Social media platforms have become very good at sorting through content and creating customized content feeds for each user. These algorithms are a core function to platform companies’ business models; they are designed to keep users on the platform. However, the negative impacts that such algorithms have on our democracies are coming to the fore. In their attempt to curate ever-relevant content for users, push people into more radicalized viewpoints and omit content that could provide alternate, or more balanced views.
In this video, CIGI Senior Fellow Taylor Owen discusses ways that governments can better regulate platform companies. He argues that there is no single solution that will solve this problem, rather, a combination of policies related to social media content, data and competition must be implemented in concert.
Social media platforms have been tremendously empowering and have led to real social progress. But to ensure that platforms remain a social good, policy makers should consider these recommendations as a way to reduce the threats to public safety and democratic integrity.
We all know there's lots of stuff on the internet — a lot of stuff. There's too much for anyone to consume. None of us want to be bombarded with information overload. But, on the other hand, we don't want to miss out on what our friends and colleagues are doing.
Platform companies have done a really good job of filtering all that stuff and serving up customized results based on our individual preferences. They do this through algorithms, computer code that curates content based on our online habits. But research shows that these automated systems are radicalizing and isolating people from the broader civic society. Platform companies, like Facebook, use these algorithms to capture our interest and keep us using their website. The algorithms have not been programmed to have civic responsibility or to provide accurate information; they're built to prioritize content that will get clicks. So fake news and clickbait content thrive in this environment.
The issue is that democracy, at its core, requires informed citizens to legitimize collective governance. And for over a hundred years, it was the role of journalists to provide citizens with fair, balanced, fact-checked information. And that simply isn't happening anymore.
Everyone, including the media, is competing for our attention and so more and more people are reading or watching stories online that haven't been properly researched, are heavily biased and persuasive and, in many cases, are just plain fake news.
So how do we fix this? Well, there's no single-issue solution that's going to solve this problem. Rather, we need a combination of policies that are implemented in concert across multiple agencies of the public sector.
We need to tackle this issue in three key areas.
First is how we deal with content on these platforms. We must combat fake news and misinformation with digital literacy programs, civic journalism, better research and radical ad transparency, to reveal how the system works. Actions such as these will work to rebuild the public's trust in our democracy.
We need to establish and enforce rules that give individuals control over how data about them is collected, used and monetized. Beyond user-generated data, we need to address the algorithms and artificial intelligence systems that are the cornerstone of the platform companies’ business models. Self-governance isn't the answer. Governments should establish algorithmic auditing, public reporting and new ethical and legal norms for the deployment of artificial intelligence.
And, finally, we need to address issues of competition. Governments are entrusted with protecting the public against the exploitation of concentrated market power, especially in information markets that sustain our democracy. Consumers should have meaningful choices to find, send and receive information over digital media. This means that governments need to modernize monopoly and antitrust regulations. And to strengthen restrictions on mergers and acquisitions to limit big tech platforms from getting even bigger, thus ensuring that consumers have choice.
Social media platforms have been tremendously empowering and have led to some real social progress. I'm not suggesting we reverse the current technological development, rather, the goal must be to manage it in ways that reduce the threats to public safety and democratic integrity.