Home>Ethan Zuckerman at Sciences Po: “We need to imagine a better Internet”


Ethan Zuckerman at Sciences Po: “We need to imagine a better Internet”

Despite the internet’s many benefits, there is a widespread consensus that today’s tech structure and social media is harmful in multiple ways for individuals and society. What should be the future of social media? On May 10, 2022, Ethan Zuckerman, Associate Professor at the University of Massachusetts, and Director of the UMass Institute for Digital Public Infrastructure, discussed this question alongside President of ARTE Bruno Patino and Sciences Po Associate Professor of Economics Julia Cagé. A conference organized by the McCourt Institute in partnership with Sciences Po’s Center for Entrepreneurship.

From rabbit holes leading people to adopt increasingly extremist views, to pushing misinformation, to fostering serious addictions, social media’s flaws have become increasingly visible in the past few years. Ethan Zuckerman started his keynote speech with a positive note: “We are starting to take the digital public sphere seriously”. “Governments are standing up and saying it matters that we have a space where the public can have conversations, and we need to think about the health and structure and architecture of these spaces,” he said.

What would then be the way to make these online public spaces healthier? Should governments or the big tech corporations control speech on social media? Or should there be more transparency? For Zuckerman, “these approaches are fixes: they assume that the platforms we have today will be dominant forever, and the best we can do is to make them less awful”. Instead, “let’s try imagining what could happen if we built social media that is better for us,” he proposed.

Decentralised networks, with the user’s best interests at heart

For online social networks to function well as conversation spaces, Zuckerman and his team believes they need to be small (around 30,000 people, appropriate for a neighborhood or small town), purpose-driven, structured with a set of rules, and moderated – hopefully by the users themselves. “This is how human society actually works, in a decentralised manner,” he explains: each of us is a member of several different networks – school, family, work, church - that are differently intertwined and where different conversations take place.

But further than simply building alternative social media platforms, one needs to reflect on how people could regain control over the platforms they are already involved in: it is very difficult for people to entirely leave Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. “You need a tool that lets you read all your social media,” Zuckerman explains: a “social media reader” that would have the user’s best interests at heart and leave them the control of filtering and sorting through the information, and deciding which data is shared with which platforms. 

It is essential for the user to regain control over the information they see and share online, Zuckerman concluded his keynote: “Fixing the internet isn’t good enough. We need to imagine, fund, and build, a better internet.”

“What do we do with news?”

In a second part of the conference, Valérie Peugeot, Pedagogical director of the Executive Master “Digital Humanities” at Sciences Po, moderated a conversation around the question: “What are the probable futures, and the desirable futures, for social media?”. 

For Julia Cagé, Associate Professor of Economics and Research Fellow at the Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR), the key question revolves around the issues of governance and transparency. “We need to have a public overview of algorithms,” she explained, adding that “We should fix the existing platforms at the same time as we create new ones”.

On the topic of information and news sharing – an essential element of the online public sphere – the solutions seem more complex: although decentralisation of social media is seen as the way towards a more democratic online space, “news is a centralised process,” argued Bruno Patino, President of ARTE and former Dean of Sciences Po’s Journalism School: “When we talk about producing something verified and accountable, it needs to be validated by someone or some organisation”. In a time where fake news spreads faster than ever, “even if we fix social media, there is always the question: what do we do with news?”, he asked. 

One of the issues, Julia Cagé argued, might be lying in our definition of “quality news”: “there is a huge gap between what journalists and viewers see as high-quality news. People have to be more and better involved in defining what good quality news is,” she said.

For Ethan Zuckerman, news organisations should be directly involved in creating the tools of the future digital public sphere. “The survival of news is everyone’s problem,” he agreed. Decentralised, small single-purpose social networks, governed by their users and linked by a “social media reader” could even be “a way of revitalising democratic participation,” he added.

The Sciences Po Editorial Team

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