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Opinion: Algorithm 'gatekeepers' undermine democracy and health

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Opinion: Algorithm ‘gatekeepers’ undermine democracy and health

The reliability of information in our societies should not be left to the incentives of the attention economy.

Taylor Owen and Ben Scott  - Special to Montreal Gazette

One of the most acute and pernicious problems the COVID-19 pandemic has surfaced is the danger of undermining the reliability of information in our democracies.

The search for trusted information in a crisis exposes the architecture of power at the intersection of media, society and government. It isn’t what it used to be. Newspapers and broadcasters dedicated to public service journalism remain central to our media landscape. But they are no longer the gatekeepers of information in our society. For better and (mostly) worse, that role is now played by digital media platforms like Google and Facebook.

Internet platforms are not designed to give us quality information; they are calibrated to maximize attention capture and corporate profit. The editorial role is now played by complex algorithms devoid of local context, culture and histories. The result is that conspiracy theories about the pandemic are flooding Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. It turns out replacing newsroom editors with advertising technology is terrible for democracy and society.

This means that misinformation, disinformation, online hate, state propaganda and partisan news are not simply unfortunate byproducts of an open internet. They are structural flaws in our information ecosystem.

The platforms — to their credit — have made some efforts to push back against the public-health-harming noise cascading over their systems. But these efforts aren’t nearly enough.

The ad tech keeps pushing forward harmful content. False accusations about migrants carrying COVID-19, fake remedies and cures, attacks on adversaries to blame them for the pandemic, and good old-fashioned conspiracies circulate unabated.

As we reimagine the world post-COVID, we believe that we will see a wholesale rethinking of our information ecosystem.

Realigning the commercial incentives of Big Tech with the values of democracy and social welfare does not mean a government-imposed standard for truth or draconian limits on free speech.

The starting point for restoring a healthy relationship between media and democracy will be rules governing data and algorithms. This is the heart of the matter. The sins of digital media monopolies start in the massive dragnet of data collection they perform every day that in turn informs audience profiling and content targeting. And this data feeds an automated system of information curation (what we used to call the work of the newsrooms) that is programmed to service the advertiser, not the public. With modernized rules that limit data collection and restrict how it can be used, we can weaken the machine of disinformation.

Second, every major industry that has a deep impact on social welfare, like financial services or pharmaceuticals, is overseen by public institutions. Global companies that control information markets should be no different. We will see global governance overseeing the flows and storage of data, co-ordinating content moderation policies, and forcing norms of transparency on the financial and algorithmic models that drive the attention economy. We will also see countries, finally, begin to co-ordinate their digital polices in order to create sufficient market pressure to change the behaviours of these global companies. Major interventions in competition policy to restrain the power of monopolies, reshape markets and open opportunities for new entrants will be critical.

Third, we will also begin to see a new wave of investment in public media and digital literacy. The crisis of public health information ushered in by this pandemic will be our wake-up call.

In our post-pandemic world, we will know with clear-eyed certainty that leaving the reliability of information in our societies to the incentives of the attention economy has tragic consequences. Citizens will demand a better world, and democratic governments will finally rise to challenge of governing our digital public sphere.

Taylor Owen is a CIGI senior fellow and director of the Centre for Media, Technology and Democracy in the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University.Ben Scott is executive director at Reset, an initiative focussed on tackling digital threats to democracy.

Read the article in the Montreal Gazette.