Greater transparency online is key to defending democracy

The writer is director of international policy at the Cyber ​​Policy Center at Stanford University.

American democracy is under threat, that’s clear. This fundamental realization has been slow to take hold in the United States, but since the assault on Capitol Hill a year ago, it has finally gained traction.

The fact that there is no consensus on the origin of the threat to the foundations of the republic 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 concocted on Facebook; conspiracies have spread on YouTube; and the “Big Lie” that Trump did not lose the 2020 presidential election has been amplified on numerous podcasts.

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

Here are three initiatives that should help tip the scales backwards and revitalize democracy, starting with the online domain.

First, transparency in how social media platforms work is essential, but rare. It took more than a year for a team from ProPublica and the Washington Post to gain access to documents and posts from Facebook groups that offered ample evidence of the fomenting of hatred and violence. About 10,000 such messages were published each week between the November elections and the capture of Capitol Hill.

More often than not, academics who study our information environment quickly run into obstacles when trying to access data. For example, Facebook interrupted researchers at New York University last summer and still refuses to provide documents that the House special committee on the January 6 attack would like to investigate.

The Platform Transparency and Accountability Act currently before the Senate would create clear parameters for academic research. Similar access to information provisions are needed for lawmakers, journalists and watchdogs.

Second, we need to look beyond online discourse to understand the sources of harm as well as the solutions to them. Data harvesting and brokering gives advertisers the ability to create incredibly detailed targeting profiles. This practice whereby sensitive categories are collected and used invisibly to target advertisements, including political ones, is arguably at odds with anti-discrimination principles.

The United States needs federal data protection law and, at the very least, should ban advertising based on discriminatory categories. Facebook has pledged to no longer use race, sexual orientation, and religion to target ads, starting this month. But respect for the fundamental principle of non-discrimination should not depend on the goodwill of individual companies. It must be guaranteed by law.

Third, we must move from an ancillary responsibility to a structural responsibility. After the assault on Capitol Hill, open source investigations identified the perpetrators with the images they had proudly posted online themselves.

Numerous trials of those accused of participating in the violence have not yet started. Likewise, a national commission of inquiry into everything that happened on January 6 has yet to receive congressional approval.

The question is whether the online amplification of calls for violence and the possibility of an attempted insurgency will have real legal consequences. Regulatory efforts have so far focused on resolving market failures, not democratic or public policy failures. But defending democracy is worth tackling head on.

This would include clearer rules for online advertising and social media platforms, the accountability of tech companies that prove to be reckless, and extracting proactive commitments not to use shady tactics. Candidates for elections must make a commitment from the outset that their teams and consultants will not disseminate unproven claims about election results and voting requirements, nor disseminate and legitimize calls for violence.

Over the past year, we have learned that the greatest threat to American democracy is not foreign disinformation, but domestic terrorism. In light of this, we need to focus on what the United States can do at home to make their political system more resilient.

We can start to strengthen democracy through more transparency and accountability in the digital realm, and an honest look at how our rights are translated online and how we can protect them there.

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