We are living through an information revolution. The traditional gatekeepers of knowledge – librarians, journalists and government officials – have largely been replaced by technological gatekeepers – search engines, artificial intelligence chatbots and social media.
Whatever their flaws, the old gatekeepers were, at least on paper, beholden to the public. The new gatekeepers are essentially only beholden to profit and their shareholders.
That is about to change, thanks to a bold experiment by the European Union.
With key provisions coming into effect on August 25, an ambitious package of EU rules, the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act, is the most comprehensive effort to control the power of Big Tech (beyond the outright bans in places like China and India). for the first time, technology platforms will have to respond to the public in many ways, including giving users the right to appeal when their content is removed, providing a choice of algorithms and prohibiting the microtargeting of children and adults based on sensitive data such as religion, ethnicity and sexual orientation. The reforms also require large technology platforms to review their algorithms to determine how they affect democracy, human rights, and the physical and mental health of minors and other users.
This will be the first time that companies will have to identify and address the harms that their platforms enable. To hold them accountable, the law also requires large tech platforms like Facebook and Twitter to provide researchers with access to real-time data from their platforms. But there is a crucial element that has yet to be decided by the European Union: whether journalists will be given access to any of that data.
Journalists have traditionally been on the front lines of enforcement, pointing out harms that investigators can magnify and regulators can act on. The Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which we learned how consultants for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign exploited the Facebook data of millions of users without their permission, was revealed by The New York Times and The Observer of London. BuzzFeed News reported on the offending posts, detailing Facebook’s role enabling the massacre of Rohingyas. My team at ProPublica uncovered how Facebook allows advertisers to discriminate employment and accommodation ads.
But getting data from platforms is becoming more and more difficult. Facebook was particularly aggressive, shutting down the accounts of researchers at New York University in 2021 for “unauthorized resources” of accessing Facebook ads. That year, it also legally threatened a European research group, AlgorithmWatch, forcing it to shut down its Instagram monitoring project. And earlier this month, Twitter began limiting the ability of all its users to see tweets in what the company described as attempt to block automated collection of information from the Twitter site by AI chatbots as well as bots, spammers and other “bad actors”.
Meanwhile, the tech companies have also shut down authorized access to their platforms. In 2021, Facebook disbanded the team that oversaw the CrowdTangle analytics tool that many researchers used to analyze trends. This year, Twitter replaced its free search tools with a paid version that is prohibitively expensive and unreliable. As a result, the public has less visibility than ever into how our global information gatekeepers are behaving.
Last month, US Senator Chris Coons introduced the Platform Accountability and Transparency Actlegislation that would require social media companies to share more data with researchers and provide immunity to journalists collecting data in the public interest with reasonable privacy protections.
But as it stands, the European Union’s transparency efforts rely on European academics who will apply to a regulatory body for access to data from the platforms and then, hopefully, issue investigative reports.
That is not enough. To truly hold the platforms accountable, we need to support the journalists who are on the front lines of chronicling how despots, trolls, spies, marketers and hate mobs weaponize tech platforms or are enabled by them.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa runs Rappler, a news outlet in the Philippines that was at the forefront on analyzing how Philippine leaders have used social media to spread misinformation, hijack social media hashtags, manipulate public opinion, and attack independent journalism.
Last year, for example, Rappler revealed that the majority of Twitter accounts using certain hashtags in support of Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who was then a presidential candidate, were created in a one-month period, making it likely that many of them were fake accounts. With the Twitter investigative feed that Rappler used now closed, and the platforms curbing data access, it is not clear how Ms. Ressa and her colleagues can continue to do this type of important accountability journalism.
Ms. Ressa asked the European Commission, publicly comments filed in May, to provide journalists with “access to real-time data” so they can provide a “macro view of patterns and trends these tech companies are creating and the real damage they’re enabling.” (Me too submitted comments to the European Commissionalong with more than a dozen journalists, asking the commission to support access to platform data for journalists.)
As Daphne Keller, the director of the platform regulation program at Stanford’s Cyber Policy Center, argues in her comments to the European Unionallowing journalists and researchers to use automated tools to collect publicly available data from platforms is one of the best ways to ensure transparency because it “is a rare form of transparency that does not depend on the platforms themselves that are being studied to generate information or act. as gatekeepers.”
Of course, the technology platforms often push back requests for transparency claiming that they have to protect the privacy of their users. Which is hilarious, because their business models are based on mining and monetizing their users’ personal data. But leaving that aside, the privacy interests of users are not involved here: The data that journalists need is already public to anyone who has an account on these services.
What journalists lack is access to large amounts of public data from tech platforms to understand whether an event is an anomaly or representative of a larger trend. Without that access, we will continue to have what we have now: lots of anecdotes about this content or that user being banned, but no real sense of whether these stories are statistically significant.
Journalists write the first draft of history. If we can’t see what’s happening on the biggest talk platforms in the world, that history will be written for the benefit of platforms — not the public.