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Social media controls need wider approach, says study

09 May 2019

Smart regulation and “human responses,” rather than a narrow focus on content moderation alone, are needed to counter the threat to democracy posed by digital media platforms like Facebook as they currently operate, Law Foundation-backed research has found.

The study, Digital Threats to Democracy, makes recommendations on dealing with the risks and threats caused by social media and digital platform monopolies.

It says the recent “Christchurch call”, seeking global agreement on preventing terrorism promotion on social media, is a positive initiative but falls short of dealing with the scale of the challenge.

“Clearly there is value in starting with a specific goal, such as ending the spread of terrorism online,” says lead researcher Marianne Elliott. “But it is critical that the Prime Minister and her advisors look beyond immediate concerns about violent extremism and content moderation, to consider the wider context in which digital media is having a growing and increasingly negative impact on our democracy.”

As well as regulating social media platforms, Ms Elliott’s study team calls for several far-reaching and as yet untested “human responses” to rein in the ill-effects of “platform monopolies,” the dominance of the social media market by a few players.

The team’s proposals include collective action to influence the major platforms, through groups like technology workers and digital media users using their leverage to demand ethical product design. The study argues that fake news can be countered by investing more in public interest media and alternative platforms, leading to a more democratic internet.

It also points to evidence that online platforms enabling citizen participation in decision-making can improve public trust and lead to more citizen-oriented policies.

“It’s critical that this moment of global cooperation is used to address the wider, structural drivers of the biggest threats posed to democracy by digital media. These include the power that a handful of privately-owned platforms wield over so many aspects of our lives,” Ms Elliott says.

“We must do this while maintaining and building upon the many opportunities digital media simultaneously offer to tackle some of the biggest challenges facing democracy, including inequity of access and declining engagement.”

Action recommended

The study recommends action in the following areas:

1. Restore a genuinely multi-stakeholder approach to internet governance, including meaningful mechanisms for collective engagement by citizens/users;

2. Refresh antitrust and competition regulation, taxation regimes and related enforcement mechanisms to align them across like-minded liberal democracies and restore competitive fairness;

3. Recommit to publicly funded democratic infrastructure including public interest media and the online platforms that afford citizen participation and deliberation;

4. Regulate for greater transparency and accountability from the platforms including algorithmic transparency and accountability for verifying the sources of political advertising;

5. Revisit regulation of privacy and data protection to better protect indigenous rights to data sovereignty and redress the failures of a consent-based approach to data management; and

6. Recalibrate policies and protections to address not only individual rights and privacy but also collective impact and wellbeing.

Marianne Elliott is co-director of research, policy and communication think-tank The Workshop. Her research team on the year-long Digital Threats to Democracy project included Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw (The Workshop), Dr Kathleen Kuehn (Victoria University of Wellington), Dr Leon Salter (Massey University) and Ella Brownlie (The Workshop).

Last updated on the 16th September 2019