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Momentum Grows to Tackle Toxic Social Media Algorithms as Civil Society Groups Demand Platforms Go “Safe By Default”

People vs. Big Tech and Panoptykon Release Policy Briefing, Sign-On Calling for Safe and Quality-Driven Recommender Systems, as Urgent Measure to Safeguard 2024 EU Elections

7 March 2024 - People vs. Big Tech today called on the European Commission Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology to act boldly to protect the 2024 EU Elections and the longer-term safety of social media users by enacting critical reforms to “recommender systems” on social media platforms. People vs. Big Tech released a sign-on letter, joined by over a dozen leading civil society organisations, urging adoption of “safe by default” rules, and a policy brief with the Panoptykon Foundation, Safe by Default.

The letter comes a day after advocates gathered in Brussels to urge action from the EU Parliament to stop the flow of disinformation targeting voters.

“As Europe, and ultimately millions of people worldwide go to the polls in 2024, social media experts and civil society advocates are coming together around a simple, powerful demand: turn off the ranking systems that are polarising the electorate and spreading disinformation,” said Tanya O’Carroll, independent tech expert, who leads People vs. Big Tech. “There is growing momentum urging the EU to use the groundbreaking Digital Services Act effectively and make safety the default for online platforms.”

In the letter, organisations called for implementation of a rule that would make platforms default to content recommender systems that are not based on personal behavioural profiling nor engagement.

“Achieving safety by design is at the heart of tackling content that threatens the integrity of the electoral process. By disabling profiling-based recommender systems by default and optimising for values other than engagement, [platforms] can take significant steps toward mitigating the threats that their recommender systems pose to election integrity.

Signatories included Global Witness, Digital Action, Ekō and the Real Facebook Oversight Board.

“Why be worried about disinformation and hate speech in the 2024 elections? Because social media and recommender systems are still optimised for engagement. It's simple: engagement = clickbait = disinfo,” said Katarzyna Szymielewicz, Panoptykon Foundation. “With no time to waste, we call on the European Commission to use its powers under the DSA to define safe defaults for (very large) social media platforms and ensure that deceptive and harmful design features disappear from the market.”

In the policy brief, authors also outlined the extensive evidence for ending “addictive design” that triggers “compulsive behaviour,” particularly in an electoral context, and the urgency of moving away from engagement-based rankings towards safe, rights-respecting, and human centric recommender systems. The brief gives a roadmap to design safer systems that prioritise safety and quality of user experience - instead of engagement at all costs.

The previous day after global leaders, whistleblowers and civil society experts - including Nobel Laureate Maria Ressa and Facebook Whistleblower Frances Haugen came together in Brussels to urge action from the EU. With the EU Parliamentary elections scheduled for June 4th, advocates urged swift action to protect upcoming voting from profiling-driven, social media interference.

“We have an immediate fix: With just 14 weeks to go, platforms could turn off this toxic, engagement-focused version of their recommender systems to a non-profiling version that is ‘safe by default’. This would automatically stop the platforms from actively pushing the worst content into people’s feeds.” said Tanya O’Carroll, independent tech expert, lead at People vs. Big Tech, “This is a vital first step towards a longer-term goal of creating safe and healthy online experiences.”


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About PvsBT

People vs Big Tech is an open network of civil society organisations and concerned citizens working together to challenge the power and abuses of Big Tech. Our first major priority is to ensure today’s tech titans and their legions of lobbyists are not allowed to be the dominant designers of tomorrow’s technology regulations. The network’s current major focus is to distil key legislative priorities in European regulation, highlight moments for targeted action, and amplify opportunities anywhere for people-powered mobilisation in the fight to increase public and political support for Big Tech accountability.

About the Panoptykon Foundation

The Panoptykon Foundation was established in April 2009 upon the initiative of a group of engaged lawyers, to express their opposition to surveillance. Our mission is to protect fundamental rights and freedoms in the context of fast-changing technologies and growing surveillance.