Tech titans talk social media and democracy at Stanford

Sit down and try to write a fake news statute.

Nathan Persily
Nathaniel Persily

Law Professor NATHANIEL PERSILY posed this challenge before a packed audience at Stanford Thursday, May 3, for a panel discussion hosted by the National Constitution Center.

Persily was joined by tech industry leaders from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to discuss “Free Speech Online: Social Media Platforms and the Future of Democracy.”

“One thing you will realize is that most of the stuff that you would end up regulating through a disinformation bill is not the problematic stuff that I think is going on in these platforms,” said Persily about the issues lawmakers are currently grappling with.

Indeed, the digital tools that can help democracy thrive are also the ones that can undermine it. Now the challenge lies with how to safeguard democratic values in a digital era.

“The challenge we face is how do you make sure – what steps do you take – to facilitate the free flow of information that contributes to a healthy democracy while installing protections that reduce the likelihood of the distribution of information that is manipulative, exploitative or fraudulent,” said Elliot Schrage, vice president of communications and public policy at Facebook.

For all the opportunities social media has introduced, risks also abound. Some of those dangers include propaganda and foreign interference, Persily pointed out. This makes it very hard to regulate without treading on some core First Amendment values, he said.

“The problem is the government doesn’t want to make the hard choices,” said Persily about the difficulties lawmakers encounter with monitoring speech on the internet. “Democracies themselves don’t want to have to really get involved in censoring hate speech and making those very difficult decisions about libel, defamation and the like.”

Co-moderating the event was LARRY KRAMER, former dean of Stanford Law School and now a lecturer and president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. He also saw the spread of propaganda as problematic.

“We have moved into a situation in which we have a highly democratic society of people who are heavily polarized getting exposed to a steady stream of propaganda,” said Kramer. “I think there is more than enough history to tell us that no republican government can survive for long under those kinds of circumstances.”

Other panelists included Juniper Downs, head of public policy and government relations at YouTube, and Nick Pickles, senior public policy manager, UK, Twitter. The event was co-moderated with Jeffrey Rosen, president and chief executive officer of the National Constitution Center.

Persily is working with Facebook on an initiative to assess social media’s impact on elections and democracy.