In an increasingly digital and interconnected world, platforms have emerged as powerful intermediaries that shape our online experiences, social interactions, and access to information. While platforms have brought numerous benefits, there is now an overwhelming recognition of their potential negative effects on individuals, society, and democracy. From the spread of misinformation and privacy concerns to cyberbullying and algorithmic biases, these harms demand a comprehensive and nuanced understanding, as well as mitigation strategies.
This paper serves as a summary report for the Democracy and Internet Governance Initiative, a two-year joint initiative between Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics, and Public Policy. It delves into the rationale and components of a new risk-centered approach to analyze and address the negative impacts of digital platforms. It also explores the key dimensions that should be considered when assessing platform risk, including mental and physical health, financial security, privacy, social and reputational wellbeing, professional security, sovereignty, and strength of public goods.
The paper then underscores the necessity and value of comprehensive disclosure schemes in order to better understand the cause and effect of digital platforms and related products within the scope of a risk framework. Through the establishment of standards setting bodies dedicated to addressing itemized risks, we argue that this is the infrastructure necessary for sustainable regulation and self-governance that is dynamic and public purpose-oriented.
Throughout each section, we aim to underline the significance of stakeholder engagement in the governance process. Platforms themselves, civil society organizations, policymakers, researchers, and users all have important perspectives, experiences, and jurisdiction needed to effectively mitigate harms of digital platforms. Engaging all stakeholders in a collaborative manner will enhance the framework’s relevance, legitimacy, and practicality.
Ultimately, the risk-based approach and subsequent recommendations aim to contribute to a more informed and proactive approach to platform governance. By recognizing and addressing the risks associated with platforms—and confronting the pervasive information asymmetry problem, where technology companies withhold important data and information about user and community impact—we can work towards fostering a healthier, more accountable, and inclusive digital ecosystem that respects user rights, promotes responsible platform behavior, and safeguards the democratic principles that underpin our societies.
MySpace, which launched exactly two decades ago in 2003, was the first online social network to reach a million monthly active users.11 Ortiz-Ospina, E., & Roser, M. (2023, May 25). The rise of Social Media. Our World in Data. https://ourworldindata.org/rise-of-social-media The platform, a friends-driven social media network, achieved this milestone in 2004, barely a year after its founding. MySpace demonstrated to the world how we could expand social interaction through the world wide web, allowing for new ways to discover music and art, share ideas with a large group of friends (location agnostic), and express yourself through digital artifacts.
In 2005, News Corporation (now Fox Corporation), sensing the potential business upside of online social networks, purchased MySpace for $580 million USD.22 U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. (2005, July 18). News Corporation to Acquire Intermix Media, Inc. https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1308161/000118143105040705/rrd86058_6819.htm At that time, MySpace had 16 million monthly users–22 million in total–and was continuing to expand; its value at the time of the deal was approximately $327 million USD.33 Adegoke, Y. (2011, April 8). How myspace went from the future to a failure. NBCNews.com. https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna42475503 News Corporation, led by chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch, was interested in leveraging a social platform like MySpace as a distribution outlet for Fox studio content. During Murdoch’s ownership, the company expanded into the UK market, struck large deals with Google for advertising revenue, and attempted to build on its initial success while expanding Fox’s viewership.
MySpace, despite Murdoch’s investments, turned out to be a failure for News Corporation—and a failed venture overall.44 Adegoke, Y. (2011, April 8). How myspace went from the future to a failure. NBCNews.com. https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna42475503 The company’s story, however, marks the beginning of an increasingly complex, and arguably convoluted, relationship between information and social networks. From Cambridge Analytica to the Arab Spring, social media has proven to be a useful tool for those interested in influencing real world events and the ways in which they are perceived. The MySpace story, though brief, shows the foreseeable risk born from the intermingling of digital platforms, information, and power. It also foreshadows something bigger: the potential of digital platforms to drastically change how we as humans interact with ourselves and the world.
Today, in 2023, MySpace is more or less out of the picture; Facebook is the largest platform in the world with over 2.98 billion monthly active users.55 Dixon, S. (2023, May 9). Facebook mau worldwide 2023. Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/264810/number-of-monthly-active-facebook-users-worldwide A number of other competitors entered the market over the last twenty years: TikTok, YouTube (acquired by Alphabet), Twitter, Twitch, Snapchat, WhatsApp (acquired by Facebook, now known as Meta), Instagram (acquired by Meta), and BeReal, to name a few.
The sheer power and wealth accumulated by these platforms is astonishing. Meta’s market cap today is around $734 billion USD66 Yahoo! (2023, June). Meta Platforms, inc. (Meta) stock price, news, Quote & History. Yahoo! Finance. https://finance.yahoo.com/quote/META; Alphabet, Google and YouTube’s parent company, has a market cap of about $1.56 trillion USD.77 Yahoo! (2023, June). Alphabet Inc. (GOOG) stock price, news, Quote & History. Yahoo! Finance. https://finance.yahoo.com/quote/GOOG/That is larger than the GDP of many nations.
As these platforms gained momentum and integrated in the daily lives of billions of people all over the world, it became clear the information ecosystem was undergoing drastic change. Now, we see that large outlets no longer control a majority of content created online; the business model of platform companies requires news outlets to reconsider how they can reach and engage with their audiences; the rise of social media has led to a decline in local news, and has pushed for consolidation of larger outlets because of diminishing financial prospects; less reputable content creators are able to capture the attention of millions of users, allowing for the increased spread of misleading and false information at unprecedented speeds.
But the change goes well beyond the information ecosystem. Platforms undoubtedly have a significant impact on virtually every aspect of our lives. The average user spends nearly two and a half hours per day on various social media applications.88 Kemp, S. (2023, January 26). Digital 2023 deep-dive: How much time do we spend on social media? – datareportal – global digital insights. DataReportal. https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2023-deep-dive-time-spent-on-social- media In 2021, during COVID, the average user spent over 1300 hours on apps like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok.99 Suciu, P. (2022, November 9). Americans spent on average more than 1,300 hours on social media last year. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/petersuciu/2021/06/24/americans-spent-more-than-1300-hours-on-social- media/?sh=5170a6e42547 Due to the addictive features of social media and related psychological effects, the rates of teen depression have significantly increased.1010 Vidal C, Lhaksampa T, Miller L, Platt R. (2020, May). Social media use and depression in adolescents: a scoping review. Int Rev Psychiatry. 32(3):235-253. DOI: 10.1080/09540261.2020.1720623. Epub 2020 Feb 17. PMID: 32065542; PMCID: PMC7392374 Elder populations are subject to pervasive financial scams.1111 Brancaccio, D. (2019, May 17). Age of fraud: Are seniors more vulnerable to financial scams?. Marketplace. https://www.marketplace.org/2019/05/16/brains-losses-aging-fraud-financial-scams-seniors/ And because of limited capabilities for attribution, foreign actors have tampered and interfered with democratic processes, most notably the 2016 U.S. presidential election.1212 AP News. (2021, April 21). Senate panel backs assessment that Russia interfered in 2016. AP News. https://apnews.com/article/d094918c0421b872eac7dc4b16e613c7
As awareness of the negative consequences of social media grows, so does the demand for digital platform governance. The U.S. has been unable to make progress on specific legislation or governance schemes that could directly address the issue caused by digital platforms, though. Other countries and regions like Canada, India, and Europe have made strides towards digital platform governance. The U.S., however, has been stuck in the political web of free speech, national competitiveness, and pro- market narratives – to the convenience of many companies.
The harms of platforms are only growing, though. Users globally are seeking change; it is time to act.
To that end, the Democracy and Internet Governance Initiative (DIGI) was launched in 2021 to research and deliver insights and recommendations to push the dialogue of social media governance towards action.
Scope & Methodology
Over the course of two years, DIGI focused on several key areas of public concern: diminishing press freedom, online extremism and radicalization, misinformation and disinformation, privacy, antitrust, mental and physical health, and financial security. We engaged over 100 subject matter experts and stakeholders through semi-structured interviews, written review periods, working groups, and briefing sessions.
Coupled with literature reviews and analysis supported by leaders in business, government, and civil society, we explored digital platform governance with one fundamental question at the center of our work: How can we, through a mix of self- governance and government regulation, create a dynamic and sustainable accountability system for digital platforms, namely social media, while preserving the benefits of platform technologies?
As a complementary lens for analysis, we applied history to understand the ways in which other innovation ecosystems are governed, with the goal of understanding and contextualizing the successes and failures of governance within other industries. This enhanced our research approach and better guided our recommendations for platform-specific schemes.
The goal of this report is not to present individual recommendations that may or may not address itemized risks, but rather to offer an updated approach to stakeholder conversations around problems caused by digital platforms. We also present process- oriented recommendations that could provide infrastructure to move governance from conversation and debate to targeted action.
Our research and methodology aimed to be non-partisan. The following content is a reflection and summary of our findings.
These three key insights informed our final report:
- Centering risk in our efforts to govern social media can provide us with an actionable north star.
- There exists a deep information asymmetry problem – and there is only so much the government and civil society can do with limited information from technology companies.
- We should not wait for the government to take action; as seen in other industries, we can leverage market dynamics to encourage private sector actors and experts across civil society to lead the charge on disclosures and the development of standards. This would simultaneously lay the foundation for informed and comprehensive government regulation.
Throughout the course of this paper, we expand upon these insights and make the case that a new risk-based approach to platform governance and a focused effort on platform disclosures can put us on the path to a dynamic multi-stakeholder governance scheme.