Rethinking the Digital Public Sphere Governance with Kalli Giannelos

22 September 2023

Kalli Giannelos received a grant in 2022 from Project Liberty’s Institute to conduct her research on the digital public sphere. Her paper “Recommendations for a healthy digital public sphere” is accessible here.

Today the digital public sphere could be considered unhealthy for several reasons, ranging from cyberbullying to the polarization of our societies, given that social media platforms serve as the main channels for information dissemination and social interaction.

According to Kalli Giannelos, we must prioritize the consideration of values and the pursuit of an ideal model, serving as a moral compass to rethink the digital public sphere governance. She has analyzed cross-disciplinary literature and taken a step back from the realm of Internet governance and regulation to explore the positive objectives.

“Beyond the conventional risk-response approach, it is crucial to shift our perspective and consider positive goals.”

The findings of this research aim to initiate a broader reflection on our aspirations for a digital society and the guiding principles for harmonious coexistence through digital platforms that reflect our societal values.

Cyberbullying and societal polarization have been prevalent on social media platforms for a certain time now, impacting our democracies and societies at large. Yet, technology can also be part of the solution. The findings of this research aim to foster a healthier online environment, promoting constructive dialogue and a responsible use of digital technology, promoting profound impact on the well-being of individuals and the overall social fabric.

Trustful networks and platforms: towards digital citizenship

Kalli’s first recommendation deals with “trustful networks and platforms”. Through the term “trustworthy” she implies that networks and platforms require privacy, accountability, transparency, a common good orientation, and accuracy as key objectives. In order to achieve this trustworthiness we need an open and inclusive web economy which we do not have today. Currently, digital networks and platforms exploit users' attention, data, and biases for profit. As a matter of fact, platform business models are based on user engagement and the trading of users' personal information.

“We need a shift from a consumer-centric to a citizen-centric approach.”

Digital citizenship, broadly understood as the responsible use of digital technology, is both the outcome of this vision and what these actors should strive for. If users fall prey to opaque business models that exploit vulnerabilities in our behavior, then digital companies “own” us and undermine our autonomy.

New solutions offered by the decentralized Web promise to address the problems of digital citizenship, but we must be careful not to create disillusionment. For example, we need to consider whether DAOs might replicate inequalities if governance is distributed according to economic contributions. The third generation of the Web (Web3) could indeed give power back to the people by offering full control and sovereignty over our data, allowing us to decide who can access our data and under what conditions. This holds true for a decentralized social graph, as conceived by Project Liberty, she concludes.

Diversity of content and views: from filter bubbles to media literacy

This dimension eludes current regulation and is only partially covered by media pluralism in terms of competition. It is also challenging to envision binding regulations in this area.

In democratic societies, freedom of expression and opinion are key to democratic debate, within the limits of the law. Both the information shared online and people's behavior online can be highly problematic, serving as an indicator of the issues in our societies. However, Kalli emphasizes that we cannot solve the polarization resulting from filter bubbles by restricting the diversity of information and creating additional bubbles and fragmentations. The solution lies in media literacy, quality education, improving living conditions, and fostering critical thinking.

From a platform perspective, recommender systems can greatly contribute to promoting diversity of content and views. From a user perspective, diversity should also be understood as a condition for equitable cultural representation and inclusion, and it should be embraced with tolerance.

Inclusive, respectful and free civic discourse

Civility and the conditions for inclusive and respectful dialogue are prerequisite for a healthy democratic debate online. As long as we have digital actors whose business models are based on maximizing user engagement at any cost, this dimension cannot be adequately addressed. Mechanisms will be triggered to push users towards emotional responses (e.g. by promoting harmful content). The exploitative use of human biases poses a real danger to our society, as it is increasingly difficult to separate online issues from real problems in our society.

“Given these challenges, platforms should not only be held accountable, but should also embrace their responsibility by actively seeking solutions.”

Platforms should be acting towards reducing negativity and actively nudging users toward greater civility. Values of civility and respectful inclusion serve as the glue that holds us together as a society. This is especially true for new generations whose lives have always been digitally mediated, with yet unknown effects on a large scale.

Beyond sanction-regulation and platform-shaming and ethics-washing

Regulations are necessary, but a top-down approach alone cannot solve everything, especially in the case of Big Tech. Their economic influence can to some extent circumvent sanctions and bans.

Responsible innovation goes beyond a checklist of key performance indicators or legal compliance, and mere communication of good intentions. Only when these actors are not just stigmatized as responsible but also seen as part of the solution, can we envision a different approach to digital ethics and the online public sphere.

“Ethics precede and complement the law: compliance with the law is essential, but so is the capacity to pause and reflect on our trajectory and question the ultimate objectives we are pursuing.”

The digital marketplace operates under its own rules and pressures that must be considered to avoid the temptation of superficial actions labeled as “responsible innovation” that are primarily marketing or communication strategy.

The researcher concluded that at the company level, a multistakeholder approach involving external stakeholders in research and innovation processes can greatly contribute to a broader perspective, provided it is conducted ethically and brings real added value (1).

(1) See Giannelos, K., Reber B., & Doorn, N. (2022). Responsive Ethics and Participation. Science, Technology and Democracy. London/New York: ISTE Ltd/John Wiley & Sons.

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