from Net Politics and Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program

Protecting Democracy from Online Disinformation Requires Better Algorithms, Not Censorship

New laws in democratic countries that force social media platforms to remove disinformation will encourage autocratic countries to do the same, with devastating effects on human rights.

August 21, 2017

A general view shows Germany's Bundestag before the first round of voting during the German presidential election at the Reichstag in Berlin on February 12, 2017. Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters
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Eileen Donahoe is Executive Director of the Global Digital Policy Incubator at Stanford University, and former U.S. ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council. You can follow her @EileenDonahoe.

Democracies face an existential threat: information is being weaponized against them with digital tools. Although propaganda is not new, the speed, scale and extraterritorial reach of digital disinformation makes it different in kind from propaganda of old. Digital mechanisms of manipulation—from bot armies and clickbait to micro targeting—are being mastered by authoritarian and anti-democratic forces, outpacing democratic societies’ capacities to protect themselves.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of this threat is that information itself is the weapon. Information has always been the lifeblood of democracy. For democracy to work, free and well-informed citizens must actively engage in civic discourse. Digital disinformation is destroying the prospect of democratic engagement by well-informed citizens.

Given the digital disinformation campaigns in the lead-up to BREXIT and the recent U.S. and French presidential elections, democratic governments now are seized with defending against disinformation operations by foreign governments seeking to disrupt their democratic processes. Until recently, many national security experts were focused on cyber threats to critical infrastructure that could have a physical consequences (e.g. a cyberattack causing something to blow up). Few anticipated that the target of cyberattack would be the civic infrastructure of our democracies—not only voting machines, but public discourse around our elections. Fewer envisioned that the preferred vector of cyberattack would be disinformation.

But an ominous risk also arises when democratic governments responding to digital disinformation undermine their own democratic values. Germany’s new NetzDG law, also known as the Network Enforcement Act or social media law, aims to eradicate hate speech and propaganda on digital platforms. It imposes steep fines (up to €50 million) for failure to take down “evidently criminal” content within twenty-four hours. The motivation for this legislation was to protect the quality of discourse necessary to sustain democracy, but its unintended effects risk greater damage to democracy than the original threat.

As private sector platforms like Facebook, Google, and Twitter have become primary sources of information and vehicles for expression, they effectively function as the public square for civic engagement. Their algorithms affect their users’ access to information and how they form political opinions. This has created conceptual confusion about the roles and responsibilities of social media platforms in democracy. The German NetzDG Act manifests this confusion. 

In one swoop, the German government handed over judicial authority for determining criminality to the private sector. It simultaneously encouraged censorship, by incentivizing platforms to err on the side of taking down flagged content even if not criminal. Finally, it eroded the core concept of limited platform liability for third-party speech, which has facilitated the free flow of information on the Internet and democratized distribution of content globally.

In effect, the German bill got the target wrong:  Platforms should not be liable for speech posted by users, (but should take down criminal speech based on a court order.) Platforms should be accountable for their own algorithms when they push information to users to monetize attention. The German approach retreats from governing responsibility and undermines its own commitment to freedom of expression on the Internet.

This is especially true when Russia starts holding up the German law as a model for its own censorship efforts. Democratic values are at risk of serious erosion when Moscow looks at Berlin for inspiration to regulate internet content. Within two weeks of the adoption of the German law, the Russian Duma proposed a copy-cat bill, with multiple explicit references to the German law as its model. The Russian version, like the German original, compels social media companies to take down vaguely defined “illegal” content within twenty-four hours or face severe penalties. The official justification for the law was to prevent use of digital networks for “illegal” purposes. In Russia, this can mean anything that challenges the authoritarian rule of Vladimir Putin. Russia’s cynical use of Germany’s example should raise alarm bells for all democratic actors.

Democratic governments concerned about new digital threats need to find better algorithms to defend democratic values in the global digital ecosystem. Democracy has always been hard. It requires an exquisite balance between freedom, security and democratic accountability. This is the profound challenge that confronts the world’s liberal democracies as they grapple with foreign disinformation operations, as well as home-grown hate speech, extremism, and fake news. Fear and conceptual confusion do not justify walking away from liberal values, which are a source of security and stability in democratic society. Private sector and government actors must design algorithms for democracy that simultaneously optimize for freedom, security, and democratic accountability in our digital world.    

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