This post focuses on the interactions between digital platforms and public sector democratic governance systems. It is intended to help set the stage for two subsequent posts that offer suggestions about how to support positive feedback loops and discourage negative feedback loops in these interactions.
Though much of the foundations of our public governance systems (e.g., our Constitution and basic legal frameworks) have remained relatively stable over the years, many aspects of their operation have evolved. A key driver of this evolution (or some might argue, devolution) is the interaction of these political governance systems with an ever-evolving mix of communication systems, starting with mail and print media, later adding radio, television and telephony and, most recently, Internet and mobile connectivity, which have enabled communication tools such as e-mail, texting, social media, “sharing” platforms like Uber and Airbnb, and a dizzying array of apps and web-based content and services, all of which come with terms of service agreements that their users rarely read let alone understand.
Feedback loops reinforce strengths & weaknesses, benefits & harms
Whether one has taken the time to study the complexities of these interactions or simply observed with modest attentiveness the recent presidential campaign and its aftermath, it’s hard not to conclude that improvements are needed in the function of both our public sector institutions of governance and the privately-owned digital platforms we increasingly rely on in virtually every sphere of life. In addition, it seems clear that the dynamics and governance systems in each of these sectors can and often do influence the dynamics and outcomes of the other. This suggests that improvements in both sectors will be more likely to the extent we understand the nature of these interactions and, based on that understanding, adopt strategies that leverage positive synergies and minimize negative synergies in the interaction of these two sectors.
In terms of digital technology’s impact on political democracy, there is clear evidence of some positive benefits. Facebook, for example, has been used effectively to improve voter turnout, and digital technology has helped grassroots-supported campaigns mobilize and manage fundraising, advocacy and volunteers. These and other developments have helped counterbalance the expanded influence wielded by wealthy donors following the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling. And, in countries with less developed democratic systems, there’s evidence, however mixed, that platforms like Facebook and Twitter can help citizens mobilize protest movements aimed at achieving democratic reforms.
On the other hand, there are increasing signs that digital technology can be used to distort and damage key democratic functions. Recent examples of this include: the revelations about Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook data to micro-target brain stem-triggering political messages; evidence of Russia-backed efforts to use digital technology to clandestinely meddle in the 2016 presidential election and; research indicating that “fake news” tends to spread more quickly than fact-based news. And, in countries such as Myanmar and Sri Lanka, Facebook has been used to incite ethnic and religious violence.
As discussed in prior posts, a factor contributing to these problematic impacts is that the dominant digital platforms, while supporting a range of social benefits, employ business and ownership models biased in favor of prioritizing shareholder value over the needs and preferences of a broader range of stakeholders.
With their shareholders seeking growth and benefiting from share price appreciation, these platforms have evolved into algorithmically-enhanced information and communication platforms that: 1) capture and maintain user attention and personal data with unprecedented effectiveness; 2) use that attention and personal data to provide advertisers an equally unprecedented ability to micro-target manipulative messages and; 3) generate unprecedented levels of high-margin and fast-growing revenue, operational scale and market power. And, as we are now realizing more fully, this dynamic is yielding socially undesirable impacts that remain poorly understood and, for the most part, outside the scope of significant public oversight and control.
In considering whether and how the government sector can and should act to constrain harmful impacts associated with the platform sector, it is helpful to remember that: 1) positive and negative feedback loops flow in both directions between these two sectors; 2) the U.S. political system exhibits signs of deep and arguably growing dysfunction, reflected in, among other things; 3) a Congressional approval rating in the teens, reflecting how little the nation’s legislative body is trusted by the citizens it is supposed to represent.
Facebook’s role in the election as an example
A recent example of the two-way interaction between political institutions and digital platforms is the series of events leading up to the current crisis of confidence that at least temporarily hammered Facebook’s stock price and brought its CEO Mark Zuckerberg to Washington for two days of congressional testimony. Roughly speaking, the chronology of events and interactions went something like this:
- The prioritization of growth over privacy protection in Facebook’s internal governance apparently led to violations (in spirit and perhaps in letter) of privacy rules the company had agreed to in a 2011 FTC consent decree requiring it to protect user data.
- The weakness of the FTC as a federal oversight agency contributed to a prolonged failure to address these violations until, roughly seven years later, a whistleblower decided to speak out.
- This combination of weakness in both private and public governance systems led to the release of personal data on 87 million Facebook users to Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm that has been involved in several U.S. and overseas electoral campaigns, including Donald Trump’s unexpectedly successful presidential run in the U.S., where the electoral system has been flooded with dark money since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling.
- This, in turn, has led to growing public pressure on government officials to more intensively regulate Facebook and other digital platforms and to better protect the privacy of citizens and the health of the U.S. electoral process in the era of Citizens United, social media and big data.
- This increased pressure for regulation will very likely be countered by well funded lobbying efforts by platforms, ISPs and other big data-dependent corporations, in spite of the fact that many of the citizens who use these companies’ services and generate data that contributes to their market value are likely to support stronger privacy protections.
- Any movement toward legislation triggered by this mix of public pressure and industry pushback will occur in a highly polarized and poorly functioning Congress where winning political points and upcoming elections will likely be prioritized over thoughtful discussion of the complex issues and potential unintended consequences involved in regulating (or deciding not to regulate) the digital economy.
If we don’t fix government, can government help fix Facebook?
This last point raises the question of how well equipped our institutions of public governance are to design and manage laws and regulations that address current and potential future harms associated with digital platforms. While scholars, pundits and journalists have had much to say about this, this short video provides a short, simple yet strong case that the answer to this question is, unfortunately, “not well at all.”
The video, created by an organization called Represent.us, explains how the interests of economic elites and large businesses are reflected in decisions made by Congress while the preferences of the vast majority of citizens are not reflected in these decisions.
So what we face today is a combination of the following dynamics:
1) Digital platforms have aggregated an unprecedented level of market, financial, informational, analytical and manipulative power. While this power has had some beneficial impacts on democratic governance, it has also been harnessed by various interests, including the Russian government, to distort U.S. electoral systems in destructive and poorly understood ways. Unfortunately, the business models and history of these platforms (e.g., Facebook’s treatment of data privacy over the years) raise justifiable doubts about the extent to which they can reliably prioritize support for key features necessary for healthy democracy, including: an informed citizenry capable of and inclined to engage in critical thinking and civic participation; a robust and uncorrupted electoral process and; a governmental apparatus reflecting the will of the people.
2) Political governance systems face increased pressure to regulate dominant platform companies at a time when these public governance systems themselves are suffering deeply entrenched functional problems, extreme partisan polarization and historically low approval ratings.
3) The combination of #1 and #2 points to significant risks that the problems and negative synergies characterizing these two sectors will more than offset any benefits achieved via incremental efforts to address these problems.
As I’ll be explaining in the next two posts (see outline below), a direction I believe can support sustainably positive synergies between these two sectors is to simultaneously address key deficiencies in democracy within each of them.
Below is an outline, with links, to all the posts in this series. Unless otherwise noted, bolding in quotations is mine, added for emphasis.
- Expanding Democratic Governance in the Digital Anthropocene
- The digital anthropocene: a pivotal & high-risk phase of human history
- Empathy + technology: a powerful recipe for shared prosperity & peace
- More (and more effective) democracy as part of the solution
- The tech sector can help lead the next phase in democracy’s evolution
- Democracy & Digital Platforms: A Match Made in Heaven or in Hell?
- The Facebook F-up as a wake-up call
- Where to look for solutions?
- Serving Users (to Advertisers to Benefit Shareholders)
- An IPO + mobile ads: 2012 as a turning point for Facebook
- Too busy driving growth to focus on privacy?
- Serving users or serving users to advertisers?
- Understanding & addressing social harms
- Data as Power: Approaches to Righting the Balance
- Our data is tracked & locked in a “black box” we don’t control or understand
- The EU tightens privacy protections amid mixed signals in the U.S.
- Platforms as “information fiduciaries”
- Reallocating power & benefits when users share their data
- Shifting from an “Attention Economy” to a more efficient “Intention Economy”
- Who owns and controls the data used to develop AI?
- Data as labor that should be financially compensated
- Data as an infrastructural public good
- A “data tax” that generates a “data dividend” we all share
- Data portability as means to enhance competition & consumer choice
- The Power of Dominant Platforms: It’s Not Just About “Bigness”
- New forms of concentrated power call for new remedies
- Platforms wield transmission, gatekeeping & scoring power
- Antitrust needs an updated framework to address platform power
- Creating a civic infrastructure of checks & balances for the digital economy
- Democracy & Corporate Governance: Challenging the Divine Right of Capital
- A “generative” or “extractive” business model?
- Dethroning kings & capital
- Moving beyond capitalism’s aristocratic form
- Embracing economic democracy as a next-step Enlightenment
- Platform Cooperativism: Acknowledging the Rights of “Produsers”
- Reclaiming the Internet’s sharing & democratizing potential
- Scaling a platform co-op: easier said than done
- The #BuyTwitter campaign as a call for change
- Encouraging the wisdom of crowds or the fears of mobs?
- Interactions Between Political & Platform Systems
- Feedback loops reinforce strengths & weaknesses, benefits & harms
- Facebook’s role in the election as an example
- If we don’t fix government, can government help fix Facebook?
- A Purpose-Built Platform to Strengthen Democracy
- Is Zuck’s lofty vision compatible with Facebook’s business model?
- Designed to bolster democracy, not shareholder returns
- Democratic Oversight of Platform Management by “Produsers”
- Facebook, community and democracy
- Is Facebook a community or a dictatorship?
- Giving users a vote in Facebook’s governance
- Technology can help users participate in FB governance
- Evolving from corporate dictatorship toward digital democracy