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By MARK SCOTT
WELCOME BACK TO A THANKSGIVING-THEMED Digital Bridge. I’m Mark Scott, POLITICO’s chief technology correspondent (for the hipsters, you can also find me on Mastodon, @[email protected]), and as Twitter implodes under Elon Musk’s leadership, I think we can all get behind this statement.
Put down the turkey leg, and let’s get cracking:
— We don’t have a clue about what’s happening on social media — and it’s time to figure out how to fix that.
— Can the U.S. Congress pass any digital legislation during its six-week lame-duck session? Privacy standards are the key.
— How Brussels and Washington are creating the foundations for joint rules on artificial intelligence.
A CERN FOR SOCIAL MEDIA?
REGULAR READERS OF DIGITAL BRIDGE will know that social media platforms remain an enigma, even after repeated instances of hate speech, foreign interference and other harmful content served up to millions of people worldwide. Companies’ content policies are not enforced. Upcoming digital rules are either limited or untested. And an inability for outsiders — everyone from journalists and academics to regulators and policymakers — to access social media data to get under the hood of these platforms is a massive blindspot.
So how do we fix that? Alicia Wanless from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Jacob N. Shapiro, a professor at Princeton University, think they have a solution. They want to create the equivalent of a European Center for Nuclear Research, or CERN, for tracking what happens across social media. This gets complicated, so stay with me. The goal is to build a multinational coalition of researchers, civil society groups and, potentially, regulators who can all tap into the same collective infrastructure which would allow greater access to social media and feed into how policymakers think about online content rules.
“In our understanding of what we need to grapple with the information environment and policymaking, it’s a lot like building individual telescopes in our backyards and hoping we’re going to see into deep into space,” Wanless told me. Currently, a lot of individual projects are monitoring what happens on social media. But few are coordinated, meaning researchers and regulators often duplicate existing efforts in ways that hamper the collective understanding of what’s really going on.
“We’re never really going to get there, in the current funding model, to be able to scale up,” the Canadian added. “We need to act fast to be able to understand what’s happening in a highly-polluted information environment; how that’s impacting public decision making; and what kind of interventions can we reasonably make.”
So what does that look like in practice? Borrowing from how CERN started in the 1950s, Wanless and Shapiro want to put together the barebones infrastructure and policies around their concept — dubbed Institute for Research on the Information Environment, or IRIE — sometime next year. That includes figuring out who would participate; where social media data would be stored (to comply with privacy standards); and a bunch of other thorny questions that will likely make their project both maddeningly complex and difficult to deliver. Check out the questions at the end of their proposal.
One big stumbling block (as with anything in the current global economic climate) is money. Building open-source digital infrastructure that pulls in social media data for wholesale research involves deep pockets — most likely tens of millions of dollars each year. The only actors with that type…