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?”