From Pew Research:
Those who worry about the future of democracy focus a lot of their anxiety on the way that the things that happen in online public spaces are harming deliberation and the fabric of society. To be sure, billions of users appreciate what the internet does for them. But the climate in some segments of social media and other online spaces has been called a “dumpster fire” of venom, misinformation, conspiracy theories and goads to violence.
Social media platforms are drawing fire for their role in all of this. After the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, a congressional panel requested that Facebook, Google, Twitter, Parler, 4chan, Twitch and TikTok release all records related to misinformation around the 2020 election, including efforts to influence or overturn the presidential election results. In September 2021, a five-part series in The Wall Street Journal exposed details that seem to show that Facebook has allowed the diffusion of misinformation, disinformation and toxicity that has resulted in ethnic violence and harm to teenage girls and has undermined COVID-19 vaccination efforts. And The Journal’s source, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, followed up by telling the U.S. Senate that she had gone public with her explosive material “because I believe that Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy.”
Worries over the rise in the acrid tone and harmful and manipulative interactions in some online spaces, and concerns over the role of technology firms in all of this, have spawned efforts by tech activists to try to redesign online spaces in ways that facilitate debate, enhance civility and provide personal security. A selection of these initiatives were described in a spring 2021 article in The Atlantic Monthly by Anne Applebaum and Peter Pomerantsev. Among the suggested solutions documented in the piece:
- The creation of an internet version of public media along the lines of PBS and NPR;
- “Middleware” that could allow people to set an algorithm to give them the kind of internet experience they want, perhaps without the dystopian side effects;
- Online upvoting systems that favor content that could push partisans toward consensus, rather than polarizing them;
- An internet “bill of rights” allowing “self-sovereign identity” that lets people stay anonymous online, but weeds out bots; and
- “Constructive communication” systems set up to dial down anger and bridge divides.
In light of the current conversations about the need to rethink and redesign online public spaces, Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center asked experts how they expect the digital public sphere to evolve by 2035. Some 862 technology innovators, developers, business and policy leaders, researchers and activists responded to this specific question:
Looking ahead to 2035, will digital spaces and people’s use of them be changed in ways that significantly serve the public good?
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