Laleh Ispahani is co-director of the Open Society Foundations-U.S.
Vladimir Putin’s illegal, unprovoked assault on Ukraine combines both ancient and new methods of warfare. The 40-mile convoy of troops and tanks rumbling across land masses to encircle and destroy cities looks like reels from the devastating conflicts of the 20th century. Less visibly, Russia is weaponizing technology, most notably by sowing disinformation, to stoke hatred of Ukraine at home and erode opposition abroad.
War-time propaganda is not new, but the scale, speed and reach of social media and rapid incorporation of artificial intelligence are noteworthy. In late 2021 and early 2022, false claims promoted by Russian state media and circulated on major tech platforms warned of supposed Ukrainian plans to massacre ethnic Russians and serve as proxies for an American chemical attack. Now that the war is here, Russia’s disinformation efforts are emphasizing “Ukrainian aggression” and trying to legitimize the invasion.
Tech platforms like Facebook and YouTube have scrambled to respond, but this information war taking place alongside a physical one illustrates a larger truth: Defining the role tech platforms should play in our society is as much a democratic and even international security question as an economic one. Unchecked platform power is a fundamental threat to democracy, both around the world and in the United States. As Washington debates how best to reform technology policy, governments must consider not just the economic but also the democratic costs of this consolidation. Ultimately, moving quickly to promote competition and challenge monopoly power offers significant opportunities to meet these twin imperatives.
We know from experience that power absent accountability is incompatible with democracy. Yet the market power of platform companies has rendered them unaccountable, functioning more like quasi-governments that make decisions about content and rules affecting billions without meaningful oversight.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg once famously declared, “In a lot of ways Facebook is more like a government than a traditional company.” He was right — and other major platforms now occupy a similar role. In the absence of effective regulation, however, their governance resembles that of an autocracy — sometimes benevolent, sometimes neglectful — not a democracy. Dual-class-share structures mean that the founders of Meta and Snapchat are insulated even from shareholder pressure to change. Facebook and others have managed to shrug off cratering reputations, billion-dollar fines, consumer pressures and even employee departures because of huge profits and entrenched power. As whistleblower Frances Haugen argued, “Until the incentives change, Facebook will not change.”
The consequences of unchecked platform power are not abstract or hypothetical. The harms we’re seeing from Russia’s assault on Ukraine are far from the only examples where we have seen how platforms can exacerbate threats to democratic and free societies. In Myanmar, while Facebook was slow to act, the platform was used to incite violence and enable genocide against Rohingya; in the Philippines, it fueled a brutal drug war and harassment of investigative journalists. Amazon has worked with the Chinese government to stifle dissent on its platform and push propaganda across the world. And the United States is hardly immune, as we have seen during the 2016 election, the run-up to the Jan. 6 insurrection and in countless other ways.
With major platforms’ scale today, the decisions they make have far-reaching consequences. To their credit, platforms are moving to label content from Russian propaganda outlets, deny them ad revenue and even limit their reach. Facebook resisted Russian censorship demands, and the platform has served as a key venue to organize anti-war protests in Russia and elsewhere. While incomplete, these are significant, positive steps.
Early signs from Putin’s assault on Ukraine suggest Russian disinformation efforts have been less effective than we might have feared. Global efforts to expose “false flag” attempts, deepfakes and misleading narratives alongside forceful responses from platforms have ensured the information battlefield is hotly contested. And Ukrainian leaders and Russian activists alike have proved adept at using social media to tell their stories, organize and inspire resistance.
But celebrating these successes misses a larger point: We should remain deeply uncomfortable that we must trust that just a few, unaccountable companies will decide to wield their tremendous power in ways that serve the public good. Instead, we should strive for a public sphere that is resilient and civic-minded by design and structure.
Building a healthier information ecosystem will take many strategies, and pro-competition reform should play a key part. The Facebook-Google “kill zone” establishes a near insurmountable barrier to the growth of alternative communications platforms that don’t aggressively monetize outrage and engagement. A larger number of smaller platforms will reduce the stakes of individual content moderation decisions. It will reduce the power of major platforms to extract a gatekeeper toll from quality journalism endeavors. And a less-concentrated marketplace will also be more conducive to effective regulation. The “Big Four” tech companies (Alphabet, Amazon, Apple and Meta) spent over $55 million on lobbying last year, seizing an outsized amount of influence in our politics and policymaking alongside it and swamping public interest efforts.
In the United States, Congress has a golden opportunity to act. Promising legislation has advanced from committees in both the Senate and the House of Representatives with meaningful bipartisan support. Congress should move to pass tech antitrust legislation this year and send it to President Biden for a signature, where it can complement the strong appointments the administration has made to the FTC, FCC, Justice Department and other agencies. This work can find strong allies in Europe, which is advancing far-reaching Digital Markets and Services Acts that would reshape the competitive landscape.
Even if the boldest versions of these reforms become law, lies — and those who would use them to evil ends — will always be with us. But better competition policy can blunt their impact and ensure they exist in a democratic, accountable system that prioritizes the common good. Fundamentally, we are at a moment where we must think about the global, digital public sphere we want and how we will ensure it embodies democratic values. Deciding how data should be used, what responsibilities technology companies should have and how these platforms are governed are questions we should approach as citizens with a voice in our shared society, not consumers subject to the whims of a few giant companies.