How to make Social Media work for society

The relationship between social media and quality information can be discussed. Instead of reductive measures: some productive suggestions.

11 minutes read

Social media is getting a lot of bad reputation lately:

  • It’s assumed to be monopolistic, stifling competition and innovation, depriving both users and advertisers of choice and driving up prices (paid in data or money, respectively).
  • It’s thought to be detrimental to, and parasitic of quality journalism, siphoning off advertising revenue while using media’s free content to lure eyeballs to its platforms.
  • Its algorithms, designed for stickiness and engagement1 The terminology of “stickiness” is seen as a cute term for “addictive”, just as “engaging” to be just one letter apart from the much truer “enraging”., are deemed responsible for growing discord in society, including the dissemination of conspiracy theories and the incitement of political violence and terrorism.
  • It’s part and parcel of the global debate regarding data privacy and security in the digital age.

These allegations have weight, as they touch on cornerstones of our economy, as well as our society and democracy. They are also relevant, because social media is so ubiquitous and part of our everyday life – even when off-platform, as I can attest as someone not on Facebook.

What to do about it? The current debate about these perceived ills mainly revolves around four policy measures – on both sides of the Atlantic:

  • Tougher competition regulation and enforcement, including breaking up existing bundles like Facebook’s WhatsApp and Instagram. In the US, Senator Klobuchar just introduced a bill to that end. The EU did so in 2020. 2Breaking up social media would not lead to better public discourse. Parler provided more diversity in the social media market. It was not deemed to be socially advantageous compared to Facebook.
  • Introducing mandatory licensing of media content, redirecting some revenue back to the publishers. In Australia, Facebook is fighting such a measure before the Senate, with dire consequences. Back in 2009, German press publishers pressed for a similar “Google tax”. 3It ultimately failed before the European Court of Justice in 2019, inspiring the Newspaper Publishers Association (which had been leading the fight against Google & Co.) to adopt the new name Digital and Newspaper Publishers Association that same year. The EU Digital Single Market Directive, Article 15 now aims to establish publisher’s rights across the Union.
  • Making social media companies more responsible for the content propagated on their platforms. Despite Section 230, Facebook & Co. are already, albeit reluctantly, moderating content – and banning some users, including the former president. 4The debate around Section 230 merits a separate article; as do the current measures of content moderation and blocking meted out by unelected, yet powerful entities.
  • In 2018, the EU implemented the toughest privacy and security law in the world, GDPR. It has global reach, and is arguably one of the most effective regulations in the last years. The California Consumer Privacy Act, effective since 2020, is deemed comparable.

As Zephyr Teachout points out, there are good arguments to be made to break up monopolies, and start treating platforms like publishers, as well as infrastructure.5 Mark Zuckerberg liked to call Facebook akin to a utility – oblivious that utilities are natural monopolies and thus heavily regulated entities. Some of these measures might – with differing rationales – even receive bipartisan support in the US. Data privacy and security will continue to be subject of increased regulation and enforcement.

All these measures are about reigning in. They are, by nature, reductive. They push against the very business models these platforms operate under. It’s no surprise then, that the companies in question are not enthused.

The public debate around Facebook & Co. is mostly reductive – about what they should not be.

More platform competition, more publisher protection, more content responsibility and more data protection will all potentially make social media less harmful to society. At best, these measures might provide the necessary, but not the sufficient conditions to make social media work for society.

Two arguments stand out why these measures by themselves might not garner the desired change (and, depending on implementation, could even be harmful):

  1. The current ad-based business model, somewhat reigned in or not, will continue to dictate algorithms, and retention will continue to trump responsibility. 10 out of 10 times the algorithms will be quicker than any human review: All you can hope for is some mitigation, but you will not alter the trajectory, propelled by the incentives provided by what Shoshana Zuboff calls the surveillance economy.
  2. There are also compelling arguments against having some of the largest and most powerful companies in the world moderate, curtail and censor individual posts, people or even other companies. 6Glenn Greenwald makes a compelling point discussing Parler. If anything, rules of public debate should be a matter of, well, the public. 7The debates around free speech and cancel culture are already contentious, and you might have some sympathy with platforms reluctant to be pushed to “solve” these issues on a daily basis.Calls for ever stricter moderation also provide cover for censorship by authoritarian regimes. 8Freedom house rightly stresses, while “social media in particular can push citizens into polarized echo chambers and pull at the social fabric of a country, fueling hostility between different communities”, “securing internet freedom against the rise of digital authoritarianism is fundamental to protecting democracy as a whole.” 

Hence – instead of focusing on reductive measures alone – I suggest to also explore creative, productive elements. Put in another way, it’s

Time to define what social media should become.

What if social media would ensure that some of the content fed to its users is editorial: presenting factual content, discussing controversial matters of public interest, and providing contrasting informed opinions on these matters? After all, these are elements currently missing in the public realm. 9It’s worth exploring – and I might dive deeper into this in another newsletter – how the intermediary system and its different pillars mediating between citizens and politics have changed and eroded over the last two decades. If social media companies would be obliged to infuse their platform with a critical amount of quality content, ensuring sufficient reach across the network and all target groups, it could provide two benefits:

  1. A majority of users would receive similar facts, the very foundation of any productive debate.
  2. A majority of users would be exposed to different views of these facts, the fuel for productive discourse.

It’s been done before: Public broadcasting in Germany was tasked with, “in the interest of freedom of information and democracy, to ensure a diverse, comprehensive and balanced media offering”. 10Reality is, as always, far from perfect: German public television, albeit financed through mandatory fees on people and organizations, also competes with commercial broadcasters for advertising. As a consequence, in-depth reporting, educational, cultural and political magazines have either been pushed to less attractive time slots, or into obscure specialty channels. Still, public broadcasted Tagesschau remains by far the most widely watched news program, and its online and app versions are popular as well.The US FCC fairness doctrine 11Introduced in 1949, the policy was eliminated in 1987. As late as 2019, there have been multiple attempts to reinstate the doctrine, focused on “broadcast radio or television licensees”. So far, no attempts to apply similar rules to internet platforms and social media have been made. had two basic elements: It required broadcasters to devote some of their airtime to discussing controversial matters of public interest, and to air contrasting views regarding those matters.

Such editorial content – not in the monologue format of broadcasting, but in the social media way of information dissemination and co-creative development, and additional to the user-generated content – could promote and enhance public debate.

How would that work?

One possible approach: developing massive open online debates – or MOODs.

MOODs would work on the basic principles of cMOOCs (creative and dynamic massive open online courses), adapted to create platforms for shared information, interpretation, debates and solution findings in an engaging and edifying manner. Drawing on connectivist pedagogy and the experience from MOOC providers like edX, the development would look at formats like oxford debates, surveys and gamification, and last, but not least, the “sticky” algorithms developed by the industry. The behavioral scientists and programmers of social media would team up with an editorial board (newly formed, or in collaboration with existing quality media outlets, providing independent journalistic rigour) to create engagement around balanced news, background reporting and productive debates.

Instead of merely acting like publishers (in terms of user-generated content moderation), these platforms would become publishers, and in a decidedly more interactive form.

What would be the potential benefits?

For users of social media:

  • Strictly siloed information bubbles would be harder to maintain, as editorial content would involuntarily be part of every feed.
  • More fact-first (as opposed to opinion-first) content would be available, and, since less partisan, be more accessible.
  • Engagement would revolve around debate and insight, not reconfirmation of preconceptions, and not about fuelling rage and indignation Negative emotions like fear or anger are strong motivators (they’re evolutionarily linked to survival), and drive a lot of social media engagement. The effects of social media use on mental health are still being researched, but it’s probably safe to say that negative emotions aren’t helping..
  • Editorial content would at least partly fill the void left by the purge fake news and conspiracy theories (i.e. reductive measures).

For social media companies:

As with reductive regulation, the productive kind is still regulation: being told to do something that doesn’t serve the bottom line. But the expenditure for reductive will always remain just cost of doing business, and will always directly push against more profitable ways of doing business – and nothing else. Reductive regulation will always and only be a nuisance.

The expenditure for productive regulation at least has the upside of cost of creating something, of something you can actually become good at. You can get ambitious about productive regulation, and make something of it that would differentiate your service, and make it more attractive. Only productive measures afford that opportunity.

Just as TV had to find its way to better reporting than simply reading news articles, and the internet found new formats for journalism, social media still has to find what it can positively contribute to the public discourse. Productive regulation would provide a framework.

For society and democracy:

By affording social media users better access to more quality information, and exposure to different views without sowing discontent, division and demonization, we would also help to foster more social cohesion, goodwill and support for democracy.

This could also be an exiting experiment to bring democracy to the 21st century: the advent of internet and social media has been detrimental to mass media as part of our intermediary system between state and citizenry. Social media could become a new pillar of discursive public sphere, and even for political participation.

These would be the ideal outcomes, based on perfect regulation, universally embraced by social media companies and an executed so compelling and attractive, that users would be willing to engage with editorial content, creating a new form of public discourse.
Short of an ideal outcome: chances are, the outcome would be better than the status quo – and also more productive and effective than introducing only reductive regulation.

So, there you have it: My thoughts, and a rough idea, on a current debate happening on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s a debate that touches on so much I care about: how we interact and find commonality and insight in differences, how we find kindness and courage to build an ever better union (the “U” in US, EU, and UN).

I don’t fool myself that editorializing social media via a 21st century version of the fairness doctrine would be wholeheartedly embraced by the companies in question – the current model is just too neatly focused, too successful, too profitable.

But some regulation will certainly come, and it will most probably cost – both in terms of investment, as well as in forgone revenue.

The question for Facebook & Co. will be: which type of regulation is less disruptive, more sustainable for business – and what might even help turn this entire debate around?
The question to regulators is: which type of regulation, which combination of measures, will solve the various issues most effectively, and lastingly? Making social media part of the solution might be also part of the answer.

Please feel free to let me know why I’m wrong. (I borrowed this phrase from Andrew Salzberg’s great Decarbonization Transportation newsletter. I recommend it warmly.)

(This article has been updated on March 1, 2021. It now includes references to EU’s DSM Directive and GDPR. It is originally published here.)

Dirk Evenson I Managing Partner at evenson.


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