The best way to fight election disinformation is to fight surveillance capitalism

Networked technology has the power to expand our democracy and give more people a say than ever before. The Internet has given an urgently needed megaphone to young people organizing to stop climate change and movements working to hold powerful people and institutions accountable. But over the last decade we’ve witnessed how this same power can be used to silence voices, manipulate opinion, and trample our basic rights at a mass scale.

As the US approaches an election that will shape the future of our nation, there’s an increasing focus on the role that companies like Facebook and Google play in our information ecosystem. The Internet is becoming more and more centralized. Silicon Valley giants have amassed unprecedented power to influence public opinion and control the free flow of ideas. And their monopolistic data harvesting business models make it possible to weaponize that power in ways we are only beginning to understand.

What we should have learned from Cambridge Analytica, but didn’t

While concerns about big platform’s privacy and content moderation practices have been growing for years, they reached a boiling point with the Cambridge Analytica scandal. But did we learn anything?

People were rightfully outraged by Cambridge Analytica’s scheme to use misappropriated personal data to micro-target and manipulate individual voters. But the real scandal is that aside from misusing data, Cambridge Analytica was essentially using Facebook as it is designed to be used.

Facebook has built the greatest platform in the history of the world for influencing human behavior on a massive scale. Simply put, Facebook ads are too effective. Most of the time the stakes are low, people might be persuaded to buy something they don’t need or use an inferior laundry detergent. But when it comes to political advertising, the very foundations of democracy and a free society are at risk. That is why we need to insist on more significant, systemic changes to how these ads work.

Cambridge Analytica showed us how the enormous amount of data that social media companies vacuum up can be used not just to invade our privacy, but to manipulate how we think. But since then, public discussion has focused mostly on speech itself, rather than on the data harvesting and algorithmic amplification that turns speech into a weapon.

Instead, we should focus on the underlying, systemic problems. Platforms can and should be held accountable for business practices that are fundamentally incompatible with democracy and human rights. But the details matter. Platforms need to listen to the experiences of marginalized people when crafting their moderation and ads policies.

From the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) to SESTA / FOSTA we’ve seen too many times how misguided tech policy decisions can backfire, and harm the very people that lawmakers and policy wonks say they’re trying to protect. But it’s also not enough to say “hands off the Internet,” at a time when it’s clear that Silicon Valley giants are exploiting that mentality to profit off of abusive practices. So what should we be calling for?

Some ideas for how to un-break the Internet

There is no one silver bullet policy that will fix everything that’s wrong with the Internet or prevent the spread of hate speech and misinformation. Many proposals we’ve seen, from both Democrats and Republicans, are deeply misguided and would lead to the widespread censorship of marginalized voices, or other adverse effects.

Here are some ideas that we think might work, in the interest of expanding the conversation about content moderation. We propose that instead of playing “whack-a-mole,” calling out platforms over specific accounts or posts they allow, we should take a more systemic approach to platform accountability, and call for:

  • 100% transparency on advertising policies and spending.
    Facebook has the ad library, but it’s barely functional. And sponsored content posts like the ones Mike Bloomberg is buying up en masse weren’t even included until recently. We need every Big Tech company to offer total transparency into the ads that run on their platforms, who paid for them, the reasons they were approved or disapproved, and who they were targeted at. Ad transparency libraries should be easily searchable and provide researchers and journalists with the tools and data they need to provide meaningful oversight.

We don’t have all the answers. But we hope these ideas will help the civil society community brainstorm. For more of our thoughts on this, check out this interview our deputy director Evan Greer did with the folks over at EFF.

We believe there's hardly anything as important as ensuring that our shared future has freedom of expression and creativity at its core.

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