President-elect Joe Biden on November 9, 2020 at the Queen Theater in Wilmington, Delaware.
Joe Raedle | Getty Images News | Getty Images
While it may not get as much attention as its plans to curb the spread of Covid 19 or change tax laws, President-elect Joe Biden also plans to face another problem: online harassment.
On its presidential campaign page, the Biden-Harris team said it would convene a task force Recommend how governments, social media companies, schools, and other public and private organizations should address online harassment. This includes dealing with the connections between online harassment such as revenge porn and deepfakes and offline acts by aggressionincluding Mass shootings.
“The Biden Administration will shed light on online harassment, stalking and ill-treatment that has become too common for Americans, especially young people and women,” the Biden website said. “The cultural change must extend to our online lives, whether it is about ‘Cyber exploitation, ‘Online stalking or digital abuse by intimate partners. “
Listed as one of several efforts under the President-elect’s “Wife Protection Plan”, the task force is the most aggressive attempt to combat online abuse by a US government. This could also lead to new confrontations with technology companies.
In recent months, social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube have come under increased pressure to curb viral misinformation, violence, harassment and extremist content. While the platforms have cleaned up more in the past year, the same issues persist on the internet that came to the fore in 2020 and during the US election, experts told CNBC.
“It is something that cannot be alleviated without special effort,” said Kathleen Carley Ph.D., a professor at Societal Computing Ph.D. Program at Carnegie Mellon University. “I think the task force could be very important as it is clear that there is a lot of disinformation and hate speech online and we have seen that this is a major way of harming women and vulnerable groups like children and minorities. “
“I think this particular task force plan is aimed at meeting a real need,” he said Lisa Fazio, Professor of Psychology and Human Development who studies the effects of misinformation at Vanderbilt University. “We know that these platforms are consistently the source of online harassment and threats to women and that they are linked to extremist consequences.”
Biden’s plan emphasizes “accountability,” which experts say is a must for technology companies that have historically kept secret on how they set and enforce their policies. Experts pointed to mixed news from companies like YouTube, which was selective or evasive in its political statements.
John Redgrave, CEO of abuse detection software company Sentropy, backed by investor and Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian, said there are always concerns about the ability and willingness of companies to moderate harassing content, but those concerns have grown in recent months .
“We have so little transparency that it is really impossible to evaluate the actions taken,” said Redgrave. “The question that always arises is what the enforcement will be like. How long will it take for them to put labels and policies on that violate policies? A label that is posted hours late is only marginally better than no label at all . “
Experts hope for a “reality check” for both the public and social media companies. Joan Donovan, research director at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard, said YouTube may be having the hardest time.
“You see people using harassment for entertainment and getting their audience’s attention, and we see vectors going from YouTube to other networks very quickly,” Donovan said. “That and its enforcement information is really hard for researchers to come by. One of the weaknesses in researching tech companies is how secret they are all about their capabilities. You won’t find out until they do something that shows certain actions are possible . “
Carley said she would envision a task force considering long-term proposals for things like accounting firms. “I imagine there could be suggestions for something like the IRS, but instead of boosting exam finances, it would be algorithms or policy enforcement.”
While experts praised Biden’s plan for specifying the task force, it also involves people outside of the traditional tech crowd, but they’re particularly concerned about the role companies might play in it.
“If you work with all of the big companies and the current think tanks, you’re going to get the wrong people,” Carley said. “This has been very well researched by experts for over a decade, and I don’t think there should be a presence from social media companies unless it comes down to consulting on how their algorithms work together, which is important It takes representatives from all walks of life and I wouldn’t just put it in the hands of normal Washington politics. “
Experts said they ideally would like companies to play a listening role, except for requests for advice on their technology capabilities.
“I don’t trust them to make real change,” said Fazio, adding that she would like social scientists, women of color and historians to be on this task force. “They have had many opportunities to make changes themselves. They have shown that they are more interested in protecting their profits.”
Companies cautioned by Donovan may be “an important employee, but they cannot be the focus”.
She also said she saw potential for businesses to play a role in funding countermeasures, citing mobile apps like that Six circlewho won an Obama-era White House technological challenge against domestic violence. “Politics is not everything,” she said, adding: “You should also think about counter-technologies.”