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Democracy Divided: Countering Disinformation and Hate in the Digital Public Sphere

Ed Greenspon and I have just published a report as a collaboration between the UBC School of Public Policy and Global Affairs and the Public Policy Forum, called Democracy Divided: Countering Disinformation and Hate in the Digital Public Sphere. The Report outlines what we see as a structural problem in our current information ecosystem that has led to our current problem of mis and disinformation, and details a range of policy ideas being discussed and tested around the world.

The report can be downloaded here.

And the Introduction is below.

Introduction:
For more than a quarter-century, the internet developed as an open web—a system to retrieve and exchange information and ideas, a way of connecting individuals and building communities and a digital step forward for democratization. It largely remains all these things. Indeed, the internet is supplanting the old concept of a public square, in which public debate occurs and political views are informed and formed, with a more dynamic and, in many ways, inclusive public sphere. But along the way, particularly in the last half-dozen years, the “open internet” has been consolidated by a handful of global companies and its integrity and trustworthiness attacked by malevolent actors with agendas antithetical to open societies and democratic institutions. These two phenomena are closely interrelated in that the structures, ethos and the economic incentives of the consolidators—Google (and YouTube), Facebook and Twitter in particular—produce an incentive system that aligns well with the disseminators of false and inflammatory information.

The digital revolution is famous for having disrupted broad segments of our economy and society. Now this disruption has come to our democracy. The Brexit referendum and the 2016 American election awakened the world to a dark side of digital communications technologies. Citizens and their governments are learning that a range of actors—foreign and domestic, political and economic, behaving in licit and illicit ways—can use disinformation, hate, bullying and extremist recruitment to erode democratic discourse and social cohesion both within and outside of election periods. And the problem is getting worse.

By and large, the internet has developed within a libertarian frame as compared, for instance, to broadcasting and cable. There has been until recently an almost autokinetic response that public authorities had little or no role to play. To some extent, the logic flows from a view that the internet is not dependent on government for access to spectrum, so therefore no justification exists for a government role. So long as it evolved in ways consistent with the public interest and democratic development, this logic—although flawed—was rarely challenged. And so governments around the world—and tech companies, too—were caught flat-footed when they discovered the internet had gone in directions unanticipated and largely unnoticed.

Today, the question is how to recapture and build on the values of the open internet so that it continues to promote the public good without also facilitating the run-off of social effluents and contaminants that pollute public discourse and the very security of open societies. “Keeping the web open isn’t enough,” said World Wide Web founder Tim Berners-Lee in 2017. “We need to make sure that it’s used in a way that’s constructive and promotes truth and supports democracy.”

It is not surprising that more than 50 years after its creation and a quarter century following the development of the World Wide Web, a sweeping review is required. With this paper, we seek to explore the fundamental challenges that have arisen. We will offer a range of policy options for consideration because there is no single fix. We do so understanding that the combination of the urgency and novelty of these threats creates a tension of needing to execute corporate and public policy in quick order yet with high precision given the possibility of unintended consequences to innovation and free expression. Nobody wants to suppress individual rights on the way to rebuilding trust or discourage the pioneering spirits that have made the internet so central to our lives. Yet doing nothing is not an option either; the current track is unacceptable for both civic life and fair and open marketplaces.

In some cases, this report will suggest actions; in others, the need for more study and more public engagement. In all instances, we believe that certain behaviours need to be remedied; that digital attacks on democracy can no more be tolerated than physical ones; that one raises the likelihood of the other in any case; and that a lowering of standards simply serves to grant permission to those intent on doing harm.

On April 5-6, 2018, PPF and the University of British Columbia’s School of Public Policy and Global Affairs convened a mix of subject matter experts, public officials and other interested parties from academia, philanthropy and civil society. This workshop flowed out of PPF’s 2017 report, The Shattered Mirror: News, Democracy and Truth in the Digital Age, which provided a diagnostic of the deteriorating economics of journalistic organizations, an analysis of negative impacts on Canadian democracy and recommendations for improving the situation. Named in recognition of a 1970 Senate of Canada study of mass media called The Uncertain Mirror, the PPF report noted that in the intervening decades this mirror has cracked and shattered under the pressure of content fragmentation, revenue consolidation and indifference to truth. Now we are speaking of the need for the internet to become a more faithful mirror of the positive attributes of greater human connectivity. This latest piece of work is part of continuing efforts by PPF to work with a wide range of partners in addressing two distinct but intertwined strands (think of a double-helix in biology): how to sustain journalism and how to clean up a now-polluted—arguably structurally so—internet. The April workshop succeeded in sharing and transferring knowledge about recent developments and what might be done about them among experts and policy-makers. It was capped by a public event featuring some of the leading thinkers in the world on the state of the digital public sphere. This report advances the process by canvassing a range of possible policy responses to a rapidly evolving environment replete with major societal consequences still in the process of formation.

PPF hosted a follow-up workshop on May 14-15, 2018, which brought international and Canadian experts together to discuss policy and industry responses to disinformation and threatening speech online, a report from which will be published in the fall.

The report is divided into three parts:

  • Discussion on the forces at play;
  • Assumptions and principles underlying any actions; and
  • A catalogue of potential policy options.

We submit Democracy Divided: Countering Disinformation and Hate in the Digital Public Sphere in the hopes of promoting discussion and debate and helping policy-makers steer the public sphere back toward the public good.