Social media doesn’t have to bring us only junk news and misinformation about coronavirus. Unfortunately, big platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter aren’t designed to promote healthy debate, find consensus, or solve problems. To have that kind of social media would require a radical rebuild. And the underlying principle for this would be that data about public life belongs to the public.
In important ways, our democracies grew up around a scaffolding of data. Governments collected census information, and analysed it to improve public services, and made the data available to us all. Health researchers organised large studies and shared the results. Credit card companies and marketing specialists also generated data – to be bought, sold, and made useful for private advertisers.
Now social media firms suck up and profit from all that data. We have to make these firms contribute to public archives such as libraries, and help citizens express themselves through data donations to the charities and causes they wish to support.
Many of us would volunteer our location data to medical researchers if it would help public health officials make better decisions in managing the coronavirus crisis – but we can’t do that even if we want to. Instead, our location data goes to advertising firms to customise the ads we see while we are practising social distancing and shopping online.
Repairing the flow of data within democracies should present people with new opportunities for civic engagement and civic expression. Charities and other groups would have better information about public needs and aspirations. They could produce more of the evidence they need to advance their policy goals. Democracies work when thinktanks, journalists and civil society groups can investigate and debate, and people can decide, with evidence at hand. At the moment, technology firms are hoarding the evidence.
Restoring public access to social information wouldn’t require a raft of new laws, since most democracies have the science agencies, libraries and privacy tsars needed to administer large collections of public information. Only there can we make sure the data is used responsibly and ethically, and in support of our democratic institutions. The solution to our current problems is more social media, not less.
• Philip N Howard is a sociologist and the author of Lie Machines (Yale)