Big Tech could break democracy. Knowledge is our best defense.

Journalism / Article

The impact of digital technologies on American democracy continues to vex policymakers, corporate players and the public at the most fundamental level.

In the past month, Mark Zuckerberg was grilled by Congress about Facebook’s decision to allow factually false claims in political advertising. California passed a law requiring the internet companies underpinning the “gig economy” to treat workers as full employees rather than independent contractors. The message board 8chan—a notorious forum for extremist content—had its servers shut down after the tragic summer shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. And a tweet from an NBA executive on the protests in Hong Kong sparked a global firestorm over whether China could determine American free speech policy.

Over the summer, Congress conducted a series of hearings on issues including antitrust and competition, the legal immunity accorded to technology platforms for content they host (a law known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act), and the role of technology companies in managing and potentially combating online hate speech. Federal agencies like the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice have launched investigations into the competitive and business practices of several technology companies. All 50 state attorneys general have initiated an antitrust investigation into Google, and 47 have joined a similar investigation of Facebook.

The battle for the future of the internet is now joined. This digital future will no longer be determined solely by a few companies and their investors. Now, the whole of our society is in on the discussion. And the next several years are likely to be decisive in shaping a generation of regulation—both by government and involving self-regulatory action by companies—as well as defining for how our broader democratic society thinks about its relationship to these powerful and revelatory technologies.

The questions that we will confront—whether as citizens and consumers, policymakers or technology executives—are procedural and foundational. The procedural questions involve how to fairly manage competing interests: an individual’s right to privacy versus a company’s business interests in collecting and using data about them; the individual right to free speech versus the rights of an online community to have standards of conduct; an individual’s right to enter a market versus the right of an incumbent to prevent competitive threats; and so on.

These conversations will also be foundational. The problem is not just that we lack transparent procedures for realizing our values when it comes to the role of new technology, we also lack consensus on the underlying values themselves. Should a company like Facebook be able to host the majority of “public” conversation in the digital age? Should it be able to do so without any responsibility for what its users are saying or doing? Should we allow business models that eviscerate the competitiveness of other community goods, such as local news? Should we tolerate algorithmically driven systems that focus on engagement and attention, over other values, like tolerance and understanding?

We do not know the right answers to these questions. What we do know is that we will make better collective decisions armed with evidence, independent insight, and thoughtful deliberation.

Unprecedented and paradigm-shifting disruptions of this scale require an equal investment in finding solutions to the problems they pose. That means bringing together leaders and institutions in the field to provide independent, rigorous and possibly conflicting answers to equip policymakers and the public as we navigate these urgent debates. A new set of investments of more than $3.5 million by Knight Foundation to fund just this kind of research and development is a first step in this direction, but it is only the beginning. Others need to join the fray as well, and invest in the future of our democracy.

The new tech-driven information ecosystem is messy. There will be no easy answers. But by doing the hard, necessary work of determining how we can best chart these new waters, we can take productive steps toward harnessing tech as a force for good – in media; in how the public informs itself; and ultimately in how our democracy itself functions.

The controversies and concerns about how our democracy can thrive in a digital age are immense and immediate. The decisions ahead are daunting. But we can’t overcome challenges that we don’t understand. To tackle these issues sufficiently, we must begin with evidence and insight. Our democracy can’t afford to be dictated by conventional wisdom.

Sam Gill is VP/Communities and Impact and Senior Adviser to the President at Knight Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter at @thesamgill.