Envisioning a Just and Open Digital Democracy: Expanding Our Commitment to Platform Accountability

September 14, 2021

Last month, after Facebook attempted to undermine the efforts of independent researchers — and Democracy Fund grantees — who were studying the effects of the platform on democracy, our President joined fellow NetGain Partnership leaders in releasing a joint letter calling for greater platform accountability and transparency. That open letter from some of the nation’s leading foundations noted: 

Our foundations share a vision for an open, secure, a nd equitable internet space where free expression, economic opportunity, knowledge exchange, and civic engagement can thrive. This attempt to impede the efforts of independent researchers is a call for us all to protect that vision, for the good of our communities, and the good of our democracy.”

Days later, the researchers who Facebook had sought to silence released a major study that illustrated how high the stakes are. Their research showed that during the 2020 election people found and clicked on misinformation on Facebook far more than accurate, factual news — further evidence that social media platforms are harming our democracy by amplifying content that accelerates hate, division, and misinformation. 

At Democracy Fund, there’s never been a question as to why we would support and advocate for platform accountability — it is central to our reason for being. In this moment, we have unprecedented opportunities to make social media companies liable for their harms, to rein in the worst aspects of their business model, and to force changes in how they operate. If we are successful, we can move toward a world where social media companies enable multiracial and pluralistic democracy, instead of fracturing it, where facts are amplified, rather than discounted, and where there is accountability for hate speech and incitements to violence.

It took some careful and collaborative thinking for us to determine our theory of change, as well as what our support on this issue could look like. To meet this moment, here at Democracy Fund, we have started to significantly increase our grantmaking to nonprofit organizations who are working deeply on these issues, and often at the intersection of advocacy, public will-building, and litigation. We’re deepening our partnerships with a mix of grassroots organizers, researchers, communicators, lobbyists, and litigators, and building on our work with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

At the heart of our grantmaking will be Black and Indigenous people, and people of color, and the harms they face as a result of social media platforms. Conspiracy, extremism and prejudice are magnified on social media in ways that are vastly disproportionate to their actual representation in society and are normalized by the spread from harmful algorithms and networks.

Together, our grantees will be working on three key areas to transform our digital public square: 

  1. Anti-Discrimination and Data Privacy: Ensuring that social media companies and their systems cannot use personal data to discriminate or track and target people in ways that lead to disparate impact;
  2. Platform Liability: Transforming the policy frameworks for how social media platforms are held liable for the online and offline harms their systems and choices produce; and 
  3. Transparency: Opening up social media platforms to new levels of transparency regarding the impact of their systems on our democracy and civil rights to enable audits and reporting by journalists, researchers and policymakers. 

This work will spread across communities, courtrooms and the halls of congress, and will be built on a growing movement of organizations working at the intersection of civil rights and platform accountability. We are grateful for the work that others have done in this space and know we can’t do it alone. As Democracy Fund President Joe Goldman has said, “tackling democracy’s cybersecurity problem requires collective action” and our efforts will do just that. We’ll share more about this growing area of work soon.

If you’re interested in learning more, or partnering with us in this effort, please drop me a line at pwaters [@]

Democracy Fund
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Washington, DC 20036