[Event Report/Part II] Special Symposium with Professor Lawrence Lessig "Social Networks and Democracy considered through the War in Ukraine" (held on June 24, 2022)


English Only

Part II of the 2040 Independence & Self-respect Project/CCRC Co-hosted Symposium "Social Networks and Democracy considered through the War in Ukraine"

Read Part I here

There are two endowed courses offered by KGRI with support from Mitsubishi UFJ Bank and Z Holdings. The "Social Networks and Democracy considered through the War in Ukraine" symposium was held on June 24, 2022 as part of this initiative.

During the war in Ukraine we were witness to the powers that be exploiting social networking sites to play on people's minds and to violate the sovereignty of democratic nations. Meanwhile, social networking sites also became a means for people to express their resistance. Do social networking sites represent a shield for the protection of democracy or the spark which will see it go up in flames? Will democracy be the ultimate result of clashes in the network spaces? At the event, Professor Lawrence Lessig, who has given voice to concerns about the threat to democracy posed by social networking sites, delivered a talk, which was followed by discussions on the future of networked spaces and democracy following the war in Ukraine. Below we look back on the proceedings in the second part of the symposium.

■Opening Remarks: Masayuki Amagai (Keio University Vice-President)
■ Overview of Event Purpose: Tatsuhiko Yamamoto (Professor, Keio University Law School; KGRI Vice Director)
■ Talks
・ Lawrence Lessig (Professor of Law, Harvard Law School)
■ Comments and Discussion
・Yusuke Narita (Professor, Yale University)
・Yoko Hirose (Professor, Keio University Faculty of Policy Management)
・Tatsuhiko Yamamoto (Professor, Keio University Law School; Vice Director, KGRI)
Moderator: Jiro Kokuryo (Professor, Keio University Faculty of Policy Management; Chief Administrator of Cyber Civilization Research Center)
■ Closing Remarks: David Farber (CCRC Co-Director; Professor)
■ General Remarks: Haruna Kawashima (KGRI Project Associate Professor)

Panel Discussion
Professor Lessig's talk (see Part I) was followed by a discussion with the day's panelists.

Yusuke Narita (Professor, Yale University): Social media has, for the first time, been deployed as a weapon in the war in Ukraine. What can we learn from Ukraine's social media strategy? Rather than allowing expression on social media to remain unchecked, certain restrictions may be needed to save democracy in its current form. So what restrictions should be imposed with respect to freedom of speech?

Yoko Hirose (Professor, Keio University Faculty of Policy Management): While the influence of social media networks during this war has been significant, questions remain about their impact within Russia. Many Russians persist in their support for Putin despite exposure to media from overseas. This is because they perceive the same media in different ways. Within Russia, the limited influence of social media networks can be attributed to the success of government propaganda. Also, while I am not an advocate for turning down the heat on Putin, I do recognize where those who say he should not be backed into a corner are coming from. The more that the international community puts pressures on Putin, the greater the likelihood that this will result in his legitimization on home soil, while the cause of democracy will not necessarily be furthered by social media-based activism or the removal of a single leader.

Tatsuhiko Yamamoto (Professor, Keio University Law School; Vice Director, KGRI): Despite the initial expectations that social media would keep the issue alive, interest and engagement waned as the initial shock of the war wore off. This suggests to me that there must be changes to the attention economy which this trailing-off of interest reflects. Promoting information literary would be one means to achieve this, although not one in which we should set too much store. As we touched upon during the discussion on information health and digital diets, one potential solution to make users less susceptible, or in effect immunize them, against fake news would be to allow them to visualize where the information they are seeing comes from and to have them consume a diverse range of information sources. I would like to discuss how this might be accomplished and the role of the state in this process.

Jiro Kokuryo (Professor, Faculty of Policy Management; CCCRC): An online participant has commented that governments have used social media to meddle in the affairs of other countries, directly contributing to global divisions. In this context, it has become apparent that democratic nations have major in-built vulnerabilities.

Lawrence Lessig (Professor of Law, Harvard Law School): The current situation, whereby the media both profits from and exploits us, its users, is driving democracy into a corner. The features of toxic business models should be made clear and be subjected to further scrutiny. Professor Yamamoto's ideas are excellent. However I imagine that 99% percent of people lack the initiative to expose themselves to balanced and impartial information.

What Professor Hirose has mentioned is also important. Bias is innate to all humans, and there are surely few of us who are not patriotic to some extent. With this in mind, I believe that only Russians who are outside Russia have the potential to shake up the domestic situation.

Kokuryo: There are questions about the nature of the restrictions to which social media should be subject while continuing to guarantee freedom of speech.

Narita: In Japan, the traditional media are subject to regulation under the Broadcast Law. Couldn't we also impose regulations on the world of social media?

Lessig: There are past precedents of this nature in the United States. However, some believe that restrictions on the media are in violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression. It is not the government's place to decide what constitutes good or bad speech. Nevertheless, isn't it within their scope to institute debate about whether a business model is good or bad? If a particular business model pollutes the spaces of discourse, it should be excluded from those spaces.

Narita: Does this entail attempting to realize economic competition after the introduction of specific regulations?

Lessig: That is correct. The media cares only about engagement, rather than truth or political ideologies. We need a system that does not offer market incentives for discourse which amounts to hate speech.

Hirose: The marketability of information is what strikes me in particular. While it is rare for the Japanese media to spread information which is inaccurate, I believe that the information that is being released has been carefully vetted. In this case too, the coverage has, to a fault, criticized Russia while lauding Ukraine.

Yamamoto: To what extent should the state be involved in control of the media? It is my impression, and I wonder if you would agree, that the idea of "freedom from the state," as a means to circumvent governmental intervention in the media, is extremely strong in the United States. We have proposed the "nutritional labeling" of information, as a way to preclude the state from having the final say on whether speech is good or bad. While the chances are that a certain number of users will ignore this information, we will never know until we give this a try. It is also important to instill transparency in the recommendation system and to increase freedom of choice.

Lessig: The argument has also been made that the First Amendment is too rigid, to the extent that the government is powerless to regulate social media, and that instead the First Amendment serves to protect the algorithms. Left to its own devices, social media will continue to defer to offering bad choices, if this means coming out on top of the competition, and as long as the demand exists among consumers. Consequently, in a situation where we are unable to discern the correct choices, and in which corporations are not in fact offering these options, only the government can change the incentives for companies.

Narita: Processed food and IT are also two of the United States' most globally successful industries. Is this just a coincidence? Or, is there a particular feature of the American industry that tends to cause similar toxic problems?

Lessig: The government pays out subsidies to the processed food industry, as it does to the IT industry, with the government influenced by powerful industries. As a result, they are poisoning the network information space.

Kokuryo: Another question we have fielded is: Do you set any store in public broadcasting and fact-checking?

Lessig: Fact-checking of information reinforces biases, while public broadcasters are obliged to compete with commercial broadcasters. The problem though is that the truth is not being properly communicated. We should, for example consider processes whereby many people have access to the means to filter information appropriately, while not infringing on freedom of speech.

The world to which Professor Yamamoto alludes is the ideal. However, I am a realist. This is also a challenge of democracy. It should be determined whether the marketplace is a healthy venue for the distribution of information, and whether users are receiving information in a balanced manner. We, the users, are irrational; the modus operandi of the companies is more rational. We need to temper the intelligence of the corporations and AI by coming to terms with the reality of human frailties.

Kokuryo: How do we perceive the relationship between democracy and freedom of speech?

Hirose: Democracy is an extremely troubling issue in Russia. As we have seen in this war, a frightening phenomenon is occurring, whereby democracy has been bypassed without any debate having materialized as to what is reasonable and valid between the rest of the world and Russia.

Yamamoto: I too am a realist, and think that we should leverage the power of psychology and cognitive science. What we need is a structure that allows for mature deliberations. It is also important to acknowledge the irrationality of humankind and how we might confront this.

Lessig: This is something we can finally all agree on! I think that the individual must ultimately decide how they will fight against the storm. The United States has an ineffectual government, and our Constitution does not provide effective measures. There also need to be incentives which are not beholden to the government. One solution might be to acknowledge and incorporate different types of information. Media similar to Wikipedia in which the norm is a lack of advertising are a good example. It will also be important to critically compare different types of information.

Kokuryo: Please offer any closing words.

Narita: I was curious about your final point. Why is it possible for Wikipedia to adhere to this commitment to be ad-free within these same parameters?

Lessig: I think that is because they always revert to their important standards and principles. Another reason is that Wikipedia is not a private, for-profit organization.

Hirose: We are now rudely confronted with the question of whether the world must be divided between democracy and despotism, or whether the two should meet in the middle. How should we develop discussions of democracy in the context of the difficulty of having a view of democracy as a single world? I think this is a new problem.

Yamamoto: Japan's take on freedom of expression is similar to the United States conception, and I believe that the situation and challenges are to some extent shared. I would be delighted to renew these discussions in the future.

Lessig: I think we are seeing significant commonalities in terms of our paths from various different perspectives. The path forward with regards to the challenges which we face remains unclear; nevertheless I was delighted to have heard your takes.

Kokuryo: The Ukrainian war has been an opportunity to consider aspects of the media, democracy, and humankind as a whole. I hope that we can facilitate a brighter future by means of our continued discussions. This concludes the discussion.

Closing Remarks
David Farber, Co-Director of the CCRC delivered the Closing Remarks.

David Farber (CCRC Co-Director; Professor): That was a wonderful session. Thank you all very much. In the past, advertising and talk radio were the media of influence for the masses. In the internet era, however, it was anticipated that global interactions and world-spanning dialogues by people would advance the cause of civilization. Some of these predictions have come true, while others have failed to do so. This is in spite of the fact that there are many potential places to get hold of information. I believe that, in a world of constant contradiction, it is all the more important to ensure that freedom continues to be maintained. We too have striven to maintain our freedoms in the internet era. The time has come for future generations to take up this challenge. Professor Lessig, thank you very much for your time. Wishing all your students a happy future.