2021 Report

The work of the Private Ordering Observatory needed to be grounded in a deeper and cross-disciplinary perspective, one that engages with the limitations of proposed solutions and tries to uncover potential unintended consequences of action or inaction. As such, the Perspectives series delved into a remedy (deplatforming), a harm (disinformation), and a structured plan (governance design). Concurrently, interviews with academics, advocates, industry representatives from across the world uncovered the needs of platform governance stakeholders.

The Private Ordering Perspectives Series spanned 3 months, 3 topics, 9 presentations, countless amazing theories, empirical analyses & provocations. The Private Ordering Observatory created the Perspectives Series not just to highlight amazing manuscripts by scholars from across disciplines whose work deeply intermeshes with private ordering, but to interrogate the assumptions and understandings of the convoluted private ordering ecosystem .

Our three topics where deplatforming, disinformation and designing governance, built as three pillars of focus, as we waded through political events that had transpired in 2020 and early 2021. The topics doubled as foundational questions surrounding platforms and their societal implications, for deplatforming we asked “who gets to speak”, for disinformation it was “what can we speak about” and finally for designing governance “who makes the rules”. 

Deplatforming is a remedy that has been both lauded and derided as a solution for myriad platform issues. The scholars who presented their work within our series uncovered the complexities of what can otherwise be perceived as a straightforward action, not allowing a user access to a platform. While successful in instances of terrorism recruitment, apologia, and propaganda, Dr. Maura Conway’s work explained why far right extremists are much harder to find using the same automated tools that would ensure their deplatforming. Tools designed to find instances of explicit Islamic State products are not easy to implement when there is little consensus on what far right content that doesn’t break laws, created by multiple different entities, and mostly explicitly jokey should be taken down. Once deplatformed though, as Dr. Richard Rogers explains, alternative social media platforms offer a far less attractive channel to promote their beliefs, and are seen as temporary necessities, while still clinging to the mainstream platforms or identifying themselves as having been “cancelled” by them. Interestingly, Dr. Elizabeth Pearson’s work shows that for some terrorist-sympathizer groups, being deplatformed is a badge of honor. This implies that on paper the remedy of deplatforming at scale can be a very useful one, but in practice, the characteristics of those who are being deplatformed, including their own relationship to being victimized by “big tech”, have a direct impact on how successful it can actually be. 

Disinformation on social media platforms is a global phenomenon that has been connected to countless instances of harm, both online and in the real world, blamed for losing elections, fortunes and even lives. The scholars who joined us for this topic highlighted the way disinformation is conceptualized and thus is attempted to be solved. Dr. Stephan Lewandowski explained that if disinformation sits at the root of conspiracy theories that lead to radicalization, then the consumers of disinformation should be a target of platform action even before it happens (inoculation) rather than just after (debunking), as most of the literature suggests. Inoculation, ranging from general warnings all the way to explaining specific misleading techniques, can make an impact on the perception of disinformation content. Conversely, as Farnaz Jahanbakhsh explained, if we think of disinformation as an action taken by platform users, the actions being contemplated change.  Amplifiers of disinformation respond well to lightweight interventions when posting links to articles, and even more so if the signal to reconsider comes from within their friend group. Even more, if disinformation is perceived as a policy failure, as Owen Bennett explains, then the solution becomes a paradigm shift in regulation. He offers as a potential answer a focus away from the content itself and rather one on the business practices that incentive such malicious content, by bringing in from the financial services sector risk-angled principles-based regulatory practices. Three rigorous works on “solving” disinformation bring three different, but potentially complementary responses. Platform private ordering research happens through different lenses and at different levels, yet all relevant and important and fundamentally all aiming to better the ecosystem.

Designing governance is a substantial topic that ultimately contains multitudes and has location-specific aspects in the context of platforms. As Dr. Daria Gritsenko explained, governance of algorithms can also be governance by algorithms, and in some cases already is, specifically in terms of increasing collaboration. This shows us that conversations surrounding governance can benefit from diverse points of view that challenge assumptions of code, law, protocols and social ordering, even while adhering to the same definitions of governance as hierarchical, self- and co-governance. Charis Papaevangelou made the point that by even firmly planted in the world of analog governance for digital spaces, definitions of how to conceptualize the actors that participate in the governance of platforms may be reductive and lead our thinking down a path where the entire internet is conflated with platforms. And if we actively focus on platform actions in interrogating governance practices, our collective perspectives on what can be done are still narrow in terms of consequences, as a large amount of research and practice focuses on whether pieces of content, or entire accounts are taken off or kept on platforms. The set of actions that platform can and do take is much more varied, and can be a strong guide to a better understanding of the whole swath of possibilities, not just for platforms, but for all stakeholders at every level. 

Beyond the research on platforms and private ordering, the stakeholders involved in the aspects of private ordering believe there is a definite need for a structure like PrObs. Researchers, industry and civil society actors from across the globe all tend to agree there is a dearth of resources and connections, and even areas that have these are usually narrowly focused on the larger players, such as big tech, and geographically homogenous mainly English-speaking societies, particularly the United States. The implication is that PrObs can be at the crossroads of several communities, playing the role of both static repository, and active connector of stakeholders.

The Private Ordering Observatory has, as few other academic institutes before it have, taken the time to truly understand, beyond initial assumptions, both the subject matter and the general ecosystem of its main focus. PrObs is positioned for success, as it can fulfill a need in the community, while also advancing novel scholarly perspectives.