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Big Tech’s Threat to Democracy: A Recap

At Netroots Nation 2022, Accountable Tech staff attended a panel titled “Big Tech's Threat to Democracy: The Double-Edged Sword of Social Media.” Panelists included nonprofit workers and activists with deep knowledge of social media’s societal harms and organizing potential.

Giliann Karon

Last week, three members of our team attended Netroots Nation 2022 in Pittsburgh, where we listened to Kaili Lambe, our Director of Partnerships and Policy, moderate a panel called “Big Tech’s Threat to Democracy: The Double-Edged Sword of Social Media.” Panelists included Rose Lang-Maso from Free Press, Sofia Ongele from Gen-Z for Change, Rafael Shimunov from Athena Coalition, and Brittany Williams from Facebook Users Union. They explained how social media has fueled institutional distrust and offered concrete solutions to create a safer experience for both Facebook users and workers.

While activists and organizers rely on social media to garner support for their causes, these platforms remain an existential threat to election integrity, public health, and common truths. From January 6 to anti-mask protests, we all feel the impact of growing radicalization, surveillance, and extremism driven by Big Tech in the U.S. and beyond. We now face a global crisis of confidence in democratic values spurred by Big Tech’s algorithmic pursuit of endless corporate profit.

We now face a global crisis of confidence in democratic values spurred by Big Tech’s algorithmic pursuit of endless corporate profit.

Panelists discussed Facebook’s failure to clamp down on disinformation in the days leading up to the deadly insurrection at the Capitol, including the “public interest exemption”  that allowed the former president to fuel the flames. According to Lang-Maso, Facebook allows inflammatory posts to remain up if they’re deemed in the interest of the public, which is why Marjorie Taylor Greene and co. spread hate and disinformation with only a slap on the wrist. “These platforms are nothing without their users. If they can’t have a safe product, maybe they shouldn’t have one. At the very least, they should make major changes to make it safer,” she explained.

Workers face just as many obstacles. Facebook contracts content moderators, who don’t benefit from hard-fought union efforts and routinely view violent and graphic content for as little as $1.50 per hour. By depriving their workers of basic safety and rights, Facebook deprives their users of a healthy and truthful online experience.

At this point, Facebook and Amazon aren’t just social media and e-commerce platforms, they’re intelligence agencies that predict, manipulate, and monetize our behavior, as Shimunov explained. They’re now encroaching into government spaces, healthcare, and defense, which is why Congress must meet the moment and pass bold bipartisan antitrust legislation to tame corporate monopolies and return power to the consumer.

But these platforms are nothing without their users, which means only we can pressure them to change for the better. Williams created Facebook Users Union to recognize the platform’s 3 million users and spread awareness about their harms. All of the panelists pointed out that Facebook has the money for human review systems, hiring content who speak languages other than English, higher wages for contracted workers, and mechanisms to root out algorithmic bias, but they choose to spend them on building out new products like the metaverse.

All of us would benefit from structural reforms that address the root of these issues – an unregulated platform that monetizes our sensitive information, contributes to the breakdown of democratic institutions, fuels conflict, and influences our behavior for the worse. Facebook can be a tool for positive social change, but only if we work for it.