After the events of the last week in the US, many people are demanding the “regulation” of social media.
But amid that clamour… what is actually to be done?
One opportunity (that happens to be the area we work on) is the reform of political ads, specifically finding ways to create a meaningful system of accountability for the people who run them.
Now, digital political ads might appear to be very distant from the problems the US has faced in the last week. After all, they’ve been largely banned by the platforms since the election on November 3rd (with an exception for the Georgia Senate runoffs) and thus played no direct role in the events leading to the storming of the Capitol.
But, if your goal is to avoid future Trumps, you have to find ways of reducing the chances of Trump-shaped objects winning elections. And if they do happen to win elections, you need ways to limit the freedom they have to abuse communications platforms. To do this, you need to start much earlier, and add much more accountability.
In the last few months, when Trump broke their rules, the platforms experimented with weak penalties such as labelling or removing specific social features from individual pieces of content. Now, after the storming of the Capitol, they’ve experimented with a strong penalty, throwing the President off their platforms forever with no right of appeal (albeit when there’s nothing for them to lose from doing so).
But these aren’t the only two options. Between these extremes there’s plenty of room for options that might have constrained a proto-Trump*.
“If you break our rules, we’ll stop your ads for a day/a week/a month”.
Without ads, you raise less money and reach and mobilise fewer people. Without these, a campaign is less likely to be successful. (Essentially, this is how the platforms have pre-emptively pulled the plug on a putative Trump 2024 campaign.)
This idea might have had less force in 2020 than it would have in 2016, but it’d still likely have had some effect. Yes, Trump would still have been noisy on Twitter, but he’d also have been unable to run a successful political campaign.
Another, related option would be for platforms to agree to work more closely together, so that a campaign breaking the rules on one platform suffers consequences on the others:
“If you break YouTube’s rules, we’ll stop your ads on Facebook too”
You could increase scrutiny at the same time:
“For the next two weeks, approval of your ads will be significantly delayed while they are fact checked by an independent fact checker. Any ads containing or referencing disputed claims will be disallowed.”
You could allow opponents to directly refute the claims a campaign makes:
“For the next 7 days, your ads will include a rebuttal statement from your opponent”
Or take away a campaign’s ability to target voters:
“We have removed Custom and Lookalike Audience targeting features from your account”
You could even change the cost of ads:
“Because you repeatedly break our rules, we will charge you a 50% premium on ads, which we will pass on to your opponent in the form of a discount.”
These are all radically different to the ideas tried by the platforms to date and each would have a political and reputational cost above and beyond the practical difficulties they would cause a campaign.
For any of these to work, you’d have to think hard about the quasi-judicial systems that underpin them. You’d need real clarity of purpose, a good set of definitions about what constitutes a threat to democracy, an independent process, real transparency, a quick appeals process and more. But ideas like the ones above do show how platforms and regulators have many more options when it comes to trying to restrain norm-breaking behaviour.
The challenge of the Trump era has been that the threat he poses to American democracy has been generally seen as linear, incremental and manageable, until, last week, when people realised it had become exponential and possibly existential. Deplatforming suddenly became the only option, and once Facebook had taken the plunge, no other platform could resist following them. If they’d started sooner, and broadened their palette, things might have been less painful.
With Trump going, and the election over, there’s an opportunity (in the US at least**) for regulators and the platforms to explore and implement a completely different set of ideas. A wider and more creative range of options, tailored to and fit for the times we live in, such that the democratic age may continue.
*On the basis that, without Trump, none of this happens.
**The ideas in this post are probably more relevant to the US than to countries where ad spending is proportionally much lower.