A new set of guidelines on internet regulation – published by philosophers from the Universities of Stirling and Warwick – are aiming to support policy makers to tackle the spread of fake news and protect democratic debate online.
In less than two decades social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube have fundamentally changed how societies discuss ideas of political and social importance, with traditional newspaper editors and social gatekeepers increasingly bypassed and replaced with algorithms.
As part of a major research project ‘Norms for the New Public Sphere’, which examines the philosophical foundations of a healthy democratic public sphere for the digital age, Professor Rowan Cruft and Dr Natalie Ashton have released a set of ‘rules’ to act as guiding lights for policymakers, regulators, platforms and the public.
Professor Cruft, who is based in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at Stirling, said: “The internet enables bullying and harassment on an unprecedented scale, but it also allows for the formation of supportive and meaningful communities. There’s growing consensus that new public policy measures are needed to manage the challenges of the new public sphere and harness its benefits, but the scale of the task is problematic. Any regulation must tackle harms while also upholding democratic values and maintaining the benefits that new technologies can bring.
“Our report takes a step back from debates about the details of regulation and focuses on the philosophical foundations that underpin them. We’ve identified four ‘norms’ or ideas that could act as a solid foundation for regulating the internet, and indicated how these might be implemented and work in practice.”
The four norms published in the research team’s interim report are:
- Enable Fair and Equal Access: enable everyone to contribute to the new public sphere.
- Avoid Obvious Falsehoods: take steps to prevent the circulation of claims that are known to be untrue.
- Offer and Engage with Reasons: facilitate the sharing and consideration of reasons, and the adjustment of beliefs in light of these.
- Support Epistemic Respite: make time away from new and difficult viewpoints to allow for critical reflection, and to make engagement sustainable
The report sets out the different implications of these norms for social media platforms, politicians and journalists and identifies examples of best practice and proposals for how these could work in practice.
Dr Ashton said: “These four norms are key underlying principles which must be in place to allow for successful regulation. Our aim isn’t to provide a quick policy fix or legal solution, instead we use our philosophical expertise to show how these fundamental norms can help individuals, politicians, policymakers and platforms to formulate consistent, coherent responses to the varied challenges and opportunities of the new public sphere. These norms are designed to support democracy in the current digital age, and beyond.”
‘Norms for the New Public Sphere’ is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and also involves Dr Jonathan Heawood, founder of the press regulator IMPRESS and Executive Director of the Public Interest News Foundation, and Professor Fabienne Peter, an expert on political legitimacy at the University of Warwick. The project will publish its final report later this year.
The interim report ‘Shaping democracy in the Digital Age’ and more information about the four norms can be downloaded from the project website.