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January 6 – One Year Later

Where do I fit in? What can I do to try to fix this?

For the last two years, the first week of January has been intense and stressful. In January of 2020, I was a part of a story for Teen Vogue about women working on elections at Facebook that became a controversy and on that same day, I made the extremely hard decision that the team I was on at the company wasn’t going to work for me anymore. I was considering leaving but ended up moving teams and staying for another year.

Last year of course was the events of January 6th. I watched the events unfold in front of me while I sat in my Rosslyn apartment far enough away to personally be safe, but extremely concerned for my friends and colleagues near and in the capital. As I watched our democracy under attack I was grateful for the Republicans who did stand up to do the right thing but also extremely saddened at where the party I worked for the first eight years of my career was. I didn’t recognize it anymore.

In addition to that, the company I had worked for ten years after I left politics – Facebook – also looked very different than when I had first started there. Long gone were the glowing press stories from the Obama years of how data and technology were revolutionizing campaigns for the better. Now, they were seen as destroyers of democracy around the world and enablers of the rioters from January 6.

It all had me asking, “Where do I fit in? What can I do to try to fix this?”

After January 6th I started earnestly putting into motion my plans to leave Facebook. If I wasn’t going to be able to work on the things I wanted to do there, then I needed to find new ways to do so. That led me to start Anchor Change, join the Bipartisan Policy Center as a fellow, help launch the Integrity Institute, work on CEO searches for Democracy Works and the National Conference on Citizenship and embark on many other projects.

By putting together this portfolio of projects my goal is to work on the issues at the intersection of technology and democracy both in the United States and around the world. It all flows from my concern about the tsunami of elections coming our way in 2024 – as well as all the elections this year – and how we need to start preparing and building resilience for those now.

I’ve appreciated this week some of the reflections journalists and other organizations have been putting out there about how to move these conversations forward. I’ve put my favorites below in the what I’m reading section, but I would highlight WIRED’s new approach to reject the binary and look at the nuance of tech’s impact as well as Casey Newton’s thoughts on how he wishes “stories about failures in content moderation expressed a clear viewpoint on, acknowledged ambiguities in or attempted to offer more definitive answers.” His points match many of my own frustrations when I see coverage not just of Facebook but tech in general.

Moreover, Ben Smith in the New York Times highlighted how my former colleague Brandon Silverman is working on the bill based on Nate Persily’s draft legislation on how to bring more transparency to what is happening on the social media platforms. This is a pretty solid piece of legislation that I hope gets some traction this year before everyone scurries off to campaign for the midterms.

In terms of the tech companies themselves, I’m not sure we’ve really seen much change in terms of how they approach their integrity work since January 6th. Facebook did announce some new rules for how it would treat coordinated authentic accounts, but it pretty much kicked the can down the road for how to handle Trump and we haven’t really seen anything more on their thinking about deplatforming politicians in situations where there isn’t imminent harm. Moreover, I’m in a pretty skeptical place right now on the power of deplatforming when by doing so you just move the content and activity to other places like podcasting. Could deplatforming actually just be helping to further accelerate the polarization of where people get their news and information? Food for thought that I’ve been pondering a lot lately.

As you can see there’s no shortage of issues we’re going to face this year. The things both broad and specific I’m going to be focused on are:

  • Governance of Politicians Online: From the Oversight Board looking at Facebook’s cross-check system to the question of whether or not politicians should be deplatformed to fact checking we need a major overhaul of how we think about politicians’ use of the Internet.
  • International Elections: You’re gonna be tired of me beating this drum over and over and over again but this is a big year for elections before an even bigger 2024. France, the Philippines, Kenya, Colombia, Brazil, and many others are going to be going to the polls. What are the platforms doing to protect the integrity of those elections? Is it working? What can we learn and apply in the US?
  • Tech Regulation: Europe is highly likely to pass regulation this year. Will it end up becoming what platforms apply around the globe? Will the House or Senate truly take up any bills to regulate tech? How do we see the government enforce problematic laws in places like India? Work here will be continuing to help policymakers and others understand how platforms work to write better legislation that will actually get at the problems they’re trying to solve.
  • Authoritative Information: How do we continue to help people get information online about where, when, and how to vote? How do we make sure people understand the redistricting process and why they might be voting in a new district? How do we better help support overworked election officials?

I’m sure there are more topics and things that I’ll touch on but this is top of mind for now. Be kind to yourself this week.

What I’m Reading

Correction: Original version had Brandon Silverman’s name incorrect as Sullivan.

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