Thu. Jan 20th, 2022


The author is International Policy Director at Stanford University’s Cyber ​​Policy Center

American democracy is threatened – so much is clear. That fundamental realization took a long time to get home in the US, but since the attack on the Capitol a year ago, it has finally taken hold.

The fact that there is no consensus on where the threat to the foundations of the republic comes from testifies to the depth of the crisis. However, some developments are clear: plans to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden have been hatched on Facebook; conspiracies were spread on YouTube; and the “Big Lie” that Trump did not lose the 2020 presidential election has been reinforced on numerous podcasts.

Over the past year, remarkably little has changed to ensure that hate speech does not lead to violence again. The legal and regulatory constraints on the major technology platforms remain unchanged – and as long as they do so, basic democratic principles will continue to wane.

So here are three initiatives that should help tip the balance back and revive democracy, starting with the online empire.

First, transparency regarding the operation of social media platforms is critical but rare. It took a team from ProPublica and The Washington Post more than a year to access the documents and posts in Facebook groups that provided ample evidence of incitement to hatred and violence. About 10,000 such messages were placed weekly between the November election and the storming of the Capitol.

More often than not, academics who look at our information environment quickly encounter obstacles when seeking access to data. Facebook, for example, cut off New York University researchers last summer and still refuses to provide the documents the House House select committee wants to investigate on Jan. 6.

The Platform Transparency and Accountability Act now before the Senate will create clear parameters for academic research. Similar provisions on access to information are needed for legislators, journalists and watchdogs.

Second, we need to look beyond online speech to understand the sources of harm as well as the solutions to them. Harvesting and mediating data gives advertisers the ability to build incredibly detailed target profiles. This practice of collecting sensitive categories and using them invisibly to target advertisements, including political ones, is likely to violate anti-discrimination principles.

The US needs a federal law on data protection and should at least ban advertising based on discriminatory categories. As of this month, Facebook has committed to no longer using race, sexual orientation and religion when targeting ads. But upholding the fundamental principle of non-discrimination should not depend on the goodwill of individual companies. This must be guaranteed by law.

Third, we need to move from accidental to structural liability. After the assault on the Capitol, open source investigations helped identify offenders with the images they proudly posted online themselves.

Many of the trials of those accused of participating in the violence have not yet begun. Similarly, a national commission of inquiry into everything that unfolded on January 6 has yet to get congressional approval.

The question is whether the online reinforcement of calls for violence and the possibility of an attempted insurgency will have real legal consequences. Regulatory efforts so far have focused on addressing market failures, not democratic or public interest. But the defense of democracy is worth addressing directly.

This will include clearer rules for online advertising and social media platforms, liability for technology companies that are shown to be reckless and the withdrawal of proactive obligations not to use shady tactics. Candidates entering the office should promise in advance that their teams and consultants will not spread unproven claims about election outcomes and voting requirements, nor will they spread and legitimize calls for violence.

Over the past year, we have learned that the biggest threat to American democracy is not foreign disinformation, but domestic terrorism. Given this, we need to focus on what the US can do at home to make its political system more resilient.

We can begin to strengthen democracy through more transparency and accountability in the digital realm, and an honest consideration of how we translate our rights online and how we can protect them there.



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