Symposium | The Future of Global Democracy

Pulling the Plug on our Toxic Information Environment

By Laleh Ispahani

Tagged DemocracyDisinformationmediaSocial Networks

We’ve long understood that maintaining democracy requires vigilance. But of late, the struggle has become constant and grueling, with no end in sight. American democracy is broken at a structural level, with a gerrymandered House, an unrepresentative Senate and Electoral College, and unlimited “dark money” giving disproportionate power to certain Americans, regions, corporations, and even foreign actors. An ultra-activist Supreme Court has mutated from a constitutional check on the other branches into an unaccountable and ideological policymaking body. And far-right leaders are rigging the rules where they cannot win fair elections and fueling conspiracy theories that undermine faith in democracy. With the midterms around the corner, advocates, policymakers, and election officials are working overtime and then some to ensure that people can vote, all votes are counted, and legitimate election results are certified and respected. 

Experts have long known that the health of democracy is measured not just by elections, and certainly not just by monitoring election days. Technology and the modern information environment have made this understanding even more vital for evaluating whether a country is truly democratic. Quality information and a healthy public square are not a bonus, but a fundamental cornerstone of a functioning democracy. That foundation is degrading badly.

American voters are shaped by what we see, read, and hear from sources of information—traditional and new. These are far from fair and balanced, and increasingly vulnerable to manipulation or mere neglect. Far-right political videos and outright conspiracies dominate social media, while traditional outlets struggle to maintain a local news desk, much less an investigative reporting unit. Platforms like Facebook claim not to be media companies, but dramatically shape news the public sees and profit from amplifying sensational content that angers consumers to keep them on the site for as long as possible. (As we’ve now conclusively seen, the Internet was literally a crime scene on January 6, 2021.) Democracy’s defenders must therefore train equal attention on next-generation information sources and independent media, media concentration, competition, and platform power. Getting better content into our discourse is essential, but that should be paired with public-interest ownership of high-quality media outlets and the building of a platform ecosystem truly compatible with democracy.

At this point, policymakers and the public recognize the twin crises of journalism’s decline and unchecked platform power. Newspaper closures and layoffs are widespread. Revelations from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen and groundbreaking congressional investigations have laid bare the power platforms wield. There is also a growing appreciation of how “information disorder” or “infodemics” accelerate and amplify democratic decay. 

These trends truly are devastating. Recent research shows that “since 2005, the country has lost more than a fourth of its newspapers (2,500) and is on track to lose a third by 2025.” The report celebrates the growth of digital news sites but warns that their staffing is often limited, focused on specific issues, and centered on big cities, offering little to the more than 70 million Americans who live in a county with one or no newspaper. And newspaper newsroom employment dropped by 57 percent between 2004 and 2020, even as populations and government spending grew. The case of the local Columbus Dispatch reporter is illustrative.  The reporter, who confirmed the story of the 10-year-old victim receiving an abortion, was the only reporter in the actual courtroom, while 100 different aggregating sites did “write-ups” with no actual reporting.

What remains of media is increasingly concentrated and often ideologically motivated. Following a decade-long buying spree, conservative-leaning Sinclair Broadcast Group operates nearly 200 televisions stations across more than 80 markets, making it one of the largest purveyors of local news in the country. It has used that reach to repeatedly push heavily slanted coverage of elections, COVID, immigration, and other topics. (One study of Sinclair acquisitions found “substantial increases in coverage of national politics at the expense of local politics” and “a significant rightward shift in the ideological slant of coverage.”) 

In other venues, the picture is little better. Hundreds of “pink slime” news outlets posing as local news generate low-quality stories automatically, and concerningly “promote partisan talking points and collect user data.” At the national level, the cable news rage machine amplifies divisions, stokes fear, and reinforces polarization, shaping a more toxic political environment. We now know that paying people to watch CNN instead of Fox shifted their political opinions on many topics—but only until the subjects returned to their Fox-watching habits when the study ended. The ultra-right-wing One America News Network grew prodigiously with explicit support from President Trump and at the encouragement of AT&T, pushing conspiracy theories and misinforming its viewers. And while we often hear about “filter bubbles” in online content, researchers recently found that 17 percent of Americans’ news diets are “partisan-segregated” via cable news, compared to 4 percent through online news.

These sea changes in the media industry have real consequences for elections and the health of our democratic society. State and local governments operate free from accountability when the watchdogs disappear. Trends toward the nationalization of politics and political conflict accelerate as close-to-home issues go uncovered and national outlets and cable news are all that remain. Even the best national reporting is not a substitute for local journalism that builds community, creates a shared understanding of reality, and holds local government accountable. Polling from Gallup and Knight Foundation found that Americans are far more likely to trust local news over national news, making the health of these local outlets all the more important. 

The decline of higher-quality news outlets intersects with the rise of platform power. Today, strong majorities of Americans use Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and/or other major platforms to engage with friends and family and consume content. Nearly one-third of adults in the United States regularly get news on Facebook, and 22 percent regularly get news on YouTube. An even higher percentage of Latinos get news from social media, with almost 70 percent of registered Latinos getting their news and information from YouTube in 2020. Social media recommendation algorithms regularly optimize for “engagement”—attention, often whether it is positive or negative. Sensational articles and heated claims are often amplified aggressively, extending their reach. A recent study confirmed that publishers of low-quality reporting and misinformation received far more interaction on Facebook than did high-quality news sources. Even as platforms have taken steps to slow the spread of misinformation about elections, COVID-19, and other serious topics, and to counteract hateful content, the problems continue. 

While Mark Zuckerberg and other platform leaders didn’t set out to facilitate the organizing of violent conspiracy movements like QAnon and the Stop the Steal movements that led to the January 6 insurrection, they had every reason to know that their platforms were enabling these attempts to undermine our democracy. And that they were making a profit from it. The inadequate content moderation and failure to take extremist movements seriously allowed it to happen. (Other new-wave platforms, like Parler and Gab, are even more worrying, with no interest in democracy at all and active courtship of far-right forces). More broadly, false and hateful online attacks against female candidates, especially those of color, who are disproportionately targeted, create yet another hurdle to fair representation. Disinformation efforts also attempt to suppress votes. Misinformation and hatred may haunt us forever, but we need social media platforms that take their roles seriously if we’re ever to stem the tide. 

The platform companies have made incremental progress, but it’s been too little and too late.  If the antidotes to their power lay in decentralization, or an adequate supply of good journalism, their own actions have eroded both.

In many ways, 2016 already laid bare what needed to be done, but by 2020 any remaining excuses were gone for technology companies failing to address the societal, democratic risks. It’s not just that a few people were wrong on the internet—millions were exposed to dangerous medical misinformation disguised as physicians’ advice, while we also witnessed what happens when thousands of people are encouraged to believe a lie so big they are willing to storm the Capitol to prevent the peaceful transfer of power. We were lucky it wasn’t worse, but we should not count on getting lucky twice.

We’ve seen what worse looks like. In Myanmar, Facebook served as an accelerant for genocide against the Rohingya, and in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, calls for ethnic violence were propagated virally on social media. In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte and his regime viciously harassed the digital news site Rappler, and especially its editor Maria Ressa, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to protect freedom of expression and expose state violence.

We don’t know what our next government will look like, but the return of President Trump or the election of another with similar authoritarian leanings will certainly mean worse tests for our democracy. In the face of inaction, it may not survive.

Debating whether the decline of higher-quality news outlets or the rise of unaccountable and often uncaring platforms is to blame for problematic trends in our democracy misses the point. Rather, these trends negatively reinforce each other and together pose an existential threat to inclusive, representative democracy. There is a feedback loop from Tucker Carlson to online rumor, and back to Fox News, Breitbart, and AM radio, which many more Americans rely on.

Solving these problems will take a holistic approach if what we want is a healthy democracy. We need a mix of policy reforms, new media organizations, better strategy, thoughtful leadership, and countless efforts from individuals across the country.

First, we have to build trust in sources of good information. Donors, investors, and perhaps even the government must support more and stronger independent media efforts, anchored in and responsive to the communities they cover. This next generation of media outlets will be well-positioned to provide high-quality, credible information and do accountability reporting needed to ensure our democracy truly delivers good outcomes for the public. Having media outlets that are owned and operated in the public interest could truly be a game-changer.  The Texas Tribune and the Voice of San Diego, public-minded nonprofits that engage their communities, are much healthier than the papers hollowed out by Gannett.

We should continue to explore innovative funding models to ensure they are sustainable and strong. Emerging trends toward subscription approaches may help bring viability, but we must not end up in a world where only those who can pay get good information, while those who cannot must endure misinformation. We also need stronger media ownership rules that prevent or remedy harmful concentration and help check efforts that prioritize boosting profits over obligations to the public. Weak media competition rules nearly allowed Sinclair to extend its reach even farther, until the deal collapsed under further scrutiny.

There is also growing evidence that applying pressure against bad actors works. Several businesses associated with conspiracy merchant Alex Jones declared bankruptcy in the face of successful defamation lawsuits from the parents of children killed in the Sandy Hook massacre, which Jones had claimed was a hoax. One America News Network may be in a death spiral after being dropped by multiple cable providers. More than 1,000 companies participated in a Facebook ad boycott in an effort to push the company to address hate more strongly. Victims of conspiracy theories should not bear the burden of fighting them, but sustained legal and advocacy campaigns can help cut off these problems at their source. 

As an example, immediately following the election and in the face of President Trump’s lies, Facebook tweaked its algorithm to boost the prominence of higher-quality news sources and limit the spread of conspiracy groups. But the company turned off the changes by mid-December, which helped allow Stop the Steal conspiracies to gain power and followers ahead of January 6. This episode reveals that when companies change algorithms with the public good in mind, there are immediate, positive impacts for democracy. When they turn these spigots back on, the costs to the public are as intense.  

We also need to enact reforms to check the power of platforms and get them to take seriously their contribution to the damaged information environment. Policy reforms that provide mandated algorithmic transparency and allow researchers to study the impacts of platform decisions about content moderation and amplification are a clear opportunity. It is hard to fight misinformation or see if strategies to promote high-quality information are working without good data. Outlawing misinformation and conspiracy theories is not compatible with First Amendment law and values. Nonetheless, creating reporting requirements that summarize content moderation policies, staffing, and decisions can help push platforms toward doing the right thing. Protecting free expression is critical, but doing so requires platforms ensure women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups are safe from harassment and violence that takes place on and offline. 

Fundamental competition reform can also create space for independent media and alternative platform business models that do not profit from optimizing for outrage. As this piece goes to press, Congress is considering bipartisan antitrust legislation that would fundamentally level the playing field for better, more civic-minded competitors to rise. Vermont’s Front Porch Forum is one model, an online community in which the community moderates content. It turns out that the secret to running a healthy online community of neighbors is healthy moderation and non-surveillant advertising. Wikipedia also offers another model: While it’s had its problems, democratic accountability exists at its core, and it provides high-quality information to millions around the world. 

Attracting users to a new platform with public interest at its core is challenging because it’s not easy to pick up your data and contacts and take them with you to the new internet utopia. It’s also hard because if we’ve learned anything from the past ten years, it’s that people of all political inclinations harbor tendencies to seek out the salacious, tendencies that flourish in the absence of guardrails. We’re all going to have to choose a different reality—but that choice has to be one with viable, desirable alternatives. It won’t happen when we functionally have to leave behind our connections to family, government services, all commercial interactions, and important data when we leave a dominant platform for a new competitor. 

Creating a healthier information environment will take a sustained, cross-sector effort, involving philanthropy, businesses, the government, and the public at large, billions of dollars, and a commitment to experimentation and learning along the way. Ultimately, these are global problems. The way we address this in the United States has to work for countries all over the world, especially the global South. Doing so is essential, and the past decade shows how acute the risks of leaving it to the free market alone are. 

Healing our information environment will not solve all that ails democracy or single-handedly undo decades of trends toward polarization, conflict, and authoritarian backsliding. Truly delivering on the promise of American democracy and securing it for the future is the work of a generation, after all. But failing to address these information deficits will guarantee failure.

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Laleh Ispahani serves as Co-Director of Open Society Foundation for the U.S., the U.S. component of the largest foundation dedicated to advancing justice, democratic governance, and human rights in the United States and globally. Laleh is a recognized expert on protecting and expanding the right to vote, reducing the influence of money on politics, and ensuring that the internet remains an open and secure platform for free expression and civic participation.

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