Guiding interactions, rather than arbitrary decisions about free speech, could reinvigorate Twitter as a 'digital market square'
Elon Musk finally closed his $44 billion acquisition of Twitter. In a statement released yesterday he writes:
“The reason I acquired Twitter is because it is important to the future of civilization to have a common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner, without resorting to violence.”
Spot on but his absolutist interpretation of free speech stands in the way. A closer look at the role of social media in the aftermath of the January 6 attack revealed that unregulated free speech is not creating healthy debates. The damning truth became most obvious when reporters were able to scrutinize the Facebook Papers: the social network has known for several years that its “core product mechanics” lead to misinformation and hate speech.
With billions of us dependent on social media, and with the tech company’s algorithms locking us into our ideological echo chambers, how will we ever break free enough to tackle pressing issues such as climate change, immigration, and social justice? How can we create a functioning digital town square?
More—rather than less—regulation of tech companies might help. But another surprising answer comes from the world of big tech. Companies have begun to use a new set of online tools and processes that, although narrowly aimed at helping leaders forge better strategy, also have the happy benefit of reconnecting people with one another. If Elon Musk wants to create a functioning digital market square he needs to opt for more guidance of interactions.
Creating corporate strategy used to be a secretive affair involving a few executives sequestered in a boardroom. More recently, large companies like Barclays, Unilever, and Adidas have sought an edge by embracing a discipline called open strategy.
Partially breaking with the imperative of secrecy, they invite outsiders—including employees, academic experts, customers, and even competitors—to participate in strategy-making discussions. Some open strategy dialogues are in-person affairs involving just a few dozen people. Others use technology to convene thousands of people online.
As these companies have found, inviting in diverse participants results in better, more innovative strategies. But it also fosters dialogue between people that ordinarily doesn’t happen because of how compartmentalized and polarized our lives and organizations have become.
Unlike most online conversations, open strategy discussions are relatively well-controlled and structured, making them far more civil and productive. Twitter as a policy does not “does not screen content or remove potentially offensive content” but Facebook actively monitors online discourse, relying on 15,000 reviewers to identify and remove extreme content.
Online open strategy dialogues—also called “strategy jams”—take curation to a new level. Moderators function not just as de facto police officers but as guides who actively steer conversations among readily identifiable participants toward their intended objectives. Strategy jams are essentially large online conferences in which participants engage with one another without the cloak of anonymity, and in which informed and thoughtful organizers nudge the conversation along the way a successful workshop facilitator would.
What if we applied this more structured, partially controlled form of dialogue to the public realm to solve important problems? Within government itself, it’s already happening. In 2020, NATO and the European Union convened an online strategy jam of 2,800 people to help it coordinate strategy among member countries. These participants were highly diverse geographically, culturally, and ideologically. The issues they were addressing together were challenging, making it all the more difficult to reach common ground.
During the jam, human moderators ensured that discussion threads stayed focused, and they also linked threads together that bore on similar questions. Meanwhile, algorithms helped organizers identify widely discussed topics, structuring them for example into pro and contra arguments.
Thanks to this structure, the jam was coherent and productive, and it yielded a unifying view: the notion that Russia and China represented the greatest challenge for the transatlantic security community. Although observers in America might regard this as an obvious conclusion, several European countries had previously taken a much softer line toward China. A structured dialogue had allowed participants to budge somewhat from their pre-existing views to find common ground.
Research confirms that open strategy conversations can steer participants away from extreme positions, allowing them to stick closer to the facts. This effect holds even when groups are relatively homogeneous. Something about interacting online in a more structured, directed way allows us to overcome political biases, even if we’re engaging primarily with people who already think like us.
Society would benefit if media, government agencies, civil society organizations, and companies set up formal strategy jams on big questions and invited large groups of people to participate. IBM and Workplace Pride recently collaborated on a LGBT+ innovation jam to do just this. Dozens of hosts, facilitators, and subject matter experts led 500 active participants in a discussion about options for creating a better world at work and at home.
Government sponsored interactions would lend such interactions additional credibility and connect it more directly to the legislative process. Imagine if, in the run-up to a ballot initiative, citizens had the opportunity to discuss the issue at hand with thousands of their neighbors in a civil, controlled environment. Imagine if local or national political parties held such discussions as part of the campaign season, or if your local school board held them on an ongoing basis so that everyone had the opportunity to engage in reasonable discourse about pressing issues.
The open strategy model suggests an additional step we might take to rein in harmful discourse online. These platforms shouldn’t just retool their algorithms to avoid further polarizing people. They should go a step further and employ algorithms to guide us toward diverse viewpoints and people.
Such an approach is not without challenges, including the potential for excessive control of public discourse. We might not mind in corporate settings if conveyors nudge people in certain directions and steer them away from others. In a democracy, this becomes a problem. Transparency about the workings of algorithms combined with non-partisan oversight bodies might help us to maintain a truly free marketplace of ideas.
Polarisation isn’t our natural state. Technology helped get us into this mess, and it can help get us out of it. Adapting open strategy techniques to public discourse and to social media might allow us, as Bill Gates once put it, to “keep the open debate without the corrosive parts.”
Read the original blog post on his Forbes channel.