TED Circles hosted by WiTT: Here and Now: Social Media and Democracy

WiTT’s first meeting of 2021 was a members-only launch of our TED Circle.  TED Circles is a community of small groups that discuss big ideas. Our plan is to host a TED Circles talk and discussion with a small group of our members every other month in 2021.

The January event featured Yaël Eisenstat’s TED2020 talk, previously calledHow Facebook profits from polarizationbut now titled “Dear Facebook, this is how you’re breaking democracy”.

This talk was originally delivered at TED 2020, which took place online from May to July of last year. Since then, the situation has worsened: there’s little question that social media played a large role in spreading and amplifying the messages that led to a mob descending on the U.S. Capitol earlier this month. Yaël’s TED Talk gave us the opportunity discuss social media and democracy.

Some background on Yaël Eisenstat, from TED:

After years spent as a CIA analyst, diplomat and national security advisor at the White House, Yaël Eisenstat began to view the breakdown of civil discourse as the biggest threat to US democracy.

Why you should listen

During her 18 years in the national security and global affairs world, Yaël Eisenstat became increasingly concerned with how the internet was contributing to political polarization, hate and division. She set out to both publicly sound alarm bells and see what role she could play in helping reverse this course.

This search led Eisenstat to Facebook, where she was hired to head a team to protect the integrity of political advertising for elections worldwide. Realizing she was not going to change the company from within, she is now a public advocate for transparency and accountability in tech, particularly where real-world-consequences affect democracy and societies around the world.

Our discussion covered a variety of angles; our key takeaways:

  • Amplification and distortion are key issues with social media platforms.The way that the platforms are designed to use bias exploitation distorts what people are seeing.
  • The possibility of this extending from platform to platform e.g. from Facebook to WhatsApp and YouTube is a further danger
  • A few people in our group had deleted their Facebook accounts, but some felt that Facebook gave them access to friends; it can also provide small businesses with a voice. This can make it difficult to leave.
  • It was pointed out that Facebook has an Oversight Board which isbeginning to look at the question of whether Donald Trump should be be allowed back on the platform. A decision is due sometime in April. (See the New York Times article: Trump Wants Back on Facebook. This Star-Studded Jury Might Let Him: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/24/business/media/trump-facebook-oversight-board.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20210125 .
  • The EU Digitalisation Bill was mentioned as one way that the EU will have some powers to stop offensive posts.It is unclear how well this will work but it was felt to be a step towards greater transparency, awareness and control of the problem, although others wondered how easy it would be to litigate.
  • It was felt that there was an appetite in the US to break up the large platforms although it was unclear of this would stop the amplification and distortion as the business models are built around these concepts.
  • Both Republicans and Democrats seem to agree, however, that more needs to be done to control the platforms, particularly following the events of 6th January in Washington.
  • It was felt that although government regulation might help, governments take a while to act and in any case are not always the best arbiters of truth! The PR firm Edelman recently issued its Trust Barometer 2021, which found that governments, the media and nongovernmental organizations have lost the faith of the public during the COVID crisis. Their core message: Business is now the only institution seen as both competent and ethical”: https://www.edelman.com/sites/g/files/aatuss191/files/2021-01/2021-edelman-trust-barometer.pdf
  • The two measures most favoured by our group were 1. education, from an early age about thedangers of amplification and distortion and also about the possibilities of fake news, and 2. Self-regulation by the platforms, of themselves and of each other (perhaps by most using a single Oversight Board or similar institution),
  • The possibility of classing the platforms as publishers and broadcasters and regulating them in this way was discussed. Many felt this was a good idea but it was also felt that the worldwide nature of the platforms made it very difficult to control and regulate consistently. It was also suggested that the overarching concept of Significant Market Power might be a helpful one in this regard.

Our attendees had several recommendations for further watching and reading:

  • This year’s TEDxLondonBusinessSchool (streaming on the evenings of 2 and 4 February), will include a talk by Professor Daniel Effron on why people share fake news, even when they know it’s fake (and a bonus for WiTT members and friends: Sarah Ellis, Director of Digital Development at the Royal Shakespeare Company, who presented to us last January, is also speaking, on a digital stage).
  • Benedict Evans’s take on Australia’s plan to tax Facebook and Google whenever they link to a newspaper website: https://www.ben-evans.com.
  • And a good read recommendation: The Brain that Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge MD.