INSIGHT

ICYMI: In Conversation with Frank McCourt and Frances Haugen

insight_28 MARCH

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Post-event report

By Marie Camille Hubault and the McCourt Institute

On Monday, March 28, the McCourt Institute hosted the Facebook Whistleblower Frances Haugen, in conversation with Frank McCourt about the current state of Big Tech, regulations currently underway, and a better path for digital governance.

The event was moderated by McCourt Institute Inaugural Executive Director Shéhérazade Semsar-de Boisséson and attended in person by 60 public policy students from Sciences Po and more than 400 viewers online. The McCourt Institute co-hosted this event alongside two student organizations from the university, Kryptosphere and We_Start, and representatives from those organizations – Fiona Beraud and Sara Feore – served as introducers and moderators of the Q&A portion of the event. 

The event consisted of a conversation between Frank McCourt and Frances Haugen, followed by an hour-long Q&A session with the students, who voiced their questions and concerns, noticeably regarding the urgency to think beyond reactive regulatory responses. The event showcased the McCourt Institute’s commitment to engage with students and the policy leaders of tomorrow on a personal level.

Below is a deeper dive into the issues as covered by Sciences Po student Marie Camille Hubault.

TODAY’S TECH IS BROKEN

It takes a lot to decide to blow the whistle. As Haugen has admitted previously, it is usually not someone’s plan A, or B or even C. It is a life-altering decision which means it requires an impetus grave enough. And that is indeed what Frances Haugen encountered during her time at Facebook. In September 2021 she decided to alert the world of the abuses perpetrated at Facebook and leaked the now-famous “Facebook Files” which proved the existence of a discrepancy in the moderation process on the platform.

Existing social network platforms, specifically Facebook, are unsafe and have serious and direct impacts on people and their wellness, and continue to make irresponsible decisions, such as the dismantling of Facebook’s civic integrity team after the 2020 election.

TECH AND DEMOCRACY

The current tech structure, especially social media platforms, is eroding global trust, which is the basis of our democratic system. Recognizing Facebook’s unethical behavior is of the upmost importance due to the central place of social media in our society and of the monopoly such companies have, since as Haugen put it, “for large parts of the world, Facebook is the Internet.”

When the US government shut down in 2013, the event seemed almost quaint. They just couldn’t agree. But it was only seven years later that the US experienced full-blown insurrection at the Capitol. That is rapid erosion. Those were the beginnings of a profound and increasing political and societal polarization in the US in 2013, and this rise in polarization, in inequity, combined with the decrease in trust, coincides with the increasing power of Big Tech, and the ever-growing role of tech companies, especially social media platforms in our lives. This is not true only in the US but also in Europe, where we are seeing a rise in autocracies, or the misinformation campaign which led to Brexit and the extreme polarization that has caused in British society.

It is of course not enough to fix the tech in order to fix societal ills, but without fixing the tech, there is no chance of beginning to fix those societal ills.

A BETTER PATH FORWARD

“There are times when you can tinker and work around the edges, and times when you just have to say – this is not working. We need to fix it.” With these words, Frank McCourt laid out the vision behind Project Liberty which aims to build a more equitable civic architecture for the digital world.

The legal projects developed in Europe such as the GDPR, the DMA and the DSA show a growing awareness and a greater control of the issues arising from our present tech framework, and the need and urgency for a better way forward. However, we can and need to think bigger than this.

The internet and the social media platforms built as part of it, do not need to work the way they are working. They just work this way because this is the system, these are the protocols we have adopted. But we can choose to build something better. The Big Tech companies we are talking about have not been around forever, and they will not be around forever. We can build new and better platforms. We do not have to live with this system. And we can do this because the technology allows us to. Addressing one of the most deeply rooted problems of our time requires far more than new iterations of today’s entrenched and closed models. We need a bold new model, built by a global collective of diverse, multidisciplinary thinkers and creators. We need to find a way to embed values in the core technology as a way to protect the people who will eventually use it. And most importantly, we need an open model. This was the impetus behind the new Decentralized Social Networking Protocol (DSNP) which is available to anyone who wants to build on it.

We have the opportunity to take ownership and control of our digital relationships from a few corporations and make it a part of the Internet itself, for the common good. A key part of this will be establishing a field of practice at the edge of tech and social and political sciences, to support our democracy. Europe could represent a great opportunity to shift the tech crisis at hand by innovating and progressing tech-wise in respect with democratic values: “Let the technologists innovate but innovate with a set of standards and values and rules that we all want to see society embrace and benefit from.” Tech does not have to lead the way. We can, as humanists, and let the tech follow.

This is a challenge to the students of today but the leaders of tomorrow, many of whom attended the event, to educate themselves and to get engaged in taking back control over the future of our society.