How to build a public-friendly internet
Step one: move beyond the engagement trap
Welcome back to Civic Signals, where platforms meet publics. From now through the November election, we’re running Holding it Together, a pop-up miniseries that looks at the intersection of digital spaces and democracy.
This week, we’re giving our readers a sneak peek into CIVIC SIGNALS ITSELF, as our co-director Talia Stroud talks to Ethan Zuckerman about what we’ve been working on.
In addition to being on the Civic Signals Advisory Board, Ethan Zuckerman is a professor at UMass Amherst, where he’s launching an Institute for Digital Public Infrastructure.
Talia Stroud, the co-director of Civic Signals, is a professor at UT Austin and the director of its Center for Media Engagement.
Read some of the highlights from Talia’s interview below, then watch the full interview here!
What’s wrong with social media
Talia: Part of the reason in which we see this [misinformation] happening is because of the way social media is structured. They have a profit motivation, and the way to gain profit is to make sure you have lots of eyeballs, keep people returning to the social media platforms as frequently as they possibly can, and make sure they spend lots and lots of time there. That’s how the algorithms for many social media platforms are created, and I think that that’s really a problem, because it creates scenarios where the loudest voices are partisan; they’re saying terrible things, and that keeps people coming back.
I think that building for profit, and doing so in a way that creates algorithms that reward bad behavior, is a really problematic aspect of that.
What we’re working on right now
Talia: From anything that happens on a platform, we send all sorts of signals. Right now, the signals we’re sending are things like making a comment on Facebook or replying to something on Twitter. Those send signals, but they’re signals that are based on interactivity and engagement, and those are being used by algorithms to elevate content.
But we actually send a much broader array of signals when we interface with these platforms, right? The words that we write, the words contained in the articles that we share, the impression left by an image: these are also signals. And if we think about those as signals, then it might be that there’s some content that’s civically rewarding and helps to create a public-friendly space.
What if, instead of user-friendly, we thought of identifying what’s public-friendly? What are the indicators of civically-friendly behavior?
The most surprising Civic Signal
Talia: There’s a theory that dates back several decades called agenda-setting, which is that if the media cover a particular issue, then that issue is seen as important by the public. And so there was this sense, in talking to these varied experts, that that’s kind of a responsibility in some ways in social media: to surface these important issues for the public to recognize. But it’s actually much more complicated than that because you have different subgroups that might have very very different issue priorities. How do you then think through which issue to prioritize?
Where we’ve settled at, in chatting with many different people who have perspectives on this, is that one important Civic Signal is to surface the interests of a variety of different major subgroups, so that if you have an issue that’s important to one particular subgroup, you’re also surfacing it to people who might not be part of that subgroup.
This turned out to be one of the most conceptually challenging ideas to think through because there are so many different interests.
Watch Talia’s full interview here!
What We’re Thinking About This Week
Stanford’s Rob Reich and Marietje Schaake have released an online course covering topics around technology, democracy, and the 2020 election. There are talks on technology, the digital public sphere, and content moderation from an all-star group of experts, and it’s totally free.
We know this is a tense moment: stay focused on hope for change and the things you can control. Please stay safe and vote!
Until next week,
The Civic Signals Team
Illustration by Josh Kramer
🏞📲Civic Signals is a partnership between the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, Austin, and the National Conference on Citizenship, and was incubated by New America.