Discover more from Anchor Change with Katie Harbath
What I’m Watching in 2023
Plus some thoughts on social media’s role on January 6
Happy New Year! I hope everyone had a relaxing break. After Christmas in Wisconsin, I returned to DC to spend New Year on the Eastern Shore. My friend’s parents have a place on Kent Island, and I trade helping out with chores to enjoy it as well.
This week I kept things light on meetings - one of my resolutions is fewer meetings overall (something Shopify is telling its employees, too) - and I’ve been so much happier. I’m getting so many more things done. I have time to think and read. I know this might be a fleeting reality, but I will try to keep it up. My other resolutions are to lead with intention in everything I do and up my skincare routine.
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This light week has allowed me to think ahead to what we will see in the tech policy space in 2023. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, and it’s going to be chaotic.
I also want to discuss social media’s role in the January 6th commission. The final report was light on details in this area, and Rolling Stone got its hands on a 120-page report the team prepared. This morning though, three team members tasked with looking into the social media platforms - Dean Jackson, Meghan Conroy, and Alex Newhouse - released an op-ed on Tech Policy Press and Just Security with their insider account of what they found.
I encourage you to read the whole thing - it's not long. Their findings track what I see as the actual problems, dilemmas, and tradeoffs faced by these companies. I hope the committee releases its entire report, but from the op-ed, they point out a few key things that I think deserve a lot of discussions and unpacking in the coming weeks, months, and years. The header at the beginning of each passage is my thoughts on what the question is we need to think about, and after the colon is the quote from the piece. Any emphasis added is mine.
How much should companies consider political pressure/risk when making decisions?: “At the outset of the investigation, we believed we might find evidence that large platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube resisted taking proactive steps to limit the spread of violent and misleading content during the election out of concern for their profit margins. ... While it is possible this is true more generally, our investigation found little direct evidence for this motivation in the context of the 2020 election. Advocates for bold action within these companies – such as Facebook’s “break glass” measures or Twitter’s policies for handling implicit incitement to violence – were more likely to meet resistance for political reasons than explicitly financial ones.”
There are a lot of different product and design levers that impact how content spreads on a platform beyond just the algorithms: “The growth of these groups was not the result of Facebook’s recommendation algorithm; rather, a small number of organizers abused Facebook to invite huge numbers of individuals to the groups. Many of these super-inviters used backup groups to reconstitute those Facebook did remove.”
[T]here appears to be a legislative hyperfocus on regulating algorithms. While algorithmic transparency could cultivate better, more accurate understandings of the ways users interact with one another and content on various platforms, algorithms are not always the boogeyman that the public and policymakers have attempted to position them as.
We need to move beyond reports, panels, and talking points where the only conclusion is that big tech needs to do better with no actual recommendations on how they should do that. We need robust debate and people willing to grab onto the third rail of these difficult decisions to say what they would do. We can only have a substantive debate on how these problems should be handled: “Similarly, during the 2020 election and its aftermath, platform executives made important decisions with huge consequences for political discourse outside of public view. While available evidence contradicts simplistic complaints of big tech anti-conservative censorship, the platforms’ opacity makes suspicion understandable.
“While some decisions seem arbitrary and wrongheaded – like Twitter senior management’s apparent refusal to take a stand against implicit incitement despite evidence brought by its staff – others involve difficult tradeoffs that the public rarely appreciates.
“Congress should lead a robust conversation about the role of content moderation and artificial intelligence in the public square, drawing on experts and advocates as well as technology companies to promote awareness of how these processes work and greater consensus on how online spaces should be governed.”
I thank Dean, Meghan, and Alex for their work here and all of the tech folks who talked to them. It’s not easy work by any stretch of the imagination. I do want to give one word of caution. Not everyone in the Trust and Safety or tech space agrees on handling these problems. It’s important to hear a lot of voices. It can be tempting to look at one person’s deposition and think this wouldn't have happened if only the company had listed to THEM. It’s not that easy. There are no silver bullets. There are a lot of contexts and nuanced places where very reasonable people can disagree.
This leads us to what we can expect in 2023. This newsletter is already getting a little long, so I’m going to do a brief overview now and then continue to expand in further issues. These are the topics I’m following for the next year:
Increased questions, scrutiny, and debate on the relationship between tech companies and governments: Despite some issues I have with how the Twitter Files are being released and portrayed, I do think they are raising a valid question on what the role of the government should be in identifying and reporting people and content - especially from within the United States (or any country). Both the right and the left have done this, but I expect this to be a focus of some hearings in the House.
Dueling Congressional Hearings: Cristiano Lima has a good overview in the Post about what tech can expect from the 118th Congress. I wouldn’t be surprised if Senate Democrats and House Republicans have hearings on the same topics but come at it from different angles. The January 6th report talks a lot about companies being worried about their reaction from the right to their decisions. These hearings will show you why. The question will be what if any, impact they have. If these companies' worst fears aren’t realized, they might be more willing to make some hard calls.
Continued Rise of Right Online Media: Don Jr. has signed a seven-figure podcast deal with Rumble. Trump hasn’t started Tweeting again, choosing to stick with Truth Social. Republicans won’t get on TikTok out of principle and will look for other platforms. While I don’t think the number of users on these apps will be huge, we already saw how they became new places for bad actors to sow chaos in the midterms. These apps don’t have the ad libraries, policies, and teams to fight this. Nor do they want to. I’m nervous that 2024 might be somewhat of a replay of 2016, where we don’t see where this activity has moved to until it’s too late.
Campaign Online Strategies are Shifting: Google and Facebook no longer dominate online advertising in the United States. Facebook is demoting political content more than it did in 2020. (Web only: Right after I hit send, the WSJ put out a story looking at the complicated journey Facebook is on regarding political content.) TikTok doesn’t allow political ads or campaigns to fundraise. Campaigns shifted their spending to streaming platforms in the midterms. The Biden camp seeks to utilize influencers and supporters to spread their messages in smaller groups. The Right is using online influencers too. Campaigns will struggle to engage with people on TikTok while balancing national security concerns. Come November 2024, how campaigns are being waged online will look very different from 2020.
Major 2023 elections will preview what we might see in 2024: Nigeria, Turkey, Argentina, Thailand, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, Spain, and Poland are just a few of the countries going to the polls this year. And we all know that at least the race for U.S. President has already started. With tech company layoffs and fewer people working on this issue overall, it will be important to see how election integrity issues play out in these places.
Impact of AI Tools Grows: I’m fascinated by the thorny questions that tools like DALL-E and ChatGPT are raising. Like all technology, they will have many benefits and be used nefariously. There’s a reason Google is freaking out, and part of me wonders if Google would have been more aggressive in rolling out their AI search tools if they didn’t have such a big target on their back.
All Things TikTok: TikTok is already weaved in throughout all of my 2023 predictions, but it’s worth mentioning on its own. Pressure to ban it will increase. The CEO will be forced to engage more with policymakers (he’s already going to meet with Vestager next week), and he’s going to get a rude awakening that his current stance about politics on his platform needs to get more robust (listen to his interview at DealBook at about the 11:38 mark.) I don’t think their stances on this will hold up as more political figures push content on the platform because that’s where the eyeballs are. The Biden administration will face increasing pressure from Dems to figure out a deal with TikTok because they want to use the platform for the campaign.
Judiciary Enters the Chat: Set your calendars for February 21 and 22, as the Supreme Court will take up two cases against social media companies. They haven’t decided if they will take up the cases around Florida and Texas’ content moderation bills - though I suspect they will. We’ll also likely see more cases coming to state courts as well. If you think politicians don’t understand how these platforms work, let me introduce you to judges. I have a bad feeling they’ll make a bunch of contradictory rulings, which will cause a lot of confusion in the short term but might force Congress to act in 2025.
Hollywood Vilification of Tech: In 2022, we saw the beginning of Hollywood portraying the stories of social media companies. You had Super Pumped about Uber, We Crashed about WeWork, and Drop Out about Theranos. In the Santa Clauses mini-series, Disney made the villain an Amazon-like tech CEO. In Spirited, Ryan Reynolds’ character that needed to be “saved” ran an agency that peddled in disinformation and opposition research. In 2023 it will be Facebook’s turn with Doomsday Machine on HBO and the second season of Super Pumped. Neither have release dates yet, though I’m guessing they will come out sometime this year.
Whew, sorry for such a long newsletter. I probably should have split these into two - though I wasn’t expecting the January 6 piece. I am still figuring out my content plans for this year, and if you haven’t taken my survey yet, there’s still time! I appreciate everyone who has already given me their feedback and thoughts.
A few other things. First, Meta’s decision on Trump is expected in the “coming weeks.” I’ve started getting questions on this and thought it might be worth reminding folks that I did a whole position piece for a roundtable I did at Stanford in October.
You can see all the papers from that event here: https://ucla.app.box.com/v/deplatforming, and the video is here:
What I’m Reading
Tech Policy Press/Just Security: Insiders’ View of the January 6th Committee’s Social Media Investigation
Politico Pro: Vestager to meet TikTok CEO next week
Campaigns & Elections: 15 Consultant Predictions For 2023: Where Do We Go From Here?
Everything in Moderation: Glenn Ellingson on mitigating bad behaviour and the limitations of enforce/allow
Eurasia Group: The Top Risks of 2023
Citris Policy Lab: Tech Policy Fellowship
Medely: Trust and Safety Specialist
Open_Future: Fellowship 2023
Freedom House: Jobs
Grammarly: Openings | Grammarly Careers
Graphika: Staff Engineer
Graphika: Editor & Insights Manager
Medtronic: Jobs in November, 2022 (Hiring Now!)
Ballotpedia: Director of External Relations (Remote)
Global Cyber Alliance: Careers at GCA. Join Our Team.
Institute for Rebooting Social Media: Call for 2023-2024 RSM Visiting Scholars
Koch Industries: Communications Manager
No Labels: Sr. Fundraiser
National Alliance of Forest Owners: Director for Communications
Woodberry Associates: Senior Associate, Advocacy Management
Center for Humane Technology: Chief of Staff
Center for Humane Technology: Development Director
New! Join a one-of-a-kind conference on Designing Technology for Social Cohesion in San Francisco on February 23-24, 2023. This conference provides a unique space for tech innovators and Trust & Safety staff to explore partnerships and insights with bridge building and global peacebuilding practitioners. Participants will explore a new generation of tech products that offer design affordances and algorithms optimized for prosocial content, discover how bridge builders are using tech to support intergroup dialogue, and learn how we can measure polarization and social cohesion online. The conference will launch the Council on Tech and Social Cohesion. Click here for the conference agenda and here to register.
Topics to keep an eye on:
January 2023 - Czech Republic Election
January 7: Meta/Trump Decision
January 16-20: Davos - World Economic Forum
February 5, 2023 - Cyprus Election
February 16, 2023 - Platforms have to announce EU numbers to comply with DSA
February 21, 2023 - SCOTUS hears Gonzalez v Google
February 22, 2023 - SCOTUS hears Twitter v. Taamneh
February 23, 2023 - Nigeria Election
Feb 23, 2023 - Meta response to cross check due
February 23 - 24: Designing Technology for Social Cohesion
February 2023 - Djibouti Election
February 2023 - Monaco Election
March 5, 2023 - Estonia Election
March 10 - 19: SXSW
March 20 - 24, 2023: Mozilla Fest
March 29 - 30, 2023: Summit for Democracy
March 2023 - Antigua and Barbuda Election
March 2023 - Federated States of Micronesia Election
March 2023 - Guinea Bissau Election
March 2023 - Sierra Leone Election
April 30, 2023 - Benin Election
April 30, 2023 - Paraguay Election
April 2023 - Andorra Election
April 2023 - Finland Election
April 2023 - Montenegro Election
May 7, 2023 - Thailand Election
May 15-16: Copenhagen Democracy Summit
June 5-9: RightsCon
June 24 - June 30: Aspen Ideas Festival
June 25, 2023 - Guatemala Election
June 25, 2023 -Turkey Election
TBD June: DFR Lab 360/OS
July 2023 - Cambodia Election
July 2023 - Timor-Leste Election
July 2023 - Zimbabwe Election
August 6, 2023 - Greece Election
August 2023 - Eswatini Election
September 27-29, 2023: Athens Democracy Forum
TBD September: Atlantic Festival
TBD September: Unfinished Live
TBD September: Trust Con and Trust/Safety Conference (If they do them again)
September 2023 - Mauritania Election
October 8 - 12: Internet Governance Forum - Japan
October 10, 2023 - Liberia Election
October 12, 2023 - Pakistan Election
October 22, 2023 - Switzerland Election
October 2023 - Argentina Election
October 2023 - Luxembourg Election
October 2023 - Oman Election
November 12, 2023 - Poland Election
November 20, 2023 - Marshall Islands Election
November 29, 2023 - Ukraine Election
November 2023 - Bhutan Election
November 2023 - Gabon Election
November 2023 - Rwanda Election
December 10, 2023 - Spain Election
December 2023 - Bangladesh Election
December 2023 - Democratic Republic of the Congo Election
December 2023 - Togo Election
TBD - Belarus Election
TBD - Cuba Election
TBD - Equatorial Guinea Election
TBD - Gabon Election
TBD - Guinea Election
TBD - Madagascar Election
TBD - Maldives Election
TBD - Myanmar Election
TBD - Singapore Election
TBD - South Sudan Election - (Unlikely to happen)
TBD - Turkmenistan Election
TBD - Tuvalu
TBD - Haiti
July 15-18, 2024 - Republican National Convention
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