We can’t fix Google, Facebook or TikTok, but we should create democratic alternatives

In an op-ed originally published in Danish outlet Altinget, IMS Executive Director Jesper Højberg looks at the threat that tech giants such as Facebook, TikTok and Google pose to democracy. Rather than fixing these problems, he argues that we need new solutions in the public interest.

There is little doubt that, when it comes to solutions that promote democracy, the leading tech giants are currently failing in many ways. How can we protect democracy through technological solutions and who should develop them? Those are among the questions being asked at the Danish Foreign Ministry’s virtual conference Tech for Democracy, which was attended by ministers, tech giants, tech ambassadors and representatives from civil society.

Among the keynote speakers is Filipino journalist and Nobel peace prize winner Maria Ressa. She represents not only investigative, fact-based, critical local journalism at its best; Ressa is also a tough-as-nails critic of the global structures and incentives that Facebook, Google, TikTok and other tech giants have created – and earned billions off of – and which have in recent years been exploited by authoritarian powers, flooded with disinformation and have threatened our democracies.

The Nobel Committee’s motivation for conferring the prize on Ressa is “[her] efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.” Ressa founded and leads the Filipino digital news outlet Rappler, which is behind some of the most innovative digital journalism tools. With “Sharktank,” Rappler developed a monitoring tool for social media which has contributed to the uncovering of networks of websites and Facebook profiles – all with links to President Duterte – that were behind the widespread distribution of false information aimed at voices critical of the government.

Despite the formidable efforts of journalists like Maria Ressa, the current design of our digital infrastructure (search engines, internet cables, social media platforms, app stores, etc.) has made it all too easy for authoritarian powers to strangle democratic conversations and divert our attention away from the changes that are most needed.

The close connections between digital infrastructure, freedom of expression and free, independent media is exactly IMS’ (International Media Support) area of work. We helped to distribute Rappler’s Sharktank to other media outlets in Asia. We contributed our perspective to the Tech for Democracy conference as a civil society partner with 20 years of experience working with local media outlets on the world’s digital frontlines – those in which it is both physically and digitally the most difficult and dangerous to produce and distribute good, fact-based journalism.

We have seen how the business models behind local journalism have been undermined, especially by Facebook and Google’s models which pull advertising money away from the content producers and over to their own platforms. Those same business models have made it both economically and politically lucrative to spread disinformation and conspiracy theories about everything from Covid-19 to the credibility of democratic elections. Local journalists who work against disinformation – in several cases at the risk of their lives – and carry out journalism to a high ethical standard that is also critical of local power holders are, at the same time, exposed to a heretofore unseen level of threats and hate speech online. This type of coordinated campaign is disproportionately committed against women journalists such as Maria Ressa and those from marginalised groups. The worst example of the tech giants’ inability or unwillingness to intervene in a timely manner was the ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya in Myanmar, which Facebook later accepted a shared responsibility for. More recently, Facebook’s role in the escalating violence and acts of war in Ethiopia has been discussed. The list goes on.

But democracy and human rights aren’t only hobbled by individual cases of disinformation, hate speech and murder – let alone discussions of algorithm-controlled moderation. As Harvard professor Shoshana Shubof documented in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, the majority of our current data and thus knowledge of our society is held by handful of American and Chinese companies. A journalist, civil society organisation, researcher or even a country will find it almost impossible to form a real picture of the extent and consequences of the fundamental democratic problems caused by disinformation. According to Shubof, we are en route to a “pre-Gutenberg social order” where a societal monopoly on knowledge, once held by the church, is now held by a few tech giants.

It was revealed in September that Facebook used this knowledge to prioritise pro-Facebook stories and down-prioritise socially-relevant criticism. The EU court recently upheld a ruling against Google for undermining digital competition. There is clearly an acute need for alternatives that will promote democracy.

With that in mind, when we talk about “technology for democracy” as a society, we must not let ourselves be dazzled by individual apps as a solution to big socio-political problems. Instead, we must have the courage to think and work in ambitious, proactive and foresighted ways.

At IMS we see three parallel priorities: 1. Damage control 2. Diagnosis and 3. Digital infrastructure in the public interest. On the first point, we cannot ignore the damage that has already been done: journalists, local media and human rights defenders on the world’s digital frontlines are under enormous pressure economically, politically and technically to maintain the status quo. But if we only support and challenge reactive actions, such as through fact checking, this will go on forever.

Thus, our second priority is to diagnose the problem. We must and should know more about how our digital infrastructures work and how they affect local and global democracies. Local journalists and researchers therefore need the resources, technical know-how and increased access to the data that tech giants currently have a monopoly over, so we all gain new knowledge to act on.

Finally – and most ambitiously – we must invest both economically and politically in pluralistic and locally-anchored technological development that creates and maintains alternatives to our current digital infrastructure. Local journalists, local tech entrepreneurs and civil society actors are currently developing many promising solutions that are designed to secure the public’s and democracy’s interests. Many of the solutions, such as Front Porch Forum or Public Spaces Coalition, take as their starting point an understanding of the local context and local engagement – precisely where the tech giants’ models are weakest and thus where they can be challenged. How these new solutions, which start out small, can be scaled responsibly, is the defining question for the coming years.

The Danish Foreign Ministry is strongly aligned with the Danish civil society through a long national history of securing the public’s interests. And maybe even more importantly to this connection, the Danes have an international reputation for creating multi-stakeholder coalitions with a focus on adopting and furthering democratic interested through development work, both in local and global contexts.

The Danish Tech for Democracy initiative is a unique opportunity to move the conversation, innovation and resources away from the limited focus of “fixing Facebook”, “fixing YouTube” or “fixing TikTok”. Instead, we should work together to create, strengthen and scale locally-anchored solutions that are designed to benefit the public interest, democracy and human rights.

Maria Ressa and Rappler have led the way in how local journalism and the innovative use of technological solutions can stand up against both authoritarian leaders and the current, harmful digital infrastructure. It is my hope that such a brave and innovative example can become the norm and not the exception. With Tech for Democracy, Denmark has taken the first step in the right direction.

This op-ed was originally published in Altinget.