Thursday, February 11, 2021

Making Social Media Serve Society [Discussion Draft]

[From The Social Dilemma]
Social media oligarchs have seduced us -- giving us
bicycles for the mind that they have spent years and billions engineering to "engage" our attention. The problem is that they insist on steering those bicycles for us, because they get rich selling advertising that they precisely target to us. Democracy and common sense require that we, the people, keep control of our marketplace of ideas. It is time to wrestle back the steering of our bicycles, so that we can guide our attention where we want. Here is why, and how. Hint: it will probably require regulation, but not in the ways currently being pursued.


TL;DR:  See the bolded "Key ideas" section a bit down from here…


Special update: This is “Version 0.1,” a discussion draft that was completed on 2/11/21, hours before CaseyNewton’s report made me aware of a move by Twitter to research the direction proposed here. Pending analysis and revisions to reflect that, it seemed useful to get this version online now for discussion. Newton’s report links to Jack Dorsey’s initial sketchy announcement of this "@bluesky" effort about a year ago, and items he linked to at The Verge link to an interesting analysis on Techcrunch. My initial take is that is a very positive move, while recognizing that the Techcrunch analysis rightly notes the risks that I had recognized below, and have thought to be important to deal with, but ultimately manageable and necessary in a free society. Dorsey's interest in this concept gives some reason to hope that this could occur as voluntary self-regulation, without need for the mandates I suggested likely to be necessary below. (late 2/11) 
++2/13: There is a new piece 
by Richman and Fukuyama advocating this strategy in the WSJ.

Further updates are being posted in Growing Support for "Making Social Media Serve Society"


“In case of emergency, break glass” …then what?

Our marketplace of ideas is clearly on fire when two media oligarchs have such power that they can - and seemingly must - censor a President on their own. Facebook then punted to an independent (but also unelected) “Oversight Board” on whether to continue that censorship. This wicked problem of misinformation and polarization is well on the way to destroying our consensus view of reality, yet our current solutions have come to a reduction to the absurd.

This has been over a decade in building, yet the path to doing better remains widely misunderstood. The Capitol insurrection made the “break-glass” urgency clear, and the recent GameStock insurrection in our financial markets highlighted how wide the scope is. It all comes down to rethinking whether we, the people, manage our own unfolding digital views of the world, or whether oligarchies (or governments) do it for us.

Both our democracy and our financial markets depend on our marketplace of ideas. Reddit-inspired mobs empowered by the Robinhood trading platform triggered circuit breakers in trading. The financial “madness of crowds” led toward a long-established – but continuously evolving – regulatory regime for financial markets. For nearly a century it has been the mission of the SEC to keep the markets free of manipulation -- free to be volatile, but subject to basic ground rules -- and the occasional temporary imposition of circuit-breakers.

Regulatory mechanisms have properly applied much more loosely to our marketplace of ideas. But with Big Tech businesses moving so fast and breaking so much, it is now all too clear that some form of nuanced control on them is needed. Both safety and freedom are at risk. We need to contain the damage from our broken system right now, even if that temporarily violates some principles that should be preserved and protected. But we dare not lose sight of the distinction between stopgap measures limited to this brief emergency period, and the path beyond that.

Compounding the problem, network effects have created platform oligarchies with extractive advertising and data profits so huge as to create strong perverse incentives that distract from visions of how these powerful tools can serve society. Current remediation efforts are focused on limiting harms, with little positive vision that would nurture the unfulfilled benefits that should be demanded.

There are many interrelated concerns of harm to privacy and competition --as well as a broad underpinning of gaps in digital literacy, critical thinking, and civics education -- that all badly need attention. But unless we turn the tidal force driving this imminent danger to democracy, a rapidly growing inability to achieve consensus will make the other problems insoluble. Our malfunctioning bicycles for the mind are now making us stupid.

Here are some strategies for the long game:  how to guide technology and policy to protect both safety and freedom, while also seeking the benefits. What I propose would require ongoing oversight by a specialized Digital Regulatory Agency that can work with industry and academic experts, much like the SEC and the FCC, but with different expertise. My focus is not on regulation, but on a normative vision for uses of this technology that we should regulate toward, so that better business models and competition can drive progress toward consumer and social welfare.


Key ideas:

Paradise lost …and found -- saving democracy by serving users and society

The root causes of the crisis in our marketplace of ideas are that:

  1. The dominant social media platforms selectively control what we see, 
  2. and yet they are motivated not to present what we value seeing, but instead to “engage” audiences to click ads.  

      They use their control of our minds not to serve us, but to extract value from us.

The best path to reduce the harm and achieve the lost promise of digital media is to remove control over what users see in their feeds from the platforms. Instead, create an open market in filtering “middleware” services that give users more power to control what they see in their feeds.


A number of proposals advocate this – most prominently and well-argued by Francis Fukuyama and colleagues in Foreign Affairs,
How to Save Democracy From Technology (summarizing a Stanford report). The following draws on that and my own related vision for how that can not only protect, but systematically enhance wisdom and democracy. There are regulatory precedents for similar functional divestitures, and models for open, user-driven markets for filtering algorithms that can favor quality and value. Without such a systemic change, social media will be increasingly toxic to democracy.

Free our feeds!

Democracy depends on an open, diverse, and well-structured marketplace of ideas. Freedom of speech and of association are essential to our social processes for organically seeking a working consensus on ground-truth. But now, the “feeds” from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and a few others have become the dominant filters controlling which information, and which other users, billions of people see. Those oligarchies have nearly total power over what they selectively present each of us, with almost no transparency or oversight – and systematically against our interests!

People cannot do without algorithms to filter what we drink from the “firehose” of social media, but we have misapplied them disastrously.

  • Network effects lead toward concentration and scale in the platforms interconnecting our global village -- every speaker rightly seeks to be heard by every listener willing to hear them (with narrow limitations). That drives toward universality of posting and access.
  • But filtering is personal – we each should be fed what we desire, and not what we do not. For democracy to survive, each of us needs supervisory control over how algorithms promote or demote information items and people to or from our attention.

Network effects are compounded by perverse incentives. A Facebook engineer observed in 2011 that “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.” A decade of algorithm design has twisted “connecting people” to become a matter of targeting lucrative audiences for advertisers. Oligarchs profit obscenely from selling advertising in their “free” services -- but what a cost!

Those network effects and incentives are tidal forces, but filtering can be pulled out and shielded from that. Businesses and governments must jointly facilitate doing that -- but we, the people, must have autonomy over how that works for each of us.

It might seem that user control would worsen filter bubble-driven echo chambers. But the algorithms that divide and enrage us (so we click ads) could instead stimulate thinking, understanding, and enlightenment. Now they drive factions to lose touch with reality – feeding them lies, connecting those susceptible to lies to create “lookalike audiences” for advertisers -- and motivating users to disinform and sow division for profit or merely for attention.

A marketplace of ideas functions well only if users control for themselves whether they see “undesirable” items, as they individually define that. Instead of expecting platforms to be responsible for managing the unruly beast of what ideas are posted, we must empower markets for filters that manage how ideas are consumed. Demand, not censorship (or advertising), should control the flow of information to those who want it.

Social media are for people -- not advertisers or platform owners.

The promise of digital technology has been that each user can potentially configure their own customized filters and recommenders – or select services that curate for them in the ways that they choose. But now our feeds are customized for us, without our consent, in non-transparent ways. The platforms’ algorithms draw on many “signals” of suitability -- but are engineered not to serve what we desire, but to sell as much advertising as possible. We have no access to filters designed to serve our own needs.

Technology promised tools for augmenting human intellect and our collective ability to solve problems – but now the platforms are “de-augmenting” us, dividing us and making us stupid. The platforms’ obscene profits from advertising remove any incentive to do better (or to let others do it for us). Now those harms stem from reckless greed -- think how much worse if they undertook a political agenda (as some already fear they do here, and as China’s social media already do). Oligopolistic thought-robber barons have hooked us on parasites of our attention, “nuance destruction machines” that make us polarized and reactive. Can we afford to pay that price for “free” services?

An open market in filtering services is the way to serve users.

Fukuyama and colleagues suggest

…taking away the platforms’ role as gatekeepers of content …inviting a new group of competitive ‘middleware’ companies to enable users to choose how information is presented to them. And it would likely be more effective than a quixotic effort to break these companies up.

They make the case that the remedy is to give individuals power to control the “middleware” that filters their view of the information flowing through the platform in the ways that they desire.

Of course, controlling what goes into one’s feed at a fine-grained level is beyond the skill or patience of most users. The solution is to create a diverse open market of interoperable filtering services that users can select from. Individual needs vary so widely that no single provider can serve that diversity well. Open, competitive markets excel at serving diverse needs – and untangling incentives. Breaking filtering “middleware” out as an independent service that interoperates with the platforms enables user choice to drive competition and innovation.

These middleware services can work “inside” the platforms, using APIs (Application Program Interfaces) to combine filtering algorithms with human oversight in an unlimited variety of ways. They could be funded with a revenue share from the platforms. (That need not reduce platform revenue, since better service could yield more activity and more users, making the pie bigger.) They could use much the same “surveillance capitalism” data that that the platforms now use – with controls to limit that to only the extent users are willing to permit, and subject to regulatory constraints on privacy and how the data is used.

Paradise lost sight of -- filtering for social truth

Imagine how different our online world would be with open and innovative filtering services. Humans have evolved ourselves and our society to test for and establish truth in a social context, because we cannot possibly have direct knowledge of everything that matters to us (“epistemic dependence”). Renee DiResta nicely explains in “Mediating Consent” how these social processes have been both challenged and enhanced by advances in technology from Gutenberg to “social media.” Social media can augment similar processes in our digital social context to determine what content to show us, and what people (or groups) to suggest we connect with.

What do we want done with that control? We do not want to rank on “engagement” (how much time we spend glued to our screens) or on whose ad we will be disposed to click on -- but what criteria should apply? Surely, we can do better than just counting “likes” from everyone equally, regardless of who they are and whether they read and considered an item, or just mindlessly reacted to a clickbait headline.

Consider how the nuanced and layered process of mediating consent that society has evolved over millennia has been lost in our digital feeds. Do people and institutions with reputations we trust in agree on a truth? Should we trust in them because of others who trust in them? Can we apply this within small communities -- and more broadly? That is how science works – as do political consensus and scholarly citation analysis. That is how we decide who and what to listen to and to believe, to avoid being lemmings.

Technology has already succeeded at extending that kind of process into Google’s original PageRank search algorithm, weighing billions of human evaluations at Internet speed and scale. Social media feeds can empower users to mediate consent in the ways that they, and their communities, favor. They can draw on the plethora of information quality “signals” that the platforms have (clicks, likes, shares, comments, etc,) and combine that with rudimentary understanding of content. They can factor in the reputations of those providing the signals, as humans have always done to decide what to pay attention to and which people and groups to connect with.

To be effective and scalable, reputation and rating systems must go beyond simplistic popularity metrics (mob rule) or empaneled raters (expert rule). To socially mediate consensus in an enlightened democratic society, reputation must be organically emergent from that society. Algorithms can draw on both explicit and implicit signals of human judgement, to rate the raters and weight the ratings (as I have detailed elsewhere) -- in transparent but privacy-protective ways. Better and more transparent tools could help us consider the reputations behind the postings -- to make us smarter and connect us more constructively. We could factor in multiple levels of reputation to weight the human judgments of those who other humans whom we respect judge to be worth hearing (not just the most “liked”). We could favor content from people and publishers we view as reputable, and factor in human curation as desired.

This can help us understand the world as we choose to view it, and to understand and accept that other points of view may be reasonable. Fact-checking and warning labels often just increase polarization, but if someone we trust takes a contrary view we might think twice. Filters could seek those “surprising validators” and sources of serendipity that offer new angles, without burying us in noise.

To make reputation-based filtering more effective, the platforms should better manage user identity. Platforms could allow for anonymous users with arbitrary alias names, as desirable to protect free speech, but distinguish among multiple levels of identity verification (and distinguishing human versus bot). Weighting of reputation could reflect both how well validated a user identity is, and how much history there is behind their reputation. This would help filter out bad actors, idiots, and bots in accord with standards that we choose (not those imposed on us).

Now the advertiser-funded oligopoly platforms perversely apply similar kinds of signals with great finesse to serve their own ends. A Facebook engineer lamented in 2011 that “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.” They have engineered Facebook and Twitter and rest to work as digital Skinner boxes, in which we are the lab rats fed stimuli to run the clickbait treadmill that earns their profits. We cannot expect or entrust them to redirect that treadmill to serve our ends -- even with increased regulation and transparency. If revenue primarily depends on selling ads, efforts to counter that incentive to favor quality over engagement swim against a powerful tide. That need not be malice, but human nature: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Driving our own filters

Users should be able to combine filtering services to be selective in multiple ways, favoring some attributes and disfavoring others. Algorithms can draw on human judgements to filter undesirable items out of our feeds, by down-ranking them, and recommend desirable items in, by up-ranking them. Given the firehose of content that humans cannot keep up with, filters need rarely do an absolute block (censorship) or an absolute must-see. Instead, a well-architected system of interoperable filters can be composed by each user with just a few simple selections -- so their multiple filtering service suggestions are weighted together to present a composite feed of the most desired items.

That way we can create our own “walled garden,” yet make the walls as permeable as we like, based on the set of ranking services we activate at any given time. Those may include specialized screening services that downrank items likely to be undesirable, and specialized recommenders to uprank items corresponding to our tastes in information, entertainment, socializing, and whatever special interests we have. Such services could be from new kinds of providers, or from publishers, community organizations, and even friends or other people we follow. Services much like app stores might be needed to help users easily select and control their middleware services at basic level, or with more advanced personalization. We have open markets in “adtech” – why not “feedtech.”

Some have argued that filtering should be prohibited from using personal data—that would limit abusive targeting but would also severely restrict the power of filters to positively serve each user. Better to 1) motivate filtering services to do good, and 2) develop privacy-protective methods to apply whatever signals can be useful in ways that prevent undue risk. To the extent that user postings, comments, likes, and shares are public (or shared among connections), it is only more private signals like clickstreams and dwell time that would need protection.

Filtering services might be offered by familiar publishers, community groups, friends, and other influencers we trust. Established publishers could extend their brands to reenergize their profitability (now impaired by platform control): New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or local newspapers; CNN, Fox, or PBS; Atlantic or Cosmopolitan, Wired or People; sports leagues, ACLU, NRA, or church groups. Publishers and review services like Consumer Reports or Wirecutter can offer recommendations. Or if lazy, we could select among omnibus filters for a single default, much as we select a search engine.

Users should be able to easily “shift gears,” sliding filters up or down to accommodate changes in their flow of tasks, moods, and interests. Right now, do you want to see items that stimulate lean-forward thinking or indulge in lean-back relaxation? – to be more or less open to items that stimulate fresh thinking? Just turn some filtering services up and others down, using sliders. Save desired combinations. Swap a work setting for a relax setting. Filter suites could be shared and modified like music playlists and learn with simple feedback like Pandora. Or, just choose one trusted master service to make all those decisions.

Instead of censoring Trump and his ilk and driving them to platforms like Parler to fester in isolation (and possible secrecy), user-filtered services could relegate them to the fringes of our open marketplace of ideas, as society has always tended to do. That could downrank their trash out of the view of those who do not opt in to see it, while keeping it accessible to those who do (and facilitate monitoring whatever mischief they brew).

Filter-driven downranking could also drive mechanisms to introduce friction, slow viral spread of abusive items, and precisely target fact-checks and warning labels for maximum effect. Friction could include such measures as adding delays on promotion of questionable items and downranking likes or shares done too fast to have read more than the headline. Society has always done best when the marketplace of ideas is open, and oversight is by reason and community influence not repression. It is social media’s recommendations of harmful content and groups that are so pernicious, far more than any unseen presence of such content and groups.

Filtering services can emerge to shine sunlight on blindness to reality and good sense. They can entice reasonable people to cast a wider net and think critically. Simple fact-checking often fails, because when falsehoods are denied from outside our echo-chambers, confirmation bias increases polarization. But when someone trusted within our group challenges a belief, we stop and think. Algorithms can identify and alert us to these “surprising validators” of opposing views. A notable proof point of such surprising validators is the Redirect Method experiments in dissuading potential ISIS sympathizers by presenting critical videos made by former members. Clever filtering can also augment serendipity, cross-fertilizing across information silos and surfacing fringe ideas that deserve wider consideration (Galileo: “…and yet it moves”). Clever design can enlist people to help with that, much like Wikipedia, and even gamify it.

User-driven markets for filters can also better serve local community needs within the global village. Network effects drive global platforms, but filtering can be local and adaptive to community standards and national laws and norms. US, EU and Chinese filters can be different, but open societies would make it easy to swap alternative filters in when desired. The Wall Street Journal’s “Blue Feed, Red Feed” demonstrated strikingly how you can walk in another’s shoes. Members of any community of thought – religion, politics, culture, profession, hobby – could enable their members to filter in accord with their community standards, at varying levels of selectivity, without imposing those standards on those who seek broader horizons. But now, social media users are subjected to “platform law,” which from a human rights perspective is “both overbroad and underinclusive.”

Filters and circuit breakers -- parallels in financial marketplaces

The parallels between our marketplace of ideas and our financial markets run deep. There is much to learn from and adapt, both at a technical and a regulatory level. Both kinds of markets require distilling the wisdom of the crowd -- and limiting the madness. This January made it apparent that the marketplaces of ideas and of securities feed into one another. The sensitivity of financial markets to information and volatility has driven development of sophisticated control regimes designed to keep the markets free and fair while limiting harmful instabilities. Those regimes involve SEC regulations affecting market participants, exchanges/dealers/brokers, and clearing houses - and they continue to evolve.

Just as in financial markets, it is now apparent that social media markets of ideas need circuit breakers to limit instabilities by reducing extremes of velocity, without permanently constraining media postings (unless clearly illegal or harmful). That suggests social media restrictions on postings can be rare, just as individual securities trades can be at foolish prices without great harm. Securities trading circuit breakers are applied when the velocity of trades leads to such large and rapid market swings that decisions become reactive and likely to lose touch with reality. Those market pauses give participants time to consider available information and regain an orderly flow in whatever direction then seems sensible to the participants. There is a similar need for friction and pauses in social media virality.

User-controlled filtering that serves each user should be the primary control on what we see, but the financial market analog supports the idea that circuit breakers are sometimes needed in social media. Filters controlled by individual users will not, themselves, limit flows to users who have different filters. To control excesses of viral velocity, access and sharing must be throttled across a critical mass of all filters that are in use.

The specific variables relevant to the guardrails needed for our marketplace of ideas are different from those in financial markets, but analogous. Broad throttling can be done by coordinating the platform posting and access functions using network-wide traffic data, plus consolidated feedback on quality metrics from the filters combined with velocity data from the platforms. A standard interface protocol could enable the filters to report problematic items. Such reports could be sent back to the platforms that are sourcing them, or to a separate coordination service, so it can be determined when such reports reach a threshold level that requires a circuit breaker to introduce friction into the user interfaces and delays in sharing. Signaling protocols could support sharing among the platforms and all the filtering services to coordinate warnings that downranking or other controls might be desired. (To preserve individual user freedom, users might be free to opt-out of having their filters adhere to some or all such warnings.) Think of this as a decentralized cognitive immune system that integrates signals emerging from many kinds of distributed sensors, in much the same way that our bodies coordinate an emergently learned response to pathogens.

Much as financial market circuit breakers are invoked by exchanges or clearinghouses in accord with oversight by the SEC, social media circuit breakers might be invoked by the network subsystems in accord with oversight by a Digital Regulatory Agency based on information flows across this new digital information market ecology.

Harmful content:  controls and liability

User control of filters enables society to again rely primarily on the best kind of censorship: self-censorship -- and helps cut through much of the confusion that surrounds the current controversy over whether Section 230 of the Communications Act of 1996 should be repealed or modified to remove the safe harbor that limits the liability of the platforms. Many argue that Section 230 should not be repealed, but modified to limit amplification (including writers from AOL, Facebook policy and Facebook data science). Harold Feld of Public Knowledge argues in The Case for the Digital Platform Act that “elimination of Section 230 would do little to get at the kinds of harmful speech increasingly targeted by advocates” and is “irrelevant” to the issues of harmful speech on the platforms. He provides helpful background on the issues and suggests a variety of other routes and specific strategies for limiting amplification of bad content and promoting good content in ways sensitive to the nature of the medium.

Regardless of the legal mechanism, Feld’s summary of a Supreme Court ruling on an earlier law makes the central point that matters here: “the general rule for handling unwanted content is to require people who wish to avoid unwanted content to do so, rather than to silence speakers.” That puts the responsibility for limiting distribution of harmful content (other than clearly illegal content) squarely on users – or on the filtering services that should be acting as more or less faithful agents for those users.

Nuanced regulation could depend on the form of moderation/amplification, as well as its transparency, degree of user “buy-in,” and scale of influence. So long as the filters work as faithful agents (fiduciaries) for each user, in accord with that user’s stated preferences, then they should not be liable for their operation. Regulators could facilitate and monitor adherence to guidelines on how to do that responsibly. Negligence in triggering and applying friction and downranking to slow the viral spread of borderline content could be a criterion for liability or regulatory penalties. Such nuanced guardrails would limit harm while keeping our marketplace of ideas open to what we each choose to have filtered for us.

If independent middleware selected by users does this “moderation,” the platform remains effectively blind and neutral (and within the Section 230 safe harbor, to the extent that may be relevant). That narrowing of safe harbor (or other regulatory burdens) might help motivate the platforms to divest themselves of filtering -- or to at least yield control to the users. If the filtering middleware is spun out, the responsibility then shifts from the platforms to the filtering middleware services. Larger middleware services could dedicate significant resources to doing moderation and limiting harmful amplification well, while smaller ones would at worst be amplifying to few users. Users who were not happy with how moderation and amplification was being handled for them could switch to other service providers. But if the dominant platforms retain the filters and fail to yield transparency and control to their essentially captive users, regulation might need to take a heavy hand. That would threaten free expression in our marketplace of ideas.

Realigning business incentives – though-robber barons and attention capitalism

The Internet's Original Sin” is that advertising-based business models drive filtering/ranking/alerting algorithms to feed us junk food for the mind, even when toxic. The oligopolies that hold our filters hostage to advertising are loath to risk any change to that, and uninterested in experimenting with emerging alternative business models. That is a powerful tide to swim against.

Regulators hesitate to meddle in business models, but even partial steps to open just this layer of filtering middleware could do much to decouple the filtering of our feeds from the sale of advertising. A competitive open market in filtering services would be driven by the demand of individual users, making them more “the customer” and less “the product.” Now the pull of advertising demand funds an industry of content farms that create clickbait for disinformation -- or just for the sole purpose of generating ad revenue.

Shoshana Zuboff’s tour de force diagnosis of the ills of surveillance capitalism has rightly raised awareness of the abuses we now face, but I suggest a rather different prescription. The more deadly problem is attention capitalism.  Our attention and thought are far more valuable to us than our data, and the harms of misdirection of attention that robs us of reasoned thought are far more insidious to us as individuals and to our society than other harms from extraction of our data.

It is improper use of the data that does the harm. As outlined above, the extraction of our attention stems from the combination of platform control and perverse incentives. The cure is to regain control of our feeds, and to decouple the perverse incentives.

My work on innovative business models suggests how an even more transformative shift from advertising to user-based revenue could be feasible. Those methods could allow for user funding of social media in ways that are affordable for all -- and that would align incentives to serve users as the customer, not the product.

As a half step toward those broader business model reforms, advertising could be more tolerable and less perverse in its incentives if users could negotiate its level and nature, and how that offsets the costs of service. That could be done with a form of “reverse metering” that credits users for their attention and data when viewing ads. Innovators are showing that even users who now block ads might be open to non-intrusive ads that deliver relevance or entertainment value, and willing to provide their personal data to facilitate that.

But in any case, advertising should not be permitted to dictate how our social media content is filtered. Given the hurdles of platform and/or regulator buy-in, divesting control of our feeds from the platforms seems to be the best leverage point for driving real transformation. I have advocated user control of filters for many years, but I credit the Fukuyama article for highlighting its surgical precision in addressing our current crisis.

Making this happen

Given how far down the wrong path we have gone, reform will not be easy, and will likely require complex regulation, but there is no other effective solution.  To recap the options currently being pursued:

  • Current privacy and antitrust initiatives are aimed at harms to privacy and competition, but even if broken up or regulated, monolithic, ad-driven social media services have limited ability and motivation to protect our marketplace of ideas.
  • Simple fact-checking and warning labels have very limited effect.
  • More sophisticated psychology-based interventions have promise, but who combines the ability and motivation to apply them effectively, even if mandated to do so?
  • Banning Trump was a draconian measure that dominant platforms rightly shied away from, understanding that censoring who can post is antithetical to a free society. It clearly lacks legitimacy and due protection for human rights when decided by private companies or even by independent review boards.

As noted above (and outlined more fully in a prior post), a promising regulatory framework is emerging (to little public attention). This goes beyond ad hoc remedies to specific harms, and provides for ongoing oversight by a specialized Digital Regulatory Agency that would work with industry and academic experts, much like the FCC and the SEC. Hopefully, the Biden administration will have the wisdom and will to undertake that (the UK is already proceeding).

But those proposals have yet to focus on the freeing of our feeds. That is the where the power to save democracy lies, but we can expect the platforms to resist losing control of this profit-enhancing component of their systems. Of course, regulators could just task the monolithic platforms with offering users direct control without any functional divestiture -- that seems possible, but problematic, for the reasons given above.

The other deep remedy would be to end the Faustian bargain of the ad model very broadly, but that will take considerable regulatory resolve – or a groundswell of public revulsion. Neither seem imminent. One way to finesse that is the “ratchet” model that I have proposed, inspired by how regulations ratchet vehicle manufacturers toward increasingly challenging fuel economy standards has driven the market to meet those challenges incrementally, in ways of their own devising. The idea is simple: mandate or apply taxes to shift social media revenue to small but increasing percentages of user-based revenue. But the focus here is on this more narrowly targeted and clearly feasible divestiture of filtering.

While regulators seem reluctant to meddle with business models, there is precedent for modularizing interoperating elements of a complex monolithic business through a functional breakup. The Bell System breakup separated services from equipment suppliers, and local service from long-distance. That was part of a series of regulatory actions that required modular jacks to allow competitive terminal equipment (phones, faxes, modems, etc.), number portability and many other liberating reforms, all far too complex for legislation or the judiciary alone, but solvable by the FCC working with industry and independent experts.

Internet e-mail also serves as a relevant design model – it was designed to replace incompatible networks, enabling users of any “user agent” (like Outlook or Gmail) to send through any combination of cloud “transfer agents” to a recipient with any other user agent. In the extreme, such models for liberation could lead to “Protocols, Not Platforms.” One move in that direction would allow multiple competing platforms to interoperate to allow posting and access across multiple platforms, each acting as a user messaging agent and a distributed data store. Also, as noted above, the model of financial markets seems very relevant, offering proven guiding principles.

But in any case, even short of an open filtering middleware market, it is essential to democracy to provide more control to each user over what information the dominant platforms feed us. Even if the filters stay no better than they are now and users just pick them randomly, they will become more diverse – that, alone, would reduce dangerous levels of virality and ad-driven sensationalism. The incentive of engagement that drives recommendations of pernicious content, people, and groups would be eliminated or at least weakened.

The economics of network effects favors this functional separation in a way that regulators may find compelling.

  •  Network effects intrinsically favor universal interconnections for posting and access, driving platform dominance for those basic functions. That borders on being a universal utility service (whether monolithic or distributed and interoperating).
  • But filtering of how posts and users are matched to other users is largely immune to network effects. A filter can please a single individual, regardless of whether others use it. Users will select middleware services that seem to act in their interest – motivating businesses to demonstrate value over ubiquity.

Key steps toward returning control to users can build incremental impact:

1.   Policies should be reframed to treat filtering that targets and amplifies reach to users as editorial authorship/curation/moderation of a feed, and thus subject to regulation (and liability). That might, itself, motivate the platforms to divest that function to avoid that risk to their core businesses. That would also motivate them to help design effective APIs to support those independent filtering services. They could retain ability to provide the raw firehose, filtered only in non-“editorial” ways -- by simple categories such as named friends or groups, geography, and subject, in reverse chronological order, with no ranking or amplification (using sampling to keep the flow at a desired level).

2.   A spinout could break out the platforms existing filtering services and staff into one or several new companies with clear functional boundaries and distinct subsets of the user base. The new units might begin with the current code base, but then evolve independently to serve different communities of users -- but with requirements for data portability to facilitate switching.

3.   The spin-out should be guided (and mandated as necessary) by well-crafted regulation combined with ongoing adaptation. Regulators should define, enforce, and evolve basic guardrails on the APIs and related practices and circuit breakers on both sides -- and continually monitor and evolve that.

4.   Such structural changes alone would at least partially decouple filtering from the perverse effects of the ad model. However, as noted above, regulation could address that more aggressively by mandates (or taxes) that encourage a shift to user-based revenue. A survey of some notable proposals for a Digital Regulatory Agency, as well as suggestions of what we should regulate for, not just against, is in Regulating our Platforms-- A Deeper Vision.

5.   The structural changes creating an open market would also motivate the new filtering middleware services to devise user interfaces and new algorithms to better provide value to users. The framework for reputation-based algorithms briefly outlined above is more fully explained in Architecting Our Platforms to Better Serve Us -- Augmenting and Modularizing the Algorithm.

6.   A new digital agency can also address the many other desirable objectives of Big Tech platform regulation, including consumer privacy and data usage rights, standards and processes to remove clearly impermissible content, and anticompetitive behaviors, as well as other Big Tech oligopoly issues beyond social media.

Whatever route we take in this direction, democracy requires that our marketplace of ideas be controlled by “we the people,” not platforms or advertisers. We must take back control as soon as possible. Current efforts at antitrust breakups and privacy regulation that leave filtering in the hands of others with their own agendas will perpetuate this mortal threat to democracy. Return of filtering power to citizens can revitalize our marketplace of ideas. It can augment our social processes for “mediating consent” and pursuing happiness – and provide a healthy base for gradual evolution toward digital democracy. But so long as others subvert control of our bicycles for the mind to their own ends, we have no time to lose.


This is a working draft for discussion.

+++Updates are here: Growing Support for "Making Social Media Serve Society."

Feedback on support for these ideas, concerns, disagreements, and needs for clarification are invited. Please use the comment section below or email to interwingled [at] teleshuttle [dot] com.


Personal note: The roots of these ideas

These ideas have been brewing throughout my career (bio), with burst of activity very early on, then around 2002, and increasingly in the past decade. They are part of a rich network that intertwingles with my work on FairPay and several of my patented inventions. Some background on these roots may be helpful.

I was first enthused by the potential of what we now call social media around 1970, when I had seen early hypertext systems (pre-cursors of the Web) by TedNelson and Doug Englebart, and then studied systems for collaborative decision support by Murray Turoff and others, rolling into a self-study course on collaborative media systems in graduate school.

My first proposals for an open market in media filtering were inspired by the financial industry parallels. A robust open market in filters for news and for market data analytics was emerging when I worked for Standard & Poor's and Dow Jones around 1990. Filters and analytics would monitor raw news feeds and market data (price ticker) feeds, select and analyze that raw information using algorithms and parameters chosen by the user, and work within any of a variety of trading platforms.

I drew on all of that when designing a system for open innovation and collaborative development of early-stage ideas around 2002. That design featured an open market for reputation-based ranking algorithms very much like those proposed here. Exposure to Google PageRank, which distilled human judgment and reputation for ranking Web search results, inspired me to broaden Google's design to distill the wisdom of the crowd as reflected in social media interactions, based on a sophisticated and nuanced reputation system.

By 2012 it was becoming apparent that the Internet was seriously disrupting the marketplace of ideas, and Cass Sunstein’s observations about surprising validators inspired me to adapt my designs to social media. I became active in groups that were addressing those concerns and more fully recast my earlier design to focus on social media. My other work on innovative business models for digital services also gave me a unique perspective on alternatives to the perverse incentives of social media.

The recent Fukuyama article was gratifying validation on the need for an open, competitive market for feed filtering services driven by users, and inspired me to refocus on that as the most direct point of leverage for structural remediation, as outlined here.

I am very grateful to the many researchers and activists in this field I have had the privilege of interacting with and who have provided invaluable stimulation, feedback, suggestions, and support, especially over the past several years as this has become a widely recognized problem.

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