Democracy Fund and Omidyar Network have joined an effort led by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to support this potentially important step toward addressing how Facebook’s algorithms and vast storehouses of data are shaping elections, the social fabric, and democratic life.
Research Aimed at Identifying Actions and Policies that Affect Elections and Democratic Norms
Washington, D.C. and Redwood City, CA (April 9, 2018) – Earlier today, Facebook announced the launch of a new research initiative that will enable independent researchers to perform an assessment of the role the social platform plays in elections. Democracy Fund and Omidyar Network have joined an effort led by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to support this potentially important step toward addressing how Facebook’s algorithms and vast storehouses of data are shaping elections, the social fabric, and democratic life.
The two organizations’ support is a continuation of the collective work Democracy Fund and Omidyar Network have done to address the unintended consequences of technology and its impacts on democracy. Democracy is under attack from many directions, and the influence social media has on elections is a critical front. While the full extent and impact of the role of malicious domestic actors on the 2016 election remains unknown, it has been verified that social media platforms were misused and that networks including but not limited to Facebook – violated the public’s trust. It’s now incumbent on these platforms to regain trust by urgently implementing technology solutions and supporting policy solutions where appropriate.
Key to finding these solutions will be Facebook’s support of independent, peer-reviewed analyses performed by a diverse committee of academic researchers, including voices who have been disproportionately harmed by social media. In particular, the committee must have diversity across ideology, race and ethnicity, geography, gender, expertise, and life experience. Today’s announcement is a first step in that direction. Notably, the research committee will independently solicit and prioritize research. They will have access to secure, privacy-protected data, which will be critically important in understanding the dynamics and effects of social media on the public square and arriving at informed recommendations about potential solutions. Ultimately, the academics will publish their findings without prior review or approval from Facebook.
The committee is expected to address misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda; polarizing content; promoting freedom of expression and association; protecting domestic elections from foreign interference; and civic engagement. It will answer two critical questions: Does Facebook have the right systems in place to fight misinformation and foreign interference? And how can Facebook help make social media a net positive for democracy?
“Each new story of nefarious actors abusing the platforms – often to foster divisiveness and intolerance – proves just how critical it is that social media companies take responsibility for securing our personal privacy and protecting public debate,” said Tom Glaisyer, managing director of the Public Square Program at Democracy Fund. “If the social media platforms are going to regain the public’s trust and live up to the outsized role they play in our democracy, the platforms must truly prioritize privacy, embrace transparency, and accept accountability. To protect and uphold meaningful rights we need richer, better informed research into the digital public square.”
“At Omidyar Network, we believe that technology can be a massive force for good, but that technologists must take broader responsibility for the implications of their products on society,” noted Paula Goldman, vice president and head of Omidyar Network’s Tech and Society Solutions Lab. “It is urgent that we find solutions that are based on sound analysis, which we cannot do without access to data. We’re hopeful this is first in a series of efforts by platforms to open up their data in a responsible way to help find robust solutions to the problems at hand.”
Democracy Fund and Omidyar Network, both part of The Omidyar Group, are deeply committed to determining how to leverage the potential of technology while addressing its unintended consequences. Late last year, the organizations joined forces to ask “Is Social Media a Threat to Democracy?” identifying six ways in which digital platforms pose direct challenges to democratic ideals. To help address these and other issues, Democracy Fund and Omidyar Network are pursuing multipronged strategies to help ensure the public square is vibrant, trusted, and informative in the digital age.
Omidyar Network’s Tech and Society Solutions Lab is designed to test, build, and scale solutions that address the unintended consequences of technology – and, more importantly, help maximize the tech industry’s contributions to a healthy society. For example, the Lab has invested in Tristan Harris, a former Design Ethicist at Google, who co-founded the Center for Humane Technology in part to develop new models for how technology could contribute to individual and public health. The Lab is also partnering with tech, media, and civil society leaders to support a grassroots campaign to create a code of ethics for the data science community to adopt principles of responsible data use and sharing.
Democracy Fund believes the American people must have effective ways to understand and be a part of the democratic process. As the internet transforms political life, it opens exciting new pathways for public engagement while challenging models that used to work. Democracy Fund is deeply committed to solutions that combat hyper-partisanship and ensure that elections have integrity. Some examples of this work include Professor Zeynep Tufekci’s research on algorithmic accountability and the “Eye on Elections” project led by Professor Young Mie Kim. Democracy Fund has also supported a number of specific efforts to address misinformation in news including Politifact, Hoaxy Bot-O-Meter, and the Documenters Project by City Bureau.
All of these projects have the shared goal of increasing the accountability and responsibility of the technology industry and social media platforms. Democracy Fund and Omidyar Network are realistic about the complexities and risks of supporting this effort, but believe it has the potential to be a new avenue through which the public, platforms themselves, and policymakers will be able to better understand the implications of social media for the future of democracy.