September 30, 2021
In this episode of Democracy Works from The McCourtney Institute for Democracy, the team looks at the impact of Amazon on democracy and America's social fabric.
In this episode of Democracy Works from The McCourtney Institute for Democracy, the team looks at the impact of Amazon on democracy and America's social fabric.
Menczer is the Luddy distinguished professor of informatics and computer science at Indiana University.
An internal Facebook report found that the social media platform's algorithms – the rules its computers follow in deciding the content that you see – enabled disinformation campaigns based in Eastern Europe to reach nearly half of all Americans in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, according to a report in Technology Review.
The campaigns produced the most popular pages for Christian and Black American content, and overall reached 140 million U.S. users per month. Seventy-five percent of the people exposed to the content hadn't followed any of the pages. People saw the content because Facebook's content-recommendation system put it into their news feeds.
On the eve of the 2020 election, troll farms were running vast page networks on FB targeting Christian, Black, & Na… https://t.co/D8ZWXAumaB— Karen Hao (@Karen Hao) 1631841255.0
Social media platforms rely heavily on people's behavior to decide on the content that you see. In particular, they watch for content that people respond to or "engage" with by liking, commenting and sharing. Troll farms, organizations that spread provocative content, exploit this by copying high-engagement content and posting it as their own.
As a computer scientist who studies the ways large numbers of people interact using technology, I understand the logic of using the wisdom of the crowds in these algorithms. I also see substantial pitfalls in how the social media companies do so in practice.
The concept of the wisdom of crowds assumes that using signals from others' actions, opinions and preferences as a guide will lead to sound decisions. For example, collective predictions are normally more accurate than individual ones. Collective intelligence is used to predict financial markets, sports, elections and even disease outbreaks.
Throughout millions of years of evolution, these principles have been coded into the human brain in the form of cognitive biases that come with names like familiarity, mere exposure and bandwagon effect. If everyone starts running, you should also start running; maybe someone saw a lion coming and running could save your life. You may not know why, but it's wiser to ask questions later.
Your brain picks up clues from the environment – including your peers – and uses simple rules to quickly translate those signals into decisions: Go with the winner, follow the majority, copy your neighbor. These rules work remarkably well in typical situations because they are based on sound assumptions. For example, they assume that people often act rationally, it is unlikely that many are wrong, the past predicts the future, and so on.
Technology allows people to access signals from much larger numbers of other people, most of whom they do not know. Artificial intelligence applications make heavy use of these popularity or "engagement" signals, from selecting search engine results to recommending music and videos, and from suggesting friends to ranking posts on news feeds.
Our research shows that virtually all web technology platforms, such as social media and news recommendation systems, have a strong popularity bias. When applications are driven by cues like engagement rather than explicit search engine queries, popularity bias can lead to harmful unintended consequences.
Social media like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok rely heavily on AI algorithms to rank and recommend content. These algorithms take as input what you like, comment on and share – in other words, content you engage with. The goal of the algorithms is to maximize engagement by finding out what people like and ranking it at the top of their feeds.
How social media filter bubbles work youtu.be
On the surface this seems reasonable. If people like credible news, expert opinions and fun videos, these algorithms should identify such high-quality content. But the wisdom of the crowds makes a key assumption here: that recommending what is popular will help high-quality content "bubble up."
We tested this assumption by studying an algorithm that ranks items using a mix of quality and popularity. We found that in general, popularity bias is more likely to lower the overall quality of content. The reason is that engagement is not a reliable indicator of quality when few people have been exposed to an item. In these cases, engagement generates a noisy signal, and the algorithm is likely to amplify this initial noise. Once the popularity of a low-quality item is large enough, it will keep getting amplified.
Algorithms aren't the only thing affected by engagement bias – it can affect people too. Evidence shows that information is transmitted via "complex contagion," meaning the more times people are exposed to an idea online, the more likely they are to adopt and reshare it. When social media tells people an item is going viral, their cognitive biases kick in and translate into the irresistible urge to pay attention to it and share it.
We recently ran an experiment using a news literacy app called Fakey. It is a game developed by our lab, which simulates a news feed like those of Facebook and Twitter. Players see a mix of current articles from fake news, junk science, hyperpartisan and conspiratorial sources, as well as mainstream sources. They get points for sharing or liking news from reliable sources and for flagging low-credibility articles for fact-checking.
We found that players are more likely to like or share and less likely to flag articles from low-credibility sources when players can see that many other users have engaged with those articles. Exposure to the engagement metrics thus creates a vulnerability.
The wisdom of the crowds fails because it is built on the false assumption that the crowd is made up of diverse, independent sources. There may be several reasons this is not the case.
First, because of people's tendency to associate with similar people, their online neighborhoods are not very diverse. The ease with which social media users can unfriend those with whom they disagree pushes people into homogeneous communities, often referred to as echo chambers.
Second, because many people's friends are friends of one another, they influence one another. A famous experiment demonstrated that knowing what music your friends like affects your own stated preferences. Your social desire to conform distorts your independent judgment.
Third, popularity signals can be gamed. Over the years, search engines have developed sophisticated techniques to counter so-called " link farms" and other schemes to manipulate search algorithms. Social media platforms, on the other hand, are just beginning to learn about their own vulnerabilities.
People aiming to manipulate the information market have created fake accounts, like trolls and social bots, and organized fake networks. They have flooded the network to create the appearance that a conspiracy theory or a political candidate is popular, tricking both platform algorithms and people's cognitive biases at once. They have even altered the structure of social networks to create illusions about majority opinions.
What to do? Technology platforms are currently on the defensive. They are becoming more aggressive during elections in taking down fake accounts and harmful misinformation. But these efforts can be akin to a game of whack-a-mole.
A different, preventive approach would be to add friction. In other words, to slow down the process of spreading information. High-frequency behaviors such as automated liking and sharing could be inhibited by CAPTCHA tests or fees. Not only would this decrease opportunities for manipulation, but with less information people would be able to pay more attention to what they see. It would leave less room for engagement bias to affect people's decisions.
It would also help if social media companies adjusted their algorithms to rely less on engagement to determine the content they serve you. Perhaps the revelations of Facebook's knowledge of troll farms exploiting engagement will provide the necessary impetus.
While political pundits are focusing on the massive amount of money that is going to be spent on the 2022 midterm elections, money in itself won't determine the fate of the election and, ultimately, control of both the House and Senate.
Election officials from states across the nation have begun to meet to address many of the challenges they foresee with the 2022 midterm election, with the idea that collaboration and sharing best practices may save the day.
But we need to keep a collective eye on the clock, with just over a year to go until the election. As we saw in the 2016 presidential election, when technology is used to disrupt an election, it takes longer than we expect to fix the issue.
Cybersecurity is one of the key issues that needs to be addressed for the upcoming elections. Political campaigns need to reach voters in safe ways and earn the trust of the voters. While technology has been a huge negative in recent years, one tech giant hopes to play a part in winning back this lost trust.
Google is offering cybersecurity training to state legislators and their teams for the 2022 midterms, a reflection of how far into the mainstream what used to be the stuff of science fiction has creeped. The goal of this training is to sensitize current and prospective lawmakers and their staff to the component parts of the nation's digital defense and to have voters trust the process more than they have in recent elections.
History tends to err on the side of a strong midterm election showing for the party that isn't in power. With a Democratic president and House, and a tie falling the Democrats' way in the Senate, it would not be a surprise to many experts if the Republicans had significant net gains in 2022. Between new voting restrictions and a general fear among some Democrats that it may not be as safe to vote in 2022 as it should be, what role can technology play in getting the kinds of big numbers that all democracies want in key elections, but also in safeguarding people who come out to vote?
Part of the discomfort many people have just over a year out from the 2022 midterms is questions about how safe it will be to vote in person and uncertainty about how widely available advance and mail-in voting will be in 2022. While it is too early to determine how valid these concerns in fact are, it's always perception that counts in determining whether people will actually cast their vote. Anytime people perceive physical threats of violence, it can be really beneficial to find creative uses of technology to help people understand the difference between what they see and hear in the media and actual reality.
Finally, we need to consider what role technology can play to expedite the coming legal challenges to the 2022 midterms. It is conceivable that courts may still be backed up across the nation by mid-2022, when the first legal challenges to election-related issues begin to be filed. If technology can help us quickly get through a lot of cases challenging aspects of the election, this will help prevent an election-related backlog that could slow down the legal process to the point that it essentially moots decisions. In other words, where the courts make a decision about the 2022 midterms with not enough time left to fully implement what the court says needs to be done, this hurts how the election is perceived.
Social media is one of the biggest platforms for political conversation, but it more often becomes an echo chamber and home for bitter sniping rather than a place for healthy debate.
That's why Aidan Stephen and Eli Plotkin created YapPolitics, a space where people, especially the 24 million members of Generation Z who are eligible to vote, can discuss political issues online. The pair of high schoolers hope their mobile app can foster civil engagement among people of all ages, backgrounds and political affiliations.
YapPolitics is now undergoing beta testing as the developers prepare to make it available for download in app stores. The app will include a public forum where users can engage with one another and a resource center with information from the left, right and center provided by AllSides.
Users will also be able to enter YapRooms to send voice or text messages to debate certain topics. A live video feature will allow for one-on-one organized debates. Stephen said he hopes the video element will bring some humanity to debates.
Unlike most apps and social media platforms, Stephen and Plotkin intentionally made YapPolitics' algorithm anti-adaptive. So instead of users seeing content that already aligns with their views, YapPolitics will show them opposing or new perspectives. The goal with this approach, Stephen said, is to break down the echo chambers and curb political polarization.
"Our software is more about, 'Let's put you in front of different ideas or unique and diverse opinions, and let's see how you interact with those.' Let's see what types of discussions come out of that," Stephen said.
YapPolitics is intended to promote youth political engagement in particular because as teenagers themselves who will be eligible to vote next year, Stephen and Plotkin feel young people are often disregarded in political spaces.
"For us, if we can create a community that's very heavily based in young people, we're investing in the future. We can prove to all the people out there that young people do have the intellectual capability, have the opinions, have the resources to be what the adult world thinks that they're not," Stephen said.
The 2020 election saw one of the highest rates of youth voter participation in history, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. Half of people under the age of 29 voted last year — an 11-point increase from 2016.
YapPolitics is just one of many groups tapping into this surge in youth engagement. Earlier this month, BridgeUSA, an organization that facilitates political discussions on college campuses, announced the launch of its first high school chapters. Another youth voter engagement group, Civics Unplugged is offering a fellowship to high schoolers who want to "unleash your unique civic superpowers to build a brighter future for humanity."
In this episode of How to Win Friends and Save The Republic, a podcast from the National Association of Nonpartisan Reformers, special guests technology gurus Sara Gifford and Victor Allis talk about their app, ActiVote, which helps people increase their civic engagement by completing meaningful, daily actions.
In today's episode of the Election Cybersecurity Initiative Podcast, Adam Clayton Powell, III, Executive Director of the Election Cybersecurity Initiative, talks with Marie Harf, USC Election Security Analyst, as they discuss how social media platforms are changing their tactics to fight disinformation.
At the end of his presidency, Donald Trump was frequently reprimanded by Twitter for spreading false statements about the 2020 election. But a recent study found that flagging his tweets as misinformation did little to stop their spread.
In fact, Trump's tweets that were marked as containing misinformation spread further than the tweets that received no intervention from Twitter, researchers at New York University's Center for Social Media and Politics found. Their report, released Tuesday, analyzed more than 1,100 of the former president's tweets from the start of November 2020 to Jan. 8, the day Trump was suspended from the social media platform.
Of the tweets analyzed, 303 received "soft intervention" from Twitter, meaning they were labeled as disputed and potentially misleading. Sixteen tweets contained egregious enough falsehoods to receive "hard intervention," and were removed from the site or blocked from user engagement. The remaining 830 tweets received no intervention from Twitter.
While hard interventions did stop select misinformation from spreading further on Twitter, soft interventions did not have the same effect. The report found that messages with misinformation labels received more user engagement than those without interference.
But even blocking false messages on Twitter wasn't completely sufficient in combating the spread of Trump's worst misinformation, the report found. His tweets that were removed from the platform spiked in engagement on other social media outlets, namely Facebook, Instagram and Reddit.
However, the report notes, these findings do not necessarily mean Twitter's misinformation warning labels were ineffective or led to a so-called "Streisand effect," wherein an attempt to hide or remove information unintentionally draws more attention to it.
"It's possible Twitter intervened on posts that were more likely to spread, or it's possible Twitter's interventions caused a backlash and increased their spread," said Zeve Sanderson, one of the report's co-authors.
"Nonetheless, the findings underscore how intervening on one platform has limited impact when content can easily spread on others," said Megan Brown, another co-author of the report. "To more effectively counteract misinformation on social media, it's important for both technologists and public officials to consider broader content moderation policies that can work across social platforms rather than singular platforms."
Digital voter registration and online balloting rose in popularity during the 2020 election, a recent government report found.
On Monday, the Election Assistance Commission released its findings from last year's pandemic-era election in a comprehensive 252-page report. The federal agency has conducted extensive biennial surveys of how Americans voted and states conducted their federal elections since 2004.
The 2020 report provides a detailed look into how voting and election administration were impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. The Fulcrum broke the findings down in two parts. The first installment provided a general election overview and details on state policy changes. This article focuses on voter registration and military and overseas voters.
EAC Chairman Donald Palmer said the data collected in this report not only provides key insights into the 2020 election, but will also inform election policies and best practices moving forward.
Perhaps a prelude to the record-high turnout in the presidential election, 2020 also saw a spike in voter registrations. Nearly 104 million voter registration applications were submitted following the 2018 midterm and prior to the 2020 general election — a 34 percent increase compared to the period leading up to the 2016 election. Thirty-two percent of those applications were new valid registrations and another 49 percent were updates to a voter's name, address or party affiliation.
Motor vehicle departments continued to be the most common way Americans registered to vote, making up 39 percent of the 2020 applications. But online registration saw the largest growth in usage over the past couple years, with 28 percent of applicants submitting electronically.
The EAC noted this increased use of online registration portals was helped by three states adopting such a policy since 2018: Minnesota, New Jersey and Oklahoma. In total, 42 states and D.C. allow citizens to register online. While Mississippi and Texas allow voters to update their registration information online, new voters cannot submit applications electronically.
The use of same-day voter registration, either on Election Day, during the early voting period or both, in 29 states also accounted for more than 1.6 million new registrations in 2020. Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada and American Samoa were the most recent places to adopt this policy ahead of last year's election.
Automatic voter registrations systems used in 23 states also likely boosted new voter sign-ups, but the exact number is hard to quantify since most AVR systems are set up through motor vehicle departments. However, when comparing the change in voter registrations at the DMV between 2016 and 2020, the EAC found that states with AVR reported an 80 percent increase in registrations, whereas states without AVR reported just a 10 percent bump.
In addition to processing new registrations, states and territories are also charged with maintaining voter rolls to ensure they are accurate and current. While federal law provides minimal guidelines for how voter rolls should be updated, states are given considerable freedom to adopt their own policies.
Sometimes this results in what voting rights advocates call "voter purges," or mass removals of eligible voters. But generally states' periodic maintenance efforts remove deceased voters or people who have moved to another jurisdiction.
States usually send confirmation notices to voters who may have moved. If the notice is not returned, states may change the voter's status to inactive (and the voter would have to confirm registration before casting a ballot again). If an inactive voter does not participate in the following two federal elections, federal law instructs states to remove them from the rolls.
Between the 2018 and 2020 elections, states reported removing more than 18.7 million voters from the rolls. One-third of these removals were due to a lack of response, 29 percent were because the voter moved to another jurisdiction and a fifth were deceased voters.
For the 2020 election, more than 1.2 million ballots were sent to overseas voters including uniform service members, military spouses and dependents over the age of 18. These individuals reside outside of the country but hold legal residence in the United States. A large portion of these voters (40 percent) are concentrated in three states: California, Florida and Washington.
Since 2014, a majority of the ballots sent outside the U.S. were to non-military voters. In 2020 that trend continued with 60 percent of these ballots going to overseas civilian voters and 39 percent to members of the military.
Given the lengthy mailing process and high mobility rates of this voting population, a federal law was enacted in 2009 that gave military and other overseas voters the ability to vote electronically. Since then, receiving and returning ballots online has become increasingly popular.
For last year's election, military voters were almost evenly split on their preference of receiving a ballot in their mailbox or their inbox, whereas a vast majority of overseas citizens (71 percent) opted for email.
However, fewer overseas voters chose to return their completed ballots electronically (38 percent overall). Military voters showed a strong preference for returning ballots by mail, while overseas citizens were more divided.
More than 8,100 ballots returned by military and civilian overseas voters were received by election officials too late and not counted in the 2020 election. Overall, 2 percent of the votes cast by this population were rejected — less than half the rejection rate in 2018. Tardiness was the most common reason for ballot rejection last year.
To the casual observer, gerrymandering can be difficult to spot, especially with recent technological advancements. But two new tools make it much easier to uncover partisan map manipulation.
And it's no coincidence that "good government" groups are unveiling these free tools now. On Thursday, the Census Bureau will release the updated population data states need to start redrawing congressional and state legislative maps for the new decade.
RepresentUs and the Princeton Gerrymandering Project collaborated to produce the Redistricting Report Card. And the Campaign Legal Center relaunched PlanScore. Both tools will analyze each state's newly drawn election maps for partisan impact.
Because the entire process of collecting and processing census data has been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, states are facing a compressed timeline for redistricting this year. The data being released this week normally comes out in the spring, and the final set of redistricting data won't be available until late September.
In most of the country, the two major parties remain in control of the mapmaking process. Republicans will have the advantage over redistricting in 21 states, while Democrats have it in nine. Another nine states have a divided government and the remaining 11 states have given mapmaking authority over to a redistricting commission.
Fair maps advocates hope to use these online tools to hold mapmakers, partisan or independent, accountable as well as raise public awareness about gerrymandering and the redistricting process.
The Redistricting Report Card uses an algorithm that generates one million potential maps for each state to provide a baseline of possibilities, both good and bad. Then, the tool will use these one million possibilities to compare and evaluate map proposals from state legislatures, redistricting commissions and even reform groups.
It will grade proposals based on competitiveness, geography and, most importantly, partisan fairness. Grades will be posted as state maps are produced later this year.
"It is critical that we deliver to citizens ways to evaluate and correct attempts to skew representation," said Sam Wang, director of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project and its extension, the Electoral Innovation Lab. "Our democracy depends on a transparent representation model that is responsive to citizens. We want citizens and map experts nationwide to use tools like this to reclaim their power in the democratic process."
In April, RepresentUs released a Gerrymandering Threat Index warning that 35 states are at extreme or high risk of gerrymandering this cycle. The Redistricting Report Card will confirm whether those states do end up manipulating maps for partisan advantage.
"Gerrymandering disenfranchises voters and makes it harder to hold politicians accountable. This important new grading tool will sound the alarm about gerrymandered maps around the country, empowering voters to demand their representatives draw fair maps," said RepresentUs CEO Josh Silver.
While the report card is a new tool, PlanScore was created in 2018 and has been updated and relaunched by the Campaign Legal Center.
As state redistricting plans progress, PlanScore will collect and analyze new maps to determine how severely they are skewed in favor of one major party over the other. The three main metrics for analysis are:
The website also contextualizes this year's redistricting process by allowing users to compare current and upcoming maps for Congress and the state legislature to historical plans dating back to the 1970s.
Additionally, policymakers and fair maps advocates can upload their own redistricting concepts to PlanScore, which will instantly evaluate them for partisan fairness.
PlanScore Casey Atkins, Campaign Legal Center
"The voting districts that will be finalized in the coming weeks will be cemented for the next 10 years," said Mark Gaber, director of redistricting at the Campaign Legal Center. "PlanScore.org empowers voters to hold map drawers accountable and demand fair maps during this critical map drawing year."
This week, Citizen Connect announced the launch of its new non-partisan online platform to serve as a convenient resource to help Americans find ways to heal our political divides and strengthen our democracy. Citizen Connect connects online users from the left, right and center with in-person and virtual events, as well as information about ways to engage with hundreds of organizations working to heal our political divisions. Citizen Connect's short video shares more on the platform's mission and approach to help fix America's broken politics.
At a time of heightened political dysfunction and polarization, a new platform aims to help everyday Americans find common ground and work toward solutions.
Officially launched on Wednesday, Citizen Connect provides opportunities for people to engage with the issues they care about and coalesce around ideas for strengthening democracy. Citizen Connect's website features events from more than 400 organizations across the political spectrum, as well as information on how people can get involved with these groups.
By making it easier for people to get involved, Citizen Connect co-founders Brian Clancy and Morris Effron hope to scale up the movement to bridge the country's divides.
"We think a part of civic life should be leaning into finding common ground and working across differences because for a lot of our problems we have just kicked the can down the road," Clancy said. "And the only way to solve those [problems] is to come together."
Users can search for events or organizations by topics, such as elections, faith and religion, race or immigration, and by work areas, like empowering young people, fighting corruption, voter information or healthy debate. The site also offers a newsletter for staying informed about upcoming events.
With hundreds of organizations already on the site, Citizen Connect plans to grow its coalition even further, to "represent the civic renewal movement as broadly as possible," Effron said. The website is nonpartisan, and the participating organizations are run by Republicans, Democrats and independents alike. (Citizen Connect is an initiative of the Bridge Alliance Education Fund, which also funds and operates The Fulcrum.)
"We're not taking a side. We're not promoting any agenda," Effron said. "We're just trying to, in essence, activate more American citizens, give more American citizens an easy way to find what in the political arena interests them and how they can act on it."
One way Citizen Connect wants to make it easier for people to engage is by integrating its event listing on media sites, such as The Fulcrum and AllSides. For instance, after reading an article about partisan gerrymandering, there would be a Citizen Connect widget providing information about how a person could get more involved in the issue.
"You read an article, and you're like, 'Gosh, I'd like to do something about this.' And then you have to walk the dog or buy food or whatever, and it's gone," Clancy said. "We want within a second, one click away, for someone to find something relevant on that topic — and again not selling an answer, but saying, 'Hey, come in, let's talk. We value your opinion. We can find common ground together.'"
One of the biggest challenges facing the nation today is a political climate that fuels division, anger and fear, Clancy said. Americans also feel frustrated by a perceived inability to make a difference, Effron added. They both hope Citizen Connect can be part of the solution.
"At the end of the day this is the people's democracy and we have final authority over what needs to, and can, happen. But we have to take action in order to exercise that power," Effron said. "That's really the whole mission of Citizen Connect, is to let people know that there is a way we can do this, but we have to take action, and we have to take action together."
Stemler is an associate professor of business law and ethics at Indiana University and a faculty associate at Harvard University's Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society.
Almost any article you read about Section 230 reminds you that it contains the most important 26 words in tech and that it is the law that made the modern internet. This is all true, but Section 230 is also the most significant obstacle to stopping misinformation online.
Section 230 is part of the Communications Decency Act, a 1996 law passed while the internet was still embryonic and downright terrifying to some lawmakers for what it could unleash, particularly with regard to pornography.
Section 230 states that internet platforms — dubbed "interactive computer services" in the statute — cannot be treated as publishers or speakers of content provided by their users. This means that just about anything a user posts on a platform's website will not create legal liability for the platform, even if the post is defamatory, dangerous, abhorrent or otherwise unlawful. This includes encouraging terrorism, promoting dangerous medical misinformation and engaging in revenge porn.
Platforms, including today's social media giants Facebook, Twitter and Google, therefore have complete control over what information Americans see.
The Communications Decency Act was the brainchild of Sen. James Exon, Democrat of Nebraska, who wanted to remove and prevent "filth" on the internet. Because of its overreaching nature, much of the law was struck down on First Amendment grounds shortly after the act's passage. Ironically, what remains is the provision that allowed filth and other truly damaging content to metastasize on the internet.
Section 230's inclusion in the CDA was a last-ditch effort by then Rep. Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, and Rep. Chris Cox, Republican of California, to save the nascent internet and its economic potential. They were deeply concerned by a 1995 case that found Prodigy, an online bulletin board operator, liable for a defamatory post by one of its users because Prodigy lightly moderated user content. Wyden and Cox wanted to preempt the court's decision with Section 230. Without it, platforms would face a Hobson's choice: If they did anything to moderate user content, they would be held liable for that content, and if they did nothing, who knew what unchecked horrors would be released.
When Section 230 was enacted, less than 8% of Americans had access to the internet, and those who did went online for an average of just 30 minutes a month. The law's anachronistic nature and brevity left it wide open for interpretation. Case by case, courts have used its words to give platforms broad rather than narrow immunity.
As a result, Section 230 is disliked on both sides of the aisle. Democrats argue that Section 230 allows platforms to get away with too much, particularly with regard to misinformation that threatens public health and democracy. Republicans, by contrast, argue that platforms censor user content to Republicans' political disadvantage. Former President Donald Trump even attempted to pressure Congress into repealing Section 230 completely by threatening to veto the unrelated annual defense spending bill.
As criticisms of Section 230 and technology platforms mount, it is possible Congress could reform Section 230 in the near future. Already, Democrats and Republicans have proposed over 20 reforms – from piecemeal changes to complete repeal. However, free speech and innovation advocates are worried that any of the proposed changes could be harmful.
Facebook has suggested changes, and Google similarly advocates for some Section 230 reform. It remains to be seen how much influence the tech giants will be able to exert on the reform process. It also remains to be seen what if any reform can emerge from a sharply divided Congress.
Across the country, questions about content moderation and the prospect of potential regulatory intervention abound. Exploring these issues through the lens of individual freedoms and protections, R Street Institute examines how current practices are evolving and how proposed changes to policy and law could affect markets and the internet ecosystem as a whole. This discussion, Free Speech, Public Policy and the Technology Industry, is part of R Street's ongoing multistakeholder discussion of content policy issues. R Street Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, public policy research organization.
Schrier is an associate professor and director of games and emerging media at Marist College. Schrier receives funding from Templeton World Charity and from the Belfer Foundation for work on games and learning.
There is a lot of discussion in the United States about how to help people come together to solve the complex problems facing the nation and the world.
As a scholar of games, I see opportunities for that popular medium to contribute to this effort.
Games and the gaming community, especially online, are not always models of civility or civic life. Harassment and toxicity, not to mention the spread of disinformation and conspiracy theories, are problems in some games, and in how some people play them.
But in addition to the cruelty in some games, there is compassion too, just as in other kinds of communities, whether school classrooms, town hall meetings or Facebook groups. For instance, a 2020 study by the Anti-Defamation League, an anti-hate organization, surveyed people who play online multiplayer games and found that 81 percent of players experienced harassment, but 95 percent of those surveyed also had positive experiences, like finding friends and mentors and feeling like part of a community.
In fact, many people of all ages may be participating in civic life without even realizing it – through play. Gamers engage in debates and political discussions, take on others' perspectives, and even protest issues about both physical and virtual worlds.
As I explain in my book "We the Gamers: How Games Teach Ethics and Civics," games can help players practice important skills related to civics and public life, like communication, empathy and compassion, critical thinking, and problem-solving. Here are some examples.
In the most popular mode of Fortnite, 100 players' characters get air-dropped onto an island, where they battle until just one survivor remains. To win, players need to collect items, build shelters, find weapons and avoid bad weather.
The in-game goal is to kill the other players' characters, but these other tasks help players develop strategic thinking skills like managing limited resources. These are also useful in civic problem-solving. A Fortnite player needs to think about the best places to build a shelter, when to take health potions, or how much wood and stone to stockpile, just as a community has to think about how to secure structures or store first aid supplies before a coming storm.
In addition, Fortnite held a series of conversations on race and politics through the game, hosted by political commentator Van Jones and featuring speakers like journalists Jemele Hill and Elaine Welteroth.
Dream SMP: The Complete Story - Part 1 youtu.be
Minecraft players can find and break apart bricks that yield materials they can use to craft items like tools, buildings and food.
There are different modes of play, like survival mode, where players need to maintain their health by finding resources, or creative mode, where players can modify the game to develop new items or activities within the game.
For instance, players in Minecraft may need to think about where to build or which materials to use to create a home or building, just like planners and builders in a real-world community.
In addition, players have used the game to engage in civic-related stories. Last year, thousands of YouTube and Twitch viewers watched Minecraft livestreamers on one particular shared virtual world. While they played Minecraft, they performed a dramatic narrative related to a fictional election for the president of a world they created, called L'Manberg. In this election, four imaginary political parties competed. The finale in January 2021 brought in over 650,000 viewers across YouTube and Twitch and dealt with such issues as voter fraud.
The Best of AOC's Among Us Stream youtu.be
In Among Us, 10 people play together online as crewmates on a spaceship. But one or two of them are imposters who pretend to perform simulated crew duties but really sneak around and eliminate the other players from the game.
Players need to use communication and deliberation skills to try to figure out who the imposters are. Players mount arguments about who they think is the imposter and provide such persuasive evidence as "I saw the yellow character running from the cafeteria." The need to share evidence and use reasoning skills and persuasive techniques provides practice at collaborating to solve group problems.
This game has also been used by real-world politicians to engage people: In 2020, Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar played Among Us and streamed it live on Twitch, where more than 400,000 people watched.
In Animal Crossing: New Horizons, players create their own island, visit others' islands and collect bugs, fish and other digital critters.
Players can design and clothe their own digital avatars, give items to other players and purchase upgrades for their homes. They need to express their identity in the game; my daughter's in-game house has an aquatic-themed living room, while mine looks like a library. Giving gifts that fit the desires of other players requires learning their interests and perspectives.
Learning to express themselves and understand the needs of neighbors helps players feel part of the wider conversation about how society improves the world.
During their election campaign, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris created their own islands in the game, which featured virtual versions of the political figures, and encouraged players to vote. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals even staged a protest as part of the game, against a digital museum that is a destination in the game, asking for the virtual tanks and exhibitions to be emptied and the digital critters to be freed.
Some games even help players more directly solve civic problems. In the Plague, Inc. series, gamers play as a virus, bacteria or other germ and try to spread it as much as possible. They can evolve the pathogen to spread through insects or to cause symptoms like coughing.
But a recent version, Plague, Inc.: The Cure, puts players in the role of fighting the outbreak, much as the world has been working to curb the Covid-19 pandemic. Players try to develop a vaccine or make policies around masking or social distancing and observe the economic and social fallout.
Playing games like these helps people understand complex systems and how the intersection of dynamic factors can play out in a society.
Learning skills for group problem-solving, understanding world crises, observing elected officials – those all sound like civic engagement, social action and activism, even when they're happening in a digital game.
Of course, just like all public spaces and civic communities, it is important to consider whether everyone is able to participate equally. Obstacles to joining include the need to have computers or smartphones, internet access and spare time to play. The biases that shape the world also unfortunately affect games and whether people feel that they belong and can express themselves in game worlds. For instance, designers may limit the types of hair textures – such as Type 4, a tightly coiled texture rare in games – or body types players can apply to their avatars. More inclusive and equitable games may help even more people learn about and participate in civics.
Games may even be useful ways to explore potential changes in social, political and economic systems. Letting millions of people experiment in a digital world could provide insights identifying productive – and destructive – policies that might be adopted in the physical world. For instance, through the game EterRNA, players are already helping to design new mRNA vaccines that can defend against variants of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Games may reveal flaws, opportunities and even solutions to troubling problems.
As Americans consider how to become more civically engaged and encourage each other to do so, digital games provide opportunities to learn, grow, explore and change – not just individually, but in terms of humanity and society as well.
Former President Donald Trump on Wednesday filed class-action lawsuits against Facebook, Twitter and YouTube arguing his suspension from those platforms violates the First Amendment.
However, legal experts say that argument has little chance of succeeding in court since the First Amendment constrains only the government, and not private entities.
The First Amendment specifically says "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press," and the Supreme Court has extended that protection against all government agencies and officials — executive, legislative and judicial, as well as federal, state and local, per the National Constitution Center.
This protection does not include private individuals or organizations, such as Facebook, Twitter and Google, which owns YouTube. But Trump is arguing that certain private businesses have become "state actors" and therefore are required to abide by the First Amendment. Trump claims:
Defendant Facebook has increasingly engaged in impermissible censorship resulting from threatened legislative action, a misguided reliance upon Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act ... and willful participation in joint activity with federal actors. Defendant Facebook's status thus rises beyond that of a private company to that of a state actor, and as such, Defendant is constrained by the First Amendment right to free speech in the censorship decisions it makes regarding its Users.
But the Supreme Court, in an opinion authored by Trump-appointed Justice Brett Kavanaugh, declared in 2019 that media platforms are not state actors.
Trump and his supporters have long lambasted social media companies for so-called "cancel culture" and their disparate treatment of conservative voices. The former president's removal from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol fueled this outcry.
"We're demanding an end to the shadowbanning, a stop to the silencing, and a stop to the blacklisting, banishing and canceling that you know so well," Trump said at a press conference Wednesday.
In addition to arguing a First Amendment violation, Trump's lawsuits are also seeking a ruling that declares unconstitutional the so-called Section 230, a decades-old federal law that protects online platforms from lawsuits regarding content moderation decisions.
Evan Greer, director of Fight For the Future, whose organization advocates for Internet freedom and privacy, said that from a legal perspective this lawsuit is likely to go nowhere.
"While it's silly to pretend that the moderation decisions of Big Tech don't have a significant impact on free expression, the First Amendment enables private platforms to make exactly the kind of moderation decisions they wish to make as non-government entities," she said.
Greer and other critics of the lawsuits also pointed out the legal action was likely a fundraising tactic for Trump, who is considering another presidential run in 2024.
Shortly after announcing the lawsuits, Trump's joint fundraising committee sent a text saying, "Pres Trump: I am SUING Facebook & Twitter for UNCONSTITUTIONAL CENSORSHIP. For a short time, 5x-IMPACT on all gifts! Donate NOW."
At the press conference, Trump also encouraged his supporters to go to a website where they could join the class-action lawsuits. However, that site redirects users to one for the America First Policy Institution that only includes a promotional video and links to donate.