So said Kati Marton, a Trustee of the Central European University and a speaker on the opening panel of 2019’s Global Philanthropy Forum which is taking place in Redwood City, California. It was a theme echoed through much of the discussions on the first day of the event with many speakers discussing the weaponization of the social media platforms and the fact that they are now perceived as real threats to democracy. It was notable how technology companies and social media platforms are being portrayed as the new demons. Companies which in the past were seen to have the potential to be protectors and amplifiers of progressive ideas (remember Google’s strap line ‘Don’t be Evil’?) are now seen as a major part of the problem.
Larry Kramer from the Hewlett Foundation illustrated this well – he asked us to imagine that we’re in 1964 and we wanted to produce provocative hate speech – there may have been one or two far right or far left outlets that would have carried the material, or self-publishing a pamphlet would have been an option. But in an era of large network television companies which broadly adhered to professional editorial standards – the audience for that hate speech would have been mercifully small. Fast forward to the present and in Kramer’s words – we’re ‘drowning in a sea of propaganda’ where anyone can publish via Twitter, YouTube, or Facebook and through hyperbole, misinformation, and emotional manipulation, reach millions and in the case of the Christchurch terrorist attacks – livestream murder through Facebook Live.
There were calls for platforms to bear the costs of fixing the problems – but the speakers and the audience were short on solutions to the existential threat now posed by the social media platforms – should they be regulated and how? How do we balance first amendment freedoms with a need to control hate speech, protect vulnerable people and communities, and restore trust? At Luminate, we’re increasingly focused on these issues. We are calling for a Bill of Data Rights to better protect individuals’ data and to prevent its manipulation and misuse, and we have launched the Digital Democracy Charter and Action Plan to support policymakers and all those working to tackle the growing issues of online hate, disinformation and polarization.
Jane Wales admonished Larry Diamond from Stanford – ‘we invite you because you cheer us up’ but his predictions and those of many others were overwhelmingly pessimistic about the prospects for overturning the democratic deficit. Despite the scope of the problem we face, there is reason for optimism. The Silicon Valley tech giants have begun, possibly reluctantly, to come to the table with policymakers and civil society leaders to take some responsibility. Most importantly, citizens are waking up to the reality that the incredible power of technology can change our lives for the better or for the worse. People are asking questions about whether constant engagement with digital media is healthy for democracy. Awareness and education are the first steps toward the organizing and action required to build a new social contract for digital democracy.