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One of the biggest obstacles to holding social media giants accountable is that the public still knows so little about how these platforms actually work.
Sure, there is already evidence that apps like TikTok and Snapchat can harm children, addict users and spread misinformation. But the inner workings of social media platforms largely remain obscure black boxes. There’s much to learn about the information that these companies collect, what they do with it and how their actions affect society.
“YouTube, TikTok, Telegram and Snapchat represent some of the largest and most influential platforms in the United States, and they provide almost no functional transparency into their systems,” Brandon Silverman, the co-founder and former CEO of social monitoring platform CrowdTangle, told U.S senators last week. “And as a result, they avoid nearly all of the scrutiny and criticism that comes with it.”
Facebook, now named Meta, bought CrowdTangle in 2016. Silverman said his team aimed to make Facebook the most transparent social media company in the world—but the tech giant ultimately paused all work on CrowdTangle and disbanded the team running it last year. Silverman, who subsequently left the company, said the CrowdTangle tool is now “slowly dying” at Meta, while other platforms continue to do almost nothing to increase transparency.
In turn, some lawmakers are now considering a different approach to regulating social media. Rather than trying to impose new restrictions or break up tech titans, a U.S. Senate bill would require social media companies like Santa Monica-based Snap and Culver City-based (and Chinese-owned) TikTok to share previously undisclosed data with credible researchers. The idea is that transparency would not only better inform U.S. policymakers—who are, to put it kindly, definitely not tech experts—but maybe even change companies’ behaviors since they’d know that they're being watched.
Take, for example, the disclosures from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen. Documents she leaked last year showed that Meta retained research proving Instagram’s toxic effect on young girls. That information galvanized lawmakers into writing legislation aimed at protecting teens from the harms of social media, including bills in California. It remains to be seen whether those actions ultimately make a difference, but there’s no doubt that Haugen’s leak brought much-needed attention to the issue.
The Senate bill—sponsored by U.S. Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.)—would let independent researchers submit proposals to the National Science Foundation. If that agency approved the requests, social media companies would be forced to provide the necessary data, subject to privacy protections, or else face enforcement from the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC could also require platforms to share certain data on an ongoing basis.
Congress, of course, hosts a lot of hearings about bills that never become law, and its track record with big tech is especially poor. But over in Europe, lawmakers have just passed a law that would, among many other things, require TikTok and others to share more data with researchers about how their platforms work. So even if the U.S. effort fails, we’ll soon learn a lot more about TikTok and Snap. —Christian Hetrick
Update, May 10: This story has been updated to clarify CrowdTangle's relationship with Meta (formerly Facebook).
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What We’re Reading Elsewhere...
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