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The Internet is Dividing Our Communities - Here’s How We Fix It 

December 7, 2020


It’s hard to forget the videos that circulated online in 2015 advertising ISIS’s violence. They were shocking and built to spread virally across every digital platform we compulsively scroll through. Not just videos either — memes, stories, and viral posts all curated to share violent messages that our social media feeds propelled to hundreds of millions. Meanwhile, lost in the likes and shares were the real people living through it. 

I remember the first time I saw an ISIS survivor tell their story. It was shocking just how far my expectations were from reality. Our team had set out to produce a short digital documentary featuring Syrian women sharing their experiences escaping violence in Syria. We had an elaborate setup for protecting their identities, based on the assumption they would want to remain anonymous. We were wrong. 

Most of those interviewed were adamant that their real voice be heard; that their face be seen unblurred; and their real name known. We were prepared for them to share stories of loss and hardship; they shared stories of leadership and their fight for better education and opportunities for women. This community of survivors knew what the world was seeing online didn’t include them and they were hoping to change that.

This experience cemented for us how what we see online often excludes the voices and the day-to-day realities of those who are most vulnerable. 

This distortion in online spaces is a problem we’ve spent over a decade working on.

When the internet was first introduced to the public decades ago it offered what felt like endless opportunities to connect. Since then, the landscape of online engagement has become increasingly divided. Our social feeds and their algorithms have helped create insulated online groups where thoughts can easily be radicalized and drown out diverse voices. This phenomenon has made us all more vulnerable and contributed to a rapid breakdown of social cohesion — our feeling of connectedness and belonging — in real world communities. We saw this in the use of Facebook to incite ethnic cleansing in Myanmar in 2017; in the proliferation of foreign and domestic actors, including right here at home, who spread misinformation without regard for its harmful impacts ; and the rapid expansion of conspiracy theories that divide people and threaten public health during a global pandemic. 

Today, one in four global citizens don’t trust the Internet, and the vast majority cite social media companies as the leading cause of this distrust. Still, we are increasingly dependent on the Internet, and social media, for work, health information, transportation, communication, and education. For the first time since the creation of the Edelman Trust Barometer, none of the four key institutions included in the study — government, media, businesses, and NGOs — were trusted by the majority of people. This has serious implications for social cohesion that could lead to further destabilization, conflict, and inequality.

We have to work to repair that trust. It’s not too late. We’re doing it at Digital Public Square.

Just as digital tools have contributed to the acceleration of polarization, they can also be reimagined to repair trust and create more inclusive societies. How? We give people access to the information and tools they need to become more resilient — whether it’s increasing accountability, supporting healthy debate, or countering misinformation.

Early in January 2020, our team detected misinformation spreading across social media around the virulence, cause, and after-effects of COVID-19 using a suite of DPS tools. The threat to public health was clear, and people urgently needed a new way to explore information about COVID-19 on their own terms. After meticulous experimentation, we launched It’s Contagious, a gamified experience designed to combat common and evolving myths around COVID-19. People across Canada test themselves against a series of true/false questions, providing well-researched, accessible information about COVID-19, through a learning process incentivized via gamification. It’s Contagious creates the space to correct misconceptions in a low-pressure environment and encourages people to think critically about their exposure to disinformation. 

Since launch just a few weeks ago, tens of thousands of people have anonymously completed all of It’s Contagious. They have collectively evaluated hundreds of thousands of claims related to common COVID-19 misinformation narratives. Most notably, the majority have told us they intend to share what they’ve learned with friends and family.

It’s just one example of how our team is creating healthy digital engagement right now. The same framework is being applied to challenges across the globe, including: social inclusion, religious tolerance, electoral interference, and labour rights. It’s the start of a new infrastructure - good technology - we’re building with communities to help them thrive. 

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Written by Farhaan Ladhani