Winter is here

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In November, Sunlight was invited to a meeting in the U.S. Senate to talk about the trends we were seeing in government transparency and technology, including social media, campaign finance, foreign influence campaigns, and proposals to address them.

Here’s what we told them: winter is here.

(Just kidding. While there are likely Game of Thrones fans on the hill, we didn’t bet on this reference to the Long Winter going over much better than using the R+L=J fan theory as a metaphor for how information moves through networked societies.)

What we did highlight is that we’re at a societal inflection point. Trust in institutions is at historic lows. Americans view U.S. government as more corrupt than a year ago. Adding more sunshine to the First Family’s conflicts of interest that have led Americans to view the White House as corrupt is necessary, but insufficient.

Systemic fixes for systemic problems are necessary, from strengthening federal ethics laws to reforming the campaign finance system to ending gerrymandering. None of that is going to get done in 2017, but here’s some ideas that we suggested thinking about next year.

We need a public beneficial ownership registry in the United States.

Obfuscation of who owns which corporate entities enables corruption, not accountability. The public, press, regulators, watchdogs and Congress can follow the money and oversee need systemic fixes.

We need to close the online disclosure gap.

The Honest Ads Act that we helped draft would be a necessary but woefully insufficient step towards transparency and accountability for online ads, if enacted. While some of the tech companies that operate social media platforms came to DC to testify are modeling their approach to transparency on it, not all of them were at the table. If Snapchat hosts ephemeral political ads, there should be a public file of them. Telecom companies that will be serving geolocated, personalized ads to smartphones are even more under the radar. Companies that continue to allow bots – automated accounts – will also need to consider how well they cohabit with democratic discourse, perhaps by adding a registry with disclaimers and disclosures.

It’s time to consider reforms to the Foreign Agents Registration Act, including modernizing data collection and disclosure at FARA.gov. Eventually, a unique identifier for each registered foreign agent served through an API so that it could be associated with that individual’s activity elsewhere, perhaps linked to a disclaimer icon.

We need to find better ways to build trust and empathy into communications systems. Smartphones, social media, automation, and data creation and analysis each represent major shifts in how and where humans create, access and share information.

When combined, these technologies create immense opportunities and challenges to improve services and good governance, and to destroy social cohesion and erode democratic norms.

Disinformation, misinformation and state-sponsored or corporate-funded propaganda aren’t new phenomena. Intentionally falsified reports published on social media platforms at planetary scale with the intent to profit or to influence elections are more novel.

Publishers that use the term “fake news” for anything but intentionally falsified posts are contributing to erosion of public trust in journalism propagated by forces in society that benefit from casting doubt on reporting. ¬†When a President of the United States uses the term to attempt to delegitimize journalism that holds him to account, these principles and our commitment to them is eroded, with damaging effects for journalists around the globe.

By contrast, “real news” — verified, contextualized journalism that’s reported and published using ethics guidelines — is the best antidote for false ads and disprovably false statements by elected leaders and public officials.

It’s crucial that democracies must uphold freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of association.

When governments try to act as the arbiter of truth, however, they tend to create more problems than they solve. When search engines and social media platforms weigh the trust associated with different publications in their automated display decisions, the public can be better informed. Integrating third-party fact checking into these platforms can increase friction around sharing that usefully damps unverified rumors and untrustworthy outlets.

Here’s hoping we can all find ways to be better neighbors and citizens in the new year. Our governments will only be as good as we make them, together.

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