Can so­cial me­dia be fixed? Let’s start with trans­parency

The Review - - OPINION - Lata Nott Columnist Lata Nott is ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the First Amend­ment Cen­ter of the Free­dom Fo­rum In­sti­tute. Con­tact her via email at lnott@ free­dom­fo­, or fol­low her on Twit­ter at @LataNott.

This week, ex­ec­u­tives from Twit­ter, Face­book and Google tes­ti­fied be­fore Congress. Again. This was the third con­gres­sional hear­ing this year where the in­ter­net gi­ants were grilled on their con­tent poli­cies, their pri­vacy and se­cu­rity prac­tices and their role in democ­racy.

It’s been a rough cou­ple of years for so­cial me­dia plat­forms. They’ve come un­der fire for so many dif­fer­ent things it can be hard to re­mem­ber all of them.

To re­cap: For en­abling Rus­sian pro­pa­gan­dists to in­flu­ence our pres­i­den­tial election and ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions to find new re­cruits. For al­low­ing fake news sto­ries to go vi­ral. For ex­ac­er­bat­ing po­lit­i­cal po­lar­iza­tion by trap­ping their users in “fil­ter bub­bles.” For giv­ing hate mon­gers and con­spir­acy the­o­rists a plat­form to reach a wider au­di­ence.

For fil­ter­ing or down-rank­ing con­ser­va­tive view­points. For col­lect­ing pri­vate user data and sell­ing it to the high­est bid­der. For si­phon­ing prof­its away from strug­gling lo­cal news or­ga­ni­za­tions.

The so­cial me­dia plat­forms are tak­ing var­i­ous ac­tions to mit­i­gate th­ese prob­lems. But every po­ten­tial so­lu­tion seems to bring forth an­other unan­tic­i­pated con­se­quence. YouTube is cur­rently try­ing to de­bunk con­spir­acy videos on its site by dis­play­ing links to more ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion right along­side of them — but there’s con­cern that the pres­ence of a link to an au­thor­i­ta­tive source will make a video seem more le­git­i­mate, even if the text and link di­rectly con­tra­dict the video.

Twit­ter CEO Jack Dorsey has ex­pressed a de­sire to break up his users’ fil­ter bub­bles by in­ject­ing al­ter­na­tive view­points in their feeds. But new re­search sug­gests that ex­pos­ing peo­ple to op­pos­ing po­lit­i­cal views may ac­tu­ally cause them to dou­ble down on their own — iron­i­cally, ac­tu­ally in­creas­ing po­lit­i­cal po­lar­iza­tion.

Face­book in­sti­tuted a sys­tem for users to flag ques­tion­able news sto­ries for re­view by their factcheck­ers — but soon ran into the prob­lem that users would falsely re­port sto­ries as “fake news” if they dis­agreed with the premise of the story, or just wanted to tar­get the spe­cific pub­lisher.

Some doubt the sin­cer­ity be­hind th­ese ef­forts. As for­mer Red­dit CEO Ellen Pao says, “So­cial me­dia com­pa­nies and the lead­ers who run them are re­warded for fo­cus­ing on reach and en­gage­ment, not for pos­i­tive im­pact or for pro­tect­ing sub­sets of users from harm.” In other words, what’s good for a com­pany’s bot­tom line and what’s good for so­ci­ety as a whole are of­ten at odds with each other.

It’s no won­der that the govern­ment is look­ing to step into the fray. If the nu­mer­ous con­gres­sional hear­ings don’t make that clear, a pro­posed plan to reg­u­late so­cial me­dia plat­forms that leaked from Sen­a­tor Mark Warner’s of­fice last month ought to. Just last week, Pres­i­dent Trump an­nounced that he wanted to take ac­tion against Google and Twit­ter for al­legedly not dis­play­ing con­ser­va­tive me­dia in his search re­sults.

It’s un­likely that the pres­i­dent would be able to do much about that, just as it’s un­likely that Congress would be able to force Face­book to say, ban all fake news sto­ries from its plat­form. Twit­ter, Face­book and Google are all pri­vate com­pa­nies, and the First Amend­ment pro­hibits govern­ment of­fi­cials from lim­it­ing or com­pelling speech by pri­vate ac­tors.

So what can the govern­ment do? It can en­cour­age (and, if nec­es­sary, reg­u­late) th­ese com­pa­nies to be more trans­par­ent.

It’s shocking how lit­tle we know about the al­go­rithms, con­tent mod­er­a­tion prac­tices and in­ter­nal poli­cies that con­trol what in­for­ma­tion we re­ceive and how we com­mu­ni­cate with one an­other. It’s reck­less that we only be­come aware of th­ese things when some­thing cat­a­strophic hap­pens.

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