Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google play an essential role in our democracy. They provide a way for communities to organize and speak directly to politicians. They enable companies to find customers and allow customers, in turn, to pressure companies to live up to higher standards. And they allow news outlets to reach households and create venues for friends and family to discuss current events.
But, far too often, these same platforms provide cover to unlawful practices and malicious actors that harm people and weaken our democracy, because the algorithms they run on are designed and managed without any public oversight. These algorithms are weaponized by foreign governments to inflame hatred and suppress voter turnout. They’re used by hate groups to create online mobs that harass and intimidate people of color and women. And they allow conspiracy theories to go viral. This kind of discrimination and manipulation would be unacceptable for other basic services we rely on, like telecommunications, electricity, or voting systems.
These are just a few of the harms inflicted through social media, and they stem from one fatal flaw: platform companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google are not accountable to the public. Their unchecked power also extends far beyond their own platforms, as they have acquired countless other companies like Instagram, WhatsApp, and YouTube and have spread their tracking software across the web.
It doesn’t have to be like this. At Democracy Fund, we believe that the digital tools and platforms we all rely on can support democratic systems and protect human rights, rather than undermining them. This belief is at the core of our Digital Democracy Initiative, which funds advocacy, research, and innovations that work towards three concrete goals:
- Improve civil and human rights practices online
- Strengthen public interest journalism
- Reduce inauthentic and coordinated disinformation campaigns
For these goals to become a reality, we must see specific actions from policymakers to adopt a civil and human rights framework — a way of thinking that puts the needs of people first — focused on changing the terms of service to better support people of color online and serve community information needs.
To achieve these goals, Democracy Fund partners with civil rights groups, technologists, university researchers, and policy organizations working to improve our public square. Some use policy and litigation to protect people of color and hold platforms accountable to the public interest. Others, like Data for Black Lives, mobilize networks of grassroots activists to develop policies to protect users. And organizations like Free Press work to increase funding for news outlets, track and debunk misinformation, and strengthen and diversify news outlets. In particular, the Digital Democracy Initiative supports efforts led by or serving the people most frequently harmed online: people of color and women.
The 2016 US presidential election made clear the power of social media on our politics when the Russian-controlled Internet Research Agency flooded social media with fake groups and posts to divide, harass, and confuse the American public. But this was only the most high-profile case. For years, white supremacists and other hate groups have tested and developed tactics to disrupt our democracy, using the platforms’ tools for targeting individual users based on characteristics like race, gender, political affiliation, or economic status. All the while, social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google have expanded their reach into nearly every area of life with little to no oversight. Less obvious issues like algorithmic discrimination have led to civil rights violations, like real estate companies excluding people of color from seeing their online ads for housing. Journalists and academics need new tools and transparency laws to help them track and expose these hidden harms, just as they did with the great issues of prior generations, from segregation and Jim Crow to pesticides and big tobacco.
The pattern is now clear. Every few months, another problem with the platforms makes headlines. At first, the companies deny it or announce minor changes. Company leaders promise the public and Congress that they will do better. But once the headlines fade, little has changed.
We aim to keep the pressure on by supporting a wide range of efforts with diverse focus areas, leadership, and strategies. The platforms must enact strong policies that uphold democratic norms and prioritize quality information over misleading content and opaque systems. And in the meantime, users need tools to protect themselves and expose bad actors while navigating online spaces and discussions.
It’s time that we reclaim the digital tools and spaces that shape our democracy. Our elections, our lives, and our liberty depend on it.
If you’re interested in learning more about our work, contact Paul Waters, associate director, Public Square Program.