Civil society advocacy is critical to changing platform product, policy, and resource allocation. It is also absolutely essential for raising concerns with platforms in ways that force action. Again, as perpetrators of disinformation often target context-specific wedge issues, including social and political cleavages, organizations that represent the interests of historically marginalized groups may be best placed to identify emerging issues that might otherwise not be obvious to platforms or ostensible regulators, and to advocate for reform.
In the U.S., a successful civil society advocacy effort led Reddit banned 2000 subreddits (forums dedicated to particular communities or interest areas), including r/The_Donald, r/gendercritical, and R/ChapoTrapHouse. The decisions marked a major shift in policy. Previously, Reddit had functioned as an essentially libertarian space, with the rules of what was and was not allowed in each subreddit were set by moderators and creators of each subreddit rather than the platform itself. This led to some rather bizarre, sometimes delightful outcomes: in one popular subreddit, the only acceptable posts are pictures of cats standing up, and the only acceptable title or comment is “Cat.” The theory was that if a user disliked the content or community of a particular subreddit, they should simply find or establish another subreddit that they did like. However, as Reddit evolved from a niche place for absurd humor and shared interests into a major social media platform, disinformation, hate speech, and the affordances around community-building started to lead to real-world harms: the generation and popularization of conspiracy theories which would then platform jump and become viral, the abuse of the platform by malign actors, and coordination on the platform that led to offline criminal activity. Given that Reddit’s entire product is founded on the basis of community self-moderation, the ban marked a significant divergence in approach. While it is possible that the platform may have decided to take the step anyway, it is notable that Reddit’s decision to quarantine r/The_Donald came two days after the US civil society group, Media Matters, launched a campaign to draw attention to how members of the subreddit were supporting attacks on police officers and public officials in Oregon.
Civic Groups, Early Warning and Platform Advocacy
Facebook has established structured pathways for advocacy and input from civil society through its Civic Integrity and Global Insights program7, an initiative designed to solicit actionable input from grassroots communities around the world. These inputs are inherently limited in scope and are unlikely to lead to a radical shift in approach, but it has created a mechanism through which civil society in select countries are able to work with an interdisciplinary team to either get out ahead of issues, or rapidly resolve evolving threats to information integrity. This program and example of a mechanism through which civic groups, especially those representing women or marginalized groups, can advocate for platform responses to emerging disinformation campaigns, both to protect members of the groups they represent, but also to develop broader resilience of the information ecosystem.
Despite these nascent steps in the right direction, civil society groups and organizations outside of the United States and, to a lesser extent, Europe, are disadvantaged in their capacity to conduct effective advocacy vis-à-vis the platforms. Most successful attempts to change platform behavior – as in Myanmar, Kenya, or Taiwan – have been accompanied by pressure from the U.S. government, civil society, or media. There are certain limitations that grassroots CSOs outside of the US face:
- Financial incentive: the U.S. is, for most companies, the biggest market in terms of financial return (although not absolute users or growth). As such, advocacy efforts in the U.S. and the negative PR those efforts generate impact consumer behavior, which directly impacts a given company’s bottom line.
- The specter of regulation: for U.S. platforms, regulation coming out of Washington is sufficiently concerning enough that companies will often try to get ahead of the issues that voters care about and are thus most likely to lead to the kinds of regulation that can be harmful to business interests or operations.
- Cultural affinity: U.S. platforms and their employees are more clearly aligned with U.S. civil society than they are with civil society groups globally, and so critiques will land with more felt emotional weight in a way that can impact employee morale, lead to internal uprisings, or even resonate more clearly with leadership in a way that balances other interests. For instance, hate speech directed at African Americans is a more easily understood harm to companies staffed by Americans than is hate speech directed at Dalit’s in India. Debates around freedom of speech are rooted in a U.S. cultural context, while concerns that lead with a desire for social harmony may not resonate as easily.
- Access: in many countries, even those in which the majority of the population uses a platform, the companies have, at best, sales and policy staff on the ground. Policy staff’s principal roles are as lobbyists: they are rewarded on the basis of their ability to shape the regulatory environment in a way that benefits the company. They are not hired or rewarded for their relationships with civil society, and often struggle to navigate the complex web of interests of a given technology platform. At best, these limited touch points result in inaction. Far worse are those instances in which the company policy team in-country has interests which actively run counter to or may endanger civil society groups (for instance, where a group is critical of the government). In the U.S., meanwhile, civil society has multiple touchpoints with company representation, across teams and levels of seniority. As such, civil society in smaller markets struggles to find the right point of leverage within a company, even where those companies have teams designed to cover the issue of concern.
- Knowledge gap: civil society groups, particularly those working on issues not directly related to digital issues or disinformation, often lack sufficient knowledge of how technology platforms operate, the tools and resources they have to address issues, or the tensions endemic in and potential negative externalities surrounding decisions about content moderation.
Efforts such as the Design 4 Democracy (D4D) Coalition, which includes the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), and International IDEA, as well as a number of grassroots NGOs and the KeepItOn Coalition run by AccessNow, have started to address the challenge of leverage vis-à-vis the companies. By creating trusted avenues through which grassroots CSOs can work with higher capacity INGOs on advocacy efforts, the communication gap should theoretically become an easier one to bridge. However, a great deal of work needs to be done to ensure that companies further develop and invest in the teams they need to ensure that policy and product are responsive to the hyper-local information disorders that lead to negative outcomes.
Research Focus: The Regulation-Free Expression Dilemma
In the course of the research for this project, several respondents identified potential free speech tradeoffs from regulation of digital platforms as a key ongoing policy debate. In Ukraine, for example, armed conflict with Russian-backed separatists in the country’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk has created an acute need to balance free expression and national security. The government of Ukraine has banned Russian social media platforms and domestic television stations accused of disseminating pro-Russian propaganda, earning rebukes from international organizations and international nongovernmental organizations that advocate for free media. While there is no clear consensus on the issue of platform regulation, civic advocacy groups are important conduits for channeling arguments to decisionmakers.
Earlier in 2019, international pressure from several stakeholders, including society advocacy efforts, encouraged Facebook to increase oversight on political advertising, especially ahead of crucial elections in India, Nigeria, Ukraine, and the European Union. These efforts have led Facebook to "extend some of its political advertising rules and tools for curbing election interference to India, Nigeria, Ukraine, and the European Union before significant votes." The web-based initiative Media Matters for Pakistan also highlights independent efforts to hold mainstream media accountable to higher standards of journalism. This watchdog youth group raises awareness about the ethical and ideological issues found in media content and advocates against increased restrictions by the Pakistani government against digital media and freedom of expression. Similarly, the EU DisinfoLab provides research and analysis on disinformation campaigns in the region, on traditional and online media platforms, to ensure that their advocacy efforts are "grounded in sound analyses." The initiatives mentioned above coupled with government actors to lead positive reforms to increase transparency. For more on platform engagement, see the guide section on the subject, or continue reading the section on building civil society capacity to mitigate and counter disinformation.
7.Disclosure: IRI advised the civic integrity team at Facebook on the design and implementation of the Global Insights program.