In the summer of 2020, when I converted the guest bedroom of my house into an office, I installed a whiteboard. On that whiteboard, I started mapping out how I had seen the internet impact democracy over the last twenty-two years and where I thought it was going. This is a less-detailed version of what that looked like.
The first phase was optimistic. This is the period between 2000 and 2015 when many people had a grand vision of how the internet was going to be the great equalizer and democratizer. First, there was microtargeting and the rise of bloggers in the 2004 election. After that came the creation of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and so many other platforms. The iPhone was introduced in 2007 and revolutionized how people used the web. Now some had concerns during this time, for the most part, people were seeing the Arab Spring in 2011 and Obama’s wins in 2008 and 2012 as wins for technology and data.
In the next phase came the reckoning. Starting May 9, 2016 - the day of the Philippines election as well as the day the trending topics controversy broke at Facebook - this is when people really started to realize the challenges of tech on democracy. A month later Brexit happened and then Trump’s victory later that year. I’ll never forget seeing the cover of the Economist in September of 2016 about post-truth politics and thinking how we would need to get ahead of that for the elections in France in 2017. I remember asking a leader on the newsfeed how we could think about combating this and the answer I got was that we would never want to get into the business of deciding what was true or not. 😬 By November 19, Zuck was previewing how the company would look at tackling misinformation. (Sidenote: YouTube’s blog post this week on their approach to misinfo struck a very similar tone to what Facebook’s tone was post-2016 and a very different one of what Meta’s is today. Casey Newton’s interview with Neal Mohan of YouTube is worth reading as well.)
Then in 2019, the regulatory period started to emerge. While tech execs started to get dragged to hearings earlier than 2019 this is when you started to see actual bills introduced such as the UK online safety bill and the DSA/DMA in Europe. This is when the EU enacted the code of practice on disinformation that they announced in April of 2018 for their elections in May of 2019. Bills - lots and lots of bills - got introduced in the U.S. Congress. Australia passed legislation to make big tech companies pay local publishers. By the end of 2021 authorities in at least 48 countries pursued new rules for tech companies on content, data, and competition over the past year according to Freedom House. (And many of these are very problematic for what effect they will have on minority voices.)
Now we are entering the decentralization and disruption phase. I wrote the other week about how I thought the winds were changing for tech. Every day I feel that more and more. I think that the web that we know today is going to look drastically different potentially as early as the end of this year but definitely by the end of 2024. With Google’s announcement about privacy changes, it’s making to the Android platform as well as Europe’s planned regulation of targeted ads I think digital advertising is going to look and work dramatically differently. When I was in Brazil I wasn’t hearing a lot about concerns people had about Facebook or WhatsApp (though they do still have some) but they were talking about Telegram and how popular TikTok and Instagram Reels were. YouTube also came up surprisingly more than I was expecting. (Which is also why I was glad to see their blog post this week talking about how they were going to pay more attention to fighting misinformation around the world.)
We are moving into an era where we are no longer just focusing on the big tech platforms but using a lot of different ones. (I’ve read that this is perhaps also called a “Vibe shift?”) Good and bad actors are pushing their content out on a variety of platforms online and offline. People are sharing things with smaller groups on messenger apps versus publishing for all to see. They post content that only lives for 24 hours. They’re engaging live on platforms like Twitter Spaces and Clubhouse.
For most of us, this is just allowing us to segment our lives a bit more. For bad actors, it’s making it harder to track them and even harder to know how to combat the disinformation they are trying to spread. This is why I think more and more transparency legislation needs to be at the top of any policy makers' list. We need easier ways to monitor what is happening so we can even know what the actual problems are. Brandon Silverman went into this with the Lawfare podcast this week that I highly recommend you listen to.
Moreover, ever since Frances Haugen came forward last Fall I am seeing regulators, journalists, and others realize how important it is to talk to the actual people building these products. At the Integrity Institute, we’ve been blown away at the interest to talk to our members.
This has all led me to wonder about how do we responsibly move into this new era? A colleague reminded me today that we are moving to an era where Silicon Valley is moving to web3 and the metaverse, regulators are focusing on the present but we still have nearly three billion people - 37 percent of the world - that have never used the internet.
So, not only are we going to be stretched thin in trying to monitor what is happening across many more platforms, but we have to not only be thinking about the rules for future tech but how do we continue to make sure the platforms that are still used by so many across the world are safe as well? How do we help build digital resiliency for those three billion people who someday will likely get on the internet?
When Meta announced its new values this week, I was most disappointed that there wasn’t a value about building and maintaining products responsibly. I really think that should have warranted its own call-out. I’m very worried that with so much attention on building the metaverse the blue app will get less attention even though it will still be used for many, many years to come around the world.
Moreover, if any of these tech CEOs think they’re going to be able to avoid policymakers’ questions I’ve got a bridge to sell them. Another distinction of this era is that it is one where you will see more product people talking out and the conversation shifting from content moderation to transparency and product design changes. This means that even if you elevate someone like Nick Clegg to President it doesn’t mean that the product people can hide. Policymakers will increasingly want to talk to the people actually building the things. (Sidenote: I always really liked working with Nick and I’m glad to see him being elevated for both internal and external reasons. That said, the buck still stops with Mark.)
I’m curious what people think about these phases I’ve mapped out and if you agree or disagree. There’s a lot more history and lessons to be learned from these eras that I’m working on writing about, but we’re in a time of change and I think it’s important we are cognizant of that so that we don’t wake up in a few years time being like how did THAT happen?
What I’m Reading
Note: Some of these are in Portuguese or French. I put the title in English though so you know what it’s about. Google translate works great on chrome and how I’m able to read these.
Worldle: If you love wordle and geography do I have a great new game for you.
Big Technology: Why El Salvador’s Wild Bitcoin Experiment Just Might Work (This was of interest because I've been thinking about how crypto is going to impact democracy building around the world.)
Luminate: Youth and Democracy in Latin America
The Well News: Facebook Corrections Found to Reduce Misinformation
UW Madison Center for Journalism Ethics: Announcing the four finalists for the 2022 Shadid Award for Journalism Ethics
Future of Tech Commission: A Blueprint for U.S. Technology Policy
Washington Post: Among Watergate's heroes and villains, finding 'a more human story'
Topics to keep an eye on that have a general timeframe of the first half of the year:
EU Passage of DSA and DMA
Facebook 2020 election research
Oversight Board opinion on cross-check
Senate & House hearings, markups, and potential votes
February to March - State elections in Uttar Pradesh, India
February 18 - 20: Munich Security Conference
February 22 - 24: Knight Foundation Media Forum
March: UK Online Safety Bill
March: EU Signatories Finalize Code of Practice on Disinformation
March 9 - South Korea elections
March 11 - 20: SXSW, Austin, Texas
March 19 - Timor-Leste elections
March 26 - Zimbabwe Elections
March 27 - Hong Kong & Lebanon Elections
April: The Gambia elections
April 3 - Hungary, Serbia, Belgrade City Assembly elections
April 10 and 24 - France elections
May 3 - Ohio Primary (Open Senate race)
May 9 - Philippines elections
May 17 - North Carolina and Pennsylvania Primaries (Open Senate races)
May 21 (On or before) - Australia elections
May 23 (tentative): World Economic Forum, Davos
May 24 - Alabama and Georgia Primaries (AL open Senate race, GA Warnock defending seat)
May 29 - Colombia elections
June 6 (week of): Summit of the Americas, Los Angeles, CA
June 6-10: RightsCon, Online
June 6 - 7: Atlantic Council 360/Open Summit
June 9 - 10: Copenhagen Democracy Summit, Copenhagen, Denmark
June 25 - July 1: Aspen Ideas Festival, Aspen, Colorado
June 14 - Nevada Primary (Cortez Masto defending Senate seat)
August: Angola elections
August 2 - Arizona and Missouri Primaries (AZ Kelly defending Senate seat, MO open Senate race)
August 9 - Wisconsin Primary (Ron Johnson defending Senate seat)
August 9 - Kenya elections
September 11 - Sweden elections
September 13 - New Hampshire Primary (Hassan defending Senate seat)
October 2 and 30 - Brazil
November 8 - United States Midterms