By Henriette Ruhrmann
Technological progress, from the development of an alphabet to live streaming, has always shaped the way we communicate our private thoughts in public space. As such, every technological advancement inherently influences our public discourse, which is the cornerstone of a pluralist liberal democracy. Today’s tech companies demonstrate their awareness of their ambition to exert that type of reach, as illustrated by Google’s reorganization under its lesser-known parent company Alphabet Inc., which alludes that the tech giant understands its role in shaping our collective communication as no less revolutionary than the development of a new alphabet. It is time that political leaders also fully recognize the dominance of Google and other tech companies. Simultaneously, political leaders must acknowledge that in modern democracies of several million citizens, democracy is fundamentally reliant on the communication between citizens and their political leaders. Technology will always be the vehicle of this communication and political leaders need to ensure that private tech is not dictating communication in a way that conflicts with the public good.
Most members of my generation know political communication and discourse to be characterized by polarization, which is higher today than it was at any time since the late 1800s, but the same was not true for our grandparents. The grandparents of millennials grew into political consciousness with the advent of the last major mass communications technology: television. They witnessed the “golden age of television” beginning in the 1950s — when half of all U.S. households purchased a television set over the span of five years — to the 1970s, when 95 percent of U.S. households owned a set. In the same period since the introduction of television, American political discourse had to grapple with controversy over pivotal events such as the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. Nevertheless, political polarization between the major parties was at a low and voter turnouts at record highs. As American historian Jill Lepore describes, television as the burgeoning mainstream technology of the time may have played a part in shaping political life: Broadcast television long offered only a handful of channels and programs available to watch at the end of the workday, which established a common collective understanding of political reality. Moreover, the programming made engagement with political news a prominent part of evening routines, bringing moderate voters into the discourse and to the polls. With the rise of cable television in the 1970s, the choice of television channels and programs exploded. According to Lepore, having an array of alternatives to political programs, from entertainment shows to sports coverage, led voters with moderate interest and political positions to become increasingly disengaged from political news, leaving the arena of political discourse to those with more extreme views.
Beginning in the 1930s, policymakers recognized the significance of television for public discourse in their approach to regulating broadcasting through the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which required recipients of television licenses to serve the public interest by “ascertain[ing] the needs of the community” and fostering public understanding through their programming. Based on the “public interest” standard, the FCC exerted considerable authority over program content, including political editorials. Under a separate “fairness doctrine,” broadcasters were required to present opposing viewpoints on controversial issues. Implementation of such an idealistic standard became increasingly difficult in the face of growing political activism and challenges of whether coverage was “fair” so that the principle was abandoned in the 1980s.
Today, online media, available at any time and in any format, overshadow cable television in terms of the abundance of evening entertainment they offer. A voter today faces an overwhelming choice of media content across platforms laying claim to the “truth”. Philosophically, democracy rests on the idea that discourse will reveal the “truth,” which requires that citizens engage in pluralistic discourse. However, the tech platforms’ economic interest as private businesses is to increase their users’ engagement with their platform, which increases the amount of user data collected and raises the value of advertisements on the platform. Therefore, tech companies have a strong incentive to algorithmically tailor the small portion of the content available on the platform that is featured in a user’s feed to the user’s profile. It is therefore economically rational for tech platforms to cultivate “echo chambers” and “filter bubbles” in which users are isolated based on their political views, a development which threatens discourse across political divides and coincides with a steep upward trajectory in political polarization and a divided electorate.
Today’s policymakers are challenged with regulating online media and the tech companies that provide the platforms continue to relieve platforms of their responsibilities in shaping public discourse. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 grants tech companies — whose function is considered that of a library rather than a publisher — immunity from being held liable for the content generated on and distributed through their platforms, with few exceptions. Content moderation in the interest of balanced public discourse is difficult to implement, as the experience with television’s “fairness doctrine” shows. Both the state or culturally-biased private tech companies maintaining ultimate control over what content can or cannot be shared on a platform risks undermining citizens’ freedom of expression. However, resting the argument to refrain from regulating content moderation on freedom of speech would be blind to the fact that tech companies already moderate the content their users see in their private interest. Given the unparalleled importance of tech platforms as the arena for public discourse, policymakers should, therefore, aim to establish a regulatory environment that aligns tech companies’ private interests with public interests.
Specifically, regulators could consider mandating that tech companies:
- Optimize their content algorithms not for engagement with the platform but for diversity of content, allowing users to dictate the degree of variety — in viewpoint and political ideology — they see online
- Identify and cross-link content on the same issue to increase the users’ awareness of and exposure to the variety of content in circulation and facilitate discourse across political perspectives
- Submit their algorithms to a risk assessment, for example, similar to the risk assessment developed as part of the Ethics & Algorithms Toolkit tailored to promote the public interest in transparent accountability for algorithmic interference in public discourse
Without targeted policy interventions, public leaders risk that private companies interested in winning our valuable attention will dominate the public’s ability to shape the society it strives for through public discourse.
Henriette Ruhrmann is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy and a Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal.