An everyday genius of humans is that we collaborate and cooperate to get things done. We share with others our thoughts and values, and they in turn share, support, and challenge. However, this process can also create the conditions for offence, misunderstanding and conflict. Nowhere do we see this more clearly than in the evolving world of social media.
As social media platforms touch the lives of billions around the world, the challenge for companies – and for all of us – is whether we can enable social media users to genuinely shape the character of these online environments. Can we create spaces for users to negotiate with one another to reach a collective view on what constitutes appropriate behaviour and to jointly define the ‘rules of the game’?
It’s an ambitious agenda with far wider implications. In fact, many of these challenging decisions – such as how to deal with hateful or misleading content – speak more broadly to how we behave and treat each other in society more generally.
The power and potential of deliberative processes
There are many ways to involve users in community development, including focus groups, surveys and in-depth interviews soliciting their opinions. However, deliberative processes are a uniquely powerful tool because they utilise representation, education and deliberation to give people an informed and meaningful voice – and in directly shaping the world that in turn influences them.
Governments at all levels – from local to supranational – have experimented with deliberative processes across multiple policy topics. The OECD recommends that deliberative processes are well suited ‘addressing: values-based dilemmas, complex problems that involve trade-offs, and long-term issues’. This has also been BIT’s experience, including being involved in running a Citizen’s Jury for VicHealth in Australia to establish community consensus for government, industry and community action on obesity.
A deliberative democracy approach encourages social media companies to think of their users as citizens and partners in shaping the future of the platforms they create. By creating collective, deliberative spaces (alongside ‘traditional’ governance), platforms can give a voice to a wider range of perspectives across the user community. This process, in turn, will ultimately add depth and legitimacy to the decisions that are adopted.
Drawing on wider evidence, we expect that conclusions from deliberative processes are more likely to be respected and self-enforced by users themselves and act as a strong signal to influence wider user behavior on social media platforms.
What makes deliberative processes such a promising tool?
- They can be highly representative and are thus well placed to help address collective or universal challenges.
- They can promote understanding & learning among participants
- They foster more thoughtful and considered opinions – ‘thinking slow’ – rather than knee-jerk responses to partisan cues.
- They can mitigate and help overcome group polarization
- They can increase the public’s confidence in actions taken on controversial topics, as the decision making mechanism is seen to be more transparent and collaborative
Piloting citizens assemblies with Meta
BIT has long championed addressing and mitigating the potential harms of online environments. Following on from our recommendations to bring the ‘collective user voice’ into platform governance, we partnered with Meta earlier this year to explore deliberation as a way to both democratize and decentralize platform decision-making.
Specifically, we wanted to understand whether it was feasible to bring together representative groups of Facebook users to engage in in-depth discussion about complex policy questions and, ultimately, reach concrete decisions. We also wanted to explore how citizens assemblies might complement other governance mechanisms, so that Meta might strike a balance between executive decision making, independent oversight and informed user input.
We embarked on this project with an experimental mindset and many questions in mind:
- Would participants be open or reserved in sharing their opinions?
- Would they be able to master the complexity of challenging issues in limited time?
- Would they reach consensus, or would their divisions sharpen?
- Would the deliberative process work online, where they have traditionally been run in person?
- Would the deliberative process work across geographies, cultures and languages?
We now have promising answers to many of these questions, based on the delivery and evaluation of three online citizens assemblies, conducted with over 250 participants across five countries.
These participants deliberated on a real and complex policy question with relevance to many institutions and organisations across the world: What to do about problematic climate information on the Facebook platform?
‘Problematic information’ being content that is not necessarily false, yet expresses views that may contain misleading, low quality, or incomplete information that can likely lead to false conclusions.
The three online citizens assemblies dedicated to this topic have shown that these sessions are feasible to run, as we found high amounts of both participant engagement and satisfaction with the deliberative process. As importantly, they demonstrated compelling evidence that participants could engage in meaningful and respectful deliberation around a complex topic, with one participant remarking “I’ll just say that, this forum has broadened my understanding already, and that’s a good thing.”
Participants were impressed by how their groups were respectful of the wide range of opinions and values held across the group. As one participant commented: “I was going into this [assembly] knowing that not everyone is going to have the same opinions or feelings or thoughts as me… At the end of the day, we are not going to shame each other for how we felt or what we thought.” They were also pleased at how their groups came together to reach a decision. One participant reflected that “[e]everyone was very courteous, and I was surprised by the amount of common ground seemingly reached.”
In fact, across countries, languages and sessions, the assemblies aligned on the top policy options and agreed that Meta should be taking some action to curb the spread of problematic climate content. This suggests that these deliberative processes can be used to effectively ‘short list’ options tied to social media governance decisions. These short listed options could then be refined, tested and iterated by Meta – or indeed other social media platforms.
Overall, we are encouraged by the results, as we feel that these initial citizens assemblies mark a promising start to a longer investigation of how deliberative processes can be incorporated into governance structures, at Meta and other social media companies
The evidence from these pilots show that deliberative processes can provide robust and reliable forms of decentralized ‘self-governance,’ which can complement the efforts of technology executives, oversight boards and government regulators in setting the terms of social media engagement.
Along the way, we’ve learned a great deal about how this global citizens assembly model could be enhanced and it’s clear that we’ve only just begun a longer journey.
To start, while we’ve now piloted one form of deliberative process – citizens assemblies – there are many others (such as deliberative polls) that can be explored and integrated. Tied to this, BIT also aims to empirically test the reliability and replicability of alternative deliberative processes – and the impact of specific design choices on the participant experience and quality of deliberation.
With these objectives in mind, BIT and Meta plan to continue our collaboration, in the hopes of further refining and scaling user deliberation. Together, we look forward to developing governance mechanisms that allow social media users to meaningfully influence the design, content and regulation of the platforms that shape their lives. In doing so we also hope to blaze a trail for governance innovation at social media platforms and institutions around the world.