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Can Citizens Reclaim the Digital Public Square?

The world is facing a growing epistemic crisis with millions of citizens embracing far-fledged conspiracy theories and political falsehoods over truth and facts. The prevalence of propaganda, misinformation, and emotional manipulation are not unique to this era, nor is this current quandary spawned directly by social media and the internet. But online platforms and social media have exacerbated the fragmentation of the information environment. Research shows how filter bubbles and algorithms reinforce biases and amplify extreme content and misinformation. As different demographics experience entirely different versions of reality online, it is little wonder that a plurality of Americans are unable to correctly identify basic falsehoods, e.g., a recent survey from NPR/Ipsos found that 40 percent of Americans believe that the Covid-19 virus was created in a lab in China.

How can we confront the scourge of disinformation and restore civility and public trust to online discourse? Initially, experts heralded the internet and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter as digital public squares that could facilitate the exchange of perspectives and information on a global scale. However, there was a catch: these platforms were destined to warp the concept of the public square because their overriding focus was to maximize revenue. Historically, the public square was a civic space that enabled communities to gather, share information, debate, and maintain the social fabric of communities. As sociologist Eric Klinenberg describes in his book, Palaces for the People, public squares historically have offered neutral, transparent spaces that are theoretically inclusive and accessible to all citizens. They range from Ancient Greece’s agoras and 19th century coffee shops in Vienna to modern public libraries. The conversations in these spheres generated consensus about which facts were settled and which disagreements required further debate. But as scholars like Shoshanna Zuboff write, social media has perverted the very essence of the public square, instead seeking to bring people together for purposes of monetizing their data and selling off their information to third parties for tremendous profit.

How can we reclaim the digital public square?

One approach is to create alternatives to private online platforms. Government investment in digital public infrastructure could provide citizens with a space on the internet to talk to one another without a profit motive. Such digital public squares would be places for civic engagement, community building, and education. These spaces would be areas where neighbors and fellow citizens could coexist and build shared experiences regardless of background or political opinions.

Yet, there are drawbacks to this model. Maintaining a digital public square is no simple feat. One of the only working models of a community-centered online social platform is the Vermont Front Porch Forum, which works to connect neighbors and spread ideas. While an impressive one-quarter of Vermont’s population uses the Forum, each post requires approval from site overseers before it goes live, adding a cumbersome layer of regulation and slowing down discourse. It is difficult to imagine heavily supervised public squares having sufficient human resources to moderate millions of submitted posts if they were scaled to larger populations. Further, certain online communities may already be too radicalized to have much interest in engaging in moderated public squares. It is doubtful, for example, that QAnon adherents will choose to depart conspiratorial threads on Reddit or Gab for the milder pastures of the Vermont Front Porch.

For others, the outrage fueled by Facebook and Twitter is part of the appeal. They are indifferent to participating in digital public squares for the same reasons that millions more viewers opt to watch Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson on Fox News rather than PBS NewHour – they simply find inflammatory rhetoric more compelling. As Anne Applebaum and Peter Pomerantsev ask in a recent piece in The Atlantic, “Aren’t we all addicted to the rage and culture wars available on social media? Don’t we use social media to perform, or to virtue signal, or to express identity—and don’t we like it that way?”

If for-profit social media sites remain entrenched for the foreseeable future, perhaps a more productive solution would be to incorporate two principles: harm reduction and experimentation. The premise of harm reduction is to take meaningful steps to curb the worst excesses of commercial platforms – namely, the spread of falsehoods, disinformation, violent incitement, hate speech, and conspiracies – in the short-term. The focus would not be to radically change the platform model. Rather, it would be to implement a mix of rules and regulations to minimize negative externalities generated by social media. For example, under harm reduction principles, governments would incentivize (if not direct) platforms to ramp up their content moderation investments, to deploy algorithms that deemphasize polarizing or conspiratorial viewpoints (e.g., along the lines of Facebook’s “break glass” news feed measures), to implement across-the-board “one strike” suspension policies for individuals, including heads of state, who propagate hate speech and political disinformation, to curb targeted political advertisements, and to restrict platform collection of personal data. These measures won’t solve the public square problem. But they can alleviate the most pernicious aspects plaguing the online information space and buy time for more substantive reforms to take hold.

For the long-term, we need to problem solve specific changes that will help us attain more enlightened outcomes. There are an abundance of creative ideas that experts have proposed: from “middleware software” that allows users to choose algorithms that prioritize mainstream news content, to neutral platforms like Polis (pioneered in Taiwan), which enable online communities to come together, exchange policy ideas, engage in carefully moderated policy debates, and to vote on consensus recommendations. Many of these ideas show promise. All of them face steep hurdles in terms of user interest, mass adoption, and financial viability.

Throughout history, the public square has provided a model for citizens to share news and debate their differences – whether in actual physical spaces or online. But in our present moment, the sense of civic cohesion fostered by these spaces has precipitously dwindled. Reclaiming the digital public square and reversing the tides of hateful and inflammatory speech will not be easy. However, the alternative scenario – where citizens are riven further by polarization and anti-democratic rhetoric – is far worse to contemplate.

Written by Steven Feldstein and Sarah Gordon

Steven Feldstein is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Democracy, Conflict and Governance Program..

Sarah Gordon is a research assistant at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.


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