Raising Complex Questions to Defeat Disinformation

Institute for Business in the Global Context teams up with Center for International Law and Governance to foster cross-disciplinary dialogue on content moderation problems and solutions
Conference attendees pose in front of a Fletcher School banner.

Debate around disinformation and how to combat it through content moderation and regulation on social media has mounted in the United States since January 6, 2021. This kind of response is not unusual; Dean of Global Business Bhaskar Chakravorti notes that interest in disinformation tends to elevate in the wake of major political events like elections or wars, or alongside industry changes, such as Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter. Under Chakravorti’s leadership, the Institute for Business in the Global Context (IBGC), however, is pushing the dialogue a step further. In collaboration with the Center for International Law and Governance (CILG), under Professor Joel Trachtman’s leadership, two Fletcher centers posed the question: beyond the US, what are the implications of regulation on global business and society?

“We’re concerned with how you moderate a global phenomenon using approaches that are really national, such as national legislation, national regulation, and pressures on companies coming from individual countries,” said Chakravorti. “The current approach is completely fragmented for a global problem. Is this the right way for us as a global society to approach this very difficult question?”

Currently, social media platforms are negotiating varying kinds and degrees of pressures around the world. They face regionwide regulation in the European Union and state-level moderation in the US. The consequences for any violation also vary in severity, from hefty fines to rulings that can be challenged in court. As these companies face increasing pressures from their wealthiest markets, the data show that they are allocating fewer resources to the rest of the world, where most users live. Citing the renewed interest in content moderation in the United States following January 6, Chakravorti sees connections with the recent protests in Brazil, where not only did a post-election insurrection play out, but so did the weaponization of social media to mobilize the insurgents—both had echoes of what occurred two years ago in the US.

“We know the number of people who are moderating content in Brazil is a fraction of the number of people who are moderating content in the United States, because the US is a more important commercial market and the social media platforms pay more attention to US legislators and regulators; so we might end up with more Brazilian insurrections happening and maybe fewer US insurrections," said Chakravorti. "Is that a price that we as global citizens and global scholars here at the Fletcher School are willing to pay, or should we be thinking about this differently?”

“Making people aware of global consequences is a fundamental responsibility of the Fletcher School. I can’t think of a topic more aligned with that objective than this one," he added.

To diagnose the issue, the IBGC and CILG launched a multisectoral study to seek solutions that can improve the health of business and society. Leveraging the IBGC’s business lens, Chakravorti wanted the study to reconcile the question’s political, social, and business implications. Social media companies are major global employers, and as the technology industry continues to grow, so too does interest from the stock market. CILG’s expertise in international law helped identify the international regulatory framework within which these issues were to be examined to identify where platform responsibility ends and where the role of regulators and civil society begins.

“This is clearly a business product which is generating value, and it has very strong global implications for the wellbeing of society, democratic institutions, and the economy itself,” said Chakravorti. “The health of this industry, and its product, is central to the health of business and the health of society. I can think of very few products that sit at this intersection.”

To investigate solutions that would acknowledge the full complexity of the issues, the IBGC invited experts to examine the questions of content moderation from different vantage points, drawing upon Fletcher faculty’s diverse expertise. One group employed a geographic perspective, looking at how content moderation is framed and confronted in the US, China, India, Brazil, or the EU. Another set of experts examined how other issues that have global exposure are handled by national regulators; could solutions from international banking teach lessons that can be imported to the digital domain? A final set of scholars considered the issue from different disciplines—international law, global political economy, and technology policy. Along with Chakravorti and Trachtman, Fletcher professors, Daniel Drezner and Josephine Wolff made important contributions to this initiative.

Following the study, the group invited another set of experts from the media, government, active citizen groups, technologists, and advocacy groups—people who think about data, digital rights, and consumer protection—to a conference on campus, “Defeating Disinformation: Advancing Inclusive Growth and Democracy through Global Digital Platforms.” Through the scrutiny of such diverse disciplines and ideologies, the conference offered some potential solutions and introduced additional areas for exploration. The group released its findings, with more forthcoming, and plans to publish the issues and pathways to potential solutions in a book. The initiative was supported by Omidyar Network.

“We are still a long way from being able to solve this problem in a way that’s going to be immediately satisfactory, but certainly some steps can be taken with the collaboration of regulators, legislators, civil society, and the companies working together,” said Chakravorti.

“Across the world, regulators are concerned about how to moderate social media content. We think this study will bring some fresh insight on a topic that is of a lot of interest to people. It also helps people appreciate why there isn’t a simple solution to this problem and why it is important to look around corners and anticipate the unintended consequences of taking any action.”

Read the IBGC’s studies on disinformation as they relate to Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter and disinformation during the U.S. elections.