well for her chances.

Eric Schmidt’s name has bubbled up to lead some kind of White House tech task force, but that seems ill-fated considering the federal antitrust case against Google and the broader legislative appetite for doing something about big tech. But Alphabet board member Roger Ferguson, whose name has been floating around for Treasury Secretary, just stepped down from his current position at a finance firm, kicking up more speculation.

Seth Harris, who served in Obama’s Labor Department, made at least one list suggesting he could land a cabinet position. Harris, who is already involved in the Biden transition, also has the controversial distinction of proposing a “new legal category” of worker “for those who occupy the gray area between employees and independent contractors.” Lyft apparently cited his paper specifically after Prop 22 passed. With labor a hot issue in general right now — and Bernie Sanders himself potentially in the running for the same role — Harris would likely ignite a firestorm of controversy among labor activists if appointed to helm the department. 

On the other side of the coin, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra could be considered for a cabinet-level role in the Department of Justice. Becerra isn’t from the tech world, but as California’s AG he’s been stationed there and his department currently has its own antitrust case against Google simmering. In a recent interview with Bloomberg about antitrust issues under the Biden administration, Becerra denounced “behemoths” in the tech industry that stifle innovation, noting that state AGs have “taken the lead” on pressing tech companies on anti-competitive behavior.

“At the end of the day we all want competition, right?” Becerra said. “But here’s the thing, competition is essential if you want innovation.” Becerra, who succeeded Vice President-elect Kamala Harris when she left the Attorney General’s office for Congress, could also again follow in her footsteps, filling the vacant seat she will leave in the Senate come January.

All told, we’re seeing some familiar names in the mix, but 2020 isn’t 2008. Tech companies that emerged as golden children over the last ten years are radioactive now. Regulation looms on the horizon in every direction. Whatever policy priorities emerge out of the Biden administration, Obama’s technocratic gilded age is over and we’re in for something new.

Twitter and Facebook’s diverging philosophies were on display in the latest tech hearing

The latest tech hearing was a study in contrasts. Contrasts between lawmakers who made an effort to stay on topic in a hearing ostensibly about social media and the 2020 election and those who… just talked about whatever was on their minds.

Also contrasts between then and now. Social media companies previously treated any attempt at Section 230 reform as radioactive; now, they’ve come around to cooperating so they’re not cut out of the conversation altogether.

But most of all it was a study in contrasts for the two men on the virtual witness stand: Facebook’s equivocating chief executive, who always manages to speak too much in the service of saying very little and Twitter’s laconic business mystic who came off as measurably more poised to meet the moment, wizard beard and all.

In a signal that the hearing’s stated purpose would not reflect the grab bag of gripes on display Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s own chairman, Sen. Lindsey Graham, threw the plan out early and asked the two CEOs if they had seen any evidence that their platforms were addictive.

Zuckerberg responded with characteristic defensiveness, arguing that the research in this area was not “conclusive.”

“We certainly do not want our products to be addictive,” Zuckerberg said, contradicting behavioral scientists, Facebook defectors and common sense observations of its products. “We want people to use them because they are meaningful,” he added, casting aspersions on “the memes and misinformation out there” about what makes Facebook’s business tick. The response fit neatly into a narrative a few lawmakers pushed that big tech operates out of big tobacco’s playbook.

Given the same question, Dorsey was less disingenuous. “I do think like anything else, these tools can be addictive and we should be aware of that and acknowledge it,” Dorsey said. His statement perhaps stops short of acknowledging the degree to which social media has reshaped the course of modern human behavior, but ultimately it bodes better for Twitter’s health as a platform and for its users’ addled brains.

The two CEOs also sharply contrasted on questions about their algorithms.

When Sen. Amy Klobuchar asked if social platforms should provide more transparency around the algorithms they use to decide what users see, Dorsey proposed more transparency through user control. “I think a better option is providing more choice to be able to turn off the algorithms or choose a different algorithm so that people can see how it effects ones’ experience,” Dorsey said.

Dorsey also suggested that Twitter could expand those options through something like a third-party “marketplace” where users could select ranking algorithms that suited their needs.

Zuckerberg, for his part, didn’t go near this idea with a 10-foot pole, instead lauding the existence of Facebook’s third-party fact-checking program (never mind the too-restrained way Facebook presents those fact checks) and the company’s community standards reports, which present aggregated numbers on the rule-breaking content it removes. Facebook’s algorithm is a black box that users are locked inside and that’s that. (Naturally, the box prints ad dollars.)

In contrast, Twitter has committed to a kind of openness that’s not perfect, but it’s at least refreshing. The company treats its platform policy decisions as a kind of living document, tweeting updates about the most high-profile decisions in near real-time, admitting mistakes and emphasizing that it’s learning and changing things as it goes.

One example of Twitter’s experimental approach: The company universally disabled one-click retweets before the U.S. election, hoping to make user behavior less reactive while slowing down viral election misinformation. The changes were part of Twitter’s recent experiments with introducing more friction to the platform. Twitter also hid tweets and restricted sharing for some particularly egregious bits of misinformation — some of it coming from President Trump. Facebook stuck to “labels,” the current bare minimum content moderation gesture.

Dorsey’s company is still plagued by rampant harassment, brain-melting conspiracies and, for now, a lame duck president actively seeking to destabilize American democracy, but it at least seems open to changes that could shift the dynamics of the platform in the interest of making it better.

Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg will face Congress again, this time about the election

After giving in to the looming threat of subpoenas, two of tech’s most high profile CEOs will again be grilled by Congress.

On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will host Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg for what’s likely to be another multi-hour airing of assorted grievances. In this round, Republican lawmakers called the hearing to press the tech titans on “Censorship, Suppression, and the 2020 Election.” The hearing, which was scheduled before the election, was apparently inspired by the platforms’ decisions to limit the reach of a dubious New York Post story presenting leaked information purporting to implicate now President-elect Joe Biden and his son Hunter in a corrupt political influence scheme in Ukraine.

If the last hearing is any indication, and it likely is, Tuesday’s tech vs. Congress showdown will be less about cornering the two tech platform CEOs on the stated topic than it will be a far-ranging complaint session about Republicans’ ongoing complaints about anti-conservative bias punctuated by bipartisan soliloquies on lawmakers’ various pet topics. While that hearing, held last month in the Senate Commerce Committee, was ostensibly about Section 230 reform, the pressing policy issue barely came up.

Tuesday will be the first post-election Congressional appearance from social media leaders, so we can also expect a war of competing political realities. In one, President Trump, unfairly assailed by tech and the media alike, is somehow still a contender for the presidency. In the other reality (the real one), President-elect Joe Biden won the election decisively but his victory remains mired in social media misinformation. The latter scenario has played out in spite of a mixed bag of special tools and rules devised by Twitter and Facebook to rein in looming post-election conspiracies.

If you’re interested in subjecting yourself to Tuesday’s proceedings, you can watch the hearing live on the committee’s own page or on C-SPAN Tuesday at 7AM PT. If you’re not, and we can’t exactly suggest it, circle back after things are over and we’ll catch you up. But before we leave you, one question: How does YouTube’s Susan Wojcicki keep staying out of these things?

Facebook extends its temporary ban on political ads for another month

The election is settled, but the nation is far from it.

Before Election Day in the U.S., Facebook hit pause on all political and social issue ads. At the time, the company made it clear that the precautionary measure designed to turn off one potential faucet of misinformation would be temporary, but it couldn’t say how long the policy would remain in effect.

Now, Facebook says the temporary ban will continue for at least another month. The decision to extend the special policy was implemented Wednesday, four days after Joe Biden’s election victory — and four days after it became clear that Trump had no intention of conceding a lost election.

“The temporary pause for ads about politics and social issues in the US continues to be in place as part of our ongoing efforts to protect the election,” the company wrote in an update to its previous announcement. “Advertisers can expect this to last another month, though there may be an opportunity to resume these ads sooner.”

Facebook’s ongoing political ad pause throws a wrench into things in Georgia, where two January runoff elections will decide which party will control the Senate heading into President-Elect Biden’s administration. A friendly Senate is essential for many of Biden’s biggest proposals, including a $2 trillion climate package that could reshape the American economy and push the country toward an electrified future that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels.

Over the last few days, a shocking number of Republicans have “humored” the president’s refusal to transfer power in spite of an unambiguous election call and Biden’s decisive win in Pennsylvania, which cut off any potential paths to victory for his opponent. The Trump campaign’s last-ditch flurry of legal challenges have presented little of substance so far, and they might ultimately be more about dividing a nation and sowing doubt than prevailing in court.

Joe Biden wins the 2020 US presidential election

Following a tense week of vote tallying, Joe Biden won the state of Pennsylvania and vaulted ahead in the race to become the next president of the United States. Biden’s win in the critical state put him over the threshold of 270 electoral votes, cutting off all avenues for his opponent.

Biden prevailed by flipping key states that went to Trump in 2016, including Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Trump again won in Florida and Ohio, but in the end was unable to chart a path to an electoral victory. Biden also leads by millions in the popular vote, with a record number of votes cast this year, many through the mail.

As his vice president, Kamala Harris will make history in myriad ways, becoming the first woman — and the first woman of color — to occupy the office. Harris, a California senator and the state’s former attorney general, built a career in the tech industry’s front yard.

Shattered barriers aside, this year’s election will likely go down in infamy for many in the U.S. The race was the strangest in recent years, characterized by rising storms of misinformation, fears over the fate of scaled-up vote-by-mail systems and a deadly virus that’s claimed well over 230,000 American lives. Biden’s campaign was forced to adapt to drive-up rallies and digital campaigning instead of relying on door-knocking and face-to-face interaction to mobilize the vote.

The circumstances of the election also created the perfect ecosystem for misinformation — a situation made worse by President Trump’s false claim of victory early Wednesday morning and ongoing claims of Democratic voter fraud. Trump appears to be in no mood to concede the election, but in the end the vote is what it is and Joe Biden will take office on January 20, 2021.

While a sitting president rejecting that unwritten democratic norm would be alarming, Trump’s decision will have little bearing on the ultimate political outcome. Whatever the coming days hold, the U.S. is entering into a new and unprecedented phase of uncertainty in which misinformation abounds and political tensions and fears of politically-motivated violence are running high.

The former vice president’s win brings a four year run of Trumpism to an abrupt end, though its effects will still reverberate throughout American politics, likely for decades. It also ushers in a new era in which Joe Biden plans to draw on the influence of an unlikely coalition of Democrats from across the political spectrum. The Senate still hangs in the balance with two tight races in Georgia headed to January runoffs.

Biden has laid out plans for sweeping climate action, and a healthcare extension that would cover more Americans and provide an opt-in Medicare-like public option. But his ability to enact most of those grand plans would hinge on a Democratic Senate. While either party was likely to continue pursuing more aggressive regulation for the technology industry, we’ll be watching closely for signals of what’s to come for tech policy.

But even without the Senate, the president-elect may be capable of making a swift and critical impact where it’s most needed: the coronavirus pandemic. In the continued absence of a national plan to fight the virus and a White House that downplays its deadliness and discourages mask-wearing, COVID-19 is raging out of control in states across the country, signaling a very deadly winter just around the corner.

 

Close US election results plunge social media into nightmare misinformation scenario

When Trump spoke early Wednesday morning, it became clear which long-dreaded election scenario an anxious nation was on the cusp of.

“This is a fraud on the American public,” Trump said in remarks delivered from the White House, mixing his campaign with the presidency. “We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election.”

Trump’s claim of victory is false — votes are still being counted in a close race — but they heralded his campaign’s intention to work the misinformation ecosystem he’s cultivated over the last four years. His strategy so far is what he’s long signaled: seize on the late tallies for vote-by-mail ballots, which were expected to favor Democrats, to manufacture a conspiracy.

On Wednesday, Twitter hid three of Trump’s five recent tweets behind warning labels stating that their content was “disputed and might be misleading.” Most recently, the president tweeted “They are working hard to make up 500,000 vote advantage in Pennsylvania disappear — ASAP. Likewise, Michigan and others!”

In another recent missive, he circumvented a restricted tweet’s engagement limits, amplifying it to his own follower base where it was retweeted 32,000 times. The tweet’s author issued a correction on his original conspiratorial claims about Michigan’s Democratic vote count, but by then the horse had already left the barn.

The Trump campaign’s baseless fear mongering about the integrity of vote-by-mail ballots began well before the election. In September, a campaign video showed Donald Trump Jr. rail against Democrats, who he accused of planning to “add millions of fraudulent ballots that can cancel your vote and overturn the election.” There was no evidence of that then, nor is there now. The video, and its calls for an “army for Trump” promoted Facebook to change its rules around voter intimidation.

In the months preceding the election, Trump repeatedly declined to commit to conceding the election in the event that he loses, a stance that Americans may watch play out in realtime in the coming hours and days.

Democrats have been hit with misinformation labels too, though none of their offenders are actively in a contested race (so far). Twitter labeled Center for American Progress President Neera Tanden’s tweet claiming that Biden had reached 270 electoral votes with a warning saying it was “disputed.”

Other warnings popped up as some states were called early last night. After Fox News struck out alone in calling Arizona for Biden, some political reporters tweeting about those results had their tweets paired with a label stating that the race had not yet been called.

Facebook and Twitter’s philosophies differ on how to handle a president prone to sowing political misinformation. Twitter gives rule-breaking election tweets a warning label flagging them as potentially “misleading.” It screens them behind that message and restricts replies, retweets and likes, severely limiting their viral potential.

Twitter also ditched political advertising outright a year ago. While Facebook still allows them, the company implemented a blackout on those ads after polls closed that remains in effect now.

Facebook adds its own set of “labels” to election posts that break the rules, though they are designed to mostly point users to contextual, factual information rather than to offer explicit warnings about false claims. As a direct response to Trump’s premature claims of victory, Facebook also rolled out an eye-catching set of messages across Facebook and Instagram reminding users that votes were still being counted

Of course, misinformation also thrives beyond Facebook, Twitter and even YouTube in places it’s more difficult to track, moving from obscure chans to mainstream social media and back again, mutating as it goes. Early Wednesday, Trump was happy to make his dangerous claim of unearned victory on live television — and so far, many news networks obliged by broadcasting them. That’s cause for concern too.

Both Facebook and Twitter prepared special policies for a close, ambiguous election night, but their rules will be put to the real test in the coming days as fears of political violence and challenges to the election outcome escalate.

Twitter restricts Trump’s tweet raising fears that foes would ‘steal’ the election

With key wins notched in a few states, Trump didn’t declare victory prematurely on election night as social media companies feared — but he did baselessly raise the specter of voter fraud.

“We are up BIG, but they are trying to STEAL the Election,” Trump tweeted. “We will never let them do it. Votes cannot be cast after the Polls are closed!”

Twitter took action against the tweet quickly, placing it behind a warning and adding a misinformation label. The company explained its actions in a tweet, stating that the president’s message contained a “potentially misleading claim about an election.”

Social media companies began crafting new policies for the unusual circumstances of the 2020 election and its worrisome misinformation ecosystem in the months leading up to November. Due to a huge spike in mail-in voting related to the pandemic, results were expected to be more ambiguous on election night in 2020 than in past years and so far that’s proven true.

Twitter also said in a September policy announcement that it would remove or label any tweets that incite unlawful activity in order to “prevent a peaceful transfer of power or orderly succession.”

While tweets that Twitter restricts remain online, they’re placed behind a warning message that users must first click through in order to view their content. Restricted tweets also have their retweets, likes and comments disabled, reducing their reach.

A QAnon supporter is headed to Congress

Marjorie Taylor Greene’s win in a Georgia House race means that QAnon is headed to Capitol Hill.

Greene openly supports the complex, outlandish conspiracy theory, which posits that President Trump is waging a secret war against a shadowy group of elites who engage in child sex trafficking, among other far-fetched claims. The FBI identified QAnon as a potential inspiration for “conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists” last year.

Greene’s win is a startling moment of legitimacy for the dangerous conspiracy, though it wasn’t unexpected: her Democratic opponent dropped out of the race for personal reasons in September, clearing her path to the House seat.

Greene’s support for the constellation of conspiracy theories isn’t particularly quiet — nor are her other beliefs. Called a “future Republican star” by President Trump, Greene has been vocal in expressing racist and Islamophobic views. Greene has also espoused September 11 “truther” theories and criticized the use of masks, a scientifically-supported measure that reduces transmission of the novel coronavirus.

QAnon, once a belief only at the far-right fringes of the internet, has inspired followers to engage in real-world criminal acts, including fatally shooting a mob boss in Staten Island and blocking the Hoover Dam bridge in an armed standoff.

The conspiracy’s adherents have also hijacked the hashtag #savethechildren, interfering with legitimate child safety efforts and exporting their extreme ideas into mainstream conversation under the guise of helping children. Facebook, which previously banned QAnon, limited the hashtag’s reach last month in light of the phenomenon.

Other QAnon believers are on the ballot in 2020, including in Oregon, where Jo Rae Perkins is projected to lose her race against incumbent Senate Democrat Jeff Merkley. Perkins was very open about her beliefs and in June tweeted a video pledging her allegiance as a “digital soldier” for QAnon along with a popular hashtag associated with the conspiracy movement.