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How To Fix Social Media (Facebook!)

How to Fix Social Media.

The Wall Street Journal has published a series of articles they call The Facebook Files. One article recently queried a dozen “experts” to discuss their ideas of how to fix social media. We at tuka have been focused on this challenge from the beginning, several years ago, and what these commentators reveal is a converging consensus that the problem with social media is scale and emotional triggering based on the speed of information flow. As Winston Churchill was said to quip, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” Social media connections have just made this pathology worse.

Our take has always been summed up with one line: A global gossip network makes no sense. So large, centralized networks of 3 billion users make no sense (i.e, FB). Social networking is person-to-person sharing based on mutual trust. So smaller newworks focused on shared interests make sense. This is what tuka is. Technology can then be harnessed to coordinate these networks in ways that reduce the siloing effect so we can all end up sharing more information based on our trusted networks. So what is needed are policies that break down the network effects of scale to open up the social media space to thousands of competitors, all focused on different community interests. Then the interactions across networks help bring us together willingly.

The other problem we at tuka have cited is the centralization and control of information networks and the immense value they create. Data is gold, and we cannot have a handful of private companies own and control the personal data users create. This is akin to giving your labor away, or slavery. The required changes are to decentralize the network using blockchain technologies so that value created can be measured and distributed accordingly to users.

Several of the experts have accurately recognized the problem and what to do about it. The better ideas have been cut and pasted below.

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Clay Shirky: Slow It Down and Make It Smaller

We know how to fix social media. We’ve always known. We were complaining about it when it got worse, so we remember what it was like when it was better. We need to make it smaller and slow it down.

The spread of social media vastly increased how many people any of us can reach with a single photo, video or bit of writing. When we look at who people connect to on social networks—mostly friends, unsurprisingly—the scale of immediate connections seems manageable. But the imperative to turn individual offerings, mostly shared with friends, into viral sensations creates an incentive for social media platforms, and especially Facebook, to amplify bits of content well beyond any friend group.

We’re all potential celebrities now, where anything we say could spread well beyond the group we said it to, an effect that the social media scholar Danah Boyd has called “context collapse.” And once we’re all potential celebrities, some people will respond to the incentives to reach that audience—hot takes, dangerous stunts, fake news, miracle cures, the whole panoply of lies and grift we now behold.

The faster content moves, the likelier it is to be borne on the winds of emotional reaction.

The inhuman scale at which the internet assembles audiences for casually produced material is made worse by the rising speed of viral content. As the behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman observed, human thinking comes in two flavors: fast and slow. Emotions are fast, and deliberation is slow.

The obvious corollary is that the faster content moves, the likelier it is to be borne on the winds of emotional reaction, with any deliberation coming after it has spread, if at all. The spread of smartphones and push notifications has created a whole ecosystem of URGENT! messages, things we are exhorted to amplify by passing them along: Like if you agree, share if you very much agree.

Social media is better, for individuals and for the social fabric, if the groups it assembles are smaller, and if the speed at which content moves through it is slower. Some of this is already happening, as people vote with their feet (well, fingers) to join various group chats, whether via SMS, Slack or Discord.

We know that scale and speed make people crazy. We’ve known this since before the web was invented. Users are increasingly aware that our largest social media platforms are harmful and that their addictive nature makes some sort of coordinated action imperative.

It’s just not clear where that action might come from. Self-regulation is ineffective, and the political arena is too polarized to agree on any such restrictions. There are only two remaining scenarios: regulation from the executive branch or a continuation of the status quo, with only minor changes. Neither of those responses is ideal, but given that even a global pandemic does not seem to have galvanized bipartisanship, it’s hard to see any other set of practical options.

Mr. Shirky is Vice Provost for Educational Technologies at New York University and the author of “Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.”

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Jaron Lanier: Topple the New Gods of Data

When we speak of social media, what are we talking about? Is it the broad idea of people connecting over the internet, keeping track of old friends, or sharing funny videos? Or is it the business model that has come to dominate those activities, as implemented by Facebook and a few other companies?

Tech companies have dominated the definition because of the phenomenon known as network effects: The more connected a system is, the more likely it is to produce winner-take-all outcomes. Facebook took all.

The domination is so great that we forget alternatives are possible. There is a wonderful new generation of researchers and critics concerned with problems like damage to teen girls and incitement of racist violence, and their work is indispensable. If all we had to talk about was the more general idea of possible forms of social media, then their work would be what’s needed to improve things.

Unfortunately, what we need to talk about is the dominant business model. This model spews out horrible incentives to make people meaner and crazier. Incentives run the world more than laws, regulations, critiques, or the ideas of researchers.

The current incentives are to “engage” people as much as possible, which means triggering the “lizard brain” and fight-or-flight responses. People have always been a little paranoid, xenophobic, racist, neurotically vain, irritable, selfish, and afraid. And yet putting people under the influence of engagement algorithms has managed to bring out even more of the worst of us.

The current incentives are to ‘engage’ people as much as possible, which means triggering the ‘lizard brain.’

Can we survive being under the ambient influence of behavior modification algorithms that make us stupider?

The business model that makes life worse is based on a particular ideology. This ideology holds that humans as we know ourselves are being replaced by something better that will be brought about by tech companies. Either we’ll become part of a giant collective organism run through algorithms, or artificial intelligence will soon be able to do most jobs, including running society, better than people. The overwhelming imperative is to create something like a universally Facebook-connected society or a giant artificial intelligence.

These “new gods” run on data, so as much data as possible must be gathered, and getting in the middle of human interactions is how you gather that data. If the process makes people crazy, that’s an acceptable price to pay.

The business model, not the algorithms, is also why people have to fear being put out of work by technology. If people were paid fairly for their contributions to algorithms and robots, then more tech would mean more jobs, but the ideology demands that people accept a creeping feeling of human obsolescence. After all, if data coming from people were valued, then it might seem like the big computation gods, like AI, were really just collaborations of people instead of new life forms. That would be a devastating blow to the tech ideology.

Facebook now proposes to change its name and to primarily pursue the “metaverse” instead of “social media,” but the only changes that fundamentally matter are in the business model, ideology, and resulting incentives.

Mr. Lanier is a computer scientist and the author, most recently, of “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.”

Clive Thompson: Online Communities That Actually Work

Are there any digital communities that aren’t plagued by trolling, posturing and terrible behavior? Sure there are. In fact, there are quite a lot of online hubs where strangers talk all day long in a very civil fashion. But these aren’t the sites that we typically think of as social media, like Twitter, Facebook or YouTube. No, I’m thinking of the countless discussion boards and Discord servers devoted to hobbies or passions like fly fishing, cuisine, art, long-distance cycling or niche videogames.

I visit places like this pretty often in reporting on how people use digital tools, and whenever I check one out, I’m often struck by how un-toxic they are. These days, we wonder a lot about why social networks go bad. But it’s equally illuminating to ask about the ones that work well. These communities share one characteristic: They’re small. Generally they have only a few hundred members, or maybe a couple thousand if they’re really popular.

And smallness makes all the difference. First, these groups have a sense of cohesion. The members have joined specifically to talk to people with whom they share an enthusiasm. That creates a type of social glue, a context and a mutual respect that can’t exist on a highly public site like Twitter, where anyone can crash any public conversation.

Smallness makes all the difference. These groups have a sense of cohesion.

Even more important, small groups typically have people who work to keep interactions civil. Sometimes this will be the forum organizer or an active, long-term participant. They’ll greet newcomers to make them feel welcome, draw out quiet people and defuse conflict when they see it emerge. Sometimes they’ll ban serious trolls. But what’s crucial is that these key members model good behavior, illustrating by example the community’s best standards. The internet thinkers Heather Gold, Kevin Marks and Deb Schultz put a name to this: “tummeling,” after the Yiddish “tummeler,” who keeps a party going.

None of these positive elements can exist in a massive, public social network, where millions of people can barge into each other’s spaces—as they do on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. The single biggest problem facing social media is that our dominant networks are obsessed with scale. They want to utterly dominate their fields, so they can kill or absorb rivals and have the ad dollars to themselves. But scale breaks social relations.

Is there any way to mitigate this problem? I’ve never heard of any simple solution. Strong antitrust enforcement for the big networks would be useful, to encourage a greater array of rivals that truly compete with one another. But this likely wouldn’t fully solve the problem of scale, since many users crave scale too. Lusting after massive, global audiences, they will flock to whichever site offers the hugest. Many of the proposed remedies for social media, like increased moderation or modifications to legal liability, might help, but all leave intact the biggest problem of all: Bigness itself.

Mr. Thompson is a journalist who covers science and technology. He is the author, most recently, of “Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World.”

Time to Exit the FB Metaverse

Facebook is planning to rebrand…

…while Facebook has been heavily promoting the idea of the metaverse in recent weeks, it’s still not a concept that’s widely understood. The term was coined originally by sci-fi novelist Neal Stephenson to describe a virtual world people escape to from a dystopian, real world. Now it’s being adopted by one of the world’s largest and most controversial companies — and it’ll have to explain why its own virtual world is worth diving into.

Project Liberty

Frank McCourt Wants to Build a New Model for Social Media

WSJ

By Emily Bobrow Oct. 8, 2021 12:28 pm ET

It bothers Frank McCourt, the billionaire real estate mogul and former Los Angeles Dodgers owner, that his data—his contacts and search history, his shopping preferences and driving habits—is being harvested and used in ways he can’t control. “Big tech knows more about me than my wife, and I didn’t give them that permission,” he says over Zoom from his home in Wellington, Fla., where he lives with his wife Monica and their two young children.

The fact that a few powerful internet players are “hoarding and exploiting” the personal details of users is not only “inherently unfair,” Mr. McCourt argues, but also socially corrosive. He blames the rise in extremist views in the U.S. and around the world on social-media companies that prioritize “audience engagement” over the welfare of customers.

McCourt has pledged $250 million to Project Liberty, an initiative to reclaim the internet as a force for good.

In response, Mr. McCourt, 68, a self-styled “civic entrepreneur,” has pledged $250 million to create and advance Project Liberty, a grandly named initiative to reclaim the internet as a force for good. The plan includes $75 million to establish an interdisciplinary McCourt Institute to research and develop an ethical framework for new technology, in partnership with Georgetown University, his alma mater, and Sciences Po of Paris. Mr. McCourt has also promised $25 million to help develop a “Decentralized Social Networking Protocol” or DSNP, a new open-source, blockchain-enabled protocol for managing data on the internet.

It’s a new kind of infrastructure project for Mr. McCourt, who hails from a long line “of builders, of problem-solvers,” he says. His great-grandfather, an Irish immigrant, created a Boston road-building company. His grandfather, a part-owner of the Braves—the baseball team that played in Boston before moving to Atlanta—got into highway construction just as automobiles were becoming popular. His father took on a wider variety of big infrastructure projects, including expanding Boston’s Logan International Airport.

Mr. McCourt launched his own first business at 12, collecting garbage from neighbors near his family’s summer home in Deerfield, N.H., and entered the family business at 16. His family, in touting the value of hard work, would quote a Gaelic saying that translates loosely as “Where there’s muck, there’s brass.”

Mr. McCourt followed in his father’s footsteps at Georgetown, where he got a degree in economics in 1975 and met his first wife, Jamie, with whom he had four sons. But in business, he had a greater taste for risk and sought a different path, developing real estate instead of infrastructure. He helped convert Boston’s Union Wharf into a bustling mixed-use area in the late 1970s, then bought 24 acres on the waterfront from the defunct Penn Central Transportation, which soon generated millions in annual income as parking lots.

This was the property Mr. McCourt sold to help buy the Los Angeles Dodgers from Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp (the parent company of The Wall Street Journal) in 2004, in a highly leveraged deal valued at around $430 million. Mr. McCourt’s ownership of the Dodgers proved controversial, particularly when his messy, costly divorce from Jamie became public in 2009. To prevent the team from being seized by Major League Baseball, which accused him of “looting” team assets to fund his lavish lifestyle, Mr. McCourt declared the Dodgers bankrupt in 2011. He then sold the team in 2012 to a consortium led by Magic Johnson for a record $2.15 billion.

“When you go through something that’s humiliating, it changes you,” Mr. McCourt says of his time in Los Angeles. He admits, with hindsight, that he “could’ve done a better job” as a steward of the franchise. But the experience helped clarify his priorities. In 2013 he donated $100 million to establish the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown, and then gave another $100 million earlier this year to help cover financial aid and scholarships. In 2018 he gave $45 million to help build The Shed, an arts center in Manhattan.

The Dodgers sale also enabled Project Liberty. Mr. McCourt doesn’t run a tech company and doesn’t use social media himself, but he is troubled by what he calls “a polluted ecosystem of information where you can’t distinguish between fact or fiction, information or disinformation.” He points to recent revelations in The Wall Street Journal that Facebook executives knew the company’s algorithms increase “misinformation, toxicity and violent content” on the site, but did nothing to rein in these problems for fear of alienating users.

He still has his mother’s voice in his head asking, ‘Yeah, but what are you going to do about it?’

Mr. McCourt decided to enter the field, he says, because growing up as one of seven siblings in his Irish Catholic family, he learned it was never enough to simply articulate a problem. He still has his mother’s voice in his head asking, “Yeah, but what are you going to do about it?”

With Project Liberty, his goal is to spur the creation of new social networks in which users, not platforms, have control over their own data. He notes that the official protocols used to send and receive information online—known as Web 2.0—were designed without accounting for how digital monopolies like Facebook and Google might use data and algorithms to sow discord, suppress innovation and compromise privacy. These developments, he says, have transformed the internet “from something that was designed to create value for society to something that creates value from it.”

Because technology moves so swiftly, Mr. McCourt says the solution to its ills is not more regulation, but innovation. Other developers share this view. Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s CEO, is in the early stages of creating an “open decentralized standard for social media” called Bluesky. Some smaller social-media companies, such as Steemit, Mastodon and Peepeth, already use blockchain or alternative technologies to challenge the likes of Facebook and Twitter.

That these companies are not yet household names does not concern Mr. McCourt. Nor does the fact that blockchain technology tends to be slower and more complicated for developers than the conventional web. He suggests the appeal of his protocol will soon be plain: “If I said to you, ‘You can have everything you have, but you will also own and control your data, you will own and control your privacy, you will be dealing with actual people and not machines, and if you engage in ad-tech you will be credited for your data,’ would you use it?”

“The guiding principle in Silicon Valley was ‘move fast and break things,’ which they achieved,” Mr. McCourt says. “Now we need to move fast and fix things so that we can restore trust, strengthen our democracy and make our economy much more fair.”

Copyright ©2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8



Does Facebook Really Make Sense?

An essay on social networks and regulation, published by Project Syndicate.

A Facelift for Facebook

One can agree with the explanation of the problem – centralized control of an increasingly valuable asset: information data. I’m not sure a real solution has been proposed yet. When I explain how platforms exploit the collection of users’ personal data for great material gain, I usually get a shoulder shrug. People still fail to appreciate that their data is as valuable as their labor, if not more so. They would not give away their labor for free, so why give away one’s valuable data for a free user page and some simple tools?

At a macro level, a social network like FB makes almost no sense, except as a data mining tool. FB thrives on little more than gossip networks and if one looks at the function of social gossip across time and cultures one realizes a global gossip network makes no sense from a human pov. All the negative effects and few of the positive. As Hill points out, Online Social Networks make sense for small assemblies of friends, families, and interest groups. This is the goal for OSNs of the future. FB “Groups” might resemble the type of content-focused social network that is valuable to users, but, of course, on FB these are exploited exclusively for FB or the administrator of the group. The users get free participation, but little of the value created. A small club of influencers is not the future of OSNs.

A digital license could impose some necessary public goods features, but for regulating audience size, the potential for abuse and centralized control probably outweighs the benefits. Better for the market to solve this problem with competition, but that will probably require some government policy that reduces or eliminates the existing natural monopolies due to network effects. (“Search” needs to be a public regulated utility, while Amazon needs to spin-off its vertical integration. I’m still of the opinion that large social networks like FB will be competed away.)

I would imagine the future would look like many social networks that are decentralized but coordinated in some way so that one doesn’t get siloed. And personal data must be under the control of users with the value of the social network created shared among them. For that one probably needs some kind of a decentralized blockchain solution. Most large, complex systems only become manageable through coordinated decentralization of control. Think representative democracy and Federalism.

Own Your Data

This platform turns data into cryptocurrency

This platform turns data into cryptocurrency

An ownership economy concept is a system where all individuals hold a financial stake or value from participation in an ecosystem.

“Big Data is broken. Users are not being compensated for an asset they create. Data is now the world’s largest digital asset, and Cirus puts control of it back into the hands of the user. Turning data into cryptocurrency, Cirus unlocks data as an asset for the user, opening the doors into Web 3.0 and unleashing its long term potential as a new bankable asset,” says the Cirus team.

Cirus Foundation plans to build an ownership-led economy, giving individuals control over their data and how it is used, enabling any person with a Cirus device in their home to transact with cryptocurrencies and decentralized assets.

Reining in the Oligarchies

From Hillsdale College’s  Imprimus:

Who Is in Control? The Need to Rein in Big Tech

Allum Bokhari

The following is adapted from a speech delivered at Hillsdale College on November 8, 2020, during a Center for Constructive Alternatives conference on Big Tech.

In January, when every major Silicon Valley tech company permanently banned the President of the United States from its platform, there was a backlash around the world. One after another, government and party leaders—many of them ideologically opposed to the policies of President Trump—raised their voices against the power and arrogance of the American tech giants. These included the President of Mexico, the Chancellor of Germany, the government of Poland, ministers in the French and Australian governments, the neoliberal center-right bloc in the European Parliament, the national populist bloc in the European Parliament, the leader of the Russian opposition (who recently survived an assassination attempt), and the Russian government (which may well have been behind that attempt).

Common threats create strange bedfellows. Socialists, conservatives, nationalists, neoliberals, autocrats, and anti-autocrats may not agree on much, but they all recognize that the tech giants have accumulated far too much power. None like the idea that a pack of American hipsters in Silicon Valley can, at any moment, cut off their digital lines of communication.

I published a book on this topic prior to the November election, and many who called me alarmist then are not so sure of that now. I built the book on interviews with Silicon Valley insiders and five years of reporting as a Breitbart News tech correspondent. Breitbart created a dedicated tech reporting team in 2015—a time when few recognized the danger that the rising tide of left-wing hostility to free speech would pose to the vision of the World Wide Web as a free and open platform for all viewpoints.

This inversion of that early libertarian ideal—the movement from the freedom of information to the control of information on the Web—has been the story of the past five years.

***

When the Web was created in the 1990s, the goal was that everyone who wanted a voice could have one. All a person had to do to access the global marketplace of ideas was to go online and set up a website. Once created, the website belonged to that person. Especially if the person owned his own server, no one could deplatform him. That was by design, because the Web, when it was invented, was competing with other types of online services that were not so free and open.

It is important to remember that the Web, as we know it today—a network of websites accessed through browsers—was not the first online service ever created. In the 1990s, Sir Timothy Berners-Lee invented the technology that underpins websites and web browsers, creating the Web as we know it today. But there were other online services, some of which predated Berners-Lee’s invention. Corporations like CompuServe and Prodigy ran their own online networks in the 1990s—networks that were separate from the Web and had access points that were different from web browsers. These privately-owned networks were open to the public, but CompuServe and Prodigy owned every bit of information on them and could kick people off their networks for any reason.

In these ways the Web was different. No one owned it, owned the information on it, or could kick anyone off. That was the idea, at least, before the Web was captured by a handful of corporations.

We all know their names: Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Amazon. Like Prodigy and CompuServe back in the ’90s, they own everything on their platforms, and they have the police power over what can be said and who can participate. But it matters a lot more today than it did in the ’90s. Back then, very few people used online services. Today everyone uses them—it is practically impossible not to use them. Businesses depend on them. News publishers depend on them. Politicians and political activists depend on them. And crucially, citizens depend on them for information.

Today, Big Tech doesn’t just mean control over online information. It means control over news. It means control over commerce. It means control over politics. And how are the corporate tech giants using their control? Judging by the three biggest moves they have made since I wrote my book—the censoring of the New York Post in October when it published its blockbuster stories on Biden family corruption, the censorship and eventual banning from the Web of President Trump, and the coordinated takedown of the upstart social media site Parler—it is obvious that Big Tech’s priority today is to support the political Left and the Washington establishment.

Big Tech has become the most powerful election-influencing machine in American history. It is not an exaggeration to say that if the technologies of Silicon Valley are allowed to develop to their fullest extent, without any oversight or checks and balances, then we will never have another free and fair election. But the power of Big Tech goes beyond the manipulation of political behavior. As one of my Facebook sources told me in an interview for my book: “We have thousands of people on the platform who have gone from far right to center in the past year, so we can build a model from those people and try to make everyone else on the right follow the same path.” Let that sink in. They don’t just want to control information or even voting behavior—they want to manipulate people’s worldview.

Is it too much to say that Big Tech has prioritized this kind of manipulation? Consider that Twitter is currently facing a lawsuit from a victim of child sexual abuse who says that the company repeatedly failed to take down a video depicting his assault, and that it eventually agreed to do so only after the intervention of an agent from the Department of Homeland Security. So Twitter will take it upon itself to ban the President of the United States, but is alleged to have taken down child pornography only after being prodded by federal law enforcement.

***

How does Big Tech go about manipulating our thoughts and behavior? It begins with the fact that these tech companies strive to know everything about us—our likes and dislikes, the issues we’re interested in, the websites we visit, the videos we watch, who we voted for, and our party affiliation. If you search for a Hannukah recipe, they’ll know you’re likely Jewish. If you’re running down the Yankees, they’ll figure out if you’re a Red Sox fan. Even if your smart phone is turned off, they’ll track your location. They know who you work for, who your friends are, when you’re walking your dog, whether you go to church, when you’re standing in line to vote, and on and on.

As I already mentioned, Big Tech also monitors how our beliefs and behaviors change over time. They identify the types of content that can change our beliefs and behavior, and they put that knowledge to use. They’ve done this openly for a long time to manipulate consumer behavior—to get us to click on certain ads or buy certain products. Anyone who has used these platforms for an extended period of time has no doubt encountered the creepy phenomenon where you’re searching for information about a product or a service—say, a microwave—and then minutes later advertisements for microwaves start appearing on your screen. These same techniques can be used to manipulate political opinions.

I mentioned that Big Tech has recently demonstrated ideological bias. But it is equally true that these companies have huge economic interests at stake in politics. The party that holds power will determine whether they are going to get government contracts, whether they’re going to get tax breaks, and whether and how their industry will be regulated. Clearly, they have a commercial interest in political control—and currently no one is preventing them from exerting it.

To understand how effective Big Tech’s manipulation could become, consider the feedback loop.

As Big Tech constantly collects data about us, they run tests to see what information has an impact on us. Let’s say they put a negative news story about someone or something in front of us, and we don’t click on it or read it. They keep at it until they find content that has the desired effect. The feedback loop constantly improves, and it does so in a way that’s undetectable.

What determines what appears at the top of a person’s Facebook feed, Twitter feed, or Google search results? Does it appear there because it’s popular or because it’s gone viral? Is it there because it’s what you’re interested in? Or is there another reason Big Tech wants it to be there? Is it there because Big Tech has gathered data that suggests it’s likely to nudge your thinking or your behavior in a certain direction? How can we know?

What we do know is that Big Tech openly manipulates the content people see. We know, for example, that Google reduced the visibility of Breitbart News links in search results by 99 percent in 2020 compared to the same period in 2016. We know that after Google introduced an update last summer, clicks on Breitbart News stories from Google searches for “Joe Biden” went to zero and stayed at zero through the election. This didn’t happen gradually, but in one fell swoop—as if Google flipped a switch. And this was discoverable through the use of Google’s own traffic analysis tools, so it isn’t as if Google cared that we knew about it.

Speaking of flipping switches, I have noted that President Trump was collectively banned by Twitter, Facebook, Twitch, YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat, and every other social media platform you can think of. But even before that, there was manipulation going on. Twitter, for instance, reduced engagement on the President’s tweets by over eighty percent. Facebook deleted posts by the President for spreading so-called disinformation.

But even more troubling, I think, are the invisible things these companies do. Consider “quality ratings.” Every Big Tech platform has some version of this, though some of them use different names. The quality rating is what determines what appears at the top of your search results, or your Twitter or Facebook feed, etc. It’s a numerical value based on what Big Tech’s algorithms determine in terms of “quality.” In the past, this score was determined by criteria that were somewhat objective: if a website or post contained viruses, malware, spam, or copyrighted material, that would negatively impact its quality score. If a video or post was gaining in popularity, the quality score would increase. Fair enough.

Over the past several years, however—and one can trace the beginning of the change to Donald Trump’s victory in 2016—Big Tech has introduced all sorts of new criteria into the mix that determines quality scores. Today, the algorithms on Google and Facebook have been trained to detect “hate speech,” “misinformation,” and “authoritative” (as opposed to “non-authoritative”) sources. Algorithms analyze a user’s network, so that whatever users follow on social media—e.g., “non-authoritative” news outlets—affects the user’s quality score. Algorithms also detect the use of language frowned on by Big Tech—e.g., “illegal immigrant” (bad) in place of “undocumented immigrant” (good)—and adjust quality scores accordingly. And so on.

This is not to say that you are informed of this or that you can look up your quality score. All of this happens invisibly. It is Silicon Valley’s version of the social credit system overseen by the Chinese Communist Party. As in China, if you defy the values of the ruling elite or challenge narratives that the elite labels “authoritative,” your score will be reduced and your voice suppressed. And it will happen silently, without your knowledge.

This technology is even scarier when combined with Big Tech’s ability to detect and monitor entire networks of people. A field of computer science called “network analysis” is dedicated to identifying groups of people with shared interests, who read similar websites, who talk about similar things, who have similar habits, who follow similar people on social media, and who share similar political viewpoints. Big Tech companies are able to detect when particular information is flowing through a particular network—if there’s a news story or a post or a video, for instance, that’s going viral among conservatives or among voters as a whole. This gives them the ability to shut down a story they don’t like before it gets out of hand. And these systems are growing more sophisticated all the time.

***

If Big Tech’s capabilities are allowed to develop unchecked and unregulated, these companies will eventually have the power not only to suppress existing political movements, but to anticipate and prevent the emergence of new ones. This would mean the end of democracy as we know it, because it would place us forever under the thumb of an unaccountable oligarchy.

The good news is, there is a way to rein in the tyrannical tech giants. And the way is simple: take away their power to filter information and filter data on our behalf.

All of Big Tech’s power comes from their content filters—the filters on “hate speech,” the filters on “misinformation,” the filters that distinguish “authoritative” from “non-authoritative” sources, etc. Right now these filters are switched on by default. We as individuals can’t turn them off. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The most important demand we can make of lawmakers and regulators is that Big Tech be forbidden from activating these filters without our knowledge and consent. They should be prohibited from doing this—and even from nudging us to turn on a filter—under penalty of losing their Section 230 immunity as publishers of third party content. This policy should be strictly enforced, and it should extend even to seemingly non-political filters like relevance and popularity. Anything less opens the door to manipulation.

Our ultimate goal should be a marketplace in which third party companies would be free to design filters that could be plugged into services like Twitter, Facebook, Google, and YouTube. In other words, we would have two separate categories of companies: those that host content and those that create filters to sort through that content. In a marketplace like that, users would have the maximum level of choice in determining their online experiences. At the same time, Big Tech would lose its power to manipulate our thoughts and behavior and to ban legal content—which is just a more extreme form of filtering—from the Web.

This should be the standard we demand, and it should be industry-wide. The alternative is a kind of digital serfdom. We don’t allow old-fashioned serfdom anymore—individuals and businesses have due process and can’t be evicted because their landlord doesn’t like their politics. Why shouldn’t we also have these rights if our business or livelihood depends on a Facebook page or a Twitter or YouTube account?

This is an issue that goes beyond partisanship. What the tech giants are doing is so transparently unjust that all Americans should start caring about it—because under the current arrangement, we are all at their mercy. The World Wide Web was meant to liberate us. It is now doing the opposite. Big Tech is increasingly in control. The most pressing question today is: how are we going to take control back?