The news that the world’s richest man, Elon Musk, is buying Twitter has shocked the world, dividing those who advocate unfettered free speech – like Musk – and those who think some platforms wield too much power and influence. ‘affecting. But the end result for Twitter may depend heavily on social media regulations.
Chris Philp, the UK’s Minister for Technology and the Digital Economy, recently gave a speech on the government’s plan to regulate digital through its Online Safety Bill, promising a “light touch” approach, but which “supports a thriving democracy”. Now the government has warned Musk that Twitter will have to comply with new UK legislation.
This isn’t the only type of regulatory challenge facing social media companies. After Facebook and Twitter removed Russian state media from their sites in late February, Russian communications regulator Roskomnadzor blocked access to the platforms, citing discrimination.
With growing concerns about state influence over media and information, we urgently need to understand what democratic regulation of social media should look like. As philosophers in this field, our work focuses on the theoretical foundations that underpin democracy.
The key idea at the heart of our current research is that political freedom depends on public debate. We spoke with policymakers, broadcasters, journalists, activists and regulators about how best to apply these ideas and political theory to the public sphere.
Old media and new platforms
Democracy is much more than a system of regular multi-party elections. It also requires citizens to feel capable and have the resources to challenge those in power. Ideally, this requires people to engage in an honest discussion about the best ways to live and work together, and to assess each other’s contributions in an open, inclusive, and candid manner.
It should lead people to make political decisions based on reason rather than being influenced by power, prejudice or fear. An open debate is necessary so that our choices at the ballot box are informed and free choices.
In the philosophy of democracy, there are two essential conditions for public debate to be considered democratic: if citizens participate in it and if it makes them more informed.
Traditionally, the public sphere consisted of media such as newspapers, radio and television. Now, social media platforms like Facebook, TikTok and Twitter are also part of the fabric of our political debate. And these new methods of online communication have a fairly mixed record when it comes to awareness and participation.
On the one hand, they allow certain audiences to hear voices that were historically excluded by the media “gatekeepers” of print and television, and formerly the news. For example, the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements creatively use the internet and social media to spread their messages.
Getting these messages across is a big step forward both in terms of knowledge and participation. But digital communication is also frequently accused of online bullying, fake news, polarization, loss of trust, foreign manipulation of national debates and new forms of silence.
Mainstream propaganda is now accompanied by attempts – as Donald Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon put it – to “flood the area with shit” in order to spread mistrust. These things destroy knowledge and lead to unequal participation, especially with some voices raised by “bots” – computer programs posing as humans.
Find a way through
So how to regulate this new digital public sphere to support knowledge and participation? In our recent report, we suggest four basic standards that can guide decision makers:
1. Fair and Equitable Access
Platforms, regulators and participants must ensure fair and equitable access to public policy debate. It means giving everyone equal legal rights to participate in public debate, stand for public office and vote. But it also means making special efforts to elevate and showcase the contributions of those who are economically, socially or otherwise disadvantaged in public debate.
2. Avoid obvious lies
Platforms, regulators and participants should avoid posting or publishing things that are clearly false. A statement or idea is obviously false when the facts that falsify it are widely known. The kind of obvious lies at play include the denial of firmly established verifiable facts, such as “the Earth is flat” or “COVID-19 is caused by 5G”. Or the denial of fundamental moral principles such as the equality of all humans regardless of race or sex.
3. Offer and commit with reasons
Platforms, regulators and participants need to provide and engage with reasons: to explain why they take the positions they take and to consider the reasons given by others in a debate, adjusting their own viewpoints as appropriate. optionally.
4. Take time to reflect
Participants, platforms and regulators need to take time away from new and unfamiliar viewpoints – time to reflect – to decide if and how they should influence existing viewpoints. The goal is to take the time to process new information so that you can better re-engage later.
Lead by example
We have underlined the importance of these standards for the UK government and believe that future regulations should be based on them. As underlying standards, they do more than support formal, legal regulation, and they should not be seen as warranting censorship. Rather, they can influence how policymakers and digital platforms design the regulations that structure public debate, and in turn guide our own public contributions as citizens.
These standards are particularly important for people whose role is to represent the public, such as politicians and journalists. They help determine what counts as ethical conduct in democratic public life and good journalism in the service of democracy.
Some forms of standards are always in play to guide regulatory decisions, but they are not always explicit. Our goal is to articulate norms that could support democracy, rather than undermine it. It is not easy to pursue, but if we are committed to democratic autonomy, we must keep them all in mind as our digital public sphere evolves.