Discover more from Anchor Change with Katie Harbath
Social Media’s Impact on Politics
Follow up from my WSJ and CNN interviews
I wanted to take this week’s newsletter to expand a bit more on my thinking.
First, I want to be really clear at the top that while I do have criticisms of Facebook I think there’s a lot of good that the company has done as well. I’m grateful to the company for the many opportunities and experiences it gave me. If I could go back to Facebook and do the work I want to I would in a heartbeat. There are so many amazing people there doing really important work. I don’t consider myself a whistleblower because I’m not uncovering criminal behavior or leaking confidential information. I also don’t think I can credibly call myself a whistleblower given my direct participation in some of the decisions that Facebook has made over the years. One can’t really whistleblow on themselves and I absolutely should be held to account for the things I was a part of while there.
However, what I have been doing over the last year is trying to look back at those decisions over the ten years I was at Facebook - and even before - and think critically about which of those I would do differently given what I know now. I don’t think at any time leadership at Facebook was making calls with ill intent, but I also think too often we assumed that just having good intentions that would lead to good outcomes. Clearly, that is not the case.
I know some scoff at the idea of me talking about the need for guardrails now and there will always be the valid criticism that some things should have been done differently. However, I can’t go back and change the past. All I can do is think about the future and how I might be able to use my past experiences to shape how we move forward.
The fact is too that I am frustrated at some of the decisions the company has made. I’m frustrated at their response to the Facebook documents leaked by Frances Haugen. I’m frustrated at how they treated my team as well as the civic integrity and Crowdtangle teams. I’m frustrated at how they’ve chosen to resource integrity work in the United States versus the rest of the world. I struggled with how to explain my feelings to the Wall Street Journal about all of this until it occurred to me that I’m disappointed that I’m disappointed. I didn’t want to be, but that’s what I was feeling and there was no denying it.
This is more than just a Facebook issue too. My entire career has been at the intersection of technology and politics. I spent the first twelve years trying to get politicians and governments to use these platforms. We assumed that the internet would be a great equalizer when it came to democracy and campaigning. We loved that we could actually measure what people were reading and how much they were engaging with content. We could better target ads to save money and persuade voters. We could raise money in smaller amounts and not have campaigns just reliant on big donors.
Then we saw how it could all be weaponized. First, it was by the Russians and other foreign governments, and then it was by our own elected officials and fellow citizens. What we thought was harmless political rhetoric was a gateway drug to more polarizing content online over the years because we got addicted to clicks. Small-dollar donations - once considered a great way to get citizens involved - have now meant that candidates don’t need party structures to succeed. They’ve created their own power base and the more extreme they are the more money they raise - a lot of which isn’t actually from their constituents.
I say all this as someone who historically has been pretty far on the free speech spectrum of wanting to keep speech up versus down. I think people have a right to hear what those who represent them or want to represent them have to say. Fact-checkers do make mistakes and I don’t like the idea of companies deciding what is true or not. That said, we as a society need to figure out what the guardrails should be around the amplification of that speech. Not just on social media but across the web and in traditional media.
Moreover, just because we have these negative effects of politics online doesn’t mean it’s erased the positive aspects I outlined. They are intertwined and that’s why it is so hard for the platforms to figure out how to mitigate the bad and amplify the good at the speed and scale in which they operate. They’ve found themselves in a game of whack a mole they never wanted to be in and so more and more they are sticking their heads in the sand or going to play with new toys like crypto or the metaverse without cleaning up the mess we’re in now.
This is why I think we need more online guardrails - not just on platforms but on the politicians and governments that use those platforms. It’s important not only for fixing the problems of the platforms today but also thinking about how we don’t make the same mistakes over the next twenty years.
I don’t have all the answers right now. I wish I did, but there’s a reason these are hard problems. I’ve talked about this in past newsletters but this is why I’m working with the organizations that I am. Through the Integrity Institute, the Bipartisan Policy Center, and as of last week the International Republican Institute my goal is to:
Help those outside the companies understand better how the companies work so we get regulations that will actually address the problems
Push companies and regulators to prioritize this work at the intersection of democracy and technology
Bring a world view to these issues so we can better understand the global ecosystems we might be setting up through the regulatory and other choices being made
Push people to take a longer-term view to prepare for major elections such as those in 2024
Develop new guardrails for how to handle political speech/behavior online from deplatforming, cross-check, labeling, demotions, and other levers
Identify new and better ways to get people authoritative information online
Part of my writing this newsletter is to bring you all along on the journey as I do this exploration. A big welcome to those who have recently subscribed. Please do send me feedback. I’m really trying to chart a new path for people like me to be a part of the public conversation where we don’t have to pick between the binary of hating or loving companies like Facebook. If you’ve learned anything about me while reading this newsletter is that I hate binary choices when it comes to this topic. The world is much more nuanced and it’s by exploring that nuance that we’re going to figure out our way forward.
What I’m Reading
Information, Communication & Society: News from the ad archive: how journalists use the facebook ad library to hold online advertising accountable
Rest of World: Is Clubhouse dead? Not if you are in South Asia
The Information: Don't Break Up Big Tech, Says Antitrust Enforcer Who Fought Facebook
Pod Save America: Offline: Alex Stamos on Leaving Facebook and Zuckerberg’s Reign
The Bulwark: I Spent Insurrection Week Listening to Steve Bannon
Bipartisan Policy Center: Policy to Advance Good Faith Election Observation