In a previous article, I examined the effects of changes to Facebook’s News Feed algorithm to prioritize “Meaningful Social Interactions” (MSI), drawing broad conclusions about both the potential and actualized threats to democracy that Big Tech poses. I now believe that many of the underlying assumptions I made in this first article illustrate the dialectical limitations with which we currently grapple when discussing the relationship between social media and democracy. My assessment of the problem relied upon antiquated categorical understandings of the corporation, the state, and the public. In the case of Big Tech, the distinctions between these three bodies have been altered, if not upheaved. Present-day alarm regarding the relationship between Big Tech and democracy must be met with evolved solutions that mirror this shift. I now argue that rather than focusing on holding Big Tech accountable through conventional democratic institutions, we must democratize Big Tech itself.
Tech companies such as Facebook and Google do not behave like pre-digital age corporations. Their economic power and reach is unprecedented, yet they offer their services to users for free. The individual user passively generates these companies’ revenue through engaging with advertisements and forfeiting personal data, and is in turn treated both as a client, demanding certain services and goods, and as a unit of labor, ‘working’ to produce profit for the company through interacting with the platform itself. These companies must therefore simultaneously respond to user demand and manipulate user behavior, complicating the relationship between these services and the individuals who use them considerably. Moreover, these platforms increasingly serve as crucial infrastructure upon which political discourse occurs, murking the waters as to what constitutes a public sphere.
Legislators, scholars, and the public alike have been slow to match this new form of power with new solutions. This has likely contributed to Big Tech’s ability to influence politics and government while the state scrambles to regulate it. Many scholars have suggested that Facebook, Google, and other tech behemoths have mutated into digital foreign powers with authoritarian proclivities that must be addressed accordingly by the United States government. Meanwhile, others argue that these organizations are merely unregulated corporate monopolies that must be better kept in check by the state. Both metaphors represent attempts to fit a square peg into a round hole, utilizing conventional terminology to describe a novel form of power that does not fall neatly into the category of “corporation” or “government”, as Alexis Papazoglou at New Republic asserts. One problem with these unfitting metaphors is that the logical solution bred out of both is hefty state involvement. Yet historically, the United States government itself has carried out some of the most egregious encroachments on democratic freedoms in cyberspace, and at times, tech corporations have protected these freedoms against the wishes of the state. The United States government and Big Tech have both upheld and undermined civil liberties in cyberspace, and neither should be outright trusted to safeguard democratic freedoms, nor should they be trusted to do so jointly. These arguments also assume that the United States and other established democracies remain more powerful than these corporations, and also have an interest in regulating them. Last, as the United States’ own democratic institutions appear increasingly fragile, it would be irresponsible to anchor the regulation of Big Tech to them.
Instead of hinging our regulation of Big Tech on the state, we should democratize Big Tech itself. Relying on state-based democratic institutions may appear the most proper means to mitigating the potentially corrosive effects of Big Tech on United States politics, but democratizing Big Tech could help reinforce, preserve, or even enhance democracy. Social media and search engines may amplify democratic erosion, but they are not the root causes of it. Democratic institutions within the United States are wrought with systemic inequality, and as economic, racial, religious and partisan tensions have risen in recent years, the pillars of American democracy have quivered. As noted in my previous post, social media and search engine algorithms presently have often induced and encouraged partisanship and vitriol, in part because the companies that run them prioritize profit regardless of political externalities. Yet cyberspace does not need to be an incubator for the seeds of democratic erosion, nor does it need to rely on eroding institutions in order to be democratized. Users must be actively incorporated into the decision making processes of social media and search engine companies, voting on algorithm changes, advertising and data privacy practices, and policies related to democratic freedoms of speech, assembly, and opinion. Moreover, users must be entitled to, as Josh Simons and Dipayan Ghosh assert in a recent Brookings report, not only descriptions of how algorithms are designed, but also what these algorithms are intended to accomplish. If social media platforms and search engines themselves operated democratically, citizens could actively engage in curbing the erosion of democratic institutions in the United States through regulating the ways in which digital spheres interact with political discourse.
Of course, it is easy to daydream about an ideal world in which Big Tech is democratized, while determining how to achieve this ideal is less simple. It is unlikely that true democratization would be a palatable idea to Mark Zuckerberg and his peers, as it would require economic concessions and the redistribution of presently unilateral corporate power. Moreover, the United States government is neither savvy nor unified enough at this moment to support the democratization of Big Tech, and again, direct government involvement could be a potential threat to democratization itself. Last, considering the integral nature of Facebook and Google to the everyday life of American citizens, domestic users have not yet proven themselves willing to forgo these services in order to protest anti-democratic practices or call for democratization.
Regardless, I believe that democratization must occur, and that a widespread, ground-up movement of users must take place — one significant enough to put a severe dent in the billions of dollars in yearly revenue accrued by these companies. Users must be willing to incur immediate social costs and resort to alternative modes of communication and information-sharing if we are to see a real shift in the behaviors of Big Tech corporations. Otherwise, the fate of political discourse will fall in the hands of Silicon Valley CEOs and an increasingly polarized congress, and right now, neither appear particularly concerned with upholding democratic principles.