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The Promise of Designing Tech for Social Cohesion

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By Tristan Harris, Co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, Shamil Idriss, CEO of Search for Common Ground, and Lisa Schirch, Professor of the Practice, University of Notre Dame

Toxic polarization is a global threat. 

We see it every day, everywhere – with the violent denial of election results in democracies like the United States and Brazil and in devastating intercommunal violence from Sri Lanka to the Central African Republic.  

Societies are struggling to solve pressing problems together. Toxic polarization makes us perceive each other as existential threats, sows distrust in democratic institutions, and fuels violence – making collaborative problem-solving increasingly impossible.

The attention based economy yields platforms that are hurting us, with the biggest companies being the most obvious and damaging examples. The cracks in the foundation of that economy open a real opportunity to build platforms that are both better for all of us and profitable over the long run since they will attract and retain lifelong users who won't feel stressed, angry, and alienated from their engagement with them.

With few exceptions, tech company leaders claim their platforms are simply a neutral mirror of society and hold users responsible for generating polarizing content. Despite what the companies say, the digital tools they’ve created are not neutral mirrors. Their affordances and algorithms incentivize polarization by amplifying divisive content – making their platforms more like fun house mirrors where you don’t know if what you’re seeing is real or an illusion.

As a result, tech platforms’ already understaffed trust and safety teams play an endless game of whack-a-mole against digital content that misleads, foments hatred, and fuels distrust. And with the tech sector cutting nearly 100,000 workers in 2022, companies’ resources for trust and safety are only shrinking and falling further behind what’s needed to address the scale of the problem.

But in this crisis there is also an opportunity: to build digital tools and platforms that reinforce rather than erode democracy and social cohesion. In order to do so, we need a new conversation on how to design digital platforms that depolarize. 

The time is ripe for new ideas. 

Most initiatives to address tech-fueled toxic polarization take one of two approaches: better content moderation or stricter tech regulation. While these are necessary, they’re insufficient. 

No moderator – whether AI or human – can catch polarizing content quickly enough to prevent its spread. And due to the accumulated polarization from the last decade of “fun house mirror” platforms, moderation itself crashes against the reality that fewer and fewer people agree on what is appropriate. 

Even when social platforms make investments into moderation, they only do so in jurisdictions where they are most likely to be regulated – notably the U.S. and Europe. That leaves out billions of users who live in less regulated regions, with the greatest harm done to the most vulnerable, like minority groups and residents of the Global South. 

A third approach is available to us: tech products can be engineered with design, algorithms, and business models optimized to amplify and scale social cohesion rather than polarization from the ground up and not as an after-thought

What if more computer engineers designed digital platforms with the goal of increasing human dignity, emphasizing shared values, and building bridges between polarized groups? What if more platforms optimized their algorithms and business models to find common ground between groups in conflict, or incentivized pro-social behaviors like asking questions or listening to diverse points of view? 

These are the questions that motivated the three of us to join forces to establish the Council on Technology and Social Cohesion. We represent a broad coalition of leaders from the technology, bridge building movement, and peacebuilding field motivated to encourage products designed to create shared understanding – rather than outrage and division. 

From February 23-25, we’re hosting a conference called “Designing Tech for Social Cohesion” in San Francisco to convene practitioners and tech innovators to explore how innovative new digital platforms are enabling civic action, bridge-building, and enhancing movements for human dignity.

We share the belief that tech products can measurably decrease polarization and increase social cohesion, and we want to show the world how that’s possible. Here are three places we can start:

  1. Tech developers must learn how to build products that foster healthy relationships and prevent violence from those who have spent decades helping societies remain cohesive in the face of conflict and increasing diversity.
  2. Large tech platforms need to learn from the innovation of smaller start-ups that are already building platforms that support social cohesion. The conference will feature several such startups, including platforms that are helping United Nations peacebuilding efforts in Libya and Yemen, and assisting the government of Taiwan reach solutions in more than 30 public policy issues. 
  3. Policymakers must incentivize the development of technology for social cohesion. They should provide public grants for innovation and step up their regulation of tech to not only discourage and penalize products that amplify polarization but also reward products that amplify social cohesion. 

This better version of technology that we envision – one that makes design choices for the social good rather than for short-term profits at the expense of humanity – can be reality. It's a reality we're committed to, and we welcome all in the tech industry and beyond to join us in building this future together.

Published on
February 16, 2023

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