In a long post titled ‘You and the Algorithm: It Takes Two to Tango”, Nick Clegg laid out this week his vision for the future of algorithmic ranking. Similar to how algorithms constitute the ‘recipe’ for what we see every day in our Feeds- Clegg argues people have to know what goes into the recipe and be able to exercise control.

The framing of ‘user control’ in the context of feed ranking is worth unpacking.

A few patterns are pointing to the limited benefit — for both people and society — of full user control.

First, there is the need to protect people from harm whether they as individuals agree with the rules or not. Airplane passengers have very limited…

What does misinformation have in common with climate change, Covid-19 or car accidents? They are all very real risks that humans consistently underestimate.

In a recent episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain titled ‘Afraid of the wrong things’, editor Shankar Vedantam talked with psychologist Paul Slovic to explore the root causes of this disconnect. Although there is no mention of misinformation or social media in the episode, it is easy to see how similar learnings can apply to our field.

Limitation 1: Humans are bad at assessing probability when feelings are involved

In an experiment that Slovic describes, participants were willing to pay $1 to avoid having to pay $20 at a low…

Our feeds have become over the years — especially since one of their most adept user became President of the United States — our online lives’ public avenues, parks and streets. We use these places like we do their physical counterparts, forgetting that their rules are not, in fact, determined by the community.

When governments impose lockdowns and curfews, we accept them- albeit begrudgingly- yet, when a Tech CEO makes a highly publicized excommunication decision, we shiver. …

After five days of anxiously hitting CMD+R on the homepage of news websites, we finally know the name of the victor: Joseph R. Biden. Celebration in the streets is how I learned the news. I didn’t quite believe the result until both The New York Times and Fox News called it. I cried from a year worth of pressure being relieved all at once but the exuberant and uncompromising joy in Brooklyn also reminded me of how divided the country has become.

Large cities erupt with joy while other parts of the country remain silent. In which other democracy are…

In recent weeks, the spread of Covid-19 has led to the largest restrictions to physical liberties in a generation. In Hungary, the government passed a law that allows Viktor Orban to pass reforms on any topic without consulting Parliament. In the UK, gatherings of more than two people have been made illegal. In Finland, 1.7M Finns are not allowed to leave the capital city. The untold story is how those restrictions are playing out online and what this could mean for the Web as we know it.

The end of libertarianism

The web we know and use today was founded in the late 1990s…

In his book published in June 2019, David Kaye argues that democracies in the West- for example Germany and France- are delegating the regulation of online speech to tech platforms, without oversight. In his mind, such precedents can encourage less democratic governments in the Global South to pass their own regulation aimed less at combating misinformation or hate speech than at protecting politicians and censoring dissent. Instead of governments setting dangerous precedents for freedom of speech around the world, Kaye argues in favor of proactive measures platforms themselves must take to govern speech more responsibly. Do such measures amount to…

For someone who thinks about misinformation daily, the similarities between the spread of misinformation and the spread of the Coronavirus have been hard to ignore. In some ways that is unsurprising since some of the defensive measures tech platforms have built to counter misinformation were inspired by the study of pandemics. Yet the current crisis is perhaps a good time to reevaluate the analogy and see what further learnings can be drawn from it.

What is at stake

In both cases one of the things that is at stake beyond immediate harm is our trust in one another and in the institutions that govern…

German philosopher Nietzsche

Who decides which claims made on social media can be fact checked? Where does free expression end and harmful lies start? Is social media fundamentally compatible with free and fair elections? When studying the field of tech and democracy, it is never long before one encounters a philosophical dilemma.

This is part one of a “Philosophy of social media” series where I turn back to some of the greatest philosophers to help make sense of social media, its opportunities and its challenges.

Part 1

It’s time to stop thinking of hackers as superhuman

In Gay Science and Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche famously proclaimed God is dead to reject the…

Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard

When I joined Google in 2013, the company was regularly ranked number one employer globally and received millions of applications every year. Seven years and countless controversies later, attitudes towards Big Tech have drastically changed, a backlash which The Guardian and then more news outlets have referred to as “Techlash”.

The question of where such a swing in public opinion leaves us has been troubling me for some time. One the one hand, trust in large tech companies has never been lower. On the other, their stock price and the number of people using their products has never been higher.

As a twenty year old I would sometimes escape from the dark corridors of the dormitories at Louis-le-Grand to take a walk on the quays of the Seine. If the doors were open, I would enter Notre Dame, sit on a bench and admire the keystones. At a time when my life seemed to be so stupidly hanging by the thread of a single exam, I needed to look up to something less futile. Ten centuries of History. The Beauty of Mary. …

Florent Joly

Exploring the intersection of technology and democracy.

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