There needs to be a “radical rethink” of how Big Tech platforms are regulated and governed akin to the transformations following World War II, according to 2021 Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa.
Speaking at the inaugural Sydney Dialogue event run by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), Ms Ressa, who is the chief executive officer at Philippine news site Rappler, said the current situation with social media firms is “untenable”, and significant action is needed around the world.
This should involve a move away from small-scale reforms like content moderation towards more significant changes around transparency and algorithms, she said.
“We need to move away from content moderation and move upstream to where the design of the platform actually introduces the virus of lies in the information ecosystem. I don’t think anyone would want to see the status quo continue. The short term – right now – is untenable and we need to find the solutions now,” Ms Ressa said on the panel.
“There’s something fundamentally wrong with our information ecosystem because the platforms that deliver the facts are actually biased against the facts. The world’s largest delivery platform for news is Facebook, and social media in general has become a behaviour modification system.”
The shift that is needed is as crucial as the worldwide reforms made following World War II, Ms Ressa said.
“Post-World War II there was a radical new concept for preventing world war three, and we need to think about that right now. I think it requires a fundamental shift that requires a multilateral solution,” she said.
“There’s no easy solution except to go back to post-World War II. We didn’t want world war three with atomic bombs, but that is already happening with our information systems. What is our Universal Declaration of Human Rights for the internet? We need to imagine a new paradigm for a global ecosystem.”
Ms Ressa has been the target of extreme hate campaigns by Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte supporters. After being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize recently, she slammed Facebook as a threat to democracy and one that fails to protect against the spread of hate speech and misinformation.
Facebook was conspicuously absent from the Sydney Dialogue panel, despite its parent company Meta being a major sponsor of the event, and representatives from Google and Twitter appearing on it.
Ms Ressa said the focus of governments need to be on the systems underpinning these platforms, rather than efforts to remove problematic content.
“We need to move away from content moderation discussions towards more transparency around the actual design systems underpinning social media platforms,” she said.
“By going down into content moderation it takes our attention away from the problem upstream. We’re still in content moderation, we’re in old world vocabulary. What does the ideal world look like, what is our UN today?”
Also appearing on the panel, Twitter head of legal, policy and trust Vijaya Gadde agreed that “radical new things” are needed to reign in the big tech firms.
“There is a lack of trust with online services and government, and we have a real opportunity to rebuild trust,” Ms Gadde said.
“So often we think of content moderation as this blunt tool, but that’s just not realistic for where the internet is going. We really need to look away past this binary system to think about the algorithm and how we approach information gaps. There’s a lot of work for us all to do here and we have to stop thinking about how we would have done this in the past and how we want to do this in the future.”
Google senior vice-president of global affairs Kent Walker cautioned against more transparency being seen as the solution.
“Our algorithms for Google Search change five or six times a day, largely to deal with bad actors trying to game or exploit the algorithm. There’s a role for transparency but we need to think through it,” Mr Walker said.
“The biggest challenge is the complexity of the problem and the unintended consequences of breaking a system that is working in many ways. Technology is delivering for billions of people around the world.”
The world has overcome similar problems before, and a useful way forward would be to find a balance on the incentives for social media giants to better control their own platforms, University of North Carolina associate professor Zeynep Tufekci said on the panel.
“This is not the first time the world is at this turning point. Sometimes it seems like there’s nothing we can do but we’ve actually turned around more difficult situations,” Professor Tufekci said.
“We need to be aligning incentives between what we as societies want to happen and how these companies essentially can operate and make money. My tech company friends would prefer the tweaks, but we’re saying you really need to rethink the incentives, and if we did that we would end up with a major transition.
“We need to think big because if there were small hanging fruits I think the people from these companies would do that stuff. The problem is bigger than the small hanging fruit that these companies do go for and try to improve.”
Ms Ressa shared an optimism that these big problems can be overcome.
“I’m still super optimistic, but if we don’t take the right steps right now then we will descend further down the road to fascism,” she said.
“We need to go back to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for the internet. Whatever we’re living with in the physical world we need to create that in the virtual world, even if that means making less money.”
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