Scandalous Design: How Social Media Platforms’ Responses to Scandal Impacts Campaigns and Elections

Bossetta, Michael
Social Media + Society

Given the role of social media in the modern election, scholars should not only study how platforms function for political actors; we should also study how platforms function as political actors. This essay therefore introduces the concept of scandalous design, which refers to programmatic changes in how social media operate in response to scandal. On the one hand, scandals can encourage changes in the architectural design of social media as products—that is, how platform providers introduce or manipulate features to mitigate the consequences of scandal. On the other, the concept of scandalous design recognizes the agency of these platforms as companies, who alter their organizational protocols in pursuit of furthering their business interests and generating goodwill with governments. The essay’s main argument is that deconstructing platforms’ responses to scandal can provide an empirical glimpse into how social media companies position themselves as political actors. I break down scandalous design into four typological groups: the introduction and manipulation of platform features, and changes to platforms’ analog and digital protocols. The typology is buttressed by recent empirical examples from elections in the United States, European Union, India, Brazil, and China. Without cognizance of how platforms’ operation—both digitally as products and politically as actors—evolves in response to scandal, scholars risk overlooking a key mechanism that contextualizes social media’s role in contemporary elections.